Matt Light brought multiple championship lessons to the 21st New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation Conference and Show in Providence.
Haven’t heard of Matt Light? You must not watch pro football diligently enough.
Light spent 11 years as the Patriots’ starting left tackle. He blocked for Tom Brady and took orders from Belichick, helping clear space for three Super Bowl-winning teams. Elite organizations don’t flourish if they don’t identify and develop employees such as Light.
Serving as the keynote speaker in Providence, Light displayed an instant connection with an audience that included hundreds of golf course superintendents. Maintenance teams quietly perform jobs essential to the success of a golf facility. A strong correlation exists between a crew’s effectiveness and a facility’s success. Breakdowns place entire facilities in peril. Superintendents are more like Light than Brady.
Although he doesn’t play golf, Light was raised in Greenville, Ohio, a rural community along the Indiana border. A modest upbringing – and playing an essential part in a winning organization – helped Light relate to the NERTF crowd. To further portray, a folksy, hard-working image, Light wore green khakis, brown shoes and a quarter-zip sweater.
Light attended Purdue as an undergraduate (a land-grant university with a turfgrass science program) and continued his education by graduating from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and Harvard Business School’s Entrepreneurial Program. He’s a regular on the corporate speaking circuit, yet he relished speaking to a group whose roles resemble the one he held with the Patriots. “You guys are in my wheelhouse,” Light said early in the presentation. “I would put you guys in the offensive line category.”
Playing any position for the Patriots is serious business. Practices are physically demanding; meetings are thorough. The bosses and customers expect excellence. Sound familiar?
But a big difference exists between taking your work and yourself too seriously. This is where Light’s presentation should help superintendents. Instead of telling spinning stories about strategy and key plays, Light spent more than an hour stressing the importance workplace levity.
Yes, a few Patriots, especially Light, had fun on the job. “Being able to laugh was always the role that I wanted to play,” he said.
From trying to catch a punt to give teammates a temporary respite from exhaustive training camp activities to exaggerating details in a speech he made via phone to a gym full of teammate Ross Hochstein’s small-town Nebraska supporters, Light offered a quirky glimpse at the Patriots’ success.
Even ultra-successful cultures in demanding professions can benefit from laughter. That sense of humor should extend to the highest levels, as Light suggested Belichick, one of the sternest figures in American sports, might have enjoyed some of the goofball antics. Light, after all, started 153 games with the Patriots despite being benched before his first game as a rookie in 2001 because of tardiness to a team meeting. “I have had a lot of strange interactions with Coach Belichick,” Lights said. “Really strange interactions.”
Every organization needs a Belichick (somebody who sets defined standards) and Light (somebody committed to having fun while meeting those standards). The impact of laughter shouldn’t be forgotten when maintaining a golf course. A few jokes, silly stories or games can ease the tension associated with an 11th straight 90-degree day or grueling storm cleanup effort.
During the Saturday evening maintenance shift of last year’s Greenbrier Classic, a PGA Tour event played 13 months following historic flooding in southern West Virginia, the crew gathered on the 13th fairway to watch The Old White TPC superintendent Josh Pope and former intern Drew Greene compete in a short sprint. A team battered by a tragedy, ensuing restoration and tournament preparation shouted and chuckled as the pair raced barefoot. The gathering lasted 10 minutes and energized the crew to complete another evening shift. The fairway, like the rest of the course, looked stunning on national television.
Go ahead and needle a co-worker or stage a quick bonding activity while in the middle of an intense stretch. Occasional levity doesn’t hurt crews or teams at the highest levels of their respective professions. It might be the missing separator.
Other happenings at the NERTF Conference and Show:
-- University of Rhode Island masters student Sara Tucker made a compelling case for establishing habitat for pollinators. “Golf courses make sense for pollinators,” she said. “There’s a lot of land that is not used by players and there’s already maintenance being done.” Tucker suggested selecting plants that provide year-round forage and vary in height, shape and color. Fall is the optimal time for seeding, she added.
-- Mark Mungeam, ASGCA, doesn’t recommend performing major renovation work in-house. But he’s also aware of budget restrictions, so he offered guidance for courses looking to use their own labor for enhancements. Mungeam described successful projects at Abenaqui (N.H.) Country Club and throughout the Monmouth County (N.J.) Parks System. “You need to understand that course maintenance can’t suffer when you are doing renovation work,” he said.
-- A new season in the Northeast means carts toppling wet turf. USGA Green Section agronomy Dave Oatis cautioned superintendents against having overly ambitious expectations when crafting cart management plans. Oatis considers 60 to 70 percent golfer compliance on cart management tactics a “good” result for a facility. A compliance rate of 80 percent puts a facility in a “unique stratosphere,” he added.
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.