These golf course superintendents aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty
Shawn Golz hoists the heavy green hose and rests it on his brawny shoulder. He carries it to his utility vehicle and places it on the bed. Golz climbs into the vehicle and drives off to the ninth green. There’s hand-watering to be done.
Later, Golz, the golf course superintendent at Eagle Rock Golf Club and Auglaize Golf Club in Defiance, Ohio, will hop aboard a rough mower. After that, he might grab a weed eater to trim the bunker edges. And the following morning his plan is to cut cups on one of the courses while the sun rises slowly on another working day.
Welcome to Golz’s world – the world of the blue-collar or “working” superintendent. Like thousands of superintendents at public golf courses across the country, Golz’s job calls for him to get down and dirty. He might even be seen digging a ditch on occasion, sweat dripping from his brow.
But just because they get dirt under their fingernails and sweat through their work clothes doesn’t mean that working superintendents can be compared to Carl Spackler, the slovenly fictional assistant greenkeeper who aspired to be head greenkeeper at Bushwood Country Club. These superintendents aren’t slobs; they just do what’s necessary to get their respective golf courses in the best shape possible for their customers. And no task is too menial for them.
“I never feel like any job is below me,” says the 35-year-old Golz, who has an associate of applied science degree in turfgrass management from The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute. “If there’s a job out there that needs to be done, you have to be able to do it, whether it’s mowing a green or dumping trash.”
Chad Giebelhaus has been the golf course superintendent at Crooked Creek Golf Course near Lincoln, Neb., for about 10 years. The 36-year-old, who has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Nebraska, doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Recently, he was picking up broken tees on tee boxes, a meager job if there ever was one. But Giebelhaus wasn’t complaining.
“I get paid to manage and manicure a golf course,” he says. “If this is what has been given to me because of budget constraints, then this is what I have to do.”
Giebelhaus says that when he began working on a golf course at the age of 16, the golf course had a superintendent, an assistant superintendent, a mechanic, a foreman and other crew members. But that’s not the case anymore in the public golf sector.
“Superintendents in my generation have always had to do more with less,” Giebelhaus says.
Dave Spotts, the superintendent at Eagles Crossing Golf Club in Carlisle, Pa., says he’s also the spray technician, irrigation technician and designated ditch digger, among other things. That’s been his role for the 13 years he’s been at the course.
“I try to make myself as indispensable as I can,” Spotts says. “But I probably wear too many hats because of that.”
The 59-year-old Spotts has been working on golf courses since he was 14. He has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and is also an Eagle Scout.
Spotts’ maintenance facility resembles a four-car garage. He has no office, just a chair and a nondescript desk with a phone on it in the shop.
“Nothing fancy,” he says, noting his anti-diva approach. “I’ve been like this all of my life.”
He’s pushing 60, but Spotts says he feels good, although some tasks, like digging ditches, are getting tougher.
Spotts enjoys mowing, especially in the early morning when the sun is coming up and there’s wildlife on the course. But “cutting cups is beginning to wear me out,” he says.
Golz enjoys dragging a hose, even though it can get heavy at 150-feet long. He’s also the one who does most of the hand-watering because the task requires more expertise.
Golz also likes to mow. “Sometimes it’s nice to get on a rough mower and just go mow,” he says. “It’s peaceful.” Unfortunately, he’s doesn’t do it as much because it’s hard for him to devote so much time to one task during the day.
Golz admits that some tasks get to be monotonous, though, like spraying.
“With 36 holes, I could be on a sprayer almost every day,” he says.
For Giebelhaus, whacking weeds is a heavenly task. “I love to weed eat,” he says. “I don’t have to think when I’m doing it.”
Digging ditches, however, can be hellish, says Giebelhaus, who had to help dig four of them this year to repair irrigation breaks.
“It’s the only thing about this job that I don’t like,” he notes.
Giebelhaus says he’s more tired at the end of the day, most likely a result of the long hours he works to make up for a reduced crew because of budget cuts. If there’s someone hand-watering at the end of the day, it’s Giebelhaus, who usually works about 70 hours a week during the season, doing it.
Golz, who puts in 70 to 100 hours a week during the season, knows what it’s like to be dead tired. Many nights he goes home, eats dinner if he feels like it, and then goes to bed. But at the end of every hard-earned day, Golz finds a reason to believe in what he does for a living. He rattles off what keeps him coming back every day.
“There’s a feeling like I’ve really done something,” he says. “You can see what you’ve accomplished.”
Sometimes golfers see Golz dressed in mud from digging ditches or another dirty job. But that’s OK.
“I want golfers to see me out there sweating and working,” he says. “I want them to know I’m doing what needs to be done.”
But you still have to be professional and protect your image, says Golz, who keeps a change of clothes in his office. He doesn’t ever want to show up at an important meeting with the course owners and other managers looking like Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. On a recent day, Golz appeared neatly dressed in golf shorts and an Ohio State University polo shirt. He was clean-shaven and sported a trimmed beard and closely cropped haircut.
“You’re no longer just the guy out in the barn,” Golz says of the way superintendents are viewed today. “You have to be more visible. … I make it a point to have coffee in the pro shop and talk to golfers.”
Profile of the Working Super
They perform a variety of duties, from mowing greens to hand-watering to digging ditches.
- They get dirty, and have no problem doing so.
- No task is below them.
- They are well-educated.
- Despite getting down and dirty, they realize they have an image to uphold. Hence, they are concerned about how they look.
- Their maintenance budgets are bare bones, which explains why they have to do what they do.
There’s a simple reason why there are more blue-collar superintendents: reduced budgets.
When your budget is around $200,000 annually, you don’t have much money to play with, especially when it comes to labor. And budgets are staying the same or decreasing at many public and municipal golf courses, which could equate to working superintendents doing even more manual labor.
Golz has worked at Auglaize for nine years. Three years ago, one of Auglaize’s owners purchased Eagle Rock, which was formerly a private club; he asked Golz to serve as superintendent of that course as well. The courses are located about 9 miles apart. Golz, who doesn’t have an assistant at either course, moves from course to course throughout the day.
Between the two courses, there’s about 50 acres to maintain. Golz’s annual budget is about $475,000 for the two courses.
“There’s not much fat to trim. We’re running as bare bones as we can,” he says.
Giebelhaus is on his third owner at Crooked Creek. The first owner was foreclosed on, and a bank owned the course for three years before selling it to the current owner. So it’s no surprise the club takes a frugal approach to its operation.
Not Just a Paper Pusher
While “working” golf course superintendents do their share of manual labor most every day, there are superintendents at private clubs with large crews who like to get their hands dirty.
Rick Slattery, the superintendent at Locust Hill Country Club, a high-profile private club in Pittsford, N.Y., is one of those superintendents.
“It reconnects me with why I got into the business in the first place, and what I love about the business,” says Slattery, who has worked in the business for nearly 45 years.
There’s nothing like working up a sweat while raking a bunker early on a Saturday morning as the sun is coming up and the birds are chirping, Slattery says.
“Working out on the golf course provides me with a sense of intimacy with the golf course, which is vitally important to me,” he adds.
Slattery usually joins his staff on the weekends or helps them out in a pinch. He’s aware that some private clubs don’t want their superintendents out mowing greens and raking bunkers.
“I’ve had members come up to me and say, ‘You have people who do that kind of work for you, don’t you?’ I tell them, ‘Yeah, but I love doing it.’ That’s all I need to say to them.”
Slattery believes superintendents at private clubs can only benefit from getting down and dirty on occasion.
“Your office is the golf course,” he says.
There’s also an added benefit of joining the crew to rake bunkers.
“It’s probably the best motivational tool that I know,” Slattery says. “It says that I’m not afraid to do the same work as they do. It shows them you’re not just a paper pusher.”
Giebelhaus has a full-time seasonal staff of six people, including college kids and retirees. He hasn’t had an assistant for the past two years.
Spotts employs five full-time workers and two part-timers during the golf season. It’s also a skeleton operation. If the part-time worker who mows greens on Sundays calls off, it’s Spotts who subs for him, even if it’s his day off.
Working superintendents find a way to get things done, often taking a creative approach.
When Giebelhaus went from tee box to tee box picking up broken tees, he explains that it’s a necessary chore that will offset other maintenance. If not collected, the thick parts of the tees can knock a mower’s cutting unit out of adjustment if it’s run over. Then the mower provides an inferior quality of cut.
“[Picking up broken tees] may sound labor-intensive, but it saves me time from repairing a mower if it gets knocked out of adjustment,” Giebelhaus says. “This is the way we do quality control.”
Having been at Eagles Crossing for 13 years, Spotts knows the course’s tendencies well, which enables him to spend money wisely. For instance, greens are mowed at 5/16 inch, and fairways are cut at .75 inch. The higher cutting heights mean less stress, which equates to fewer pesticide applications.
Spotts also uses less-expensive phosphites throughout the season to preventively control Pythium blight and other diseases. Fertilization is also kept to a minimum, as the greens’ creeping bentgrass variety, Cato, doesn’t need much nitrogen, Spotts notes.
Eagles Crossing will purchase used equipment from courses going out of business. Spotts marvels at the deals he sometimes gets, noting he paid $5,000 for two used fairway mowers with an extra set of cutting units.
“They’ve been going strong for three years with little mechanical input,” he adds.
Even though he calls Eagles Crossing a “Joe Six-Pack golf course,” Spotts aims to provide the best conditions possible.
“We want the best product we can give them at the lowest price,” he says.
Because they have small staffs, working superintendents realize they must make the best use of their crews.
“Being that we’re a small staff, everybody has to know how to do everything,” Golz says of his staff, most of who are retirees from the nearby General Motors automobile plant. “The people I have are versatile, and they have to be.”
Giebelhaus says he’s been able to teach some of his summer help to the point that they can be entrusted to perform some assistant superintendent-like duties. That has been crucial to his operation.
Working superintendents try to utilize the modern technology they can afford to its fullest point to make their jobs easier. Golz raves about surfactants and wetting agents, which have helped him reduce watering dramatically. He says the technology has improved immensely, and he’s using surfactants and wetting agents more than ever before.
Giebelhaus says smartphone technology, which has become more popular in the golf course maintenance industry, has helped him.
“I’ve taken photographs of all my irrigation maps, so I always have the maps with me,” he says.
But sometimes tasks fall by the wayside because of time constraints.
“There are a lot of things that we’d like to get done, but [they] don’t get done,” Golz says. “They will get done if time allows.”
Giebelhaus can relate. He’s most concerned about the course’s playability, which means mowing, bunker raking and other binding tasks take priority. Jobs that aren’t directly related to playability, such as topdressing, fertilization, spraying and rolling, can be delayed if the priority maintenance takes longer to complete. That bothers Giebelhaus, but he knows there’s nothing he can do about it.
“It’s how I have to run my program,” he states. “If the book says I should topdress greens every 10 days … well, I can’t topdress greens every 10 days. It’s reality, not what’s in the book.”
As they get older, will the working superintendents be able to mow greens, dig ditches and do all the things they have to do? Father Time can be tough on one’s body.
“If you don’t think about getting old, you’re kidding yourself,” Golz says.
Golz knows his role will change, and one day he may not be able to drag a heavy hose around the course and hand-water.
“How my role evolves … I don’t know,” he adds.
As he gets older, Giebelhaus also believes he will get wiser about what he can and can’t do on the course. He realizes he might have to move some budget money around in order to hire a younger person to do more of the physical labor.
“I’ll have to work a lot smarter,” he says.
Giebelhaus says he doesn’t want to be doing what he’s doing now when he’s 65.
“Eventually, I’d like to put myself in a position where I’m a lot more managerial, like being a director of golf,” he says.
Spotts enjoys his job and would like to work at Eagles Crossing until he’s at least 65. But if the ditch digging and cup cutting become too difficult for him to endure, he thinks (hopes) the course owner will hire someone part-time to help him.
“But he’s in the business of making money, and it’s his call on everything,” says Spotts, who earns about $50,000 annually.
Spotts is sure of one thing: The physical nature of the job has helped him keep in shape and maintain a 38-inch waistline, same as it was 10 years ago. That’s vital to him because several members of Spotts’ family have struggled with weight issues, and diabetes runs rampant in his family.
“I have a feeling that being a working superintendent has helped me stay away from diabetes,” Spotts says. “If I sat at a desk for all these years, I’d be about 300 pounds.”
For now, the working superintendents will just keep on keeping on, not thinking too much about the future.
“The passion I have for my job keeps me going,” Golz says. “I don’t know what else I’d do. I ask myself that from time to time, and I can’t come up with an answer.”
Giebelhaus says: “I don’t know too many superintendents who do this because they have to. They do it because they want to. They love it.”