The coach approach

Features - Management

Above all else, superintendents are leaders. Learn from a trio with proven playbooks on – and off – the course.

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June 2, 2020

© Kenishirotie | istockphoto

The smell of popcorn. Finding your seat. Dripping, sweaty athletes. Cheering fans. Anticipation. Epic mistakes. Slow-motion heroics. Who’s the best? It’s competition. It’s sports. It’s thrilling. And beside the athletes, the coaches stand.

There is a spectrum of personalities and team philosophies, levels of ability, equipment and resources. Leaders shoulder the blame for what goes wrong and rarely receive recognition for what goes right. Countless hours are spent on team development. Challenges jockey for position against the drive to make everything better. There are moments of fulfillment, satisfaction and joy. Be it coaching or being a superintendent, there are comparisons worthy of airtime. Missing live action? Style this as your favorite sports broadcast and let’s gooooooo!

Commentary comes via three golf maintenance all-stars who combine for decades of playing and coaching experience in several sports. Welcome Ken Nice, director of agronomy at Bandon Dunes, who played four years of college hoops at Willamette University and since 1999 has seen roles from assistant to construction superintendent. Bandon Dunes is a resort known for its stunning views and multiple courses on the Oregon Coast. Sheep Ranch, which opened this month, is designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and is the latest 18-hole addition. Nice coached basketball at Bandon High for 16 years and retired with some big accomplishments and very special memories.

Say hello to Chad Mark, superintendent at Muirfield Village Golf Club, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course where every year, the PGA Tour plays the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. In an exciting development, Muirfield Village starts a major renovation this summer. Mark played football, basketball, track and golf. He also has coached football and basketball and helped teams as a scout. Starting with maintenance and grow-in experience during summer jobs in high school, Mark’s resume is the envy of many and his strengths include a no-quit attitude, drive, and ability to read people and situations. He’s an asset to any team.

Rounding out our crew is Craig Cahalane, superintendent at Pole Creek Golf Course in Tabernash, Colorado. This popular, public 27-hole property has three full-time maintenance employees and is home to mountain views, moose, elk, bright purple honey-scented lupins, and even winter full-moon snowshoe events. Hosting more than 25,000 rounds per season (which is only about six months long), Cahalane’s business degree and ability to keep everything in perspective is put to good use. Cahalane’s late father spent 30 years in the turf industry and Cahalane’s two brothers are also superintendents, so he’s a natural. Cahalane has designed mogul courses and one skier he coached qualified for the Junior World Championships in Italy. Impressive!

The clock is ticking. Let’s get started. Here are the top 10 powerful parallels, in ascending order of importance, between coaches and turf leaders worthy of the hall of fame.

Lessons from experiences as a ski coach help superintendent Craig Cahalane manage and motivate the team at Pole Creek Golf Club.
© courtesy of craig Cahalane

10. Read the room

Some days are better than others. The best leaders know when to push and when to settle for working the fundamentals and completing essential tasks. Understand the team through spending time together. Ask questions and have a sense for situations. “We have crew-only golf tournaments throughout the year and barbeques,” Cahalane says. The events ensure he spends time with his staff and everyone gets to know each other. “We bond and keep it light,” Cahalane adds. “I’m the boss, but I encourage everyone to talk to me. I want to know what’s going on and I want everyone to enjoy themselves.”

9. Respect experience

There are many ways to get in the zone. When it’s game time and decisions must be made, experience is hard to beat. “Basketball is something I love and something I know how to teach well, whether it’s a skill demonstration or running a practice,” Nice says. “I have put a lot of time into studying how to be a good coach and learning about it and developing my own system.” The philosophy applies to everything he has learned in the turf industry, too. Experience is how you turn a loss into a win. It turns a problem, like the pesky nematodes at Bandon Dunes that weren’t problematic two years ago, into an opportunity to learn, educate and grow together. Honoring experience cultivates a system of mentors and mentees, and sharing skills and techniques makes everybody stronger.

8. Understand the big picture

Mark, Cahalane and Nice all see value in balancing business and agronomy, but more important, they prioritize being part of the community. There are several employees at Bandon Dunes who also work as coaches in town, creating familiarity between the school and the resort. Nice notes that Bandon Dunes has transformed the town, and after coaching, “he is part of the fabric of the community” instead of someone who moved for a job. Cahalane learns a lot by playing in the men’s league at Pole Creek, both talking and listening. And when Mark was at a previous property, he coached basketball at the local school. “It was a real blessing because it made me a better superintendent,” Mark says. “I learned a lot from the people that I coached with.” Coaching eventually helped Mark recruit high school athletes for summer work. Being involved in the community is good for inside information about where you live, what’s important locally and easing community communication. Additional benefits are counter-balancing your full-time job, being an ambassador for your property and recruiting labor. Big win.

7. Compete boldly

With an older brother who taught him to ski freestyle at a young age and then later as he was designing mogul courses, being bold was essential for Cahalane. At Pole Creek, the team “sets some goals at the beginning of the season to produce a good product,” he says. “The staff take pride in that.” At 9,000 feet, the golf season is short and they have to be dynamic. It’s about being ready for whatever the season offers. It might be drought, wildfires, a bad winter or something more unexpected. Whatever it is, the crew does what it takes to make the course a place that people love to come and play. “We want to give everyone a platform for confidence and success,” Cahalane says. The goals shift from season to season and staff compete to make it the best season yet. Staff also compete fiercely when they play each other, but that competitive fire is positively channeled to get the course dialed in.

Emphasizing teamwork and empowering employees has made Bandon Dunes one of the elite golf resorts in the world.
© courtesy of Ken Nice/Bandon Dunes

6. Value teamwork

No matter the size, teams united by an overall vision stay more focused, are more loyal and achieve better results. With up to 110 agronomy employees during the peak season, workers clearly know and uphold the identity of Bandon Dunes. Every course has its own crew and superintendent, though there is some crossover with chemical applicators and irrigation technicians. Everyone is working under the same construct, with nuances in execution. “Good teams have a way of knowing what they do,” Nice says. “They understand who they are. At Bandon Dunes, we understand that we are about links golf and we are trying to be as traditional as we can to the ground game.” Nice led the 2016 boys basketball team at Bandon High to the state semifinals, defeating the No. 3 seed to get there. “That was a team that really knew who they were,” he says, “and they played together phenomenally well.” Teams who work for each other supersede their individual talents. They have something extra, intangible, and they take chances together to find a way to win.

5. Thrive on pressure

The difficulties of leading a team against constantly shifting circumstances don’t need reiterating. Worth noting is how the finest superintendents and coaches embrace the challenge. The best athletes thrive on pressure and push themselves to overcome any obstacle. They will step on whatever gives them a fair leg up. They think critically, make the most of the situation they’re in and crave opportunities to excel. At Muirfield Village, hosting a PGA Tour event at the start of the peak Midwest golf season means conditions must be flawless from the very beginning. There is no easing into the season and Mark and his crew plan (and plan some more) and then grind (and grind some more) to execute immaculately. “We have to staff a little different because of that and we have to peak the weekend of the Memorial,” Mark says. “We have to be perfect. A week later we open for our members and we want it to be great. All summer, we want everyone to enjoy being here.” Mark’s team faces a new challenge this year as the Memorial Tournament has moved from June 4-7 to July 16-19.

4. Develop talent

“We have a captain-based system in place all year,” Mark says. “We put a lot of trust in the people we employ and we have tremendous respect for their talents. We train them, encourage them and expect them to lead their crew. They don’t have to be motivated from the top.” They also work hard to cross-train. If a squad lacks depth, one or two players can derail the entire game strategy. At Muirfield Village they provide variety to keep new recruits motivated, improve their skills and keep them engaged. “It’s important for the operation to have versatility,” Mark says. “We take chances. There will be times when an assistant suggests someone is not capable and I say, ‘Well, let’s give it a shot.’” Scout to hire great people and then discover and develop their talents. Nice agrees. “Not everyone is the top scorer. Find some way for each individual to be successful to develop a stronger group.” From huddle to hustle, help everyone embrace their role and expand it when possible.

3. Know the players

Connections matter and Mark has people from all over the world working at Muirfield Village. The international influence makes for a lively maintenance facility and he seeks bright, dedicated staff and tries to hire athletes. “A lot of our high school and college recruits have athletic backgrounds,” he says. “People usually have more dedication and discipline if they are serious athletes. One reason I like our business is because it’s a lot like playing sports. We work hard together. We’re a team.” Cahalane also cares about his crew, many of whom work the ski slopes in the winter. “With all kinds of personalities, you can bring them together through fun and it’s amazing to see the results on course,” he says. Nice called Mike Doherty, his old high school coach, when he was leading his own team to the state tournament. Doherty is in the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and still has the most all-time wins in Oregon. During the chat, Doherty mentioned to Nice “how much he learned from his players,” Nice says. “It’s cyclical if you are doing it right.”

In addition to leading more than 100 employees at Bandon Dunes, Ken Nice is a successful basketball coach.

2. Communicate clearly

You must be understood up and down the organization. Whether working with managers or coaching players, it is crucial to communicate as effectively as possible. How many times have you seen a coach stop a drill shortly after it starts? “This is what we’re after,” they say. “Start again.” If your team doesn’t understand the vision the first time, repeat it. Be positive and keep everyone moving forward. At Muirfield Village, there are Tuesday meetings for the tournament and Thursday meetings for the renovation and course maintenance. “We go action item after action item,” Mark says. The meetings last an hour or less. You must keep everyone talking openly to one another and ensure comprehension, but efficiency is also critical. Every chance you get, articulate, have the patience for questions and don’t underestimate the strong messages sent through leading by example.

1. Possess passion

No team has achieved greatness and no course will see ultimate playability without the sincere interest of those leading the way. Passion (of the quiet and steely determined variety, ranging to that of a yelling, gesticulating tactician) is essential for the work and helping others. And now our panelists, politely, have so very much to say. Nice, Mark and Cahalane provide example after example of how involved and close they were (and are) with those who coached them, those they coached with and those they have coached. Pride and joy are everywhere, like confetti, and it’s glorious. These leaders want to see their athletes and staff succeed and grow as individuals in sports and at work. They love their properties and their jobs and what they share is heartwarming. Passion – and compassion – make the difference.

Closing thoughts? “You can’t control the refs or the other team,” Nice says. “It is one of my preaching points. You can control your attitude.” From the top, coaches and leaders in turf maintenance know how to read the room, respect experience, understand the big picture, compete boldly, value teamwork, thrive on pressure, develop talent, know the players, communicate clearly and they all possess passion. As with every defining sports moment – and every top 10 – there is room for debate. Where does raw talent factor in? What about resources? Have at it and enjoy.

Lee Carr is an Independence, Ohio-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.