Meet me in the middle

Features - Management

With a little understanding and constructive dialogue, that tough customer can be transformed into your department’s biggest advocate.

April 5, 2021

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"Can you meet me halfway, right on the borderline..." — Black Eyed Peas

I am in the process of doing my morning course check ride and I hear him first and see him second. We will call him “Harry.” Harry is the unofficial “vocal leader” — you can read into that whatever you would like — of one of the larger regular groups that play at Otter Creek.

Harry: “Hey, supe. Can you speed these up a bit? I left a couple putts short.”

Me: “Huh? They read a 15 on the Brentmeter." (smirks)

Harry: “Hey, I had a little trouble holding the back of three green? You do something there?”

Me: "No. But I heard the 19 wood you hit it into it doesn’t spin as much …” (winks)

Harry: (laughing) “Very funny, Brent. You doing all right? Place is great, by the way.”

Me: “Thanks, Harry. Yes, we’re hanging in there. Still a few things to work on, but we’re doing well. Have a great round. Remember to tip your director.” (laughing)

These exchanges with Harry have become a morning ritual for me and something I look forward to every day. We both have very dry senses of humor, so it has become par for the course (pun intended). It was not always this way, though.

When I came to Otter Creek almost three years ago, I brought superintendent experience from two other clubs, a priority list and an order of things I wanted to improve. Harry had his own ideas and he wasn’t shy about sharing them. Harry is a blunt and direct person with strong convictions about how things should be done. There is nothing wrong with that because it gets things accomplished. However, put that in a blender with my personality, which is headstrong, independent and proud of my previous experience, and you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out where the early stages of that relationship went. The issues we disagreed on are not important. What is important is that it deteriorated to a point where if I knew he and his group were on one section of the course, I would make it a point to work on another.

One evening during our “replay of the day conversations,” I was venting to my wife some of my frustrations and instead of sympathy I was met with …

Sara: “Brent, is he right on any of the items he brings up?”

Me: “Umm, well, maybe, I guess, if you want to get really technical … ”

Sara: “You're trailing off. And that sounded suspiciously like yes with a bunch of mumbling. You have made your whole career and reputation based on doing the correct things and using your knowledge and experience to the benefit of whomever you work for. When another golfer tries to do the same thing, you completely disregard it?!?!”

Shade. At this point I have two options:

Left brain: “Dude, it is time to get off the Titanic …”

Right brain: “If Wile E. Coyote just uses a bigger stick of dynamite, he might catch the Road Runner ...”

Luckily, the left brain won out. Sara was right, as wives tend to be. I thought about this over the next couple days and I arranged a writing meeting with Harry. I am not going to tell you that meeting was all roses, because we are both still opinionated people with strong ideas. What changed in this meeting was the compromise. I began to realize Harry and his group just wanted to be heard. They did not need their entire list. They just wanted to have a say in a place they are very fond of and play daily. And who can blame them? Isn’t that why we all do what we do?

The other thing to come out of this meeting was the fact that Harry is extremely reasonable when explanations are given about why we as a maintenance department have the priorities we have. When I walked him through the explanations, he was incredibly understanding, reasonable and quite knowledgeable.

As the relationship and my experience at Otter Creek evolved, it actually changed from Harry being the first person I would avoid to the first person I came to when I wanted an unfiltered view of how the course was doing and what the patrons generally thought. It is not going to be perfect every day. It never is. I am a superintendent, after all. Ha! But I always got a vivid picture of where we stood and an opportunity to pass along some of the things we were working on, and nothing that came of that was EVER a bad thing. So, what can you learn from my experience?

  1. 1. Seek out different areas of feedback. I typically do not attempt to locate the most negative respondents and get them “on my side.” I will certainly let them air their grievances, but I have discovered it can be an exercise in futility attempting to please everyone. You will find this in almost anything. Ten percent of people on each extreme are just going to be extreme. Some people are not happy unless they are complaining. My advice is to completely tune that out. There are also people who are always gushing about the condition of the course no matter what you do. Tune that out, too. That is not helpful. You are looking for the 80 percent in the middle. After I got through my initial avoidance issues with Harry, he became one of my best sources of feedback.
  2. 2. Make the first move. Sometimes you need be the one to step out on the limb. You work for your clientele. You need to be the one to make the first move and if it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. But at least you know, and you don’t have to wonder anymore.
  3. 3. Meet me in the middle, as the article is titled. There are always places you can agree and disagree with reasonable individuals. But there are always plateaus of compromise that can be achieved while still accomplishing the things you prioritize. Most people are reasonable when given an explanation, but every relationship involves give and take.

Take these lessons that I learned the hard way and apply them to their own situation. You might be surprised to find who is a bigger advocate for what you are trying to accomplish than you thought.


I would like to thank Harry, the inspiration for this article. As fate would have it, 2020 marked Harry’s last season at Otter Creek. After years of promises to his wife, Harry is retiring to Oregon to chase golf balls there. So allow me to say: Thank you, Harry. Thank you for your loyalty to Otter Creek. Thank you for being understanding enough to find a place where we can agree (Washington, D.C.: are you listening?). You will be missed, especially by me. Good luck, Harry! Happy retirement!

Brent Downs is the director of agronomy at Otter Creek Golf Course in Columbus, Indiana, and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.