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The 7 Winds of Change

In November of 2007 I began to look back on my career as a Golf Course Superintendent. As I took the journey back in my mind I began to realize I had accomplished much and still had a few more years to continue on my path as a Superintendent. In June of 2007 I received a nice letter from the GCSAA stating I had accomplished a good mile stone in my career. I had been a Superintendent for 25 years. I was very proud of myself because my rise in the industry was a little different than most. The year 2008 was coming quickly and there was lots going on with my family for the coming year. Well, to start with, I was turning 50 years old in November 2007. My oldest daughter was getting married in January 2008, my wife would be 50 in February (looking better than ever), and if there was any money left over, we were going to take long trip celebrating our 25 years of marriage in April.

Well, to my surprise, 2008 did not turn out exactly as planned. To put things into perspective, yes my daughter Laura did get married and I was very proud to be able to give her away and take her credit card back! My son Bruce had one year left in high school and my middle daughter Mary Grace had begun her college life. After the wedding, Carole (my wife) and I had a very long conversation about our future.

I had been at my current club for 7 years. As many high profile clubs do from time to time, change was in the air. And yes, change does happen, and is just a part of this business of ours. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s “challenging”. In my case, the board members in power when I was hired were now gone from the board, and my GM had retired in 2006. In beginning to see the signs however, I thought I could survive the change, at least till my son began his last semester of his senior year. So, in that conversation with my wife, we both agreed it may be time to move on, but first, lets get Bruce through most of his senior year, and then begin to look for a new opportunity.

Well, in my 25 years as a Superintendent and having been able to leave all my past positions on my own, this one was different. I was told, like some of you may have been, that the new board was wanting to make a change in my department. I questioned what kind of change we need to make, and, well,,,you can guess the rest. So when I told Carole, I said, “remember our conversation a few days ago, well it just got moved up one year”.

What was I to do? I thought about getting out of the business, but then I remembered a book I had read several years ago by Bill Hybells on Character. Bill defined Character as, who you are when no one is looking. In one of the chapters on Endurance, he stated Endurance is crashing through your quitting points. Now it was time for me to remember two things, Character and Endurance, and the fact that I had not worked my butt off for 25 years just to leave this business and the relationships I built and enjoyed so much. Winds of change are all a part of this business in every aspect, and you just need to Endure.

The 25 Year Journey
Now, my journey as a golf course superintendent began back in 1980 when I graduated from Ouachita Baptist University. Ok, its where Cliff Harris, former safety for the Dallas Cowboys went. I had worked at the local club, North Hills County Club in my home town of North Little Rock, Arkansas all through high school and summers in college. I had the opportunity to play college golf under a great coach, Frank Taylor, who taught me much about the game of golf, but more importantly taught me much more about life, than anything else. I graduated with a degree in Mathematics and was planning on teaching school or something. I finished school in December of 1980, and was planning on doing nothing. However, Jim Harris, the Superintendent at North Hills Country Club, called me and asked if I wanted to work for him until I got a teaching job in the Fall of 1980. I said “well what do you have in mind?”. It was then that Jim asked me to be his Assistant, and knew I had an interest in the industry, so I thought why not. My concern after a few months was not having a turf degree, thus being able in a few years to get a Superintendents position. Jim told me two things, first listen, and second, always be willing to learn. There was a third thing he failed to mention: my day off. I soon learned an Assistant Superintendent has no days off. I asked for one once, and Jim told me sure, and I could take the rest of the week off, and go ahead and take the rest of the month off. I remember saying back then, “No I just want one day!”. Jim looked at me and asked, “do you want to be a Superintendent?” Yes, I replied, and Jim said, OK, then first you must learn all I am teaching you, and you can’t do that taking days off. So for two years, Jim worked with me teaching me the business, and I went to every conference and talk I could go to, during those two years.

When two years passed, Jim suggested it might be time to move to another course and learn from someone else. I thought it to be a good idea (I think Jim was tired of me), so I accepted an assistants job at Cortez Golf Course in Hot Spring Village, Arkansas working for Bill Watson. After 5 months of working for Bill, Jim called one day and told me he was moving on to another course and wanted to recommend me for the North Hills job. Well, this was my first break! I was able to move back as Superintendent in 1985, at the age of 25. By then, Carole and I had married and life was good. North Hills decided to turn over management to Club Corporation of American in 1986. The first manager of the club was Dave Stuckey, and he would turn my second big break in my journey. After a few years, Dave moved on and so did the club. After 2 more management companies and a phone call in 1991 from my old boss Dave, this brings me to my third big break.

We moved to Waco Texas to Ridgewood Country Club where Dave was the General Manager. The club had decided before my arrival to rebuild all the greens and convert to Bent Grass. Life in Waco was good, the experience was great, and I was able to gain much needed construction experience.

In 1994, another old friend from Club Corp, Mr. Quinton Johnson called, and asked if I would be interested in a new project he was involved in at Hot Spring Village, called Diamante Golf Club. It was going to be a very up scale development and a private club in the Village area. Life in Waco was good for me, however my wife was not so happy being so far away from family. So this just might be good.

So, in 1994 I began the fourth big break in my career, overseeing construction of a course from clearing to grow in. It was the best experience of my life. I was able to see the clearing, grading, irrigation installation, greens construction, and hiring a new crew. We opened Diamante, and a year later, we were ranked the number one course in Arkansas the following two years.

Well guess who called in late 1996? Mr. Dave Stuckey, now the GM at Shady Oaks Country Club in Ft. Worth, Texas. My soon to be fifth big break in my journey. I accepted the job in December 1996, and began reconstruction of all greens and a new irrigation system in January of 1997. Shady Oaks was a dream come true, home of Mr. Ben Hogan and all the legacy associated with such a great club. Life for those years at Shady will always be a high point in my career.

In all my moves so far in my journey as a Superintendent, no club or member seemed to be concerned about my college major. I felt I had learned so much, and I always remember what Jim Harris said, “always be willing to learn and always listen”. So far it had paid off. I had gained the trust of members and many in the industry. I had done all my construction projects with Landscapes Unlimited, and still have many friends with them today.

My sixth break came in January 2001 when I accepted the Superintendents position at Dallas Country Club. This was good because we did not have to move, and the kids did not have to change schools. And by now, we kind of liked living in Texas. I made it 7 years at a wonderful club however like I said earlier, the winds of change had arrived, and my time had come.

So, you may not think I’d add a seventh break, but in fact I have. Soon after the winds lifted me from the Dallas CC, I got a call from a City course in Wichita Falls, Texas, Weeks Park Golf Course. They had begun a redo the summer of 2007. Jeff Brauer was the course designer who called, asking if I would be willing to consult, assisting the current Superintendent Terry Shifflett, with finishing the grow in and crew training. That wind that still had me in the air, let me gently down in Wichita Falls.

My first trip to Weeks Park was an eye opener. Terry was doing all he could with what he had to work with, which was not much. The crew was using their own personal trucks to work out of. Whatever equipment that was on site, was broke down or junk. I was sick, what good could I do, and then I remembered Endurance, crash through those quitting points. The course was behind from construction because of heavy rains and flooding in 2007. Sprigs were planted late. There was more goose grass, nut grass, dallis grass, and crab grass than Bermuda in some fairways. I spent the first two weeks working out of my jeep. We made little progress, however, one of the best things we did, was get all the broken down equipment off the course.

In mid-June, a local businessman, Tommy Isbell, owner of a very large landscape company, Perm-o-Green, took over management of the course. Tommy came in very aggressive, bought new equipment, and made the commitment to see the process through. Soon after, the equipment arrived, and with a little training, the property looked like a course again. As for the weeds,, well they are gone. Even though we set the Bermuda back, we paid the price, and now we see the results. What was to be for me a short consulting job has become the next best thing for me. We may take on a few more courses later, however one thing I can say, is that its been nice making suggestions without question. And one other thing, I have had no committee meetings for the past 7 months.

I read Russ Myers, CGCS, article he wrote for The Golf Course Trades in March 2008. Russ stated after meeting Nick Sidorakis, General Manager of Southern Hills, while volunteering for the 2006 U S Open, it may have been the opportunity to fulfill a dream. And I say to myself, will this be my last big break? That I do not know, however one thing I do know, is life now is not so bad. Yes I miss the budgets of 2 million, 32 crew members, 3 assistants and summer interns. However, it was the greatest thing my middle daughter, Mary Grace told my wife on vacation this summer, that its nice to have dad back. He is not so stressed, and while we were on vacation he did not call work one time. So what is important to some, and once to me, may never be again.

Thanks to everyone at The Champions Course at Weeks Park for allowing that wind of change to “drop” me here. I’m enjoying every single day!

And thanks to Coach Taylor for teaching me about life; Jim Harris for seeing something in me; Dave Stuckey for dragging me around; and most of all my family, for supporting me through all the tough times in my life.

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