Hunting for unicorns

Features - Cover Story

Finding the remaining pro/superintendents in the golf industry might be as tough as juggling both demanding jobs.

August 13, 2018

Tommy Burns, Selma Country Club
PHoto by Brooke Glassford

In June of 1977, Sam Dunning interviewed for the golf professional’s position at Cleveland (Miss.) Country Club. Just 25 years old at the time and already a member of the PGA of America, the club offered him the job with one caveat: he had to be both the golf professional and the golf course superintendent. Eager to further his career – and with past experience working as a member of the maintenance crew at another club when he was younger – he accepted the offer at the then nine-hole private club located in the flat fertile soil of the Delta region in Northwest Mississippi. July 11, 1977 was his first day on the job. He celebrated his 41st anniversary at the club last month.

“When I interviewed, they took me out on the course for a look around,” Dunning says. “The greens were overseeded and they looked immaculate because each year they kept the overseed for an annual event in June. By my first day a few weeks later, the ryegrass was dead and there was hardly any Bermudagrass on the greens. Holy cow! What a way to get started.”

It was baptism by fire. Early in his career, he spent most of his time on the golf course handling superintendent duties. “We had one other employee and quick couplers,” Dunning says. “Heck, we were just happy to have water. But, in 1995, we added a second nine holes and an automatic irrigation system on all 18 holes. After 20 years of dragging hoses and sprinklers around, sometimes I would turn the water on from the satellite controllers just because I could — whether the course needed water or not.” Since then, he has overseen the conversion of the greens to Champion ultradwarf Bermudagrass in 2006 and the club has long been known for immaculate playing conditions. Dunning’s reputation as a superintendent is as big as his reputation as a golf professional. He’s been a Class A member of the PGA of America for 41 years and was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 2008.

In the interest of full disclosure, I recommended Dunning in 2013 when I was hired by the Grammys (yes, those Grammys) to design four new holes for the Delta State University Golf Course, a nine-hole course adjacent to Cleveland CC. Why would the Grammys need a golf course architect? The university was donating land to the Grammys for a new museum (at the time, only the second Grammy museum in the world) and that land was the piece of the DSU golf course that had highway frontage. Although I had not personally met Dunning at that time, I knew of his reputation. I also knew the university did not have a superintendent and would soon be growing-in four new holes and had no one with the experience to get it done. I convinced the university to hire Dunning to help oversee grow-in and it went off without a hitch. I shudder to think what might have happened had he not been involved. Then again, Dunning has been involved with DSU for a long time — as the head golf coach.

Somehow, Dunning squeezed in the time to coach DSU’s NCAA Division II golf team from 1989-2015. DSU was ranked No. 1 nationally in 2004 and ’05, won 35 team championship titles, and Dunning was named to the DSU Hall of Fame when he retired.

His concurrent career as a college golf coach notwithstanding, I asked Dunning what I thought would be a straightforward question: What’s the biggest advantage of being a pro/super today? Dunning deadpans his reply, “Both of us seem to get along OK and we work great together when it’s time to coordinate events with course work.” Then he smiles and laughs.

Times have changed since Dunning first took over at Cleveland CC, but his story was not that unique 40 years ago when pro/supers were more readily found at golf courses and smaller clubs — mowing greens in the mornings, meeting with members at lunch and giving lessons in the afternoons. Today, finding a true pro/super is rare and finding one who is young and new to the industry is akin to hunting for unicorns. They simply don’t exist. Most pro/supers have either retired or, sadly, passed away. It is a shame because I can name five financially challenged clubs right now that could benefit greatly from an experienced pro/super — someone who could handle the outside operations, whip a course back into shape and manage the golf shop. You can likely think of at least one such course right now.

That started me thinking: Could a return of the pro/super save some of the smaller clubs that are still struggling? With that question in mind, I set out on a nationwide search for the elusive pro/super to find out why they are on the brink of extinction and what (if anything) could be done to reverse the trend. What I discovered was revealing, intriguing and a little disheartening.

Sam Dunning has worked as the golf professional and superintendent at Cleveland (Miss.) Country Club since the summer of 1977.
© photo courtesy of Sam Dunning

I began by asking Darren Davis, the current president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and superintendent at Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples, his thoughts on pro/supers, what happened to them and if he thought the return of the pro/super could save some smaller clubs that were struggling financially. His answer was blunt and to the point: “I just can’t wrap my head around one person filling both positions.” Fair enough. It is daunting to think of the time required to do both jobs, but Davis’ reasoning is both realistic and rational. “I believe that both the golf professional and the golf course superintendent serve a vital role at a facility,” he adds. “Both professions have certainly advanced with the times, in part because technology in both professions has advanced. This has required enhanced skills in both.”

Davis’ response resembles the answer I received from Mississippi State University’s Jeff Adkerson, the director of that school’s PGA Golf Management Program. Founded in 1985, the program at Mississippi State is the PGA’s second-oldest program. “The expectations of the consumer and employers are greater now than ever before,” Adkerson says. “To meet these expectations, individuals have to specialize in one of the areas — either golf professional or superintendent. The technical aspects of both jobs require greater knowledge and with the rapid pace in which technology changes, it would be challenging to be an expert in both fields.”

I’ve known Adkerson for more than 25 years and I graduated from the PGM program at Mississippi State many … many … many years ago. I worked for a bit as an assistant club professional before starting my career as a golf course architect, but I wanted to know more about his take on the pro/super from the perspective of a PGA member whose experience is much more than being a club professional. Adkerson is in charge of grooming a few hundred young men and women for careers as club professionals and general managers. In my day, part of that curriculum involved two classes in the turf management program, alongside students who would be going on to start careers as golf course superintendents. Those were some of my favorite classes in college along with “Design of the Golf Environment” and “Golf Course Architecture I,” a pair of classes no longer offered.

What I discovered was that the curriculum has changed to adapt to the demands of the current marketplace. “The specialized university programs for turf management and PGA Golf Management offer little overlap as currently designed,” Adkerson says. “In order for a student to complete degree requirements in both programs and become a pro/super, the student would be enrolled at the university for six to seven years. The financial cost at that point becomes an obstacle, as the cost to attend college continues to increase.”

Like so many things in life, time and cost may be two of the biggest obstacles in recruiting young pro/supers. Of course, not all superintendents or golf professionals graduated from college with degrees in PGA Golf Management or sports and turf management. Many of them honed their skills with on-the-job training.

A family affair

Much like Dunning, Tommy Burns got his start in the golf business at a young age. He was hired as the assistant golf professional at Selma (Ala.) Country Club in December of 1974. His introduction to the business, however, was a family affair. “My father, Bud Burns, was the pro/super here before me,” Burns recalls. “If I had known I was going to follow in his footsteps, I would have studied turf management instead of history and sports management.”

After 44 years on the job at Selma CC, Burns has obviously found the secret to longevity as a pro/super. But I wanted to know what he felt were the biggest rewards?

“You’re able to see the fruits of your labor on the golf course and there’s the respect of the grounds crew,” Burns says. “The members appreciate the hard work, too.” While he admits that being a pro/super can be a strain on demands for his time, he also takes pride in the fact that filling both positions at Selma CC “saves the club money.”

At 67 years old, Burns is a longtime member of the both the GCSAA and the PGA. He says more young men and women should consider looking into a career as a pro/super to help fill the void that smaller clubs will have as longtime pro/supers retire. “It absolutely makes sense for smaller clubs,” he adds. “As more golf courses struggle to stay open, it might make sense to pay one employee as opposed to two.” And it is helpful to have a pro who understands agronomy and a superintendent who understands the golf shop.

With 44 years behind him, how much longer does Burns think he will continue to work as Selma CC’s pro/super before he hangs it up for good? “I have no plans to retire.” His response is quick and unwavering.

The cost of education would likely prove to be an impediment to a younger person going through both programs for two degrees at a university. For pro/supers from Burns’ generation, however, it was usually a career choice for a different reason. “The pro/super seems to be passed down from one generation to the next,” he laughs.

Burns is not alone in that line of thinking. Currently, there is a petition circulating in the State of Mississippi to add a former pro/super to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. For those outside of the Magnolia State, it might not sound like a big deal. However, simply getting someone’s name on the ballot to be added to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame may be more difficult than finding an 18-year-old who his actively planning his or her college choices based on plans to pursue a career as a pro/super. Why such a high bar just to get on a ballot? For a state with a relatively small population relative to its landmass, Mississippi is home to some memorable athletes — especially when considering football. In the NFL alone, three of the best of all time to play their positions hail from Mississippi: running back Walter Payton, receiver Jerry Rice, and quarterback Brett Favre — and Favre was just inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2015!

All of this is germane to the conversation because the previously-mentioned petition is to posthumously induct Robbie Webb to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Webb was a pro/super of the highest order and a man whose name is synonymous with golf in the Magnolia State. The man leading the charge for that Hall of Fame induction is Robbie’s son, Rob, himself a GCSAA member who in 1996 became only the 10th Certified Golf Course Superintendent in Mississippi. For Rob and many others (myself included), the belief that Robbie Webb deserves his spot in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame is grounded in all that he did for the game of golf throughout the state during his career, including growing the game through junior golf.

“He did so much for the game of golf,” Rob says. “But even more than that, he was instrumental in getting so many juniors involved in a game that they’ve gone on to play for a lifetime. Many of dad’s young students in the 1970s through the early 2000s have gone on to become top players competing at the highest levels both as amateurs and professionals. He had a huge impact on the game of golf statewide.”

One former president of the PGA of America could not agree more. “Robbie was the dean of pro/supers in my mind,” says Ken Lindsay, who served as the 30th President of the PGA from 1997-98 and worked as a pro/super from 1975-79 at Colonial Country Club in Jackson, Miss. “He was always willing to share his experience and knowledge with everyone and was just as comfortable on a tractor as he was in a golf cart.”

Ironically, like Burns, Robbie Webb got his start in the business working for his father (Rob’s grandfather) Charles “Red” Webb when Red was the pro/super at the oldest golf course in Mississippi — the Broadwater Hotel’s Great Southern Golf Course in Gulfport. Young Robbie got his start caddying, working in the grill and getting his reps as a lifeguard at the club pool. “The same things my sisters and I did when we were young and dad was the pro/super at Canton Country Club and Deerfield Country Club,” Rob recalls fondly.

Robbie attended the University of Southern Mississippi on a golf scholarship before returning to Great Southern to work for his father as the assistant pro/super. That’s when his career as a pro/super became, well, let’s call it “active.” After two years at Great Southern, he accepted the assistant pro/super position at Vicksburg (Miss.) Country Club, where he stayed briefly before returning to Hattiesburg. He moved to Hattiesburg to become the superintendent at Hattiesburg Country Club from November 1960 until June 1961, when he left to accept the pro/super position at USM’s golf course literally down the street from Hattiesburg CC. While there, he dabbled in golf course architecture and designed a nine-hole course in Lucedale, Miss., in 1962.

In the spring of 1963, Webb moved to Canton, Miss., to become the pro/super at the then nine-hole Canton Country Club for 15 years, designing and building the back nine there in 1967. In 1978, he left Canton CC to spend the next 10 years as the pro/super at a then soon-to-be-built course called Deerfield Country Club in nearby Madison, Miss. At Deerfield, he helped to build and grow-in the new course for architect Joe Finger and World Golf Hall of Famer Byron Nelson — one of a relatively few courses credited to Nelson as a designer. In May of 1988, Webb returned to Canton CC to work as the pro/super until his retirement in December of 2006. He passed away in the fall of 2012, just shy of his 73rd birthday.

Deerfield Country Club owner/developer J.D. Rankin, Robbie Webb, Byron Nelson and Joe Finger examine sprigs during construction in the early 1980s.
© photo courtesy of Dennis Rankin

“Each field has become so specialized that one person can’t be both the pro and the superintendent and keep up with the competition,” Webb’s son Rob explains. “As a result, colleges started catering to students wanting to be pros and superintendents by offering degrees in their respective fields. Personally, I went the superintendent route because I didn’t want to spend 120 hours at the course every week like I saw my dad work his entire life.”

While working 120 hours a week may sound like hyperbole to some outside the industry, Webb says there was a very shrewd way the club ensured that his father was always nearby. “Back in those days, the norm was to provide a house for the golf pro,” he says. “It seemed like a great incentive, but I think it was designed to keep him and his family on the property to keep up the course, the swimming pool, the tennis courts, you name it.”

“That said,” Webb adds, “my sisters and I have fond memories of riding the course with dad late at night watering the greens with quick couplers. We learned to help out early on with cooking in the grill, running carts, working as forecaddies and lifeguards, and obviously mowing the course.”

Headed toward extinction

There’s a common theme among the pro/supers featured here: dedication to the game, lifelong service, work ethic and having a big impact on junior golf. If you noticed another theme here of pro/supers being more prevalent in the Deep South, you are not alone. While researching this story, I had a difficult time finding any pro/supers working in other parts of the country. Lindsay thinks that being a pro/super in the northern part of the country may have been more difficult with cool-season grasses and extreme weather changes, which would require a different type of turf education. Likewise, as Davis stresses, the superintendent’s career has become too specialized to find young people with the time to handle both jobs at a course.

“I was with four other golf course superintendents yesterday afternoon who wanted to play my golf course,” Davis says in a follow-up email he sent me after our interview. “So, I joined them for a few holes. Afterwards, we had a talk and I asked them your question about pro/supers. None of them knew anyone who had done it.”

So, my original question remains: Could the reemergence of the pro/super help save smaller courses and clubs still struggling in the wake of the Great Recession? While Burns and Dunning are living proof that it can be done (each for more than 40 years at their respective clubs), it would appear that the pool of willing applicants has all but run dry.

As pro/supers left, clubs were forced to replace them with two people: a superintendent and a golf professional. With programs like the PGA’s Golf Management program (now available at 18 universities across the United States) and specialized turf management programs at universities (and some two-year programs) nationwide, the two career tracks of the pro/super quickly diverged. And as those tracks diverged and each became more specialized, the salaries for both increased over the last three decades.

Like rotary phones, balata balls and methyl bromide, the pro/super career track seems lost in the rearview mirror. I doubt we will see a return to the days when pro/supers are increasing — or even static — in number.

Given this story began as a look into a unique type of golf course superintendent, it seems ironic that a former president of the PGA of America – and one of its most decorated members – actually began his career as a pro/super. “You’re correct that the position of pro/super is disappearing rapidly,” Lindsay adds. “And for many of us, we began our careers doing both jobs.”

Of course, that was a different time. But since his start in the golf industry, Lindsay was the PGA Professional of the Year in 1983, the 1987 Horton Smith Award recipient, and he served on the National Rules Committee for 32 years, including as chairman from 1984-89. Additionally, he spent eight years as a rules official on the Champions Tour before retiring in 2008. It’s likely the industry will never see somebody like Lindsay again. As the few pro/supers who are still working retire from their positions, the extinction of the pro/super may well be unavoidable.

GCSAA President and Olde Florida Golf Club superintendent Darren Davis.

The game of golf continues to evolve in an attempt to attract more players and retain existing ones. Likewise, as the industry changes to meet those same challenges and with more demands on time, quality, and resources, I am amazed that the men featured here have been at it for this long. Forty years is a long time to stay at any club or course in one position — not to mention working as both the superintendent and the golf professional. They each deserve a tip of the cap and more than just a watch when they retire. They are emblematic of a simpler time when these men did things because they were not given a choice. It had to be done and they had to do it. Dunning accepted the title of pro/super to be awarded the golf professional job. Burns inherited his title from his father after training under him. Webb was also handed the baton from his father — but he ran a gauntlet rather than a marathon.

With fewer and fewer pro/supers in the industry today and no college curriculum for such a career, the only route left seems to be handed down from generation to generation. However, like Rob Webb proves, that route fades more each year as the next generation elects to specialize in one field of the other for a multitude of reasons such as time, money, and family — if they even stay in the industry at all. Fifty years ago, the multiple generations of pro/supers like those that Rob Webb’s father and grandfather passed down to him was not out of the ordinary. Now it would be the exception and well outside the norm. That said, I did discover that sometimes it comes full circle.

Even if they never met, the pro/supers in this story will forever be connected by a career choice that may be unrealistic by today’s standards. As it turns out, they are also connected in another way. Just before emailing my finished story to the editor, I received a text from Lindsay. As noted earlier, Lindsay is a past President of the PGA of America and was a pro/super for a stretch of time early in his career; but I did not know he is originally from Gadsden, Ala. He sent me the text to let me to know that he not only knew Burns’ father Bud Burns at Selma CC, but he was also friends with Dunning in high school. Small world.

And Dunning? I failed to mention how he got his start in the golf business. He was hired to work on the grounds crew while still in high school and college at Canton Country Club … by Robbie Webb. His exact quote to me, “I was fortunate to work for a legend pro/super, Robbie Webb, during my summers in high school and college.” Dunning’s praise was unsolicited — he did not know that I had already interviewed Webb’s son for this story.

I also asked Dunning the same question I asked Tommy Burns about his retirement plans (by the time this story is published, Dunning will have celebrated his 67th birthday in late July).

“I think about retirement every day,” Dunning laughs. “We’re a very busy club these days and I’m not getting any younger. Then yesterday I gave a lesson to a four-year-old boy who has had five heart surgeries! Five heart surgeries! Watching him get excited to get the ball in the air and turn to smile at me … how can anyone walk away from that?”

How indeed, Sam? How indeed?

Nathan Crace, ASGCA, is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. He appears in this publication by special arrangement. You can find him on Twitter @lipouts and online via Additional notes from the interview with Sam Dunning can be found at