You’re fired … Now what?

Features - Cover Story

The emotions, realities, challenges and aftermath of losing a superintendent job.

May 1, 2019

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One day, Kirsten Conover was, at long last, about to begin grassing near the end of a massive overhaul of a coastal course in Florida. That greening was to be the wrapping on her first renovation and, as such, no small validation for a woman as a golf course superintendent in an industry dominated by men. Later that same day, she went home – was sent home – suddenly out of a job and feeling like someone stamped “L for loser” on her forehead.

One day, Tim Davis, covered in grease from a cantankerous blower, answered a call from his general manager at a country club in central North Carolina. “Hey Bud, what you doin?’” he remembers hearing. “Can you come on up to the office? Take your time.” Later, back in his shop, Davis stood, in tears, before his staff, breaking the news that he was no longer their boss.

One day, Superintendent A, who cannot be named, nor who can identify his former employer because of terms dictated by a separation agreement, was, at least to the outside world, firmly ensconced in a position ambitious colleagues would aspire to. The next morning, he stood anonymous and alone at a local driving range, unemployed. Torn by a tug of war between shock and anger at being fired, he pounded balls for a couple hours. “I just didn’t know what else to do,” he says.

Getting fired is tough on anybody. But it can be eviscerating for golf course superintendents.

Many develop an affinity for their property and their people that makes a pseudo-marriage of the former and the latter feel like family. It’s a common catchphrase that superintendents spend more time with their course and their staff than they do with their own families. Some even refer to their greens as their “kids.”

It affects everybody, a lot of people. You feel like you’re letting a lot of people down. You’re letting your family down, you’re letting the people on your crew down, people that have confided in you and trusted you with their welfare.”

Of course, some have flesh and blood spouses and kids as well, nearest and dearest who often find themselves uprooted from their homes, schools, friends, routines – life as they’d known it – because the major breadwinner’s next job is in another town.

Another recently fired superintendent, who we’ll call Superintendent B because of another separation agreement, explains: “It affects everybody, a lot of people. You feel like you’re letting a lot of people down. You’re letting your family down, you’re letting the people on your crew down, people that have confided in you and trusted you with their welfare.” This superintendent did secure another job, in another state, and so the family home for more than a dozen years went on the market.

For six weeks after Davis was fired, his wife turned right out of their neighborhood, just a mile from the club, preferring the long route to anywhere else rather than lay eyes on the property to which her husband devoted 31 years. The property where, at the height of the Great Recession, he volunteered for a $10,000 pay cut. The one, while things were still tight, for which he dipped deeper still into his own pocket paying for four pieces of equipment. The one where he sometimes rolled out of bed in the wee hours over a weekend to get a member home safely.

“I’ll die doing it,” he’d once said of his job, and proudly.

Conover is not married and has no kids. But she did have a golf course. “It’s a very personal thing because there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into it,” she says. “You can go to every green – you go out and talk to them – every part of the property that you’re so intimate with. … And you know, it is like a death or it is like a divorce. There is a process you’re going to go through, all those emotions, and I think they’re all legitimate and everybody deals with them in different ways.”

Indeed, when the job is taken away, the void is deeper than a 50- or 60-hour chunk of the former superintendent’s week. Often, it is also a major chunk of who they are and how they see themselves. It has been said that anyone can be a golf course superintendent, but you cannot be a good golf course superintendent unless you love it.

Which explains in part why Conover says, of being fired: “It’s like someone cut your arm off, or stabbed you, and you can’t stop the bleeding.” Exacerbating the pain and anguish is the fact that not all who get fired are at fault. Of course, some are completely so. But the far end of the spectrum can stretch to something as thin as the whim of the new club president, or a green committee chair looking to flex some muscle. Legally, at least for the employer, everything in between is fair game … no matter how unfair it might feel.

In terms of labor law, employees in most states work at-will, essentially meaning they can be fired for any reason with no onus on the employer to provide, let alone establish, just cause. There are exceptions in some states but without a formal contract or protections negotiated through collective bargaining by a trade union, an employee is done pretty much when the boss says so.

And it happens a lot. Facilities decide to “go in a different direction” or that “it’s time to make a change.” Sometimes these are euphemisms for “younger and cheaper,” or “looking for a bigger name,” but sometimes it’s to be kinder than saying “you’re not good enough.” Regardless, every golf course superintendent out there – every single one – has either been fired or knows someone who has.

There is no such thing as a superintendent census, but Golf Course Industry’s 2016 State of the Industry survey found that about one in 10 superintendents had been fired “for job performance reasons.” The question omits a swath of other reasons for losing a job, not least of which is the fact that, in most situations, employers don’t have to give a reason at all. That could explain why at a recent meeting of superintendents at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, one guesstimated that “maybe a third” of all superintendents – current and former – had seen the axe. Another put the figure closer to 15 percent. A few days later, at the Southeast Regional Conference at The Walker Course at Clemson University in South Carolina, two others independently put the figure closer to 50 percent.

While that hardly amounts to a scientific study, each estimate was made in good faith and extrapolated from experience. So, when the average comes out to around one in three, it points to a degree of volatility not seen in many professions.

When it happens, you’re in shock, you’re in disbelief, you’re angry, you’re ashamed. And you’re confused, until you get some answers on why this happened. So, there’s just an array of emotions. Then you sit back and go, ‘Now what?’”

Some superintendents get tired, some get bored, some get overconfident and some get cranky. But, frankly, some get shafted. Whatever the reason, or the degree of culpability, the individual in the firing line finds him- or herself not so much confronted with a new reality as condemned to it.

“You feel like a criminal,” Conover says. “You have to be escorted out of your office. That was hard. But it is part of the job. It happens to everybody, or so it seems like. Some people are lucky, or maybe they are just more savvy. I’m not very political and sometimes I don’t read situations, I guess, the way I should. I just think everybody goes through life like I do. I’m pretty transparent, so I expect they should be transparent. But clearly it doesn’t work like that.”

Earlier in his life, Superintendent A endured divorce and a serious illness. Getting fired was “a hell of a lot worse” than either, he says. “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s pretty close. Because it’s the uncertainty. When I got divorced, I still had an income – so, it was just a reallocation of resources. With the illness, the surgeon said there was a very high rate of recovery.

“But when I lost my job, I didn’t have an income. That is very stressful on a relationship. You get home and you tell your wife and the color drains out of her face and it’s like, ‘Well, how are we going to pay the mortgage? How are we going to pay the bills?’ All that uncertainty started to flood my mind.”

And it lingered.

It took more than a year for Superintendent A to secure his next job, not as a superintendent, but in sales for a golf industry supplier. He freely admits that 20 years earlier he would never have imagined himself in such a role. And even when he accepted the position, he considered it temporary.

“I thought this would be a year, maybe two, that would give me the opportunity to continue to look for jobs,” he says. “And I did. I continued to look for a couple of years. Then I came to the realization that I really liked what I was doing, and I liked the quality of life that it afforded me. I liked the freedom that it afforded me. You never say never, but I don’t see myself going back.”

Eventually, Superintendent A had to tap into savings he’d put aside to get children through college. He also signed up for unemployment benefits. “That was about the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Unemployment is there for a reason and it’s certainly something that everybody needs to take advantage of when you do find yourself let go from a job. But I found that to be extremely humiliating.”

As Conover says, though, “Superintendents are resilient, we’re problem solvers, that’s what we do. So, you have to apply that to the situation you’re in. We do what we need to do and move on.” The day she was fired – “It was a Thursday, the last day of the pay period” – she called her boyfriend, shattered. They went for pizza, then a swim in the Gulf of Mexico.

Since that day in 2016, after 15 years as a superintendent, Conover has worked hourly jobs in golf course maintenance. To help bridge the shortfall from her salaried days, she took in roommates. “I don’t have kids. It’s me and my cat, and (my boyfriend) can fend for himself. But I did have a mortgage,” she says. “And I had the space, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I took in a mother and son. The father had to go back to Venezuela to get his papers. They moved in for 18 months until he could come back. I helped them and they helped me.”

In contrast, Davis landed squarely on his feet. Less than a week later he went to work for a friend with a landscaping company. What was to be three days “helping out” turned into a few weeks. Then another friend called and today Davis manages six building projects for a $15 million company as a construction superintendent.

Call it luck, or karma – considering what he left on the table offering up that pay cut – but thanks to severance pay and accrued vacation time, Davis says he took home more money in the first six months after losing his job than he had over a similar period at any point in his career.

Still, there was heartache in the moment.

As Superintendent B says: “When it happens, you’re in shock, you’re in disbelief, you’re angry, you’re ashamed. And you’re confused, until you get some answers on why this happened. So, there’s just an array of emotions. Then you sit back and go, ‘Now what?’”

That very question is why they agreed to speak, in the hope that their experience may shed some future light for superintendents yet to know their career’s darkest days. That takes some doing. “I’ve never cared to talk about it,” Superintendent A says. “Because the other emotion, when it happens, is embarrassment. Everybody is going to know that you got fired.”

Conover remembers that red-faced feeling all too well. “It’s almost like you’re the kid at school that everyone else is talking about,” she says. “You’re around, but you don’t know what to do. You’ve been sidelined. Because you don’t have a golf course, you don’t feel a part of the fraternity and it’s like you have big stamp on your forehead, L for loser.”

I didn’t have a backup plan. I was the guy who said, ‘This will never happen to me. I’m good at what I do.’ I think one of the reasons it was so hard and stressful, is that there was no Plan B. People need to put thought into, ‘What if?’ I certainly never did.”

The immediate challenge, Superintendent A says, is keeping your wits despite the shock. He remembers his “head was spinning” as he took in the news. “Getting fired blindsides you,” he says. “I didn’t think about anything to ask for while I was in there, such as a letter of recommendation, or being able to get three or four years’ worth of your reviews. When you find yourself in that situation, those are some of things you need to ask for … if you can think of it.”

And there are some things you should not do. Davis declined to immediately sign separation papers waiting for him on the general manager’s desk. “I said ‘No. I’m not going to sign anything until my lawyer looks over it and makes sure I’m covered, and you’re covered. I’ll have it ready for you in a week,’” he says. “We had to change some things, but it was fair. We parted on good terms. They took care of me. And I have no animosity.”

Long before getting to that point – like right now – Superintendent A’s best advice for any superintendent or assistant superintendent is to draft a Plan B. “I didn’t have a back-up plan. I was the guy who said, ‘This will never happen to me. I’m good at what I do.’ I think one of the reasons it was so hard and stressful, is that there was no Plan B. People need to put thought into, ‘What if?’ I certainly never did. Whether it’s doing lawncare, or doing a completely different job altogether, you’ve got to have a backup plan.”

As weeks and months rolled by, calling contacts, sending out resumes, building a website and sitting for interviews with no job secured, Superintendent A found important respite and release, ironically enough, on the golf course. The general manager at a nearby club was a friend and extended an open invitation. “I wasn’t a member anywhere and certainly, at that point, I wasn’t going to pay to play public golf, so for him to extend that offer was pretty important to me at that time,” he says. “At least it gave me something to do and filled up some of the waiting time. The waiting is the worst.”

There was a lot of getting close and missing out. Not that there was a wealth of available opportunity back then. The global economy was still teetering from the Great Recession, and there was another obstacle.

“Honestly, I was not a very good interview,” he says. “I’m not very good at the fluff, talking with people and being all warm and fuzzy. You ask me a question, I’m going to give you a pretty much black-and-white answer. And I found that most clubs didn’t want that honesty. And if they did want it, they didn’t want it from me, I guess. I worked at it. I worked with a couple of interview coaches and they did the best they could to help me through it. But I was just not a very good interview.”

Such introspection is common among superintendents who lose their jobs. The sudden jolt is a shake-up that Conover says initiates “a personal journey.” “It kind of helps focus you,” she adds. “There’s always rumors about what happened. And since I didn’t know why I got fired, you listen to some of that and ask yourself if maybe there’s something in there that I can work on, that I can apply.”

Source: 2016 Golf Course Industry State of the Industry survey

After making her first call to an early boss, Matt Taylor, CGCS at Royal Poinciana Golf Club – “Because Matt knows everybody, right?” – Conover was hired immediately by Tim Hiers, CGCS then at The Club at Mediterra. When Hiers moved to a new project at White Oak Plantation, she switched to Quail Creek Country Club where Kevin Leo needed a landscape and project manager.

“If you take advantage of the networking that you’ve done, there are people that are willing to give you a hand,” she says. “You have to just swallow your pride and just move forward, because there’s nothing else you can do. You just have to move on and try not to let it color the way you look at everything else.”

In addition to his family and friends, Davis says his faith helped enormously when dealing with that “head-spinning.” “It takes a few weeks, don’t get me wrong,” Davis says. “But there’s no need to be bitter. Life does not stop to pick up your butt. You have a family you are responsible for and life is way too short. People say to me, ‘How are you not the most pissed off individual after giving them 31 years of your life?’ I say, ‘Who’s that going to help? It’s not going to make me feel any better. Matter of fact, it’s going to make me feel worse.’ I’ve got 31 years invested in that club and the people there. And they are good people. I hope they flourish.”

Something else helped Davis cope, a perspective that grew out of something his son, Tyler, used to say as a toddler. “He’d say, ‘This is my daddy’s golf course,’” Davis recalls. “It took about 10 years into my tenure in the business to realize that, in fact, it was not my golf course. And that was probably one of the biggest things that helped me through this. I knew it wasn’t mine. I’d known for a long time I was a worker just like everybody else. I was a higher-paid worker with a lot I was responsible for. But I was just a worker.”

That lesson also hit home with Conover. “I didn’t realize quite how much I got caught up in my job,” she says. “I can actually take a weekend and not have to worry if my greens are going to die. It can be an opportunity to ask, ‘Do I really want to be a superintendent again and have all that grinding, and playing all the political games, trying to provide a product when you don’t have enough help?’ After all this time, almost three years, I still get upset about it. But I don’t really have any complaints. Life is pretty good.”

Approaching a year since he was let go, Davis still scans superintendent job websites almost daily. “People ask me, ‘Do you miss the golf business?’” he says. “I miss the people, I miss the guys, you know. But do I miss the grind? No? I don’t miss working every Saturday like I was doing. (My wife) Jennifer and I go and get coffee on Saturday mornings. I mean, c’mon, what did I miss out on (all those years), you know? It’s been a blessing.

“It took me leaving the industry to realize that. Now I’m preaching it to every friend I have. I tell them, it’s not worth you being there from sun up until 7:30 every day. They don’t care when you’re gone. They’ll just be sticking a tee in the ground again. Make being a superintendent what you do, not who you are.”

Trent Bouts is a Greer, S.C.-based writer and frequent GCI contributor.