Veteran superintendents say it takes patience, humility and resolve to calm peeved players.

Demanding golfers are like ugly divots in fairways – almost every golf course has them. Some fly solo, and others roam in packs. Some have legitimate gripes, while others are perpetual complainers. Demanding golfers are found at every level of golf, from posh private clubs to municipal 18-holers where Joe Sixpack plays.

A disgruntled, demanding golfer isn’t afraid to rebuke a golf course superintendent, like an irate baseball manager berating a home plate umpire. Some demanding golfers think they know more about agronomy than the superintendents they complain to.

While studying agronomy in school, a lot of superintendents probably never thought they would have to bear the wrath of demanding golfers, but it has become part of the job, with superintendents often having to diffuse such situations. Essentially, superintendents not only have to worry about turf disease overtaking their courses’ putting greens, but they also have to worry about golfers complaining about turf disease overtaking their courses’ putting greens.

Nobody knows where demanding golfers come from. Many are avid golfers who are driven by their egos. Others are just ornery and complain about anything. Still others may have legitimate gripes, although they choose to voice them in a turbulent manner. Their favorite complaints are about green speed, bunker consistency and aesthetics.

“Some people try really hard to get under your skin,” says Kevin Smith, vice president and director of agronomy for Greensboro, N.C.-based Pinnacle Golf Properties, who has worked at courses throughout the country and has dealt with hundreds of golfers.

When a demanding golfer goes off on a superintendent, the superintendent should bite his lip and take the tongue-lashing.

“You have to grin and bear it,” says Terry Laurent, owner and certified golf course superintendent at the Cross Creek Golf Club, an 18-hole public course in Decatur, Ind.

Bulletin Board Material

If he could, this is what Golf Course Superintendent Chris Carson would tell golfers to consider before getting in their faces to complain about something. Carson has been the superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club for 28 years. Incidentally, you have Carson’s permission to post this list on the bulletin board in your clubhouse.

  • Don’t charge into battle. If you think about what your superintendent is going through, it might give you pause before you complain loudly about the poison ivy deep in the woods on the sixth hole.
  • Leave it to the experts. Your skill as a golfer does not translate into turfgrass or course architecture expertise.
  • Course comparisons are not usually accurate, helpful or fair.
  • Superintendents deal with a huge variable: Weather. There are times when decisions must be made that may not make sense to you.
  • Focus on the long term, as immediate action can have lasting consequences.You might think that aggressively speeding up the greens for the July member-guest tournament makes sense, but your superintendent knows the inherent risks of such a maneuver, such as sick greens in August.
  • We don’t aerify greens to upset you. We do it to make the course better.
  • Address the situation; don’t personalize the issue. When you say, “You always …,” and, “You never …,” you lose respect and the superintendent’s attention. At that point, he isn’t thinking about your concern, he’s thinking about fighting back.
  • It takes time for golf courses to heal from stress and damage. Patience is an important trait for a good superintendent, and it would also serve you well.
  • Nobody – NOBODY – feels the pain of a stressed or damaged golf course more than your superintendent. If you think you are achieving anything by barking about an obvious problem, you are wrong.

And, if you want to change your ways, here are a couple of ideas to think about:

  • Smell the roses. Really, what do you have to complain about? You are outside, playing on a golf course, away from your troubles and strife. Enjoy the moment!
  • If you have a legitimate concern, then don’t just vent. Have a discussion and offer your support. If you can, a proposed solution will go a long way toward having a rational and informed discussion.
  • When things are going well, do something. How about this: Find out when the crew starts on the second day of the member-guest tournament, get there 10 minutes before they do (it will be dark) with doughnuts and coffee for the crew, and say thank you. If you do that, you’ll be looked upon by the crew and the superintendent in a totally new, positive light.

Veteran superintendents say that there are strategic ways to deal with demanding golfers. Just as they have tools in the toolbox to deal with turf disease, superintendents also have tools to deal with demanding golfers.

Patience is a virtue

Chris Carson, the golf course superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club, an 18-hole private club in Westfield, N.J., has been in the business for 35 years. He has noticed that many golfers at private and public clubs have become more demanding. Since we live in a society that often desires immediacy, golfers often expect problems, like anthracnose on a green, to heal overnight, Carson explains.

Superintendents must display an enormous amount of patience with demanding golfers. It starts with being a good listener. Many times, demanding golfers just want to be heard.

“They’ll have questions, but they don’t want to hear any answers,” Carson says. “They just want to be heard. Just look them in the eye and say, ‘I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, and I’ll try and do better.’ “

At Cross Creek, Laurent knows the golfers who might press him on occasion. He’s always on alert for them.

“You gear yourself toward that troublesome golfer when he comes walking through your door,” Laurent says, “but you don’t want to get angry with him because that will put him on the defensive right away.”

At Oakmont Country Club, Golf Course Superintendent John Zimmers must deal with what is often called “the toughest membership in golf.” The members of Oakmont, the 18-hole classic course near Pittsburgh, embrace championship golf, are excellent players, and are knowledgeable about the game. The 43-year-old Zimmers, who has spent 15 years at Oakmont, says he’s learned to be a much better listener during that time.

“They can be very vocal,” Zimmers says of Oakmont’s 400 members. “I definitely process what they are saying before speaking back to them.”

Dan Dinelli, the certified golf course superintendent at the North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill., says that demanding golfers sometimes have something in common with demanding greens – there could be reasons for their problems. For instance, a problem green is usually the result of shade, poor air movement and drainage, among other things.

“We’re trained to recognize those things in turf, but I don’t think we’re as trained to see those things in people,” Dinelli says.

Sometimes superintendents need to dig deep and get to the root of why a golfer is upset. Recently, Dinelli took the time to see what was bothering a member, who happened to be in a rare bad mood and was complaining to Dinelli about not being able to play during North Shore’s Monday outings.

“I asked him how he was doing,” Dinelli says. “When he told me that his wife was dying, I knew what the problem was.”

Let the facts do the talking

As much as he needs to be patient, Dinelli also realizes there’s a time to educate demanding golfers, albeit in an unthreatening way.

Dinelli often relies on facts and figures to diffuse disgruntled golfers. Dinelli keeps a binder in his office that contains various reports, case studies, surveys and a master plan. “A written master plan along with a well thought out standard operating procedure document are powerful tools,” Dinelli says.

If a member complains about poor irrigation, Dinelli might respond, “Our irrigation system is really poor. But the good news is it’s part of our long-range irrigation improvement plan, which the board plans to improve in three to five years as funds become available. In the meantime, the crew and I will continue to hand water and do the best we can with limited resources.”

The most recent satisfaction survey of North Shore’s members is also in the book. It comes in handy when a golfer complains that the greens are too slow at 11.5 feet, but the survey reveals that most members prefer that speed.

“A membership satisfaction survey is an important element to consider as data that can help your cause and disarm some golfers, as well as help drive golf course improvements,” Dinelli says.

At Oakmont, Zimmers tries to educate his members, especially about weather. Last summer, Oakmont received 14 inches of rain above normal. Firm and fast conditions and rain don’t go together at Oakmont, where members expect green speeds of 13 to 14 feet daily, Zimmers says.

But talking weather isn’t easy. Many golfers believe superintendents too often blame the weather for their agronomic woes. The last thing Zimmers wants is to come off like he’s making excuses.

In explaining why some things happen that impact the playability of turfgrass, Zimmers will use anecdotes he knows Oakmont’s members can relate to. For instance, he may use a skiing anecdote to help explain how and why conditions change on the golf course.

“Say you skied Saturday and the conditions were perfect because there was a fresh 8 inches of snow, but the next day you do a run on the same mountain with the same skis, but the conditions aren’t as good. That’s because it didn’t snow anymore. The conditions change every day,” Zimmers explains.

Profile of the Demanding Golfer

  • Demanding golfers exist on a continuum to the degree of how obnoxious they are.
  • Some are genuinely nice people who are having a bad day.
  • Others are chronically obnoxious.

What if a Golfer Goes Off on You?

  • Don’t deny the allegations.
  • Don’t get defensive.
  • Don’t counterattack.
  • Don’t overexplain or attempt to convince the person of something he or she doesn’t want to be convinced of.
  • Don’t apologize prematurely.

Source: Lisa Goatley, “Dealing with Difficult People”

Out in front

One thing superintendents shouldn’t do is run from demanding golfers.

“Most superintendents are quiet, introverted and introspective people who want to let their work do the talking,” Carson says. “But that’s not the best way to be.”

Carson used to be that way, but as golfers began to get more demanding, he realized he had to come out of his shell and be more communicative.

Smith, whose 27-year career as a superintendent has spanned public and private clubs, says he always makes himself available to talk to golfers, even if that means walking in the clubhouse when you know you might be walking into a lion’s den. You gain respect from golfers when you do that, he adds.

“It’s essential to develop good rapport, especially with those golfers who are looked upon as being in the know,” Smith says.

When you don’t have good rapport – when you don’t show your face to golfers – is when rumors get started and misinformation is spread, Smith adds. When you have good rapport, you might be putting out a fire before it has a chance to begin.

Of course, some golfers are so difficult and demanding they can’t be diffused, says Carson, noting there’s a member at Echo Lake who has made it his goal to get Carson fired. Carson admits he tries to avoid this person, but when he sees him he acknowledges him and gets out of the way. “It’s childish of me to flee from the situation, but I don’t see any advantage of trying to work it out with him,” Carson says.

Zimmers avoids certain members when he knows they’re so mad that they’re unapproachable. He prefers to give these members time to cool off before dealing with them.

“You’re not running from the situation, you’re just avoiding the confrontation at that moment because you know the outcome will not be positive,” he states.

Ninety percent of the time the situation can be rectified, Dinelli says. But then there’s that 10 percent, which usually consists of a person, or persons, who are perpetual complainers.

“These people give the chef a hard time, and they give the pro a hard time,” Dinelli says.

If the golfer threatens to complain to “your boss,” it’s probably not the first time, Dinelli says. In most cases, “your boss” will know the golfer is a perpetual complainer and won’t give him much credence.

Making yourself available to demanding golfers is all part of good customer service. As the maxim goes, “The customer is never wrong.”

“Sometimes we lose sight of that,” Carson says of superintendents. “We say, ‘I wish they would get off the course so I could get some work done.’ “

Recently, a course Smith oversees underwent a greens renovation. In addition, new sand was added to bunkers. However, the sand wasn’t added to the bunkers until late in the renovation because of poor weather and didn’t have a chance to settle and become firm.

When the course reopened, golf balls were plugging in the sand, and golfers were complaining. It wasn’t until Smith stepped in to explain what happened that the complaints ceased.

“We’re in the service business,” Smith says. “That’s something we need to embrace. We’re grass growers … but above and beyond anything else we’re in the service business.”

It’s important to be held accountable with golfers, Zimmers says.

“The buck stops with me,” he adds, noting that he’s not afraid to admit he made a mistake and ask for help with that mistake.

“I’ve gone out on the course when people are still playing and apologized for [a maintenance activity] that might have impacted their rounds,” Zimmers says. “Taking the time to say you’re sorry can go a long way.”

Don’t take it personally

It’s not easy to grin and bear it when a demanding golfer is dressing you down.

“It’s a very difficult situation to be in when somebody’s telling you how to run your business,” Laurent says. “If he’s a doctor, you’re not telling him how to do brain surgery.”

But as he has grown older, Laurent says he has gotten wiser, which enables him to not take golfers’ complaints to heart like he once did.

“I used to take things personally, and sometimes I still do, but not like I used to,” he adds.

After all, most superintendents are more demanding on themselves than any golfer could ever be.

Turf Talk: what to do with the golfer that just doesn’t get it.