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The Sustainable Golf Superintendent

Rubik's Cube

After years of zero to negative growth, the golf industry appears to be legitimately re-energized. New players are taking up the game, and existing players have returned to the sport in near-record numbers for the third consecutive year. But in today’s unpredictable economy, golf superintendents understandably are torn between celebrating the resurgence and holding their breath to see what will happen next.

In our 2021 article “What Will the Golf Course Industry Look Like in 2022?” we sought to forecast golf’s future. One reality became immediately clear: from club memberships to green fees, the rates need to go up at many facilities. Much of the golf industry has dragged its feet, resistant to raising rates in previous years when rounds of golf were declining. In attempting to avoid giving golfers one more reason to play less, course managers failed to make justified incremental price hikes.

However, revenue deficits created by chronically underpriced services are only one twist in the Rubik’s Cube conundrum that superintendents must resolve. The hard-to-tap labor force, the direction of environmental regulations, and the pros and cons of automation are only a few of the many complexities of the puzzle.

Fortunately, the randomness of a Rubik’s Cube can be brought into complete alignment as long as the person solving it remains flexible to handle the twists and turns that a solution requires.

Green Fee Deficits in the Face of Inflation

With more golfers on the course, many facilities face an urgent need to raise rates to cover increased maintenance, labor demands, and rising fuel and equipment costs. Some golf managers hesitate to raise fees, sensitive to the burden an inflationary economy already places on consumers.

U.S. Department of Commerce data for March sparks hope for sustaining the rebound in golf. Despite inflation, consumer spending was up 1.1 percent for the month with consumers spending more on necessities, such as gas, and luxuries such as dining and vacation travel. With employers scrambling to attract or keep workers on the job, much of the U.S. workforce is benefiting from higher wages, bigger paychecks, and better benefits, helping many households weather the highest inflation the U.S. economy has experienced in decades. While this is a positive update, no one can say how long escalating inflation will continue or what its impact will ultimately be on the expendable income of golfing Americans.

Hunting for Workers and Redefining Roles

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” young adults who enjoyed the game of golf, liked to work outdoors, and had a sincere interest in growing, nurturing, and managing beautiful environments could work their way up from a summer job at a golf course to become a golf course superintendent. Their career path typically involved earning a degree in turfgrass science, applied horticulture, or a related field, fortified by hands-on experience and professional designations such as those offered through the educational programs of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). Climbing the ladder from the second assistant to the first assistant to the head greenskeeper, workers could look forward to a lifelong career in their chosen profession.

Now, that idealistic career path feels long ago and far away. The average worker in America has a tenure of four years with any single employer. Jobs and the skills to perform them are continually redefined. Workers don’t just change careers because they’ve grown restless or failed to perform. They move on or are forced out because they have grown obsolete.

Golf superintendents must continually reinvent themselves in a complex society. Environmental issues are under ever-growing scrutiny by both governing agencies and the public. No one can confidently say where regulatory guidelines for the environment are headed next.

With hiring workers nearly impossible for many courses, superintendents are forced to be wildly creative and flexible in fulfilling their staffing needs. While automation can help reduce workload, the same automation that makes many aspects of the superintendent’s role easier can also make that role smaller and more easily replaced by technology.

As disheartening as this checklist of challenges sounds, careers in turf management generally face fewer problematic issues than careers in many other professions. Pursuing advanced degrees and taking advantage of absolutely everything the GCSAA offers keeps superintendents and turf managers current, visible, and connected to opportunities in turfgrass and in related professions.

More than 100 universities or colleges now offer degree programs in golf course management. The GCSAA website provides an up-to-date and highly detailed online directory of Turf Programs, including contact information, and academic details. Expanding skills and adding to credentials can help superintendents stay in front of an evolving industry.

Other Golf Management Directions

Beyond the specific roles of course maintenance, golf course agronomist, greenskeeper, course superintendent or turf manager is a wide range of other golf management careers. One avenue to many of these jobs is through the apprenticeship programs and the academic classwork developed by the PGA of America.

At seventeen universities across the country, the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) has sanctioned a four-and-a-half-year program that, upon successful completion, earns students both a bachelor’s degree and PGA membership. Job placement rates after completing these programs are high.
Degrees through these programs lead to a range of golf industry jobs, including teaching golf or club pro, running the pro shop, Director of Golf, Tournament Director or other key position at a golf facility or in the golf industry. Turf managers with diverse golf industry training position themselves for expanded employment opportunities at all stages of their professional careers.

Universities in the U.S. that participate in the PGA Golf Management Program include:

Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan
Mississippi State University in Mississippi State, Mississippi
New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico
Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania
Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina
Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina
North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina
University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho
University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada
University of Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, Colorado
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska
Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers, Florida
Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas
Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky
University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Oklahoma
University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Maryland

The Solution to a Golf Superintendent’s Rubik’s Cube

Educator and author Peter Drucker has been called the Founder of Modern Management. Five years old at the start of World War I, Drucker’s life spanned wars, economic turbulence, and even the attacks of 9-11. Drucker is credited with the observation that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”
A Rubik’s Cube is hard, but like achieving a long and sustainable career, it is not impossible. Navigate the twists and turns. Don’t be afraid to make changes, even when doing so means you temporarily take a step backward. Stay patient and above all else, always look ahead to your next move.

It’s your future, and you are the only one who gets to create it.

Linda Parker has been writing professionally since the 1980s. With clients in finance, sports, technology, resorts, and nonprofit global initiatives, Linda helps organizations communicate their stories in meaningful ways to the people they most want to reach. She has authored, ghostwritten, or contributed to more than a dozen nonfiction books. Linda is a member of the Authors Guild and the Golf Writers Association of America. You can connect with her at linda@glindacreative.com

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