Climbing the ladder
Alex Stuedemann, Carlos Arraya and Andrew Wilson.

Climbing the ladder

At GIS, industry leaders share their stories and perspective on what it takes to move on up.

January 28, 2020

How did you start your career in this great industry? What did you do to just stick your foot in the door? How did you climb the ladder?

Those were some of the questions fielded by veteran leaders Carlos Arraya, Alex Stuedemann and Andrew Wilson during a Golf Industry Show session designed for assistants called “So, You Want to be a Golf Course Superintendent, But Where?” Their responses were open, generous and — no surprise given their reputations and records during their more than 80 years combined — genuinely caring.

“There is so much responsibility that can be given to an assistant that they’re doing so many of the same roles” as a superintendent, said Stuedemann, the director of golf course operations at TPC Deere Run in East Moline, Illinois. “If you’re looking at your job every day and it’s exciting and it’s interesting and you’re learning and you’re growing — I see that in my operation. I don’t want to lose a talent. If I can build somebody up, great, and why should I tell them they can’t be successful if they don’t want to move?

“I checked that box and Carlos checked that box, but is it absolutely necessary? No. It’s up to you find your path. That’s the biggest hurdle.”

Arraya followed, telling the crowd that “there are a lot of clubs in our area where assistants have been there 15, 16 years, waiting for their superintendent to move on,” in reference to the greater St. Louis area around Bellerive Country Club, where he is director of grounds and agronomy. “When I got here, my assistants had been here 14 and 16 years and they wanted to move on. They made a sacrifice. One of them left the state, which was a shock. … And now we have just become that club where guys and gals come for two or three years and they move on.”

There are no hard and fast rules, obviously. Find your path. Follow your arrow. Live your own life.

“In 2016, one of our former assistants came back to volunteer for us and one of our interns was knocking it out of the park,” said Wilson, the director of agronomy at Bethpage State Park Golf Course on Long Island, New York. “He hired that intern. … Some of it is just right place, right time, and it might not seem fair. I had to wait six or seven years for a certain title and then someone else came in and moved up in two or three years. You can’t be bitter about it. You just have to figure out how to stand out. What else can you do to be noticed?”

Moderator Matthew Gourlay, the director of golf course operations at Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan, Kansas, interjected — his humor helped the two hours fly by — to share his perspective as a third-generation turfhead.

“I look at these three titans of the industry and I see success,” he said. “Obviously, there have been lots of struggles. I have been lucky. I outlasted all the poor saps before me. But my father wasn’t the same.”

Gourlay moved 11 times before turning 20, all because of his father’s climb up the ladder. In 1993, David Gourlay was the director of golf operations at Beacon Hall Golf Club, one of the top courses in Canada. He was sharing a cup of coffee with a fellow superintendent in the clubhouse, when the general manager tapped him on the shoulder and told him he needed to leave. Some members might arrive in an hour, or so the story goes.

“He was so embarrassed that the GM would do that,” Gourlay said, “that he got up, he walked down to his office, wrote his letter of resignation, turned it in. Talk about some cojones. I am sweating bullets just talking about it.”

The move worked out in short order — the elder Gourlay has continued to work in golf ever since without a break and the younger Gourlay dived right in — but it provided another example of doing what you think you should do. Of doing what you need to do.

What do you need to do to climb that ladder? Do you even want to?

“I have a person on my staff whose situation may be changing,” Stuedemann said. “He has a pretty serious girlfriend who may be taking a job in a different town and he’s looking at those opportunities at other courses. I talked with a few of those places, and they asked, ‘He’s only been with you a short period of time. Is he ready? And won’t that hurt your operation?’ And I told them, ‘Why would I want to stand in the way of somebody’s growth and development? If his girlfriend, maybe his soon-to-be wife is three hours away, how’s that going to make him feel at work? What kind of value will he bring every day?’

“If they’re going to get better doing something else, I’m not going to stand in their way.”

Sound advice. Caring advice.