Money isn’t everything

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White Cliffs Country Club superintendent Lianne Larson switched career paths 35 years ago and never looked back.

November 8, 2022

© courtesy of white cliffs country club (2)

Lianne Larson starts nearly every work day as a golf course superintendent between 3 and 4 a.m. Depending on which house she stays at, she either has a 1-hour, 20-minute commute to work, or a two-minute commute after letting her dog out and making her own breakfast.

Arriving at 5 a.m. with her dog by her side, she will work tirelessly on the 18-hole private course that is White Cliffs Country Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts — the same course she has worked at for the last 26 years. Her evenings will vary, but she ends the day around 8 or 9 p.m. to ensure she gets enough sleep for the never-ending job that is a superintendent. 

This daily routine is a stark contrast to the one Larson had over 35 years ago as a financial analyst.

“It just wasn’t for me,” she says. “It was just too confined, and I didn’t like being in an office all day long.” After 10 months, Larson switched career paths, conveniently forgetting to mention it at the time to her mother. 

“I actually didn’t tell anybody,” she says. “I just kind of did it and my mother drove by the course that I was working at and said, ‘Did I see you at St. Mark’s with a string trimmer in your hand?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, did I forget to tell ya?’” 

Her journey to switching career paths wasn’t a smooth transition, however. Her longtime friend and former colleague Jeff Carlson tells the story of how Larson faced discrimination when job hunting. 

“She applied at various times for superintendent jobs, as we all do to move up the ladder,” he says. “Various what we would consider “higher-end” jobs came up — private clubs in the area — and she would send in her resume, she would answer questions, and oftentimes, she would get an interview.

“One of the ways she got an interview was how she filled out the application. She would fill out her name as ‘Lee A. Larson’ and I know for a fact, because she told me, that she went to an interview where she was positive that the entire committee thought she was going to be a man. Instead of getting really upset about it — disappointed? I’m sure she was. Upset and bitter? Nope. And I was really impressed with that. And I was really irritated because I always felt she was a superintendent who could have had some really interesting opportunities that just didn’t pan out, and I think some of the reason is because she was a woman. 

“But then she went to White Cliffs. She turned White Cliffs completely around. She was and still is holding a very high standard of maintenance on the courses that she oversees.”

Superintendent Lianne Larson and team are responsible for maintaining 18-hole White Cliffs Country Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
© courtesy of white cliffs country club (2)

While Larson had to prove herself in more ways than one, her finance background continues to set her apart.

“She was an anomaly in our area because she could grow grass and she could manage, and manage really well,” Carlson says. “She could take a budget and present it, she could figure it out, make it work, balance it, and present it really well to the board. A lot of us at the time, that wasn’t considered our strongest suit. We were more or less judged on what kind of condition the golf course was in. Over the last 30 years, I’m not the only one who has gone on to not only admire her but to lean on her for help in managing golf courses. She’s really good at it. 

“I know a lot of superintendents in the area kind of took advantage of that really. We’re indebted to her for help in that area.”

Larson has many notable achievements to back up these praises, such as being president of the GCSA of Cape Cod, but feels she is most fortunate to simply have a successful career in the industry. Throughout the years, her position has grown immensely in responsibility.

“The job has become far more professional than it was back then,” Larson says. “We are maintaining turf at heights that, 35 years ago, I never would have thought possible. The invention of moisture meters and the computerized irrigation systems — there’s so much that has taken place that makes this job more professional, more advanced. But also, expectations are higher than they were back then.”

Larson continues to meet and exceed those expectations at White Cliffs.

“Her position has evolved from the superintendent to kind of — not general manager, they have one of those — but like a director of operations,” Carlson says. “All the capital expense stuff goes through her now and she takes charge of that. Her job has expanded, and responsibilities have expanded at White Cliffs, and I know that they really rely on her. I would not want to be the superintendent that follows her when she decides to move on or retire. 

“Any longtime members of White Cliffs would say the condition of the golf course, the condition of the operation, the professional way that it is operated, has gone way up in the time she has been there. I’m sure a lot of those people don’t know anyone else, so their expectations are high but anyone who has been there since before she got there, I’m sure, would have a lot to say about that.” 

Larson isn’t the only one responsible for keeping the course in shape, though. Across all six departments she manages, she confidently leads a team of about 35 to 50 people through routines and obstacles that may arise.

“I’m very fortunate that my two golf course assistants, Ross Riberdy and Mike Baptiste, have been with me for a long time,” she says. “They know the course, they understand that my job is always changing every day. They’re really the backbone of my operation. And then I also have a landscape manager who once was a golf course superintendent, he’s another big part. They keep the teams running so that I can keep it running from my end. 

“I have great support within the club, my general manager is very supportive and understanding. The people that we have are good people, people who care and hardworking people.”

One of the obstacles the team encountered came in 2017, when a major storm racked up millions of dollars’ worth of damage. It wasn’t the first or last storm the course would see, and Larson is known by other area superintendents as the “Duchess of Doom” for her weather forecasts. 

“If you called up Lianne and it had been raining at your property, she will have had at least an inch more,” Carlson says. “If it was dry, you wouldn’t believe how much drier it was at White Cliffs. If it snowed that day and we had 6 inches of snow, she had at least a foot, if not more.”

Showing no signs of slowing down, Larson walks nine holes at White Cliffs every morning with her golden retriever, taking in the sunrise and the breeze on the coastline.

“You have to be happy with what you do,” she says, “or life isn’t really what it should be.”

Cassidy Gladieux is a Kent State University senior and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.