The new labor normal

Columns - america’s greenkeeper

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No, not the sound of the original putter designed by Karsten Solheim. I’m referring to the sound of my phone alerting me to an incoming text message. Our workday starts at 6 a.m. I hold my breath, shortly after 5 a.m., prior to the inevitable.

Ping! Employee 1: “Hey, I’ve been up all night with a stomachache and I’m not feeling well. I’m not going to be able to make it in today.” Me: “10-4, Hope you feel better.”

Ping! Employee 2: “I have a nail in my tire and I can’t get there until after the garage opens at 7:30 a.m. Sorry for the inconvenience.” Me: “10-4, Thanks for the heads up.”

Ping! Employee 3: “Sorry, I’m going to be late today. I forgot my boots and had to turn around.”

My old boss and mentor, Rick Owens, CGCS, once told me a mediocre performer is better than no performer. These words have stuck with me throughout my career and are probably a good reason why I’m patient and tolerant when it comes to evaluating employees. But it’s hard for one to reach a level of mediocrity when they’re not here frequently enough to evaluate.

Times have changed and websites like and Craigslist have replaced traditional help-wanted ads. Job postings are inundated at first with responses of interest giving you a momentary pause of hope, but that soon fades when you realize more than 70 percent aren’t what you’re looking for, and of the 30 percent you contact for appointments, more than half don’t respond – or even worse – fail to show at the appointed time.

I have fewer than 10 people on a staff that co-hosted the U.S. Mid-Am last year. Nearly 60 percent of my team from one year ago is new. In other words, the “Green Team” at Carolina Golf Club is green. Despite that level of inexperience, I believe we have produced conditions this growing season rivaling, if not exceeding, those of last year’s championship. But the road remains bumpy.

I didn’t realize how spoiled I was with an experienced staff until they were replaced with young men who spent the bulk of their youth indoors. One morning, as I was headed onto the course, our equipment manager told me he witnessed a newcomer assigned to mow greens leaving the shop without a bucket for the mower. I had assigned that individual Route 1, which meant he was headed to the first green, nearly a half-mile from the Turf Care Center.

I quickly sprang into action. I grabbed a bucket and headed toward the first green, thinking I would save time by preventing him from backtracking to the shop. As I arrived and he was about to pull away, I handed him the bucket with a smile on my face and a clever comment.

Two minutes later, I’m taking TDR readings on the green he’s supposed to be mowing and he still hasn’t started. He walked over and told me I brought him the wrong bucket. In my haste, I didn’t pay attention to which bucket I snagged. Total facepalm emoji moment.

I quickly called an assistant to bring a proper bucket. Several more minutes passed. Our equipment manager then called across the radio: “Someone has taken the wrong mower and we need to locate it, and have it returned and exchanged.” You guessed it. After two attempts to prevent this young operator from having to backtrack, he had the wrong mower and had no choice but to return to the shop.

I was talking with a peer about this same topic recently and he referenced a grizzled, veteran superintendent he knows who never would have tolerated this type of behavior 20 years ago. He now finds it to be normal. As a result, that superintendent has lowered his expectations of what his agronomy team can produce.

Even patient people have limits. Mine have been stretched and tested this year. Between personal ailments to automobile issues, something is always causing someone to call or text reasons for tardiness or inability to work.

And it would be easy to terminate the culprits. But considering the pain and trouble experienced in finding, let alone hiring these lads, I’ve worked around it. So, is this the new normal or am I alone? I hope it’s the latter, but something tells me others have experienced this too.

For the record, I partied a little too hard at times in my younger days. My mother always stressed if I wanted to engage in those activities, I was not permitted to do so at the expense of my job responsibilities. But times are different, so I take a deep breath and remind myself growing grass is the easy part. Then I brace for the next bump in the road.

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, N.C., and President of the Carolinas GCSA. Follow him on Twitter @CGCGreenkeeper.