Becoming fluent in golf talk

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At most golf courses I see, the superintendent suffers from a language deficit. Folks trained in turf look to talk about what it takes to grow quality grass. Listen in at any turf conference or when superintendents gather at a golf championship to help out the host site and they sit around talking about the tools of the trade – aerification, interseeding, bunker liners, pre-emergents and the latest in robotic mowers.

This is their comfort zone. The world they know best, where their personalities are most in tune with the people they seem at ease with the best – their colleagues. There are exceptions, of course, but moreso than anyone in the golf business superintendents seem to shy away from engaging their clients and prefer the solitude of the golf course, their office or the maintenance yard.

To their detriment, I think.

Superintendents would do themselves favor and improve their career trajectory if they learned to speak the parlance of everyday golfers and translated their expertise into language most golfers understand: golf talk. Specifically, improvement and enjoyment.

Case in point: bunker sand. One of the prevalent complaints is bunker sand and its playability. Too much sand. Not enough sand. Too firm. Too soft. How much would golfers benefit if they knew about the relationship between sand particles structure – shape, hardness, porosity – and the need for more (or less) bounce on your wedge? It would go a long way toward smoothing relations with the golf shop as the golfer might be alerted to the need for more diverse or site-specific equipment. Soft bunkers play better with more bounce. Firm bunkers take a sand wedge with less.

The same for topdressing, whether of fairways, greens or approaches. The more that superintendents could show players how to interpret prevailing conditions the better those golfers could adjust to a proper approach shot. It amazes me how few golfers bother to notice that the last 10 to 20 yards into a green are being walk-mowed, topdressed and kept firm. If they did, they’d be more prone to play low-flighted approaches in. If golfers appreciated more the need to occasionally punch fairways or greens to improve agronomics and firm up the surface, the more they’d appreciate the overall health of the golf course and the occasional need to put up with temporary inconvenience.

For too long the model of superintendent communication with their client base consisted of those monthly columns in the club newsletter. Those days are over. Social media provides a powerful forum for superintendents to get their message out, though one fraught with all the perils normally attending any unfiltered platform. Use it carefully, staying on topic, avoiding politics and religion, and always being careful before pressing “send.”

More helpful and more targeted are internal emails that go out to a self-selected cohort of golfers. The key is to use such a communication circle to build up core support.

Think and act strategically. You don’t need to reach everyone. I’ve seen private clubs where the superintendent sends out a detailed weekly notice that goes to a few key people. It helps create a solid base of support that can carry the weight of club politics.

Superintendents would also help themselves if they made themselves more available to golfers. The golf pro has an inherent advantage. They get to intercept golfers every round. Superintendents don’t generally have that immediate access to golfers. When was the last time a player came to the machine shop to check out the blade grinder or chat about new turf types? Greenkeepers must go out and find the golfers – which means hanging out on the first tee on a Saturday morning or chatting up golfers on the course. That’s another reason why superintendents should spend time on the grounds walking around, rather than just riding. It puts you in better touch with players in all sorts of different positions without making it look like an official visit.

The real problem superintendents have is that the people they work for have little sense for or appreciation of the work and how it makes the game better. I’m not talking about generalizations like “the good of the game.” I’m talking about their golf game: how they score, play and enjoy the game.

No one is asking superintendents to become best-selling authors or social media influencers. It suffices to spend some modest time investing in a basic act of reaching out, communicating on local ground in a language that bridges a pretty basic divide. It can only help make the job easier, longer and more rewarding.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter (@BradleySKlein).

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March 2020
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