Penultimate

Columns - PARTING SHOTS

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October 30, 2019

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I’m pretty sure that, over the course of writing 400 or so columns, I’ve never once used the word “penultimate.” It’s such a cool-sounding fancy word that has a very simple meaning: “next to last.”

Well, kids, this is my penultimate column for Golf Course Industry.

After 15 years of filling up this back page with words, I’m going to write one more in December and then turn the space over to a new voice. I don’t know who it will be and I’m not going to ask ... it’s none of my business, really. We’ll all find out together when the January 2020 issue hits the streets.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some unfinished business.

I’ve tried to use this column over the years to shine a light on the good, the bad and (occasionally) the ugly of our happy little industry. And there is much that’s good.

Overall, I’m heartened that life has improved for superintendents over the past couple of decades. Recognition of your value among core golfers has grown dramatically. We’ve made huge progress in advocacy and understanding among lawmakers. Sympathetic coverage in the golf media is light years ahead of where it was in the ’90s. Fewer of y’all are dropping dead from overwork and lousy health habits, and more of you are achieving something akin to work-life balance. And we’ve built a culture of sustainability that will serve us well in the future.

But some stuff still sucks and there is work left to be done.

First, we haven’t made much progress in terms of managing golfer expectations. Blame television, blame the Tour, blame Augusta National, blame whomever ... but it’s really our own damned fault for being so good at creating fabulous fast and firm conditions at a wide range of facilities. Now we face a real challenge: How do you meet those expectations — which are often based on detail and “little things” — when you simply can’t hire enough bodies to do it?

Automation is, of course, the answer to that question. Yet the demand for something like autonomous fairway mowers is not being met by the manufacturing community for reasons I don’t fully understand. Where are the damned robots?

We need to stop pretending that there is a one-size-fits-all business model for golf course maintenance. The days of having 800 newly minted turf school graduates annually flooding the market and providing cheap “apprentice” labor are over and they’re never coming back. Stop bemoaning that and find a better way via technical schools, online education, and simple training and mentorship. Why can’t we hire for passion and fundamental skills and teach them the rest?

We must pay assistants more. Period. The future depends on it.

We also generalize way much about the “golf market.” I’ve been guilty as hell of this over the years. Too often we assume that all 14,800-ish facilities in the U.S. have access to resources and are managed by qualified supers. Not true today and never has been true.

Remember that less than half of facilities have a GCSAA member on staff and about a third of them have maintenance budgets under $300,000 annually. A big chunk of smaller-budget courses don’t even have a full-time superintendent. There isn’t one big golf market, there are at least a half-dozen smaller ones. Shouldn’t we adapt education and training strategies accordingly?

I’m glad to see more attention being paid to mental health but can we acknowledge that the majority of the anxiety we feel is self-induced? Honestly — and I hate to be the guy who finally says this — this notion that being a superintendent is the most stressful occupation in the world is utter nonsense.

We always make it sound like external factors (“unrealistic expectations”) are to blame when, in fact, the problem is this culture that we have perpetuated ourselves for a hundred years. This whole notion that turfheads are a society of mad monks who live and breathe every moment to produce perfect conditions needs to go away. Passion is great. Obsession? Not so much.

Here’s my advice: if you feel overwhelmed, talk to someone, go for a walk or workout, try some mindfulness, get some anti-depressant medication … DO SOMETHING instead of just bemoaning how tough it is.

Also, the idea that an article in Golf Digest somehow validates everything is bullshit. I love and respect Ron Whitten, but that piece did more harm than good.

So, there you have it ... my penultimate rant. There are a million more things I could bitch about, but it’s a beautiful day and I’m going for a power walk. In next month’s finale, I intend to share some love. Talk to you then.

Pat Jones is the editor-at-large of Golf Course Industry. He can be reached at pjones@gie.net.