For golf course superintendents in Las Vegas, the texture of turf is far from the only green that requires tending. In Sin City, the color of money, the emerald allure of tabletop felt and the legalized intake of a crystalized leafy bud all warrant regular attention for managing maintenance staffs.
Vices and distractions no doubt abound in a 24-hour town globally known for a good time, and the respective, omnipresent lures of gambling, drinking, drugs and sex aren’t just there for tourists alone.
In concert with an agronomy labor pool continually dueling with casino and construction gigs that are oftentimes better-paying jobs, superintendents across Vegas need to be continually cognizant that employee lifestyles don’t delve toward the sod.
Las Vegas native Scott Sutton, director of agronomy at The Club at Sunrise, has been around the gambling world all his life.
“My father was in the gaming industry, and one thing that always sticks in my head that my dad told me is, ‘The casinos don’t keep getting bigger and bigger because they’re giving money away,’” Sutton says. “I stay out of the casinos. If you live here, you either learn to stay away, or you don’t live here very long.”
A Vegas golf veteran of four decades — and the only man to carry the dual licenses of certified Golf Course and Landscape Irrigation Auditor in the state of Nevada — Sutton’s experiences with employee vice grips is deep and very real.
“It’s challenging. In my 40 years in the business, I’ve literally gone through hundreds of employees,” he says. “We live in a 24-hour town with lots of vices. There’s a reason you won’t find windows or clocks at the casinos. We’ve got gambling, drinking, strip clubs, and drugs are always an issue.
“I’ve had guys with gambling problems who have lost everything,” he adds. “Here at The Club at Sunrise, I’ve got a really good core group of guys, and that’s so key, to find a good team that you can trust and hang on to.”
From Vegas vets to Nevada newcomers, the vices don’t change, only the realization of such realities.
Prior to becoming golf course superintendent at Aliante Golf Club two years ago, Jeff Lezon’s career had taken him around the world.
“Honestly, it didn’t cross my mind at first,” Lezon says of Sin City’s temptations. “I’m well-traveled and have seen a lot, but perhaps I was naïve about this. By combining these vices when they go beyond recreation, people make some bad decisions and it could cost them their job. The major things are, of course, gambling, alcohol and the drug scene, which, recreationally, can be used at your own home. I think that alcohol may be the biggest issue, though it’s a bit of the chicken-and-egg thing where I’m not certain if that drinking leads to the gambling or it’s the other way around.”
It didn’t take long for Lezon to recognize that his generous nature would fast become focal for staff members needing to borrow money.
“Not with my current crew, but I’ve had people in the past who would wait for payday, and they’d immediately get it cashed and start gambling,” he says. “Those are serious problems, of course, and honestly, that’s not a problem I’ve ever dealt with before. I’ve had people go waste their entire paycheck and then wonder where they’re going to stay at night because they can’t make rent.”
In Sutton’s time, he’s seen no shortage of examples of those with a short shelf life for Vegas.
“You can see it in the morning, when they come in with bloodshot eyes and mouthwash heavy in the breath. I’ve had guys come in totally drunk, stoned on different kinds of drugs,” Sutton says. “And I know lots of guys, superintendents, who came here from another town, and in less than a year, they’re leaving, because they can’t find that balance, can’t handle all the nightlife.”
And Sutton isn’t alone is seeing both grounds staff and management personnel either burn out or bust out.
Pro Turf International manages four courses in town, including Siena Golf Club, where golf course superintendent Nathan Shipley, an eight-year Vegas resident, plies his trade. While Shipley feels fortunate to have nary a maintenance member on staff who brings rollover Vegas vices to the workplace (though he does acknowledge that there have been a few staff members who either work to gamble or work to drink), the superintendent has also seen those at the management level fall victim to the city’s lures.
“They might come in, especially a younger, single guy, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and enamored by the glitz of Vegas,” Shipley says. “But after about six months, they’ll get burned out on the partying scene. Either that or, in one case, I know one guy just had to move away from here.”
Labor gambles and successes
Akin to much of the nation, a shallow hiring pool and a competitive labor market don’t always allow bosses to readily vet a new grounds employee.
“It’s so hard to find employees,” Sutton says. “The golf course labor force out here competes with tons of landscape companies, and they might start a guy at $15 an hour. And, of course, we compete with all the casinos. You can get a job cleaning rooms at a casino for $19 an hour, along with union benefits.”
“As long as the guy doesn’t give me a bad feeling, I’m happy to give somebody a chance,” Shipley says. “And, sure, there have been occasions where that didn’t work out, but, in truth, the labor market is so dry. If I can get a body in here to do some work, that’s pretty much what I’m looking for.”
Of course, akin to the dichotomy of the city’s $5 blackjack tables and high roller card rooms, the courses of Vegas run the spectrum of ownerships, and the resulting hierarchy therein.
Annually referred to as the top play in all of Nevada, Tom Fazio-designed Shadow Creek is part of the MGM Resorts International family, which, for employees, results in a prime opportunity one doesn’t want to compromise. “We’re in a unique situation, working with MGM Resorts,” says Greg Niendorf, golf course superintendent at Shadow Creek and vice president of the Southern Nevada chapter of the GCSAA.
With an average employee tenure at about 18 years, Niendorf experiences little turnover, save for the occasional retirement. “So, it’s an older staff but, with that, we don’t have issues with guys using drugs or having gambling problems,” continues Niendorf, who has been in Vegas since 2008 and in his current post for two years. “And we’re about nine miles from the Strip. So it’s not as easy for our guys – even if they did have such problems – to get involved in that stuff.”
Considering the premium pay working at Shadow Creek, proximity to the Strip would appear to have little bearing on employee choices and lifestyles.
“We just got through overseed and had an appreciation get-together to take the guys out for a few beers,” Niendorf says. “And there were a number of them who didn’t want to come, just because they don’t want to take that chance of getting in trouble somewhere along the line. They know what they have. The pay is good, the benefits are good and, for some of them, it took a long time to get the job they have.”
Handling dicey situations
Like tending the turf through tough times, Vegas superintendents — or their respective ownerships — find, or at least aim, for successfully aiding employee bloom with organization, patience and a solid game plan.
“I’ve put many employees through drug and alcohol programs or gambling programs over the years. If it’s somebody worth saving, you got to invest some time into them and help them work through their problems,” Sutton says. “You just need to work with ’em, train ’em, or sometimes maybe you need to send ’em home, write ’em up, give them a couple days off to think about it. You give them a few chances, and then, if they’re not willing to work through their problems, maybe you’ve got to cut ’em loose and let them figure out their life for themselves.”
Across the fairways of his career, Sutton says certain employers offer help with treatments via employee insurance plans. Before that step is taken, Sutton recommends performing due diligence and having contacts on-hand for treatment resources.
At Shadow Creek, the course’s parent company provides the benefit of ensuring that premier course conditions are on par with staff members’ wellness conditions. “MGM continually reaches out to us to make sure we’re aware of the support we have,” Niendorf says, “even to the extent of, say, personal trainers or incentives for quitting smoking.”
Lezon has researched a host of addiction and recovery resources, from churches to treatment groups. “But I don’t like to come at somebody with that right away,” he says. “Usually, it’s, ‘Hey, we need to talk.’ I’m not one to fire somebody for a bad decision. But multiple bad decisions compound things. I had one employee that we tried really hard to work with, to make concessions for, and I tried to help them budget their money. And he couldn’t do it. Between the drinking and gambling, they were just kinda lost.”
Ultimately, there are some people who are beyond saving, and Lezon says he has had to let a few employees go, whether the party town’s grip extended to drinking and drug use on the job — and even, in one instance, selling drugs to golfers.
Breaking a gambler’s creed: In the world of Sin City course work, the best bet is transparency. A winning hand finds course employees laying all cards on the table.
“All considered,” Lezon concludes, “these addictions are much more prevalent than people want to admit.”