Be thankful for what you have

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Ever take working in the United States turf industry for granted? You won’t after learning the plight of a determined agronomist from a nation with little golf infrastructure.

January 8, 2021

© dr. John Kaminski/ Courtesy of Raul Iurk

While seated in Starbucks, one of my favorite places in the United States, I realized that my desired career in the American turf industry was about to end prematurely. I had just left an appointment with an immigration attorney knowing I would no longer be permitted to continue working in the industry I learned to love. The attorney, frostily, like a doctor communicates a bad disease, told me that my profile did not fit any of the available visa types. He strongly encouraged me to take a step back and leave my dreams when my legal authorization expired. It felt bad, like a punch right in the stomach.

Immediately, I started looking back on everything I did until that day and the bad feeling was just getting worse. During the last seven years of my life, I lived and breathed turf 24 hours a day, dreaming one day I’d become a golf course superintendent. From my humble start at a small club in Brazil in 2013 to my last day at famed Merion Golf Club in 2019, I had lived an intense experience filled with lots of good memories, true self-determination and personal sacrifice.

Golf was always a passion of mine and I have been playing it for a long time. But it wasn’t until 2013 that I had my first contact with golf course maintenance. Like many others in this business, I accidentally ended up working at a small golf club located in my hometown in southern Brazil. With a business background, I was hired to assist in finances. As the work progressed, I was doing a little bit of everything, from customer service to tournament organization and eventually agronomics. This is not how it’s supposed to be in an organized work environment. Unfortunately, it is how things are for many clubs in Brazil. This experience immediately sparked a passion for golf course maintenance and working outdoors. More important, it introduced me to a whole new industry and the discovery of a new profession: the golf course superintendent occupation. The advent of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio boosted my desire even more and brought high expectations it could bring advancements to the local turf industry. Suddenly, I was seriously considering a career switch to prepare myself for this promising future.

It was clear I would need to start with a solid education, so I realized I needed to enroll in an American turf program. It was a very tough decision for several reasons based on my profile:

  • I’m in my mid-30s, a difficult age to start something from scratch.
  • Portuguese is my native language, and it could be a barrier.
  • As a Latin American native, I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted and if it could impact career advancements.
  • I’m married. I would need to leave my wife back in Brazil to complete a good preparation.
  • Lastly, it would be a big investment, especially considering an American dollar is worth six Brazilian reals.

The odds were against me, but I decided to face the risks and pursue my dream, knowing that if I didn’t succeed in the United States, I could obtain a strong education capable of leading me to a solid occupation in my local industry. To increase my chances of success, I had to give it my best. I started my preparation early by improving my English skills at night and working during the day at the club. You can’t find technical vocabulary for turf at any English school, so my personal method was early purchases of books recommended by my future Penn State advisor, Dr. John Kaminski.

It’s hard now to imagine that two years ago I concluded the Golf Course Turfgrass Management Program at Penn State University. It was by far the best professional education of my life. The fact that I was not successful in my previous academic attempts made me a frustrated and unconfident person. Through the program, I received a second chance to make things right and overcome many issues. The fact that I was studying turf, a subject I really loved, made things enjoyable and my dedication was growing every day. I earned a respectable GPA, collected scholarships, developed a network and even joined a champion Sports Turf Managers Association student challenge team. Suddenly, like taking a medicine for a headache, those bad memories from the past about academic performance were over. I’m proud of becoming the first South American graduate of the Penn State program.

In 2017, I accepted an internship at Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, working for director of greens and grounds Brannon Goodrich. His mentorship resulted in an internship exceeding all expectations. He split me between two golf courses, providing an opportunity to work with warm- and cool-season grasses, and involved me in every part of the agronomic process. I was also required to participate in meetings and watch boardroom presentations.

On one special occasion, I received a radio call asking me to show up in the office. Brannon wanted me to meet legendary USGA Green Section agronomist Patrick O’Brien, who was visiting Carmel for a consulting visit and bunker evaluation. Brannon had me shadow and assist Patrick throughout the visit. Suddenly, I was having a full day with an experienced USGA agronomist and learned plenty from our interaction, including the dynamics surrounding debates about bunker playability and conditions.

Merion represented my final job in the United States. The experience at such a historic facility, although much shorter than expected, was unforgettable. I arrived at Merion as an assistantant-in-training to reinforce East Course superintendent Patrick Haughey’s team during the final phase of a major restoration. It was a hot summer and my primary job involved moisture management on bentgrass areas. On one summer day, I was watering hot spots on the sixth fairway and, suddenly, director of grounds operations Paul B. Latshaw stopped by for a personal inspection. He gently asked for the hose and watered the areas by himself while showing me hidden dry spots and how he likes things to be done. At one point, I asked him about moisture and diseases relation. He looked at me and said, “Son, at this time of the year, in order to have diseases, we will need to have grass first!” I still carry that lesson in the back of my mind about priorities.

Raul Iurk’s final job before leaving the United States was at famed Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
© raul uurk

Collecting wicker baskets — which Merion uses in place of flags — during the “Golden Hour” at the end of the day was another incredible memory. What I would now give to have another look at that course.

As I was gaining on-course experience, I continued my education through various programs and opportunities offered to ambitious turf managers. I participated in the GCSAA’s assistant superintendent certification program, attended the 2019 Green Start Academy and volunteered at a pair of PGA Tour events. These experiences forged my turf DNA.

Being disconnected from this industry and struggling to find opportunities back home in Brazil proved difficult. Having success and then seeing it stopped because of legal authorization could have easily resulted in “poor me” syndrome. But I prefer to use the time to rethink and try to backtrack possible mistakes.

For starters, my back-up plan was an enormous pitfall. The strong preparation did not lead to a great occupation at home. Even with the Olympics, the local turf industry did not evolve. Brazil has 117 courses. The number hasn’t changed since 2016. We still don’t have a public golf course. High-priced memberships and green-fee taxes are the rule and a major impediment to expanding the game. In such a restricted market, a solid turf industry can’t flourish, thus comprising the future. Lack of work organization, certified professionals, associations and a legislated herbicide market are just some of the obstacles. I prepared myself to the highest level for an industry that has yet to emerge.

Because work advertisement is non-existent and the industry is very limited, looking for jobs can be a hard task. You literally need to knock on the club’s door. I did it a couple of times and it was a frustrating experience. I started with the Olympic Golf Course, the place that once motivated me to seek professional development. They never granted a professional interview.

It came to my attention that the superintendent had left and the assistant was in an indefinite extended medical situation. Confident of my background, I reached out to them and made myself available. They replied with little enthusiasm. I wasn’t considered for a position. In another job interview, after a huge wait following my first call, I was offered a superintendent job at the salary of US $1,200 and under the condition I put aside the agronomic plan I traced for the course to follow the agronomic approach of a board member. This is just one example of the disrespectful practices in the Brazilian golf market.

The much-deserved respect and professional recognition is one of the reasons why I love the United States turf industry and hold it in such high regard. Also, if you are struggling, you have associations and a huge extended network of turf people willing to help you. This is also the same reason why I get sad seeing people take their jobs for granted. Many forget the benefits of an organized industry and how chaotic it can be without it. For me, just the fact you can open a professional website and choose between hundreds of job opportunities is a blessing.

I had a few misconceptions about my ability to succeed in the industry, beginning with age, nationality and language. I also arrived in the United States thinking the industry was saturated with talent. Conversely, many things were different. The industry had numerous opportunities available in all levels of the hierarchy and work organization. Plus, all the places I worked were inclusive. I saw a lot of people also in their mid-30s who had switched careers. That was a big motivator. My English also improved tremendously by the end of the program.

But I was late to the game. If I really wanted to develop a career in United States, I needed to prepare around my immigration process, as it was the most important thing to do immediately upon my arrival. The process is lengthy. There are many types of visas, and you should govern your decisions around their specifics. The system is hard to navigate even if you have professional assistance. Examples of visas available to those working in the turf industry include:

Raul Iurk, second from top left, quickly meshed with his Penn State classmates and remains in contact with many of them.
© courtesy of raul iurk

H-1B: This is the standard work visa. If you are planning to follow up with this type, you will be required to have at least a bachelor’s degree. A turf certification won’t work. Another important detail is making sure your home country is not on the restricted list. An employer sponsor is necessary for this type of visa.

H-2B: This is the seasonal visa. This visa is restricted to unskilled labor. Therefore, if you have a degree/certification or are already in a skilled occupation within any organization inside the United States, you will not be able to apply for this visa. An employer sponsor is also necessary.

Green card through labor sponsor: It is possible for any person regardless of nationality to get a green card (permanent residency) in the United States through the labor sponsor. The petition only can be placed by an employer requiring a labor certification process within the Department of Labor, proving the hiring will not impact labor availability. The overall process is extremely hard to navigate and it can take years to accomplish. If you are planning to navigate this option, be aware that you will burden your employer with monetary and time expenses and might not be a good approach for entry levels. Employers may pass along the costs through lower wages. With this petition, you will be tied to your employer until the process is completed. As a result, the employer wields an enormous amount of power.

EB-1: This is a priority worker visa. You may be eligible for a green card if you are an alien with a special talent in the field, willing to work in the United States in your area of expertise and the work will benefit the country. No employer sponsor is needed. However, the criteria of special talent or extraordinary ability is hard to prove. It is required from the applicant to match a certain number of criteria that can include awards, publications, professional memberships and involvement in the community. The good thing is that a solid educational program like Penn State can put you halfway there. I’m still trying to figure out more about this visa. Keep in mind the kind of club you are working for can be a huge factor when it comes to a labor sponsor. Large country clubs with numerous layers are more difficult to navigate whereas private clubs with a single-owner or limited membership facility can increase your chances of obtaining the proper visa.

Last year was very challenging for many people across the world to stay mentally healthy. For me, it just fed a permanent feeling of isolation through the removal from work imposed by immigration, leading me to symptoms of depression. To avoid an imminent mental collapse, I needed to find tools that could help me avoid this bad feeling and I was fortunate to find some. The virtual meeting format was highly beneficial for somebody in my situation. Events such as the Carolinas GCSA Conference and the Penn State Happy Hours provided opportunities to stay educated and updated about industry happenings and, most important, they kept me connected to the professional network I developed. With more time available, I reconnected with the game of golf. I had forgotten how beneficial it can be to your state of mind.

I now find myself motivated with a new mindset. I overcame some of the frustrations with positive thoughts and a sense of thankfulness for everything I had accomplished so far. Also, I viewed my situation as a forced, not definitive, pause. This has motivated me to keep looking into the future.

I’m staying connected with the industry in a way that will prepare me for a strong return if something changes. I’m using extra free time to work on my European citizenship. If I succeed, I will explore the European market as a method to accelerate my career. I’m also planning to expand my education with a bachelor’s degree in turfgrass science. Obtaining a degree would help my immigration petitions and, perhaps, create an avenue for my return.

The United States turf industry is where I want to be. The industry is inclusive, friendly, boasts distinguished associative participation and is always on the cutting edge of turf technology. Sometimes people don’t have the perspective to realize the industry’s greatness. Rejoining it would be an honor.

Raul Iurk is native of Brazil who completed the two-year turfgrass management program at Penn State University. He’s currently living in Europe as he navigates his way through the immigration process.