His Name Was Pat

Features - Work-life balance

Matthew Wharton wonders if more can be done to help superintendents experiencing mental health struggles.

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December 3, 2018
Matthew Wharton
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Wharton

The year was 2004 and I walked to the San Diego Convention Center very early that morning because I wanted to find my room before others arrived. I was registered for a full-day seminar (we used to do that regularly back in those days) and was excited to be in California for the first time.

After locating my seminar room, I stepped out back of the convention center onto the large area overlooking the beautiful marina. The weather was perfect and the view stunning. There was one other guy out there taking it in and he said hello. His name was Patrick Connell, CGCS, and he was the golf course superintendent of New Burn Country Club in New Burn, N.C.

A little while later we discovered we were in the same seminar and as the week of Conference and Show continued (it wasn’t called the Golf Industry Show until 2005), we would continue to bump into one another. I recall Pat telling me about a former boss of his who explained each year at the Conference and Show there is this one guy you meet and the two of you always seem to continue crossing paths throughout the week. I guess in 2004 Pat was my guy and I was his, as if fate was trying to encourage us to become friends.

At that time, I was superintendent of Swan Point Yacht & CC in Issue, Md. I didn’t relocate to Charlotte, N.C., until May 2005 and it wasn’t until November 2006 that I attended my first Carolinas GCSA Conference & Show in Myrtle Beach, S.C. I think I continued to see and reunite with Pat at both GIS in Orlando 2005 and Atlanta 2006, but in November 2006 I definitely remember seeing and reconnecting with Pat. I was now the superintendent of Carolina Golf Club and a member of the same GCSAA chapter. As the years went by, we would always make time to sit together during the general education sessions and catch up with one another in Myrtle Beach. I always looked forward to seeing Pat.

In time, I became involved with my local association in the greater Charlotte area, the North-South Turfgrass Association and served on its board of directors from 2009-13, including President in 2013. Even though Pat was across the state and member of a different local association, we would talk several times throughout the year. Mainly it was because we both managed bentgrass putting greens and it was always therapeutic to share the experiences of summer, but Pat would also routinely express his thoughts and ideas about the chapter as if he knew someday I would serve on the board.

(Side note: I was elected to the Board of Directors of the Carolinas GCSA in November 2014 and was elected President for 2019 at last month’s Conference and Show.)

I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t pay close enough attention then to all the signals that were right there at the time. When I look back on my relationship with Pat and our times together, he generally seemed unhappy. He complained a great deal about his club, board, committee, GM, etc. It was a struggle in Pat’s eyes to produce the level of conditioning New Burn CC desired and he desired to produce with the resources and support he was provided. Obviously, I was someone Pat felt comfortable venting those frustrations to and I recall one phone conversation where he expressed more should be done and provided by the association.

At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, but I think Pat’s work-related struggles were an ever-increasing stress on him mentally and physically. I think Pat was asking for mental health assistance from either the chapter or GCSAA long before mental health became a “hot topic” on social media like present day.

Which is why I’m writing this. I missed the early signs Pat was sharing with me in those days, but the reality is this wonderful job we all love and enjoy can be stressful. Older generations were viewed as tough guys because they didn’t show their feelings and they tended to keep things bottled up, at least until they had consumed enough from a bottle to release those frustrations in other ways.

This past year I saw many different posts on social media encouraging men, and women to talk about their mental health. I’ve been an International Member of the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association since 2010 and BIGGA is definitely making a conscious effort to provide educational content to their members to help raise awareness and provide outlets for relief. I have served on the GCSAA Conference Education Task Group for the past three consecutive years and during our meeting in Lawrence, Kan., earlier this year to select the educational offerings at next year’s GIS, I mentioned how BIGGA has made the topic of mental health a priority and suggested GCSAA do likewise.

Back to Pat. He eventually resigned from New Burn CC and left the business. I’ve always thought somehow the business failed him. Pat was a darn good superintendent, but the stress overwhelmed him to the point he elected to walk away from a career he worked hard to achieve. I’m embarrassed to admit when I lost my phone in 2014 and all my contacts, I lost touch with Pat. Through the years, I’ve managed to rebuild an extensive network of contacts, but Pat still eludes me. Earlier this year when the idea for this article first struck me, I managed to track down a number on file with Carolinas GCSA, but messages left at that number were never returned.

If you or someone you know sounds like Pat, encourage them to talk about their struggles and listen to them more closely than I ever did to Pat. And Pat, if you’re out there somewhere, please know I’m sorry I didn’t do enough to help you when you needed it the most. The golf course superintendent fraternity lost a good one when Pat left the business. I sincerely hope in 2019 the brotherhood and sisterhood bands together to take better care of ourselves and one another.

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, N.C.