More than a Greenskeeper
I recently overheard a conversation that diminished the importance of golf course superintendents and maintenance crews. They reduced the men and women who care for the courses we know and love to little more than landscapers or laborers. These flippant attitudes are clearly rooted in ignorance. I don’t think that their opinions represent a majority of the golfers out there, but it got me thinking about how unappreciated golf course superintendents and their maintenance crews can be. Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves of the true roles and responsibilities of these often overlooked MVPs of the golf course world.
In the broad sense, golf course superintendents protect architectural intent long after construction ends, and ensure that players experience the best possible conditions for their rounds. Their duties start early in the construction phase, and include collaborating and choreographing with designers, builders, and other involved parties as the course progresses to completion. In addition to tackling all the tasks and preparations required before grow-in begins, supers can provide valuable real time feedback about maintainability as holes are being built. This information can make the difference between an innovative, maintainable design vs. a maintenance nightmare. I’d argue that a superintendent who both believes in your design approach/building abilities and has a willing, progressive attitude towards maintenance can actually elevate the final product, architecturally speaking. The bedrock of the relationship between designers, builders, and superintendents involves communication, trust, and mutual respect.
Take, for example, the exposed sand mound with native grasses tucked next to no. 7 green at Streamsong Red. Some might wonder why it would be difficult to maintain a such a feature. But its proximity to the green means exposure to excessive water and fertilizer, inviting the growth of weeds and turf, essentially turning it into a rat’s nest. Bill, knowing that successfully incorporating that particular mound depended upon the superintendent’s feelings about maintaining it, consulted with Rusty Mercer about whether or not to keep it. Rusty took a look and said, “Yes, it will be a challenge, but it is my job to try to figure out how to maintain it as you build it.” To this day, people mention that they love this distinct feature; it adds visual interest and strategic value. The chances of it remaining a part of the hole would be diminished if the characteristics of the superintendent had been less than accommodating to Bill’s design intent (or he/she took the “path of least resistance” attitude towards maintenance).
When construction is completed, the superintendent and his/her team fully take the wheel. (As someone who puts a lot of myself into the projects I work on, I admit it is hard to let go and trust that the course is in good hands.) This is where long hours and hard work really come into play. A golf course is a living, breathing organism; the super and his or her team are tasked with making it grow and thrive. They do this in the face of variables like climate change and extreme weather patterns, attacking bugs and microscopic organisms (parasites, fungi, protozoa, etc.) and other natural challenges that threaten a course’s overall health and survival. To top it off, there are financial (often tight and/or shrinking budgets) and human resources to address and manage.
Supers get pushed and pulled in many directions yet remain focused on their goal to support and enhance playing experiences on the course. On any given day, a superintendent starts work before sunrise and leaves when the sun sets. During those hours, he or she does everything from attending meetings, managing financial resources, overseeing irrigation and drainage, maintaining the architectural integrity of bunkers, greens, and fairways, identifying and troubleshooting issues with turf, trees, and soil, receiving critical feedback from players/members, leading and supervising staff, keeping up with best practices and continuing education requirements, and so much more. They are some of the hardest workers out there.
The next time you see your course superintendent or a member of the maintenance team, give them a shout out for a job well done. While they don’t expect to be in the limelight, they deserve to be recognized for the tremendous efforts they take to ensure your next round has all the potential to be your best yet.