Jessica Lenihan is a unique figure in the turf industry: an assistant superintendent with no desire to take on a head superintendent’s role.
At the start of 2021, Lenihan was an assistant at Hayden Lake Country Club, a private facility in Hayden Lake, Idaho, just across the Washington border from Spokane. Shortly before speaking with Rick Woelfel on the Wonderful Women of Golf podcast, she made a career change, taking a position at Green Valley Turf in Platteville, Colorado, where she maintains bentgrass on the company’s turf farm.
“The main reason they brought somebody in from golf is they’re expanding their bentgrass from 10 acres up to 50,” she says. “The guys that run everything over here came from sports turf, so they’re really knowledgeable in (bluegrass), but they don’t really have a strong bent background. So, they wanted someone from golf to come in and kind of take care of all that.”
While Lenihan rarely plays golf, she grew up around the game. Her father ran outside operations at The Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho and she took a summer job there as a teenager. After six seasons, she moved to Hayden Lake as an assistant superintendent. Over the course of a decade, her responsibilities grew to the point where she managed a crew that swelled to 25 during the peak season. But she never aspired to head her own turf department. “Honestly, having everything fall down on you just wasn’t something that ever thrilled me,” she says.
Lenihan recalls something she was told by Jeremiah Farmer, her boss at Hayden Lake.
“He told me a longtime ago, ‘The least favorite part of my job is all the stuff you have to deal with. Your greens committee meetings, your phone calls with vendors,’” she says. “He spent so much more time in the office when what he really loved doing was being out on the golf course. That was an adjustment I really just did not feel like I was wanting to make or had any desire to make.
“I’ve been approached several times for different sales positions and it’s the same thing. I can’t give up the golf course. I can’t give up those 5 a.m. sunrises. Having all that (responsibility) fall on your shoulders was something that I had the ability to turn off as an assistant when I went home. I don’t think, as the head guy in charge, you can do that.”
Lenihan spoke to the idea that assistants should want to take on a head superintendent’s responsibilities.
“It’s like, if you’re not first, you’re last; if you’re not the head guy, you’re somehow failing at your career,” she says. “If you find yourself in a good position, where you’re working for the right club, you’re working for the right people, you’ve got a good life synergy with your staff, then I don’t think you should be considered a career failure or you’re not living up to your potential when it’s like, ‘I found a spot where I’m really successful, I enjoy it. Why would I want to give that up?’”
Some head superintendents encourage their assistants to move on after a certain amount of time. Lenihan says the dynamic varies from one club to another.
“There are some places you can go in for a few years and you can learn a lot, but it might be that you kind of expend yourself in that spot and you don’t feel like you’re really challenged anymore, so it is time to move on. So, it really varies by property. But I have always just hated all the material out there with assistants that is kind of pushing you into that next role.”
Lenihan was part of the corps of female volunteers at the U.S. Women’s Open at the Olympic Club in June. She found it a memorable experience despite some initial reservations.
“I’ve always kind of hated the whole ‘women in turf’ thing, like making it a thing. I just am of the opinion that I want to go to work to keep my job. I don’t necessarily feel like it needs to be a big deal. But this was a totally eye-opening, crazy bonding experience that I just did not really expect. I definitely created some lifelong friends from a week of just being able to hang out and share experiences in the industry with other women who do the same thing that you do.”