Pivoting from prestige

Are the Tour stops, TV broadcasts and big names — both on the scorecard and walking the course — really worth it?

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Whether it’s a feather in the flat cap, a gold star résumé builder or a point of prestige among peers, the allure of working at an esteemed golf facility is not a career opportunity lost on those manning gilded grounds.

Yet amid the peak pandemic employment phenomenon of The Great Resignation — which saw a record 47 million-plus Americans voluntarily leave their jobs in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics — the golf industry isn’t immune to about-faces.

While agronomists did not have the same exposure to remote and work-from-home jobs like so many, the timeline and undercurrent nonetheless does have some translation from a Zoom call to the zoom of a mower.

Seeking enhanced work-life balance in lieu of a celebrated, albeit grinding gig at a world-renowned facility, a PGA Tour host course or prized private club is a scale balanced by myriad superintendents.

And it’s a job switch endeavored by those whose scales tilt toward family first.

TTFN, TPC

The consideration for Mark Michalski would come when he’d head out for the day.

The longtime superintendent at TPC Twin Cities, Michalski spent a decade at the Arnold Palmer-designed club and received ample and deserved attention for ushering in the grounds’ transition from longtime PGA Tour Champions host course to the PGA Tour’s 3M Open in 2019.

A father of three, Michalski recognized his driven mentality was keeping him away from his favorite playing partners.

“A couple years ago, my oldest, he was 5 years old at the time, I’d go to the front door and he’d ask if I was leaving for work, and it got harder and harder sometimes to answer that question,” Michalski recalls. “And it wasn’t every day that I was leaving for, like, 16 hours, but there were definitely those days. Come May, I’d be really busy and was spending a lot of time there.”

While he readily enjoyed the challenge of maintaining a course with both an ardent membership and a spot on the Tour schedule, Michalski could feel his professional drive steering him away from precious hours at home.

“My mentor, Roger Stewart, he taught me that, ‘We don’t live to go to work. We work so that we can live,’” Michalski adds. “For me, I can definitely be the kind of person who spends more time at work than I absolutely have to. I don’t know another way to approach a job.”

The long hours were starting to have an impact on congregations of multiple manners.

“Having kids, of course, changes your perspective. And as somebody who also has a deep faith, I have a real desire to do more as far as ministry at my church,” Michalski says. “And my job, it required a lot of time and I wasn’t ever going to let outside stuff interfere with my work performance. The problem for me was that I was starting to feel like my work was interfering with doing more things off the course, whether that was investing in my wife, my children or my church.”

For four years, Michalski had a family membership at Chisago Lakes Golf Course in Lindstrom, Minnesota, where his kids participated in youth programs and he was part of the men’s league. When Chisago, unsolicited, approached him about being their superintendent, Michalski assessed his balance of scales.

“I told them that I did have interest, but that I’d need to be able to make it work for my family,” he says. “I’ve never made decisions in life based on money, never had a desire to be rich, I just want to provide the best I can, and if that meant actually making less money but having more time to invest in my family while still meeting my responsibilities, I told them I’d do that in a heartbeat.”

In January 2021, he took the Chisago job and hasn’t looked back. Despite leaving behind the TPC prestige for a gig at a well-respected but more modest public track, Michalski is fast seeing more hands-on family time at play.

“Recently, my 2-year-old was out there helping me by raking gravel in potholes on cart paths and shoveling irrigation holes,” he says with a smile. “It’s not stuff I’d have been able to experience at my previous job.”

Akin to Michalski, in 2019, Steven Turner left behind a decade of prestige in the rearview. After working his way up from intern to first assistant at historic Oakmont Country Club, Turner found a “less is more” transition in becoming the head superintendent at South Park Golf Course, a municipal facility in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

“Every year at Oakmont there’s a project, and with all the USGA events, there’s constant preparation for the next big tournament, let alone keeping everything pristine for members,” Turner says. “You had to constantly be on top of your game, and as an assistant, … I mean, I wouldn’t say it was 24/7, but it’s something I was thinking about constantly. Yeah, I was able to have a life outside of work, but I always carried my phone just in case an emergency popped up, because I was oftentimes the first one to get that call.”

Like Michalski, Turner was starting to recognize that his brood was growing faster than any strain of turfgrass.

“At some point as an assistant, you kinda see the end of the road and where you may be to move upward,” he says. “And at the same time, I was starting a family, so that accounted for a lot of my thought process. I had my first son while I was still at Oakmont, so I began weighing it out, considering how much I wanted to be at work and miss out on my kid — now kids — growing up.”

When interviewing for his current post, Turner didn’t shy from the reasons behind his desire to shift.

“It was definitely a conversation I had. In my interview, they asked why I was leaving Oakmont, almost like, ‘What are you doing?’” he recalls. “And I was totally honest in telling them that, there, I worked a ton, six or seven days a week, and that I needed a better work-life balance.”

At South Park, balance has been achieved.

“Now I have my weekends off, and I work until 2 o’clock on weekdays,” Turner says. “And I still get to do the work I love and to do it at a high level. I still have my phone on me in case something pops up, but, compared to before, it is a relief off my shoulders. I wanted a better balance, and I found it at South Park.”

Christopher Bien

Tour detour

Superintendents making moves away from distinguished grounds find that the grass can be just as green when grooming for daily duffers instead of the world’s best.

“While it’s great to be working at a TPC facility, while it’s awesome to work a course that has a PGA Tour event, that’s a little bit of Disney World,” Michalski says. “Where I am now is more reality — and what the vast majority of golf is can be seen at where I’m working now.”

Steven Turner

Transitioning away from the Tour is not a choice isolated.

While his move may be more lateral than that of Michalski’s, Christopher Bien appreciates that overseeing a Tour track can ultimately be more about one’s C.V. than a superintendent’s root calling.

Bien, head superintendent at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California, and regional agronomist for KemperSports, worked at nearby PGA WEST for more than eight years, where part of his duties called for prep of the Tour’s annual January visit with the American Express, played on a pair of PGA WEST courses.

“Across my career, for pro golf tour events, I’ve basically done it all, and I wouldn’t want to do it again,” Bien says. “For a lot of guys, it’s mainly a résumé thing; my own experience included, I know a lot of guys in our trade who have hosted these kind of events, and, for the first couple of years it’s a lot of fun. But after the luster wears off and you start looking at your golf course after the event leaves … it’s like, look how ripped up our place is, whether that be from spectators enjoying the grounds or the event build-out.”

Mark Michalski

Bien’s switch saw him go from “The Western Home of Golf in America” to what is technically a municipal facility, but there’s been no descent in duty. Bustling with business, city-owned Desert Willow had a record-setting 2021 season that saw approximately 104,000 rounds across its pair of premier courses.

While an ardent public following comes with its own demands, a constant readiness for pros, members and top events swings with omnipresent agronomy pressures.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Oakmont, which was a demanding job on a daily basis,” Turner says. “But that’s the nature of the beast when you’re working at a top-five golf course in the country. As Mike Davis, (formerly) of the USGA said, ‘It’s the only course ready for a U.S. Open at any time.’”

Still sunny

Nicholas Hanson’s new job may be a mere seven miles from his former employer, but the superintendent is now in a totally different world.

Nick Hanson

The former director of agronomy and landscape for The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands (known colloquially as Sunnylands), Hanson held one of the more unique grounds gigs on the globe.

Located in Rancho Mirage, California, Sunnylands, world-renowned as an estate of retreat and mystique, was the eponymous winter home of the late Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who held international summits, welcomed gatherings of royalty, celebrities and athletes, and hosted eight U.S. Presidents on the grounds — many of whom played golf.

Designed by Dick Wilson and debuted in 1965, the golf course at Sunnylands plays on par with the estate lore: a nine-hole course that plays as a full track, compliments of a labyrinth of corridors matched with 18 tee boxes routed toward eight greens.

Along with overseeing the rarely played course, Hanson’s duties further involved maintaining the sprawling estate grounds and the public-access gardens. Yet, in maintaining an exclusive course considered a white whale for most, the water was starting to tread.

“Sunnylands is an incredible place and has great notoriety,” Hanson says. “But when you look at it from a golf perspective and the way that my fellow superintendents and people who are in the golf business truly look at it, Sunnylands doesn’t hold that much weight. I mean, it’s a famous golf course that 20 people a year will play.”

Nonetheless, with the likes of President Barack Obama occasionally being counted among those 20, Hanson’s pressures proved overt, despite the dearth of round counts.

“People might assume that there’s not as much pressure at Sunnylands as a course or golf club that has a full membership,” he says, “but there was always an uncertainty of exactly when the next guest would be showing up to play.”

“My oldest, he was 5 at the time, would ask if I was leaving for work, and it got harder and harder to answer that question. It wasn’t every day that I was leaving for, like, 16 hours, but there were definitely those days.” — Mark Michalski
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Even considering the lofty guests and impressive job title, Hanson began feeling a scorecard removed from the tight desert golf community.

“I got into this business because I was a golfer. I have a very deep respect and passion for the game,” he says. “Golf has provided everything for me, my family and my life experiences. In my last job, it started to feel isolating, because there wasn’t a golf community, a group of people who came in with that same, shared passion and pursuit. It got lonely, to be honest.”

During the height of the pandemic, Hanson would, on occasion, find himself working as a single, whether that meant solo mowing the then-closed estate, or performing a full-on, 500-bag fertilizer application alone.

“I realized, as did a lot of people during the pandemic, that your own mental health should be more important than your job,” he says. “Personally, I made a change because I wasn’t that happy, or wasn’t OK with things that were happening at my workplace. And when I went to interview for my new job, I was quite clear about my beliefs, and wanted to make sure that my future employer was good with where I stood on things.”

That new job now finds Hanson in a more traditional role, serving as golf course superintendent at the private Desert Horizons Country Club in the Palm Springs pocket of Indian Wells.

“Everybody has choices, decisions to make, and, ultimately, it all comes down to your own personal happiness,” Hanson says. “For me, that was the driving factor. And even though I did forget about how intense the membership side of it can be, I’m re-teaching myself how to manage expectations and reach the objectives I was hired to reach.”

In any trade, the poignance of prestige may be paired with the sustenance of one’s inner self. Over time, like the print on an old résumé, cachet fades and we are left with our choices, ourselves, our considerations of what has and what hasn’t made us happy.

And such wisdom can only come through experience. In earnest, or in metaphor, Hanson concludes of his former role:

“Perceptions from the outside are one thing, but you’ll never know the actual situation until you get inside the gates.”

Judd Spicer is a Palm Desert, California-based writer and senior Golf Course Industry contributor.

January 2023
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