The 10% Rule

Columns - Outside the Ropes

April 7, 2017
Tim Moraghan

Recently, I was visiting one of America’s top 100 courses, touring it with the superintendent. It was in fabulous shape, but the super and I were discussing minor refinements and small tweaks to reach an even higher level.

At one point as we were driving around, my host said to me, “See that guy over there? I have to pull over and talk to him. Do you mind?” Of course I didn’t, so he got out of our cart, walked over to one of his members, and I could see them talking – rather animatedly – for about 10 minutes, at which point he returned to our cart dejected, shoulders slumped, muttering to himself, a deflated version of the happy-to-lucky guy I’d just been riding with.

His only comment: “No matter what I do or say, I just can’t please that guy.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Ten minutes ago you were in a super mood, we were having a great time strategizing ways to make your already great course better. And how you’re basing your demeanor and your entire day on one person? You’re better than that, your course is better than that, and you shouldn’t let one guy get to you like that.”

It was a very telling moment, and although we got back to checking out his course, there was a black cloud over his head the entire time.

You can’t please all of the people all the time. My dad taught me that and I’ve found – often the hard way – it to be absolutely true. In my own experience, I’ve found for every 100 people you meet, 10 are going to be jerks (or your word of choice). That’s right: 10 percent of your members, customers, board members, suppliers, sometimes even friends and acquaintances are going to be difficult.

Which means 10 percent are never going to be happy with your course’s conditions no matter how good you know it is. So what are you going to do about it?

As I said to my host that day, you can’t let the 10 percent, or that one person, have that much control over how you feel about the job you do. You have to know that no matter how much you try to win him over, you’ll never succeed. He’ll never really appreciate your efforts, even if you do everything exactly as he tells you to (and I’m sure he tells you exactly what he thinks you should be doing down to the rough height and green speed).

The truly successful superintendent does not focus on what others—members, guests, the board, even the golf pro – say about the course. Focus on doing what you know is right.

You’re the one with the training, education, intuition and instinct to take the best care of your facility. If you have questions, there are lots of people with the right experience, as well as some distance, to give you good, constructive answers. But trust me, right answers and good instincts are not going to come from someone already at your club.

If that sounds cynical, I’m sorry. And maybe there are some members whose opinions you value, and perhaps the pro gets it and can be of some use. (Chance are he has his own 10 percent, griping about every event, the junior program, even the shirts for sale.) But when it comes to personal satisfaction, I’m afraid you’re going to have to make due with self-satisfaction.

Of course, this only applies if you really do know your golf course and are doing things properly. If so, your job is to keep making it better by properly applying the resources, finances, and labor available to you. You’re the one who should know where the problems are and where the opportunities lie. And that’s where you should be focusing your attention, not on what the random angry voice has to say.

If you want to worry about something, choose from this list: the weather, rising cost of supplies, aging equipment, and the difficulty of finding, hiring, and training good people. Then throw in these possible worries: your family, your friends, your health, your happiness.

I’ve said this before, but if you’re looking for validation, look inward.

To many golfers, we’re nothing but farmers and grass-mowers. They’re rarely going to thank us for doing the job we’ve been hired to do. That’s why I’m very sensitive when watching golf on television.

The announcers are pretty good about giving credit to the superintendents for course preparation. But when someone forgets to single out the super and his crew, we get angry and feel overlooked. If there are no kudos directed to the super, Twitter lights up.

I think that’s silly.

How often do you hear baseball announcers give a shout-out to the guy who prepared Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium? Does anyone thank the Zamboni driver at Madison Square Garden for keeping the ice smooth? You want a tough job? Try keeping the grass courts at Wimbledon green. But those guys don’t need anyone else’s appreciation: The proof is in their work.

We should feel the same way, even if our courses are never going to appear on TV. When you do a great job, you know it. Have the confidence in your abilities—and a healthy self-worth—to get all the satisfaction you need from a job well done.

And be sure to tell your crew, too.

Here are my suggestions for ensuring self-satisfaction. I have enough belief in my work to suggest you post this list where everyone who works for you can see it. Make sure they understand how it applies to them, too:

  • Go to work with the attitude that nobody owes you anything.
  • Be self-sufficient.
  • Be your own best friend.
  • Be your own worst critic.
  • Don’t hold it against those who don’t know how hard a job we have. (You don’t know what it’s like to walk in their shoes; they could be miserable for a reason.)
  • Get support, encouragement, and knowledge from friends, family, and mentors. Use their strengths to help your weaknesses.
  • The only encouragement you need comes from those you respect.
  • Don’t seek or expect compliments.

The flip side of all this is that when the Green Chairman, Club President, owner, or pro—people who do know what they’re talking about—say something nice, you should accept their compliments graciously and take them to heart. Something else my father taught me is that how you react to good news is just as important as how you handle bad.

My friend at the top 100 club was absolutely right when he said he just can’t please that one guy. My advice was to give up trying. In our business, we are—and have to be—our own best critics. Once you’re doing that, you’re sure to be a better superintendent.

Tim Moraghan, principal, ASPIRE Golf (tmoraghan@aspire-golf.com). Follow Tim’s blog, Golf Course Confidential at www.aspire-golf.com/buzz.html or on Twitter @TimMoraghan