The conundrum of golf course maintenance

Features - Turfheads Take Over

Does it pay to be a superintendent? Billy Lewis takes a candid look at the financial realities facing talented people who pursue a career in the industry.

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December 10, 2021

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It is a known fact that successful golf course superintendents could have flourished in many other professions had they chosen to. Managing staff, understanding soil science, preparing budgets, selling a bill of goods to a committee, representing the profession with class and, most important, satisfying their customers are all qualities found in the most important people in the world. I have always said that every successful golf course superintendent, no matter where they are employed, is an underachiever. I honestly believe that.

My example of that person is Steve Wright, who left our presence in 2019 due to unforeseen health challenges. Steve had reached the pinnacle of his career when he took the position as director of agronomy at the historic Pine Tree Club in Boynton Beach, Florida. While there may be more prestigious jobs in the golf industry, you cannot climb the mountain much higher. I think Steve could have been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, senior partner at a legal firm, or the top salesperson for any product or company that he believed in. However, like most of us, he simply loved agronomy, the outdoors and people. There are many other professions, but the core essentials for success are always present in a quality golf course superintendent. Steve possessed those skills and they took him to the top.

That is what has led me to ponder the conundrum of golf course agronomy. Although Steve reached the top of his profession, there are so many other fine individuals across the country who are producing impressive results without the same resources that some of us afford. Many are working diligently at clubs in hopes of springboarding to a better position. Of course, we all know how limited those better jobs are. That’s why so many people leave the industry and why I recommend individuals start a well-planned business and work as hard as a superintendent does, and you will undoubtedly succeed. I aggressively advise young people to re-educate and achieve a better opportunity than the turf industry affords because $100,000 a year will not take you far today. And in 10 years you will not be living large at that income level if you are lucky enough to ever see it. While the top 10 percent of superintendents do well, the rest have seen little growth in wages and huge leaps in responsibility. And many of those doing well could have done even better had they chased a better dream.

There is a bit of conflicting information about the total number of golf courses in the United States. The National Golf Foundation reports the United States has 14,145 golf facilities, including 10,437 with 18 or more holes. Because of multi-course facilities, the number of businesses hiring head turf managers is lower than the above number.

If 20 percent of facilities with 18 or more holes pay above average considering the cost-of-living index for that region — I doubt it is 20 percent with consideration of the COL index — that means there are around 2,000 well-paying jobs in the industry in the entire country. Because there has never been a complete and accurate industrywide wage assessment, I estimate the average pay for those top-20-percent jobs is $200,000 annually and that is because of geographic locations like the New York City Metropolitan area that pay better. But once you remove those salaries from the number of head opportunities, I estimate the average annually salary to be no more than $50,000 to $60,000. That’s a medium of $25 to $30 an hour — provided your work week is 40 hours.

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A dozer operator or a good carpenter in North Carolina can make $35 an hour and get overtime. At the end of their workday, they can forget about it all … and not work weekends. Those professions do not prepare a budget, manage staff, know chemical and fertilizer rates, hire and fire employees, deal with climate-related failure, mentor staff, and answer phone calls seven days a week. They also surely see more of their family. Quite a contrast. The superintendent position also requires a college degree and up to a decade of making less than superintendent wages.

The average superintendent salary reported by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America of $97,354 is skewed. I don’t feel it includes enough responses. However, a superintendent in Los Angeles making $350,000 a year could be equivalent to a somebody in the Carolinas making $175,000 if you consider the COL index. Those big-city wages skew the national average for golf course superintendents and are extremely limited. Many courses also are not managed by GCSAA members, so they don’t report wages and a good percent of GCSAA members don’t report wages either.

Making a great living as a superintendent is more of a mirage than an oasis. Eventually, there will be a shortage of quality individuals, which could help wages, but it needs to happen soon. While inflation is skyrocketing and other wages are making huge gains, many superintendents are not seeing a change in wages.

Now the establishment says, “Son, you need to be better than average and then you can make the big money like us!” I have been told that many times. I say, “Son, the opportunity for me to make those wages requires that I be in the top 20 percent of my profession.” What are my real chances? The average wages for an ordinary superintendent at a resort course bringing in $3 million to $4 million a year in revenue should be $100,000. The minimum salary for any golf course that is not just a field of greens should be $75,000. There are around 2,000 opportunities in the United States that allow us to make that kind of money, but we expect young people to pay for college, work 10 years on staff and hope like hell they even get a head position. They then must do an excellent job like many young people here in the Pinehurst area and hope like hell one of those big jobs falls in their lap. It is an exercise in futility for most.

The process to reach that goal is to work 12 out of every 14 days and wait patiently. The next well-paying opening will get 400 résumés and may be filled before the posting ink dries through networking.

Where do we find help for this issue? Where are our advocates for our profession? If we only acknowledge the big boys of the industry, how does the little man, the farm team player, survive long enough to fill those better jobs as people retire?

Twenty years ago, we somehow achieved a milestone when it was acknowledged that the golf course superintendent was the most important person at a golf facility. Twenty years later, we are still making the same money and have been basically left behind as I have seen that accomplishment trend the other way. I spend a lot of time mentoring young superintendents these days and my best advice is to run like hell.

We must stand up and make a change in our future or we will forever spend our lives at the maintenance shed.

Billy Lewis is the director of agronomy at Dormie Club in West End, North Carolina. This is his second Golf Course Industry contribution.