Strictly business

Columns - PARTING SHOTS

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October 2, 2019

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In just the past five years, our industry has seen some huge corporate changes. Mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, upsizing and even a few companies that exited the golf market entirely. While it’s never fun for the people involved in that kind of turmoil, we tend to call it “business as usual” and not bat an eye. Some other company will come along and serve those needs, right?

But when another large organization in golf announced recently it was reducing its headcount through voluntary retirement incentives, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Why would the venerable United States Golf Association need to cut its staff just a few years after announcing a ginormous TV deal with Fox? Why do the cuts seem to hit hardest within the already diminished Green Section, where 11 senior folks were offered and accepted early retirements?

Allow me a few observations ...

The Green Section’s mission had already been evolving over the past decade from dispensing agronomic expertise to superintendents to helping clubs with business, labor and communications challenges. Why? Quite simply, most private club superintendents don’t need the turfgrass consulting services that were the original driving force behind the Green Section. Turfgrass science is now everywhere thanks to universities, industry, private consultants and Twitter. Consequently, the number of clubs willing to pay the annual fee for consulting also shrank.

We’re also seeing the USGA take much the same route as universities — providing education and extension via social and digital media as the resources required to do face-to-face events and visits dry up. Adam Moeller and his team are doing an outstanding job of creating and disseminating focused, timely information via the weekly Green Section Record e-newsletter and an amazing catalog of short videos designed to educate golfers about the realities of agronomy.

So why is this happening now? We asked Rand Jerris, the senior managing director of public services, and here’s what he said: “Earlier this year, the USGA presented a strictly voluntary retirement incentive to more than 60 employees across the organization who were part of a pension plan that was offered to employees who joined the USGA prior to 2008. We made a decision to freeze the pension plan based on participation numbers. We opted to provide each person in the plan who was over the age of 55 a one-time option to receive additional years of eligibility and other benefits (such as continued healthcare) if they chose to retire early. Among those eligible, 49 accepted the offer — 11 of whom worked for the USGA Green Section.”

It’s seemingly all about money and a pension plan that got hammered by the recession. Half the companies in America have had the same problem. As that famed management guru Michael Corleone once said, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”

Unfortunately, there is a very personal side to all of this. I bet virtually all of you reading this know at least one of the eight Green Section veterans who have accepted the retirement offer. Some of you, like me, know all of them: Dave Oatis … Jim Skorulski … Patrick O’Brien … Pat Gross … Larry Gilhuly … Bob Vavrek … Dr. Mike Kenna … Dr. Kimberly Erusha. Three admin employees also accepted retirements: Shelly Foy, Denise Covell and Karen White.

Let that sink in for a minute. As a friend pointed out on Twitter, those individuals represent collectively 325 years of top-level experience. To paraphrase the late Ross Perot, that giant sucking sound you hear is three centuries of wisdom being removed from the Green Section.

But beyond experience, the USGA is jettisoning a far more valuable golf industry asset. In fact, it’s the most valuable commodity in our entire community: relationships.

Each of these folks has hundreds of decades-long relationships with club leaders, superintendents, academics, architects, builders and even media who are critical to the USGA’s mission. While I understand that it’s only business, I also tend to think the folks in charge at Golf House don’t fully realize what they are giving up in order to fix the pension plan and move on with the evolution of the Green Section.

So, things change and we move on. But this time can we all do one thing that we don’t normally do when there’s some kind of seismic corporate shuffle? Can we all just say thanks to these folks? Call them. Write them a thank-you note. Buy them a drink. Take them to dinner. Log on to Twitter or Facebook and express your gratitude. Let them know that you genuinely appreciate all they’ve done for us.

Or you could write them a column like this and just say “thank you.”

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