When Jim Fitzroy first became a golf course superintendent in the 1970s, he never considered his career choice would also require him to be a politician, where he would have to deal with golfers who complained about fast greens, golfers who complained about slow greens and golfers who complained about ball marks on greens.
“It was kind of a rude awakening,” Fitzroy says. “There’s a lot more to the business than growing grass. In fact, as I got older, I realized that the easy part of the business was growing grass.”
Fitzroy retired three years ago after spending nearly 40 years as the superintendent at Presidents Golf Course in North Quincy, Massachusetts. Most superintendents get into the golf course maintenance profession because of their love for golf, nature and science – not politics. But the best superintendents – the survivors like Fitzroy – realize early on in their careers that they had better embrace politics as part of their job responsibilities.
Not a bad thing
Politics are not a bad thing. In fact, politics can be very good. At the core, politics are about compromise.
“They say there is a lot to be said for the smoke-filled room,” the 68-year-old Fitzroy says. “Sit down, smoke a cigar and figure out what we can agree on.”
When he was a young superintendent, Todd Voss admits that he just wanted to be left alone to grow grass. But he eventually learned he couldn’t operate that way.
“Dealing with people is something that you have to do in this business,” says Voss, the chief operating officer and golf course superintendent at the Double Eagle Club, a private 18-hole course in Galena, Ohio. “But if you take politics down to its simplest form, it’s treating people like you want to be treated.”
Tyler Andersen, the golf course superintendent at the University of Texas Golf Club in Austin, Texas, says a politically minded superintendent is someone who is not just concerned about his own agenda.
“You have to show that you are not just concerned with your own department but with other departments in order to make your facility and your club better in general,” he says.
When dealing with golfers at the municipal PrairieView Golf Club in Byron, Illinois, where he has been the superintendent for five years, Matt Henkel takes an empathetic approach.
“I put myself in their shoes,” Henkel says. “I always listen to what they have to say. I tell them, ‘I know where you are coming from.'”
As politicians, superintendents also realize that they can’t fix every problem for every golfer. But by explaining their marching orders for managing their respective courses, their reasoning often makes sense. Sometimes, golfers just want to be heard.
“You have so many different types of golfers, from low handicaps to high handicaps, and they all have different needs,” Andersen says. “What it comes down to is managing those expectations to the best of your ability and providing a product that everybody can enjoy.”
Ways to be a Politically Minded Superintendent
- Treat people like you want to be treated.
- Don’t just be concerned about your own agenda.
- Communicate, communicate and communicate.
- Know that it’s not your golf course.
- Make yourself visible.
- Patience is a virtue.
- Build your credibility.
- Keep your cool.
- Learn to bite your tongue.
- Be a good listener.
- Tell the truth.
- Learn from your mistakes.
- Don’t make excuses.
- Dress well and be clean shaven.
At the Presidents Golf Course, a county-operated golf course near Boston, Fitzroy once had to explain to a group of single-digit handicap golfers that he couldn’t speed up the greens just to satisfy them. Fitzroy told them that fast greens for them would mean unfair greens for high-handicap golfers, which would lead to long rounds, delays and plenty of frustrated customers.
“I would tell them, ‘You have to understand that I need to keep the tee sheet full,'” Fitzroy says. “And in order to do that there must be a reasonable pace of play with putting greens that average golfers can negotiate.”
If a golfer is upset about something, Voss quickly goes into diffuse mode. He listens to the golfer intently and will even put his hand on the golfer’s shoulder to express his sincerity. Voss is also not afraid to tell a golfer he is right in his complaint.
“I’m sorry we are not meeting your expectations,” Voss will tell a golfer. “We will do better.”
A need to be seen
While communicating to golfers is vital, a superintendent first has to make himself visible to them. Being seen, perhaps, is the most integral attribute of being a politically minded superintendent.
“It can be something as simple as going in the men’s lounge on Saturday morning and having coffee with the members,” Andersen says.
Henkel also makes himself visible, but in a different way. He changes cups, mows greens and rakes bunkers as part of his duties as a “working” superintendent, so he doesn’t have a lot of time to hang out near the first tee to greet golfers.
“So my interaction with golfers comes as my work activities are unfolding,” he says.
But Henkel makes the effort, even if it means to stop the chore he’s doing, to say hello to golfers and ask them how their rounds are going.
The superintendents who stay out of sight and hide in the maintenance facility to avoid golfers are making a big mistake, Andersen says.
“If you hide, people start to assume,” he adds.
When the assumptions start, they can quickly lead to rumors and false accusations, which can turn into a political nightmare for a superintendent, Andersen warns.
Voss not only makes it point to be seen by the club’s members, he also has gathered intel over the years to know the things that might spark certain golfers to go off like fireworks.
“It’s good to know who gets the most upset or who screams the loudest about certain things,” Voss says.
Perhaps what is as bad as not being seen is the superintendent who views the course he maintains as “my course” and refuses to listen to golfers and others about making any changes or improvements.
“Some superintendents tend to get defensive about a piece of property that doesn’t belong to them,” Voss says. “We have been hired to manicure it, but it’s not our backyard. We’re passionate about it and we bleed for it, but it’s our job to deliver what the customers want.”
Fitzroy recalls one superintendent telling him that if his club’s members told him to paint the ball washers pink, he would ask them, “What shade?”
There are occasions when a superintendent might question, and rightly so, the decision of a green committee, owner or general manager to make changes that the superintendent deems would not be good for the golf course. In such cases, the superintendent should explain in logical and well-thought-out terms why something might not be a good idea, Fitzroy says.
Often, a superintendent’s point is well taken. But sometimes it’s not.
“And maybe you bite your tongue a little bit,” Fitzroy says.
What if a superintendent recommends something not be done but is made to do it anyway, and it turns out badly? Put it in writing to protect yourself, Fitzroy advises.
Even as politicians, is there a time for superintendents to dig in their heels and stand their ground?
“I don’t think there is ever a situation where I will dig my heels in and say ‘absolutely not’ to something,” Andersen says. “But I was hired as an expert, so I’m always going to give my forthright and most expert opinion on things. If something doesn’t feel right that they want done, I’ll express my concerns about it.”
On the inside, too
Politics also happen away from the greens, tees and fairways. Stories abound of the in-house political challenges that superintendents endure with owners, general managers, pros and others.
Working with a government agency, Fitzroy had to realize that he was working with an entity that moved at its own pace, which was often very slow.
One time in 1990, the county commissioners that Fitzroy reported to asked him to come up with a five-year capital improvement plan, which included a computerized irrigation system, a bunker renovation, expanded tees and improved cart paths.
“When I retired in 2013, we had just placed the last part of that capital improvement program in place,” Fitzroy says with a chuckle. “It was slow and arduous, but we got it done.”
From a political perspective, it was Fitzroy’s duty to exercise patience.
“You have to deal with the system you are locked into, and you have to learn how to operate within that system,” Fitzroy says. “Once you get in that mindset, you don’t drive yourself crazy.”
Andersen is in his first job as a superintendent at the University of Texas. Shortly after arriving there, he wisely set up a meeting with the general manager, pro and others to discuss how they could work together to achieve the same goals. In other words, they all got on the same page. Andersen communicated how much time he would need to prepare the course for certain tournaments. The others communicated to Andersen what he needed to achieve from a playability standpoint for those tournaments.
Politically, Andersen knows he has to build his credibility with his peers so they trust him. So he communicates as much as he can with his peers to let them know what is happening on the golf course, even if it’s something as minor as aerifying the greens with needle tines. He also knows the others, especially the club’s pro, will pass the information onto golfers.
“They are very important political allies,” Andersen says.
At Double Eagle, Voss ensures that and he and his staff operate with one voice. The last thing a superintendent needs is a crew member blaming him for something gone wrong.
“That’s something that can turn into a political nightmare,” Voss says. “I tell my assistants, ‘We may disagree on something [behind closed doors], but when we talk through those doors we must be united.'”
Keeping your cool
In May, Andersen celebrates his one-year anniversary as a superintendent. While he is a young superintendent, Andersen spent eight years at the Atlanta Athletic Club working under the esteemed Ken Mangum, where he learned plenty from his mentor about playing politics. For instance, Andersen never saw Mangum lose his cool and realized how important it is to maintain your composure.
“The last thing I want to to do is lose my cool on a golf course because I don’t think there’s anything good that could ever come from that,” Andersen says.
Not only does he keep his cool, Henkel vows to always tell the truth, even if the truth makes him look bad.
“People will be more accepting of what you are doing and why you are doing it if you tell them the truth and level with them,” he adds.
Voss advises superintendents to think before acting when they find themselves in politically challenging situations.
“It’s how you react to those imperfect times that makes you who you are and determines success,” he notes.
Playing politics is not only a requisite for the job, but it’s a constant work in progress.
“The years tend to make everyone a little wiser,” Voss says.
For Henkel, it has been about knowing that he could have handled a situation better politically.
“I’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way and learned some lessons,” he says. “But sometimes you don’t learn your lesson unless you have been there and done that.”
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