When I started working on my first golf course in the summer of 1988, I could hardly have envisioned that three decades later I’d be on my sixth course and closing in on 20 years as a superintendent.
That first course, an Arnold Palmer design in Melbourne, Florida, Suntree Country Club, was simply a blast for younger me. Every day, after work, a few of us would play golf – and sometimes fish as we played our afternoon round – until dark. Carefree, stress-free; living the American dream.
Reality set in eventually and I realized I needed to make a career decision. For me, it was easy. After a couple years at Suntree, there was simply no other place I wanted to be but working on a golf course. A degree in golf course/turfgrass management led me through a series of positions at several courses, until finally landing the superintendent job I’ve held since 2002.
Do I regret the decision to pursue this job in this industry? Not for a second. However, has it been easy? No. Has it come without some severe personal costs? Unfortunately, the answer is again no.
For me, the eventual breakdown of my marriage was influenced by the stress I often felt at my job. The magic trick of being able to balance and separate the pressures of the job with the pressures of home life is not easy for anyone.
Do I think my decision to become a golf course superintendent eventually led to the end of my marriage? I would have to answer no. With the clarity one gets with the passing of time, and seeing things from a better perspective, my marriage would have ended had I been a superintendent, a dentist, a baseball radio announcer (a dream of mine as a kid) or any other profession I had decided to pursue. But did the stress I often brought home from the course accelerate and often intensify the stresses of marriage and raising young kids along with stuff like home ownership and money management? Most definitely.
I think the biggest challenge for a golf course superintendent is the hours he or she needs to be at the course. This differs for all of us, but it’s safe to say there isn’t a superintendent who at some point during the season finds it impossible to put in that typical 40-hour week.
I think that might be the thing that makes this profession a bit unique as compared to most. The varying of the hours needed to be put in, especially “in-season,” the three or four months a year when working an eight-hour day is next to impossible. For those with a spouse and kids, this is hard on the family unit, especially when this might be the time of year the kids are off school and summer family getaways are planned and hoped for.
The “in-season” is for superintendents across the planet. For me in western Washington, the busy season is summer. Although we stay open in the winter, our rounds drop anywhere from 80 to 90 percent compared to midsummer. For courses in the Upper Midwest or Northeast that shut down in winter, there is little doubt when the “in-season” is. However, in states like Florida or Arizona, things are just heating up on the course when most northern superintendents are sipping margaritas on a beach somewhere. I’ve never sipped a margarita on a beach in my life, but I’m just saying!
And then there are Transition Zone superintendents. They stay just busy enough throughout the entire year that an actual legitimate “off-season” never occurs. I can’t imagine working this job without a seasonal break, a time to regroup and recharge.
So, where do the stresses come from for golf course superintendents? What makes this job so much harder to manage the stress compared to jobs in other industries? Answers vary from region to region, course to course and superintendent to superintendent. They also vary depending on the type of operation.
For instance, do superintendents at private clubs experience more stress than daily-fee superintendents? How about resort superintendents? Or municipal course superintendents?
I like to think I’ve experienced a wide array of different golf course operations throughout my 32 years in the industry: three exclusive private clubs, two upscale daily fees (including the one I’ve been at for 18 years) and one 9-hole public track. Do I think the stress level was different at these levels of operations for the superintendent, because of the different type of operation? Perhaps. The stress one feels when trying to appease a new board of directors at a private club feels different than the stress one feels working for a single owner, which is my personal situation right now. But that isn’t to say that just because the stress may feel different it isn’t just as powerful a stress. Managing a golf course, no matter the budget, operation or ownership, comes with a set of factors that many jobs simply don’t have.
Weather is the No. 1 factor. The unpredictability of what Mother Nature can deliver to us on any given day is not something most professions must deal with it. Heavy rain. Flooding. Saturated greens. Drought. High temps. Wind storms. Snow. Ice. Agh! Who among us doesn’t check the seven-day forecast daily? Or keep a close eye on the Doppler when rain is on its way?
But it isn’t just weather that keeps us on our toes. Diseases. Insects. Wildlife. Tree damage. Turfgrass health. Playability (more on that in the next paragraph). Tolerances. Green speed. Decreasing budgets. Environmental regulations becoming more and more stringent. Water restrictions (which are also becoming more and more stringent). Aging irrigation and pump systems. Aging equipment. Labor turnover from year to year. Safe to say that while this list isn’t endless, it can, from time to time, certainly seem like it is.
A final word here on playability. Let’s call it not just playability, but playability incorporated with expectations. Expectations of not just the golfer, but the owner, committee chair or general manager, people in positions to demand (and expect) a certain product from you and your staff despite those influencing factors mentioned above. Perhaps there is no greater cause of stress for the superintendent than those playability expectations. For me, one of the frustrating things I’ve witnessed in this industry in the last decade is the resistance of those in charge to lower expectations despite the hoops today’s superintendent is expected to jump through.
More stringent water restrictions? “OK, but I still want it green.” Pesticides being banned? “That’s fine, but I don’t want disease.” Decreasing budgets despite everything costing more? “Right, but I still need it immaculate. You can do that, right?”
I’m lucky enough to work for an owner who sees the overall picture and understands concessions must occasionally be made. Weed tolerances and decreased water use are two great examples.
But this isn’t always the case. There are superintendents (many, many superintendents) working right this minute, worrying about how they are going to meet continued high expectations despite more restrictions being put on our industry and more challenges unique to their own situation.
Managing your stress level and keeping yourself fresh and enthusiastic, as well as committed to your profession and your golf course, can be challenging. My advice? Rejuvenate when you can. Remember what’s ultimately most important to you.
The job of a golf course superintendent doesn’t have to get in the way of a happy personal life. It can be — and should be — a conduit to that life you want.