It’s OK to seek help

Features - Turfheads Take Over

Ryan Cummings describes how leaning on a mentor can be a sign of strength during trying periods.

December 6, 2019

© photos courtesy of Ryan CumminGs


Each morning when I arrive at work and each night when I leave, I look at those two letters imprinted in the concrete walkway beside the shop door. I’ll get to the reason why I stare down twice a day at a random etching momentarily. But after a few years of looking at them each day, I have realized their importance in my life and my journey as a father, a husband and a golf course superintendent.

The initials stand for Tom Zimmerman. Born and raised in Elkhart County, Indiana and a Vietnam veteran who proudly served his country, Tom began his career in golf course maintenance as an assistant to Bert Rost at the course that I care for now, Elcona Country Club. He took over for Bert in 1974 and served Elcona and its membership for 30 years. Every acre of its property has Tom’s fingerprint and vision on it.

After receiving my turf degree from Purdue in 2005, I was fortunate to be hired at Elcona as an assistant superintendent. I’ll admit, I was overwhelmed for a while. It was a bit different than the experiences I had working at the Purdue golf courses. Tom would drop in for coffee or to check on a project we would be working on and one day he pulled me aside. I guess he noticed my timidness with staff and the tasks at hand. After exchanging pleasantries, he simply asked how the new job was going. After trying to hide my inexperience, I was honest in how my life was going in this new journey. He simply told me, “Your focus should simply be making the course a little better than how you found it when you came in. The rest will come with time.” After chewing on that simplistic view on what I was doing, things came easier for me. I figured out then that he should stay in my contact list.

Fast forward to 2017. I had just had probably one of my toughest years as a turf professional. 2016 had brought some of the nastiest weather I had seen for growing grass, an employee stuck his hand in a moving reel that he never reported as malfunctioning, and I lost most of what little bentgrass I had on greens to Pythium. The last half of the year, I was truly hurting for my best friend in the business who I saw quickly losing his passion to be around the club that brought our two paths together. Trying too hard to help him and be a friend took passion away from me as well.

2018 was more of the same weather and people issues and, to be honest, I was wondering what I was doing to support my wife and kids in this world. It was noticeable to my wife and she kept asking me to go talk with someone. I kept ignoring her requests like a thick-headed male always does. “I’m good,” I kept telling myself, just a bad stretch of events. We had begun plans to renovate our bunkers at the club and I had set up a lunch with Tom to get his opinion on what we were thinking and how to sell it to our membership.

After 15 minutes talking sand and shaping in that small Bristol cafe, I think he could see the frustration and worry in my eyes. Again, he asked simply, “How’s life going? You doing OK?” Those words, in that calming voice, for whatever reason allowed me to let my guard down and get everything off my shoulders. The insecurity and doubt in my ability to do the job anymore. The long hours away from the three people who I truly loved in this world. How I seemed like I had no time for any of my friends or hobbies. How it seemed like very few people in Elkhart County wanted to work hard, have attention to detail and perform quality work for an honest wage. The lack of a clear vision on what my future looked like in five years.

When weather came up, his advice was to embrace the worst that summer brought. “I relished summer because it gave me the opportunity to truly demonstrate my abilities,” he said. “If the course was in great shape during the worst of weather, members definitely noticed that they had the right person at the helm.” Talk of family and how he delegated tasks to allow for more time at home was another great 45 minutes of discussion. While he was honest in saying today’s standards are more extreme than when he was a superintendent, in the end, we are both in the same boat. When we left to head our separate ways, he left me with one final piece of advice: “Above all else, listen to your wife. You’re doing great and the course has never been better. I’m around if you need me.”

Those three hours in a small-town Indiana cafe truly saved me from leaving the industry I love so much. True, the ’80s and ’90s were totally different than today in terms of golfer expectations. I still chuckle each time he mentions the HOC he maintained our “fast” greens at Elcona when he started in 1974. He laughs when mentioning that bunker design in the ’70s was to collect every drop of water from the fairways to maintain their integrity of the turf. But each time I look down at the old concrete path next to the door at the shop, I am reminded of the simple, yet highly effective advice he gave — and continues to give each time I see him at the club or out at lunch in our small community.

2019 is a much different year for me. I quit complaining about the weather and embraced it, with a quality product to show for it. I spent more time at home enjoying whatever activities my kids want to do. I finally listened to my wife and talked to my doctor about what was going on inside this head of mine. Depression is real and when treated, can reignite your passion for personal and professional satisfaction. I still have bad days. But knowing there are people out there with the same challenges and struggles that I do helps a lot.

We all know the importance of mentorship and I have been blessed to have a few great ones in my life. My simple reason for sharing this story is with the focus on our mental health in the last couple of years, make sure you have someone like Tom in your life. Someone to discuss ideas and struggles. Someone who has been in your shoes. Someone to kick you in the ass a bit when you need it. It can truly help you along your journey in our industry. If you aren’t sure who this could be in your situation, don’t overlook subtle hints that are around you. There are many industry veterans in your area that I am sure would relish the chance to mentor the next generation of superintendents. You never know how helpful they can be, like two simple letters hand drawn in wet cement were to me.

Thanks, TZ.

Ryan Cummings is the superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Indiana.