Someone must drive the bus

Columns - golf therapy

November 8, 2022

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At every successful golf course renovation, someone must be in charge. Invariably, it’s a club member. That becomes a thankless task, involving endless meetings, lost rounds of golf, too many conversations at the 19th hole and three or four strokes higher on one’s index. Without someone driving, the project goes rudderless and the proposed renovation usually falls short — or more often, never even gets off the ground.

At the California Golf Club of San Francisco, it was, for 15 years, a gritty, no-nonsense ex-Marine named Al Jamieson, who refused to take “no” for an answer. Around the same time, at Brookside Country Club in Canton, Ohio, a spreadsheet-wizened businessman named Steve Cress drove the process forward while serving as club president. And at Santa Ana (California) Country Club, almost a decade ago, it took the late Senator Bob Dole’s former legislative aid, Mitchell Pettit, to negotiate a hotbed of well-funded opposition by a group of recalcitrant members to drag the major overhaul through to completion.

This is not a job for superintendents. It cannot be up to a paid employee of the club, least of all someone whose full-time job is to keep members happy, the turf healthy and to put up with the normal stresses of the job.

One thing you learn about renovation that they never teach you in landscape architecture or turf school is the human side of the job. It takes arm-twisting, coalition building, and a tolerance for endless idiocy and arrogance to knock down the barriers that members put in the way of even the most sensible infrastructure upgrade.

Most of the resistance at clubs, it must be said, comes from understandable inertia and ignorance of what it takes to keep a golf course in proper shape. The real problems requiring persistent leadership come in the face of opposition by those golfers, usually seniors and those who can barely afford to maintain their own dues payments, who think the golf course is great as it is or who refuse to budge because they fear added expenses or worry that course closure will impede their (over)use of the facility.

The strongest opposition comes from about 10 percent of the membership, whose vocal resistance is out of all proportion to their numbers when it comes to volume, intensity and willingness to misrepresent things. It doesn’t help when the vocal minority cows the general manager, golf pro or superintendent into timidity. They can’t lead the process, but they can certainly provide professional expertise. There is no better start to a successful renovation than a solid working alliance among these three major professional managers.

It’s not required to be ruthless, just persistent, focused and flexible. Among the many fine arts of the craft are the ability to pretend to listen to nonsense while trusting the experts in agronomy, irrigation, engineering and course architecture. It also helps to be able to scrutinize a spreadsheet. Most of all, you need to know what you don’t know and how to rely on those who can fill those gaps. That’s where the teamwork comes in.

All of which takes time: lots of meetings, endless phone conversations, emails, texts and back-channel communicating. It’s also necessary to build a corps of 15 to 25 loyal allies whose avidity for golf and experience with fine design elsewhere enables them to spread the word subtly.

Best of all to make the case is the support of a few elder members who used to run the club and who can now openly fess up to the membership that they didn’t really know what they were doing back then and just “winged it” and are now glad to see the professionals step in.

During all of this, the selfless leader of the process will face thanklessness, humiliation and the feeling that not only are they not getting paid for their time, they are actually paying monthly dues for the right to be involved. Such is the unique position of “paying to volunteer.” At the end, when all is done, the measure of success will be that half of those who voted against the plan will take credit for the outcome.

Let them. A real leader always gives more credit publicly to others than they deserve and always takes the high road in doing so. The important thing is that the golf course will be the better for it and the superintendent’s burden a little less. Meanwhile, the person who led the process can get back to the important stuff — reclaiming the lost strokes of their golf game.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter at @BradleySKlein.