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New England Golf Course Superintendents Are Getting the Job Done

New England Golf Course Superintendents

Apparently, Mother Nature didn’t think COVID-19 was enough of a curveball to throw at golf course superintendents this year. Superintendents in New England, along with their counterparts in many other areas, found that the spring of global pandemic was followed by one of the driest and hottest summers on record, just to make life especially interesting.

Despite all they have been dealing with, members of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New England took a breather long enough to share a great message about where they’ve been and where they are going. Their story, both looking back and looking ahead, helps put 2020 in perspective.

New England Golf Course Superintendents Association
New England Golf Course Superintendents Association

Join the Club

On February 25, 1924, forty-one greenkeepers came together at Cottrelle’s Restaurant in Boston. Their plan was to establish an official organization through which they would facilitate an exchange of ideas and information and create comradery, learning and advocacy.

With the “war to end all wars” (World War I) behind them, they had every reason to feel optimistic about their future and their profession. They had no idea that within the decade, America would see the stock market crash and the economy hit rock bottom or that they would face the drought and relentless windstorms of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

As they shared their dinner that wintery Monday evening optimistically making plans for the formation of the Greenkeepers Club of New England, they were clueless that their culture, economy and profession would soon be redefined by billowing black squalls of topsoil blowing from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast.

If you had read this article a year ago, you might have brushed it casually aside, unable to relate to their situation. Today, however, you can speak from experience, identifying with what it’s like to be blindsided by circumstances beyond your control. You know clearly how it feels to see nature behave in the most unpredictable ways and events unfold like falling dominos, taking out segment after segment of life as we know it. You can also look at this historic group of resolute greenkeepers as examples, recognizing that you, too, have the capabilities and wherewithal to survive and even thrive, no matter what the economy or the environment throws at you.

A Rich History and a Promising Future

Almost a full century has passed since its founding, and the Greenkeepers Club of New England, officially recognized as the New England Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, is still flourishing. With over 500 active members, including golf course superintendents, assistant superintendents, equipment managers, student members and companies, and their affiliates, the New England Chapter of GCSAA has never let global war, economic crisis, or nature at its most outrageous stop it from serving and supporting its membership.

Don Hearn, Executive Director of the GCSA of New England
Don Hearn, Executive Director of the GCSA of New England

The organization’s history includes continuous publication of a professional paper since 1929, funding of research at the University of Massachusetts and the Rhode Island Experimental Station plus scholarship funding and administration. Add to that hundreds of meetings, training opportunities and conferences for members, companies, industry representatives and countless other initiatives that benefit, enrich and protect the needs of golf course superintendents and the future of the profession.

This past July, The Golf Course Trades had the opportunity to talk to Don Hearn, who, for more than ten years, has been the first full-time employee of the association and is its Executive Director. Don is a past golf course superintendent with more than 40 years in that role and a past president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. With a job description that spans four pages and includes nearly one hundred discrete duties, it’s safe to say that his responsibilities for the organization include “everything that needs doing.” He is the organization’s recordkeeper, marketing department, communications specialist, administrator, meeting planner and facilitator, membership coordinator, newsletter distributor, content creator and website manager along with countless other hats he enthusiastically wears for the association.

Don is not, however, a one-man band. He is joined by the association’s President Peter Rappoccio, CGCS at Concord Country Club, Vice President Brian Skinner, CGCS, CPO at Bellevue Golf Club and Secretary/Treasurer Bob Dembek of Lexington Golf Club. The Board of Directors includes David Stowe, CGCS at Newton Commonwealth Golf Course, Eric Richardson of Essex County Club, Greg Cormier from Tom Irwin, Inc., Len Curtin of George Wright Golf Course, Ryan Emerich of Vesper Country Club and Past President Dave Johnson of The Country Club (Brookline), as well as many actively contributing, dedicated committee members. So what is it about this organization that inspires the enthusiasm and support of busy golf industry professionals who all have plenty on their plates already? Each of these members of the New England Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America recognizes that this association provides a vital lifeline for superintendents, turf managers and others who too often get to the golf course before dawn and leave long after dark, working with their teams to ensure an optimal golfing experience by members and golfers. As Don explained, “The more members our association has, the stronger our organization becomes, and the stronger our members become as individuals.”

Feedback Directly from New England GCSAA Superintendents

Peter Rappoccio, CGCS, President of the GCSA of New England
Peter Rappoccio, CGCS, President of the GCSA of New England

Don is a goldmine of information about the state of golf in the New England area. Among the valued insights he shared are data collected through June 10, 2020, surveying 45 golf superintendents, all members of the association. Of the 45 courses they represent, five are 27-hole courses, seven are 9-hole courses, one is a 36-hole course and the remaining thirty-two are 18-hole courses.

Twenty-five of the 45 superintendents identified, that as of the date of the survey, they were maintaining their course as well or very close to as well as they did the year before. A couple of the superintendents even noted that their courses were in better shape than in previous years. Others, who said their maintenance was not up to 2019 standards pointed out that their courses were, in fact, in good shape, “up the middle,” just not on the outskirts.

Twenty of the 45 superintendents had either laid off workers, brought their staff back more slowly than they typically would or were working their crew fewer hours than in a normal season. More than half of those surveyed also said they were working with a reduced budget or frozen spending, while others who had not yet experienced budget cutbacks noted that they were proceeding cautiously. Additionally, many of the superintendents stated that budgets for pay raises, capital equipment purchases or capital projects specifically have been frozen for 2020 or “deferred until further notice.”

Outlooks and attitudes among the superintendents are positive, in spite of the fact that they generally have been trying to do as much as they did in the past but with reduced labor and budgets. In addition, rounds of golf at many facilities have been booming, creating greater stresses and demands. The surveyed superintendents spoke about the importance of communication and noted that most golfers and club members were understanding of course maintenance challenges and social distancing requirements.

Remarkably, the superintendents participating in the New England GCSAA survey even shared optimistic and encouraging messages for their peers. They stated that this difficult year provides an opportunity to get back to simpler approaches and offers an experience for challenging themselves and their crews. Most importantly, they called out 2020 as a time to build stronger bonds with colleagues. Recognizing that “a lot of courses are in the same boat,” they stressed that no one should hesitate to reach out to each other for “help with the burden.”

Hyannisport Club Superintendent Tom Colombo, CGCS summed up the situation and the spirit of New England superintendents especially well, saying, “As golf course superintendents, I believe that we are all resilient. We continuously adapt to change, and we always find a way to get the job done.”

To learn more about membership in the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New England, visit the association’s website at gcsane.org or contact Don Hearn at donhearn@gcsane.org.

Linda Parker has been writing professionally since the 1980s. With clients in finance, sports, technology, change enablement, 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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