© courtesy of River Oaks Country Club (3)

Retiring from where you have enjoyed working for 20 years is a roller coaster of emotions. I have had just two jobs in the last 32 years. You’re passing 30 greens and 35 people onto somebody else to care of.

It’s very bittersweet. There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to. Obviously, not worrying about the weather 24/7 is big. Whether I’m on property or at a national conference, if No. 12 green dies, it’s my responsibility. Not having that living, breathing entity always under your responsibility will be a refreshing change.

So many people in other jobs can leave their job for two weeks and not give it a second thought when they are away. That’s not the case as a golf course superintendent. But it’s going to be different no longer working at one of the top clubs in the country and being away from the prestige and honor of being at a club like River Oaks Country Club.

A friend of mine told me a great thing: every job has bad days. You know you’re fortunate when the good days always outnumber the bad. When the bad days start to become more numerous, to the point where they are almost drawing even with your good days, that’s a wakeup call. I’m not one to sit still, but I was ready for another challenge.

We have had such non-stop construction, at a 200 mph pace for seven of the last nine years, and then we went straight into maintenance mode, which was very refreshing. But I almost miss the challenge of something other than the day-to-day maintenance. When an opportunity came along with Kevin Clark at Bunkers Solution, it just opened my eyes that maybe I’m ready for a new chapter and a new challenge.

The job has changed

River Oaks Country Club has been phenomenal. The pressures and the expectations, particularly at a club like this — and any super-high-end club — never cease, which is good. That’s how it should be at this type of club. But it’s going to be nice to step away from that pressure.

I would tell somebody not to make any spur-of-the-moment decisions with their career. It was a very methodical decision and not just from a long-term standpoint. I just turned 60 and I still have a lot of fire in my belly. If you’re financially able, you can say you’re done and keep your eyes open for the next opportunity that might fit your interests. I’m a huge proponent of what I’m going to be doing next because I know it will help superintendents.

If your greens are good and everything else is good, the thing superintendents get the most complaints about are bunkers. How complaints changed was huge throughout my career. The content of complaint dictates where you are and how the membership perceives the golf course. If the complaints go from plugged lies in the bunkers or the greens are soft to there’s not enough definition or there are a lot of ball marks, that’s a great signal that everything else is great because they aren’t finding anything else to complain about.

I have done literally hundreds of presentations in 20 years of green committees to hundreds of committee members. Our general manager, Joe Bendy, has been fair, firm and demanding. It just makes you a better manager. He always has your back. At the end of each meeting, we would sit down for five minutes and discuss what had just transpired and we’d often say, “If that’s all they are complaining about, that means everything is pretty damn good.” It’s the content of the complaint that has changed over the years.

At a club of this stature, you never say no. You say, “I’ll look into it. We’ll see what we can do about it. Let me research what the options are and I’ll get back to you.” But you never say no. Somebody will say, “This bunker sand stinks. Let’s change it.” Tell them, “We’ll look into it, and we’ll see what else is out there.”

I think that flexibility of not saying no and telling people you’ll look into something has helped with longevity. If you say, “No” or “That isn’t going to work,” you can piss off that member and five years down the road they might become club president. You’re then looking for work. You should always treat every member with respect. You should treat each member like they are the club president. That has really helped over the years.

Knowing when to move on

Another reason for my decision to retire is that it seems like each subsequent year a higher percentage of the job keeps swaying more to the administrative and the not being on the golf course parts of the job. Most superintendents get into the business because they love being on the golf course and they like being outdoors, and they like the growing of the grass and everything that entails. It’s probably 70-30, where you are now doing more non-agronomic tasks. It’s becoming more administrative — HR, people managing, budgeting, accounting and all that.

The upswing of golf also factored into my decision. Kevin is busier than busy. It just seems like the right timing, with golf being really, really good right now.

I have seen superintendents who have probably stayed longer than they should and then they are asked to leave. You have been somewhere 20 years and get some younger members on the board, have one slight hiccup on the golf course and they think it might be time for a change. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the nature of the business. I think the average tenure of a Florida superintendent is six or seven years. A good friend of mine worked in Naples, Florida, and there are a lot of golf courses down there. If there’s one hiccup it can be, “OK, let’s go get the superintendent from across the street.” Twenty years at any club is amazing and I just wanted to make sure that it ended on my terms.

When you talk about the pros and cons, definitely one of the cons in leaving is that you have so many great relationships. That’s a tribute to the type of club this is. In my last article for our newsletter, I wrote: It’s rare for a golf course superintendent to be at a club for such a long period of time, much less 20 years. But most important through my tenure was how I truly felt that I was part of a large extended family as an employee.

The way the membership treats all the staff here is why there’s just no turnover. When the members take care of the staff like they do at River Oaks, that makes all the difference of the world. We have two guys on our staff who are getting their 40-year pins, a bunch of them are getting there 30-year pins, I have been here 20 years, our superintendent, Junior Schuette, has been here 23 and one of our foremen has been here 38. That’s just not isolated to our department. That’s club wide. Our doorman is the first face anybody sees at the club. He has been employed at the club for 60 years. That’s what stands out certainly with this club and I’m going to miss that.

Parting thoughts and the next chapter

I think the best advice I can give a young superintendent was the advice that was given to me. I was actually the golf course superintendent at a small club in Rockport, Texas. The first assistant superintendent position came open at Houston Country Club and Bill Coore said, “Morris, if you ever want to get into an upper-echelon club, you need to leave Rockport and take that assistant’s job.”

So many young people are excited to get a superintendent job no matter where that is vs. looking at the long-term scope of how the golf world looks at résumés. You can be the most talented superintendent in the world at a small club or a talented assistant at a big club and a high-end job comes up, they’re going to go with the first assistant at the high-end club because of the experience and exposure that they have had at a high-end club. That’s just the nature of the beast.

There are some talented superintendents who could be fabulous managing a golf course, but they will never get a second look because they are associated with that mid-tier club. As a young superintendent, strive to work yourself up. Although it might feel like a step backward or a slower process to get to your end goal, pay your dues and work at a very reputable club.

When I made the decision to retire on July 1, it was tough. There were some tears shed. Now that it’s getting close, it’s getting real. I enjoy the routine of coming to the office, having coffee, lining the crew up and spending time on the golf course. Knowing those days are coming to an end and that little morning routine that you have enjoyed over the years is almost over is very eye-opening. I’m going to miss that aspect of it immensely. Our department has such a family feel. We have all become very close over the years. We have little turnover, so we have been together for a long, long time.

It’s going to be very interesting after 32 years of walking the aisle of the national conference to be on the vendor side. That’s going to be very weird. I think the next step is going to be a lot of fun. It’s something that makes me feel good because I know the superintendents will be the winner down the road with that process of having clean sand, reduced plugged lies and fewer complaints.

There’s no substitute for experience. Finding that right niche after being a superintendent is the hardest thing. There are a lot of things out there in golf world, particularly after the uptick from COVID-19, and that might open up opportunities for people who might be in the same shoes.

Morris Johnson is retiring as the director of golf course operations at River Oaks Country Club in Houston, Texas, at the end of 2021. He begins a new role as national sales director for Bunker Solution in January.