Get a Leg Up

Green Start Academy attendees aim to distinguish themselves in their pursuit of top jobs in a tough golf economy

It wasn't exactly what the roomful of assistant golf course superintendents wanted to hear, but it was the truth. Just like the past seven years, the golf course industry is in for many more closings than openings in the next several years.

More course closings than openings means fewer superintendent jobs. For assistants, that means more years of climbing the career ladder to get a top job.

But the 50 assistant superintendents in that room - who were attending a seminar as part of the Green Start Academy event sponsored by John Deere Golf and Bayer - have something going for them that their peers don't. They distinguished themselves by getting invited to Green Start, an educational and networking event that was held Oct. 10-12 at the Bayer Technical Training Center in Clayton, N.C.

To be chosen to attend Green Start, the assistants had to write essays, which were evaluated by Green Start's superintendent advisory panel, including some of the top superintendents in the business. The writers of the top 50 essays were selected to attend the event, now in its seventh year.

Back to the shrinking golf course industry. The person supplying that information, Greg Nathan, senior vice president of the National Golf Foundation (NGF), was the event's opening speaker and waxed on about the state of the golf industry.

Despite course closings outnumbering openings for the eighth year in a row, Nathan told the assistants that the golf industry is in the middle of a modest recovery.

Golf rounds were up 7.4 percent through September when compared to the same period in 2011, which is a "huge number," Nathan said. Rounds should amount to 490 million or more for 2012, he added, noting that the high mark for rounds was about 518 million in 2000.

Golfer confidence is also on the rise, according to NGF research. Nathan said the organization has been measuring golfer sentiment since the beginning of the recession and the first quarter of 2008. NGF asks about 35,000 of its core golfers - those who play a minimum of eight rounds annually - if they're playing fewer rounds, delaying equipment purchases and taking fewer golf trips.

"We've had four consecutive quarters where things are getting better[BR1] ," Nathan says. "I will tell you this is very much related to people feeling more secure in their jobs and having more comfort in terms of their financial situations."

This is good news for the golf maintenance segment, Nathan pointed out.

"For a golf course to have the budget to buy chemicals and turf management equipment, that means the golfer needs to be spending money," he said.

There are about 26 million U.S. golfers, including about 14.5 million core golfers who average 34 rounds a year.

"Those 14.5 golfers play more than 90 percent of the rounds and spend more than 90 percent of the money," Nathan said.

During his talk, Nathan covered the building booms, the latest which led to the excess supply of golf courses. The first occurred during the 1920s and the second in the 1960s, partly spurred by televised golf. The third occurred between 1990 and 2005 and was mostly driven by daily-fee golf.

"Unfortunately, the building boom was, to a great degree, [about courses that were] expensive to build and maintain," Nathan says, adding that they were also expensive to play. "It didn't do a lot to grow participation."

About 4,000 golf courses opened between 1990 and 2005 - one of every four facilities that exists today - and many of those openings created a supply and demand imbalance, Nathan said.

In 2012, only about 15 courses will open. The NGF expects 100 to 150 more courses to close in the next seven years.

"This won't change, and in all honestly we shouldn't be hoping for it to change as much as it would mean that John Deere and Bayer would get more customers and you would have more places to get jobs," Nathan said.

That said, golf is not dying, Nathan added.

"The closings that have happened represent a very slow market correction that must happen for the golf industry as whole to be healthy," he stated.

About 470 courses have closed in the past seven years. Nathan calls those closings "a tiny little move" downward on the golf course graph. But some closures, including some old private clubs that were once very popular, get plenty of mainstream media exposure.
"They get more attention than they should," Nathan said, noting that such high-profile closures lead people to believe that golf is an endangered sport.

The closures will help balance supply and demand, which will make the remaining golf courses more economically viable, including on the maintenance side.

So there are reasons to be excited about the golf industry, Nathan told the assistants. An overbuilt market is correcting itself. However, Nathan also acknowledged that a correcting market doesn't equate to a hot job market. But then he reminded the assistants why they were there.

"You're here because you're good," Nathan said. "You're here because you might be better than the next person."

Because there are fewer jobs and more people to fill them, assistant superintendents must compete with each other for the few superintendent positions.

"As more courses close, competition will get tougher and tougher," Nathan said. "But because you're good, you're in a terrific position to compete."

Nathan advised the assistant superintendents to continue to develop and distinguish themselves.

That sentiment was echoed by most speakers at the event, including Greg Lyman, director of environmental programs for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, who spoke on "Sustainability and the Golf Industry." But Lyman knows a few things about getting noticed.

"Unless you're at the table, you're not going to have a voice," Lyman said. "There's an old adage: If you're not at the table, you might be on the menu for lunch."

Several notable superintendents spoke at Green Start: Pat Finlen from The Olympic Club in San Francisco; Ken Mangum from the Atlanta (Ga.) Athletic Club; Bob Farren from Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort; Chris Carson from Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J.; and Paul Grogan from TPC Deere Run in East Moline, Ill.

In a roundtable discussion, Finlen (photo to the right) asked how many assistants had applied for superintendent positions.
A few hands went up. Finlen advised them to always research a club or course to make sure it's in solid financial condition. The last thing assistants want to do is get jobs at struggling facilities and then find themselves out of work in a few months.

Finlen also advised assistants to be patient - sometimes painfully patient. In the eight years that Finlen applied for jobs - from 1990 to 1998 - he said he had four interviews. He didn't land at the Olympic Club by luck; it took a lot of perseverance.

Finlen also told the assistants to call potential employers, not just send them résumés.
"Don't be shy about going after jobs," Finlen said. "Take every opportunity to talk to employers."

It's like getting ahead in a race.

"If you don't push yourselves, somebody else is going to push himself or herself in front of you," Finlen said.