How did you get your start in the golf industry?
At age 13, I started playing the game of golf with my father. I loved the game so much and excelled at it. I wanted to get better and the only way to do that was to play more golf. At age 14, I started as a cart attendant at my local public golf course. That summer, vandals stole a few golf carts and damaged several greens. I was called upon to plug greens and after 3 weeks, I loved that side of the business. I could start work early, be done by 2pm and play golf till dark. At that point, I moved onto the grounds crew. After that year, I really started to look at golf course management as a potential career. I moved onto Reading CC, an upscale private course down the road. I have always been fortunate to have great mentors and moved on to several other bigger name clubs exposing myself to a variety of different operations. Oakmont CC, St. Andrews and Augusta National were all stops along the way.
Can you tell us a few things about your early life? Where were you born, what high school, and first jobs?
I was born and raised in Reading, PA. I graduated from Exeter High School in 1996. I have always been a very focused individual from early on. When I started playing golf, I never knew it would turn into the profession it has. I am very fortunate from that aspect. Other than working in the produce department of a grocery store for one winter during high school, the golf industry is all I know.
Can you tell us a little about your family, how you met your wife and your kid’s name?
I am married to my wife of 14 years, Hilary. Together, we have a 10 year old daughter, Anna. She is a golfer and loves to get on the course during the summer and after school. Hilary was a waitress at Reading Country Club, where we worked in High School. Although we knew each other for a couple years, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that we started dating. I have always been grateful to have her support. In fact, she came with me when I did my internship on the Old Course at St. Andrews and the Augusta National. We were married in Augusta, during the summer of 2000. We honeymooned in Highlands, NC, where I am currently the Superintendent at Highlands CC. Through the golf business, we created some very special memories.
Where did you go to school for turfgrass management?
I have a B.S. in Turfgrass Science and Horticulture minor from Penn State University.
Who was your earliest mentor in the industry and how did he inspire you?
My dad was/is always my biggest mentor. As a business professional, I always had a first class role model growing up. I listened to him talk about leading people and learned a lot from that. He was always there to direct me along the way, focusing and knowing what was most important.
Additionally, I am fortunate to have many mentors. In 1997, I moved to Pittsburgh to work at Oakmont CC under Mark Kuhns. Mark has had more of an impact on my career as a golf course superintendent. Mark handled the pressures of a big job and still had the time to mentor students embarking on a career as a Superintendent. Agronomically, Oakmont CC was the most relevant experience I’ve had as an intern as it relates to my current position.
In 2001, I came to Highlands CC as the Assistant Superintendent. The Superintendent at the time, Eric Shomaker, played a huge roll in my life. I always felt my work ethic spoke for itself but there was more I had to learn. Eric has tremendous people skills and I learned many valuable lessons in dealing with people; specifically members. I am grateful Eric hired me as his assistant right out of Penn State, because when he left in 2004 for Mountaintop Golf and Lake Club, I was promoted to Superintendent.
How do you work with people to create a team?
I like to think I empower other people. On my current staff, I have 2 assistants, 2 mechanics and a total of 20 staff members. I give my assistants the ability to manage and lead on their own. Of course, I am always aware of what is going on; particularly when it comes to chemical applications. In order for employees to grow, they need to be challenged and need space and freedom. I allow my mechanics to manage their own budget. I developed a very detailed and scheduled maintenance regime here at Highlands CC and every staff members knows that schedule, what is expected and how it is done. They take ownership of that and are held accountable for that. Daily staff meetings in the morning allow staff to offer feedback and present new ways of doing things. All staff members tend to feel engaged and part of the entire operation.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I get a lot of satisfaction from my community involvement. In the last 5 years, I served as president of the Rotary Club of Highlands. I also served as Chairman of the following organizations for a one year period: Highlands Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Highlands and the Literacy Council of Highlands. In 2011, I was elected to a 4 year term as a Town of Highlands city council member. I sit the Macon County Economic Development Commission as well. In 2013, I was awarded the Robert Dupree Award in Highlands for Outstanding Community Service.
Professionally, I am very proud of my service to the industry. I served on the board of the Western NC Turfgrass Association for 6 years and currently serve as a director on the Carolina’s GCSA board. I am the GCSAA Chapter delegate and chair the NC Government Relations Committee. I serve as a GCSAA Grassroots Ambassador as well.
In 2003, I completed the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program for golf courses and in 2011, Highlands CC became the 2nd Club in the Northern Hemisphere to achieve GEO Certification. In 2014, Highlands CC was chosen as the Carolina’s Environmental Leaders in Golf Award winner.
What item or person could you not do without at your golf course?
My mechanic. He and I have worked together for the last 10 years. He knows me well and knows what is expected. In addition, he is a good friend. Paul is always someone I am able to bounce ideas off of and is well versed in many areas. In fact, he is one of few mechanics with a turfgrass management degree. In 2011, Paul Dalton was awarded the Carolina’s Equipment Tech of the Year. Paul keeps me going…having worked with several mechanics who were not as well versed as Paul; I have tremendous appreciation for the job he is faced with.
What is your favorite part of the job and least favorite?
My most favorite part of the job is dealing with people from different walks of life. From guys on the crew to the most successful business people in the Southeast, no two days are similar. I love it. I also love the challenges of working for a progressive club like Highlands CC. We are always moving forward and making the course better each year by continually investing in capital projects.
On the other hand, my least favorite part of the job is when golf course maintenance becomes just that…maintenance. By July and August, we are going strong keeping the course in great shape without much change. The monotony of that does wear on me from time to time. I love being extremely busy, with a full plate and going in 10 different directions. I love golf course renovation and improvement. In Highlands, fall, winter and spring are always a time of progress. I live for that.
Do you collect anything? Hub caps, license plates, signs…
No collections to speak of other than logo golf balls and other golf memorabilia. I have a flag from St. Andrews signed by Payne Stewart. I was privileged to meet and talk with him 2 weeks before he passed. The 1999 Dunhill Cup at St. Andrews was his last professional tournament…so very fitting.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
I would like to think I wouldn’t change much. Of course, I believe I would travel a bit more. I enjoy getting away with my family; exploring new areas. I would also appreciate having the financial freedom of not having to worry about things like paying for my daughter’s college education.
Few people know I like to…
Garden. At Highlands CC, I have an acre organic farming operation that I spend an hour or two a day at. I grow lettuce and other vegetables, cut flowers and blueberries. Last year, I got into bee keeping and hope to expend that program this summer. It all fascinates me. Highlands CC has benefited from this work as well as I supply the chef with fresh lettuce and vegetables.
What do you like to do away from work? If you have time to yourself what do you like to do?
I personally like golf and fly fishing. I love to get away from Highlands CC and see something new in the way of golf. Highlands and western NC in general, is rich with trout streams. I love spending the day in the water or traveling to the Smokey Mountain National Park to fish. As my daughter gets older, she is appreciating golf more and more. She has tremendous potential. I really enjoy spending time with her on the golf course. Nothing makes me happier than seeing her get excited about a great shot she hit.
Ken Rowland, freelance writer with over 11 years promoting the Golf Course industry. Ken can be reached at email@example.com.