What happens at the end?

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Recently retired superintendents reveal the emotions of leaving the golf course and beginning the next phases of their respective lives.

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February 11, 2019

Toward the end, Ken Mangum ever-so-politely let one member have it. Turns out there is only so much even the best-of-the-best can take and one more complaint becomes that one too many. “Mr. (name omitted),” Mangum smiled, “I’m not sure I am capable of providing the kind of conditions required in order to make you a good golfer.”

Maybe it was Mangum’s benign tone or that soft smile as he spoke, but the member needed a few seconds before realizing his golf course superintendent was taking a verbal swing. “My patience was wearing thin the closer I got to finishing up,” says Mangum who, in 2015, left Atlanta Athletic Club after 27 years decorated with two PGA Championships, a U.S. Women’s Open and a U.S. Amateur.

“I was ready to go,” he says of what was then billed as his retirement, at age 62. “I got tired, and I got tired of the rat race. Things started bothering me that didn’t bother me before. My tolerance of imperfection just got smaller and smaller. And I could tell, that wasn’t good for my health.”

Others, indeed, quite a few of them, are expected to follow soon as a generation of baby boomers, who rode the crest of golf’s greatest wave, reach retirement age. Other recent notable departures include the likes of Matt Shaffer from Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania and David Stone from The Honors Course in Tennessee. Dean Graves from Chevy Chase Club and Mark Kuhns from Baltusrol Golf Club announced they will retire later this year.

Some expect the exodus over the next few years to be significant, leading to the first real flush of opportunity for a younger generation, largely stonewalled since the Great Recession. With veteran superintendents signing off, there’s a sense the upward shuffle will be audible from munis to major venues.

As to be expected of one who nurtured many nascent careers, Mangum wishes the best for that rising talent. But he also offers a word of caution. “I use the analogy to a ladder,” he says. “It’s easier on the way up than it is on the way down. You have to be more careful, because there’s so many things involved.” Planning for that descent can never start too early.

Like skydiving, the key is less in making the jump than it is in packing your chute properly before take-off. “I don’t think people think about that a lot,” Mangum says of superintendents in general. “When do you end your career? When do you take Social Security? Do you continue to work part time? What’s next?”

And, as far too many superintendents learn, you don’t always get to choose when you jump. Sometimes, you’re pushed, ready or not.

Ken Mangum retired from Atlanta Athletic Club in 2015 following a distinguished careeer.

Seeing the stimpmeter on the wall

Just four miles from the Athletic Club down Abbotts Bridge Road at The Standard Club in Johns Creek, Mike Brown saw the writing on the social media wall. After nearly 15 years maintaining bentgrass greens in the central Georgia heat, Brown found himself in the firing line over green speeds.

“You do have those five or eight or 10 members who start talking about you, on social media and in emails and there’s a snowball effect,” he says. “If you’re on the wrong side of it, it’s inevitable you’re either going to get fired … or you can leave before that happens.”

For Brown, the beginning of the end came when one disgruntled member purchased a stimpmeter and began actively contesting the superintendent’s numbers. “One Saturday morning while we were slammed, I had the golf committee chairman and the golf pro go down to a green and stimp it with me,” he says, “just so I could have a rebuttal to these crazy emails.”

Despite entreaties to stay, from club officials and some members, Brown, a Georgia GCSA past-president, quit in December. He left the profession too, even though he loves it. “I still think it’s an awesome way to make a living,” he says. “As tough as it is and the stress you put yourself under, there’s still a lot of people out there working a lot harder and for less money.

“But I’m getting close to 50 and you wonder, ‘What if I lose my job in a few years? Who’s going to hire me at 54?’ You realize, when there’s a qualified guy at 35 – and I was 34 when I started here – then you give the job to the 35-year-old who’s eager and ambitious over the guy who’s 54. It makes you start thinking, ‘What kind of business can I own so that I can retire when I want to retire?’”

Now pursuing a franchise opportunity, Brown is a textbook example of why younger superintendents should listen when Mangum says: “Don’t stay too long. Because one of two things happen, you get tired of them, or they get tired of you. So, I tell people, try to move when you’re about 50. Because then you’ve got a chance of staying until the end.”

That’s not always an easy move. Invariably, as Mangum says, superintendents around that age are settled at their facility: “Almost to the point where you’ve got it on auto-pilot.” Beyond work, they are also likely to have in place an established social network and a comfortable rhythm to life. They might have adult children in the area too, maybe even grandkids.

They were factors Mangum considered when he started “looking around” after the 2001 PGA Championship. He’d been told by good men he trusted, including GCSAA past-president Randy Nichols, CGCS, and another Georgia GCSA past-president Bill Womac, CGCS, that 50 was the magic number. After long and successful stints at high-end facilities, each was let go unexpectedly. “Both said they stayed too long,” Mangum says.

In the end, Mangum stayed at the Athletic Club until, well, the end. There were several opportunities to go elsewhere, but “nothing really clicked” and with a second PGA Championship coming in 2011, there was good reason, not to ignore but rather, not to act upon the advice he’d received, and still recommends, about moving on at 50.

Exploring life outside of turf

After 15 years of maintaining bentgrass greens in central Georgia, Mike Brown left the industry at the end of last year.
© trent bouts

In Florida, Tom Alex invested nearly 34 years at Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando, then in 2017 at age 57 he retired, at least from being a superintendent. “Not because I disliked being a superintendent, but because I wanted to see if I could do something else,” he says. Alex spent several years up to that point, “haunted” by the question of whether he wanted to be a superintendent his entire working life.

Today, he is everything from part-owner to “gopher” at Alex Custom Building, a new home construction and remodeling business, in partnership with his son. While the business is a start-up in an entirely different field – and Alex’s wife accuses him of “working more hours than ever” – this was no jump from an airplane nor a blind step down Mangum’s ladder.

“At 22, my mother – God love her – introduced me to this thing called an IRA,” Alex says. “I’ve been putting money in ever since.” Grand Cypress also had a retirement program, so Alex’s parachute was well-packed. Still, it might seem that golf turf and roof trusses are poles apart, and therefore something of a risk. But Alex says the skills of a superintendent are eminently transferrable, and a bridge to a range of alternative careers.

“Your typical successful superintendent is a classic Type A personality who says give me a job to do, then get out of my way and I’ll figure out how to go get it done,” he says. “You learn to be resourceful because there’s so much you have to figure out as you go. Today, I’m managing people, I’m managing contractors, I’m doing some governmental work with permitting, I’m getting a bid ready, I’m ordering materials…sounds just like what I was doing as a superintendent.”

The key to a successful transition, or retirement, Alex says, is more than financial security. “People do need to have a very honest conversation about how much they will need to live on,” he says. “But they also need the vision to figure out the what, where, when and how as it relates to what they’re going to do with their time. One of the things that scared me was that I had some friends who retired and got a little bored.”

That fear hasn’t dissipated in his new career. He currently has projects in two different 55-and-older communities. “And I’m looking at some of the people in there and I’m going, ‘Ooooh. These people just don’t have much to do. A lot of people, once they retire, they sit in a chair and watch TV. That would kill anybody … especially with what’s on TV these days!”

Alex hasn’t given up golf course life completely. He squeezes in some consulting work and makes the effort to attend Central Florida GCSA meetings. Yes, he wants to stay in touch with the work and the people, but also, to some degree, he also wants to stay in touch with the Tom Alex he was for so long.

“I thought about that, no question,” he says. “I still have my fingers in it a little bit. Because that was my identity, or half of my identity. I have what I call a golf life and a personal life. Some of it intertwines and some of it doesn’t. I didn’t want it to be abrupt, you know, ‘Boomp! You’re done.’ I wanted to remain relevant a little bit longer, to help in this transition some. And, hopefully, to give back a little bit more too.”

Staying in the industry

Alex

Mangum thought about that sense of self, too. “Just like it is for a football player, or anybody really, whenever you stop doing what you did that brought you whatever notoriety you had, there’s a void to fill,” he says.

He tells of an elevator encounter at a GCSAA conference years ago with his then very young daughters. Spying name tags, someone asked if they were related to the Ken Mangum. The girls nodded, and the questioner carried on effusively about how much of an icon this Ken Mangum was. “They listened and there was this pause and then they said: ‘Yeah, but he’s just our dad,’” Mangum laughs. “Talk about bringing you back down to earth.”

But in his post-superintendent life, Mangum made a deliberate decision to parlay the standing he’d built over the best part of four decades in the profession, and now works as national sales manager for Brandt, overseeing the company’s turf business. He makes no secret of the fact that the opportunity grew out of two enduring friendships in the industry, with Gary Grigg, CGSC, and Bruce Williams, CGCS, both key figures in the company, and past-presidents of GCSAA.

“It certainly helps if you can develop something within the turf industry where your previous accomplishments will be recognized,” Mangum says. Gold stars on the résumé only go so far, though. People tend to remember how you got them.

“What’s the old expression,” Mangum says. “Don’t wait until you need someone to be nice to them. All along, I tried to keep good industry contacts. I tried to be helpful to distributors and manufacturers, working with prototype equipment and trying new products. I wasn’t able to buy from everybody, but I would give you the time of day, and if you had an appointment, I saw you. I tried to treat people with respect.”

Matt Shaffer, who spent the last 15 years of his career at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., hosting a U.S. Amateur and a U.S. Open, is another who changed lanes rather than come to a dead stop. Afraid of boredom once he stepped away, Shaffer stuck not one toe but a whole foot-full in alternative waters. Today, nearly two years after retiring at age 65, he has involvement with or an ownership stake in OnLink, BioBoost, Anuvia Plant Nutrients and Minimalistic Agronomic Techniques.

“I thought I was going to get bored,” he laughs. “It’s hard to go from 80 hours a week, six days a week. Some days I’d go to church and then go right back to work. You just don’t go from 90 mph to zero.”

Shaffer is quick to point out that, despite his slate of new business interests, he is traveling at a significantly slower speed these days. He and his wife paid off all their debt then mapped out a budget, determining what income they needed to bridge the five years between his retirement and tapping into investments. He then negotiated employment arrangements, such as a brand ambassadorship, that also leave enough free time for bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

“The other day, somebody asked me to define retirement and I think I’ve figured it out,” he says. “What I used to do in an hour, I can now justify as my accomplishment for a day. I’ve gotten really good at sitting in a boat or sitting around the pool and just talking to my wife about nothing. I’m really adept at reading 131 books in one year. The things I never had time for in my life before, I have time for now.”

Someone else asked Shaffer if he missed being a golf course superintendent. He replied: “Holy cats, no! It’s funny because it was my cocaine, man. I had to have it every day. But now I’m away from it, I don’t miss it. Being a golf course superintendent is such a difficult job, you can’t really put it into words, plus there’s really no job security. You’re vulnerable at all times. You have one failure and you can be gone. You have that anvil hanging over you the whole time. It’s a hard job, really hard.”

If Shaffer was in danger of forgetting that after more than year out of the profession, he was reminded on a road trip with Anuvia’s vice president of sales John Fowler. This past summer presented a particularly challenging mix of heat and rain to the northeastern courses they visited. 

“The superintendents we called on were really struggling. You could see it in their faces,” Shaffer says. “We got back in the car at one point and I said, ‘Man, did I ever look that bad?’ John turned to me and said, ‘Brother, you never looked that good!’”

Importance of Plan B

If the golf course was a drug – albeit metaphorically – for Shaffer, it is closer to lifeblood for some. In November 2017, at age 69, Larry Hergott, CGCS, retired from Quail Run Golf Course in Columbus, Nebraska. He’d been there since the course opened in 1991.

Of retirement, he says, “It’s tough.” And what’s toughest about it, he adds, frankly, is: “Retirement! I miss the golf course most. I was on three over my career (of nearly 40 years), and this one here, well, I was here at the beginning. I planted all the trees, everything. That was fun, I enjoyed it. It was really my golf course.”

Hergott admits his affinity for tees, fairways and greens may be amplified by the fact he is “not a people person.” But he is hardly alone in his attachment to the property. Mangum recalls Randy Nichols and Bill Womac telling him how much they truly loved where they worked.

“And that may be the downfall of a lot of us as superintendents,” Mangum says. “When you stop and think about the whole thing, that’s probably a big part of our problem, we do fall in love.” So, breaking up becomes hard to do – at least for the superintendent.

Indeed, Hergott had no intention of retiring if health issues hadn’t intervened. “I really kind of needed to get out,” he says. “There were things I couldn’t do anymore because of memory loss, that kind of thing. It was hard in the meetings when you couldn’t remember what you were going to say. So, that’s the reason I retired. Otherwise I’d still be there.”

What happened to Hergott underlines Brown’s conviction that, “Everybody should have a plan B.” “There are a lot of good people smarter than I am who were forced into retirement or lost their jobs, but not because of any mistake they made,” he says. “It might be because some member or members think they know more than you or think that maybe you’ve been there long enough. It could be a host of things.”

One form of insurance a superintendent can “buy” in a job that rarely comes with guarantees, Brown says, is to “get a feel for the club.” “You really ought to meet with your controller or your general manager if you want to have any sense of security,” he says. “And if the numbers of the club are going down consistently over a six- or seven-year period, that should be a red flag. If you’re passionate about it, maybe you keep doing it. But you need to keep your eyes open and have a plan B, because you never know what’s going to happen, and in a lot of cases it does happen.”

The ideal ending

Occasionally, though, the stars align.

At Oswego Lake Country Club in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Bob Senseman, CGCS was sitting in his office when a member, who was also a longtime friend and mentor, called by. The club had just completed a major tree removal project, that, with a series of permitting hurdles, dragged out over three years. There was a bunker rebuild along the way as well.

“The older I got, I saw my stress levels getting out of control,” he says. “It had gotten to a point where the enjoyment wasn’t what it used to be. Labor shortages, member expectations, budget limitations, instant criticism on social media, having to educate new green committees and employees over and over and over … I’d reached a point where I felt ill-equipped to react and adjust to those situations.”

The mentor told Senseman that stress was visible. “He talked about how, with one bad season, all that might be lost,” Senseman says. “I thought about that.” It was a timely conversation. The truth was that Senseman, a past-president of the Oregon GCSA and Hall of Famer, had been ruminating over retirement for several years.

“I mean I was 64 years old and people were asking, ‘Hey Bob, when are you going to retire?’” he says. “It wasn’t because I was screwing up the place. It was just that, at my age, it was a very natural question.”

A subsequent meeting between Senseman, the mentor and the club’s general manager, “hammered out” a retirement package, exit strategy and replacement plan. By the time he did retire, Senseman was almost 66. He’d helped the club in the search for his successor and even spent a month showing the new guy the ropes before signing off. The transition could hardly have gone smoother for all involved.

But nearly a year later, Senseman opens his eyes some mornings and wonders. “Some days I wish I’d continued on,” he says. “But I think it was a smart move. I had an offer to retire and it was right for me. The members were very helpful, the board was very supportive. I left on very good terms.”

Still…

“There are a lot of times when I flat out miss the day-in day-out of being on a golf course,” he says. “You miss the day-to-day interaction with coworkers. There’s also the identity part you have to adjust to. Being a superintendent was all I ever wanted to do and that was my entire focus for 40 years. Once you stop doing that … I think that’s been an adjustment for sure. But I feel OK with it. It’s a young man’s game.”

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