The Thrill of the Turf

Features - Cover Story

They left. They returned. Industry professionals describe what led them back to daily life on a golf course.

June 6, 2019

Stacy Baker caddied his first round when he was 13 years old. Since then, he has worked a couple Colorado summers at Boulder Country Club and a couple seasons at Wellshire Golf Course in Denver. He has designed a tee, a green and a trio of par-3 holes for a wealthy South Korean business owner. For years and years, he has traversed the Pacific Northwest, first climbing the proverbial ladder at Riverside Golf & Country Club in Portland and Tumwater Valley Golf Club near Olympia, then heading down to California’s Table Mountain Golf Club in Oroville and Peach Tree Golf & Country Club in Marysville. Until January, he worked as the director of agronomy for Morton Golf, overseeing all maintenance of the MacKenzie Course and Arcade Creek at Haggin Oaks in Sacramento.

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And for much of this year, he has rolled out of his Northern California bed as early as ever to walk Amber, his beloved Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and Sadee, his rambunctious Labradoodle-German Shepherd, before embarking on another day.

These days, though, are not filled with course work. Not right now, at least.

After Baker returns home with Amber and Sadee, he instead heads back out for some more miles, running seriously for the first time in his life. Then he practices yoga. Then he sits down and writes another thousand or so words of his novel — a not-all-that-autobiographical story about a golfer and her relationship with a greenkeeper-turned-caddie whose wonderful working title is Off the Green — first by hand in the mornings, then pounded out in the afternoons on a 1950s Smith-Corona typewriter he discovered at an antiques store. He’s even carving out time to finally earn his pilot’s license.

Baker is living his best life, exercising his mind and body, spending more time with his girlfriend — a high school English teacher named Sherry Fortner who’s editing his manuscript — and pressing the refresh button on a turf career creeping toward the end of its third decade.

“You have to be able to find something away from the golf course,” says Baker, 48, who previously stepped back from the industry in 2012, when he opted to play golf and bass fish for the better part of a year, and for three years early in his career, when he operated a division of his father’s Eagle Snacks company before Anheuser-Busch peddled it off to Frito-Lay in October 1995. He says he plans to return to the fold — he might be back already by the time you’re reading this story — but his sabbaticals are a sort of necessity and a benefit.

“I always tell people, you never know if you’re going to make it to retirement,” Baker says. “You have to take these little breaks, and then have faith that somebody’s going to give you another chance.”

Baker’s story is anecdotal, of course, but it’s far from an anomaly. Eight superintendents and directors across the country shared their experiences of time off the turf for this story. A couple were fired, but the rest walked away on their own. Some cited family as the driving force behind their decision, others said salary and benefits were the keys. More than a couple mentioned differences with leadership — though they requested details and attribution not be included here, for obvious reasons of keeping bridges sturdy rather than incinerated. Mental health popped up again and again.

No two experiences are the same. The one constant, though, for Baker and everybody else, is the lure of the turf. You could be gone for a week, a month, a year, a decade, and it’s still there, somewhere deep inside, all but impossible to shake.

“It’s nice to at least have a year of retirement,” Baker says. “Then you get the bug again, pulled back into this crazy industry.”

‘I had doors slammed in my face’

According to a 2016 survey published by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, more than half of all American employees reported feeling “overworked or overwhelmed at least some of the time” and almost three-quarters said they “often dream of having a different job.” Few if any of those surveyed likely worked in turf, and there aren’t any firm numbers for the industry — we here at Golf Course Industry have asked about firings in recent State of the Industry surveys but not about what prompts somebody to leave — but plenty of folks have walked away.

Kevin Sunderman, for one. Currently the golf course superintendent at Isla Del Sol Yacht & Country Club in St. Petersburg down in Florida and a member of the GCSAA board of directors, he shifted from sunrises to stocks, working as a broker for Edward Jones for about two years to better financially support his young family.

Jeff Eldridge, too. The director of agronomy at the Clubs of Cordillera Ranch near San Antonio and Austin, he stepped out for about three-and-a-half years, first for “a great opportunity” to become an H&R Block franchise partner, then to enter the sales fray for Bayer to get back closer to golf.

And Adam Deiwert. An assistant superintendent at The Cliffs Mountain Park near Greenville, S.C., and a recent assistant at PGA Tour stop Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, he pressed pause early in his career because of a handful of challenges, including the strain long hours placed on his young marriage, switching gears to work for a local lawncare company, then the third shift at a warehouse distribution center.

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“Coming home, just not seeing each other, we kind of expected that,” Deiwert says. “But she also wasn’t expecting that complete shift in attitude over to how I was acting. It was taking a pretty good toll on our marriage and we’d only been married for three years at the time, so we were still kind of getting used to each other.”

That early stop out of turf school “wasn’t really working out,” Deiwert says, “but there weren’t any other openings in the area, so I was sticking it out as long as I could. It finally got to the point that we were getting ready for the second summer and I told my wife, Acey, I don’t care what it is, I’m just going to start applying for everything turf in the area.”

Eldridge wrestled with the transition from spending his days almost exclusively outdoors — he had most recently worked as the superintendent at Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate near Kansas City — to almost exclusively indoors, and while the course did share more traits with tax preparation than you might imagine, “it just wasn’t a good fit,” he says.

“That whole period of time, from January through April 15, is fairly similar to what you can expect from a golf course in the Midwest June through August, a lot of hours and all that,” Eldridge says. “I don’t mind that. It was just different getting used to it at that time of year. But the stresses are equal. I think I started realizing when the weather started turning nice again that first year, that, ‘Man, I want to be out there.’”

Sunderman arrived in Florida around the turn of the century with his wife, Melani, their toddler son and their soon-to-be-born daughter, only to find that his new employer had not approved his promised salary. Instead, he received about two-thirds of what had been quoted. “We had bought a house based on that amount,” he says. “We did it for a while, but we were struggling to make ends meet. Now we had two kids and a mortgage, and not seeing any great golf opportunities on the horizon, I said, ‘Man, I need to do something else.’”

After talking with his brother, Mike, a fellow agriculture buff who landed with Edward Jones, Sunderman interviewed with the company, learned the finance industry and started walking neighborhoods to establish face-to-face conversations. “This was right after the tech bubble burst, so a lot of people had just lost a lot of money,” he says. “I had doors slammed in my face. I was called a crook. I was bitten by a dog. There were times I would park my car at the end of the street and throw up on my shoes.” Sunderman pushed through and was on track to earn close to $100,000 his second year — more than three times his last turf salary — but he missed being on the course and building things with his hands. He missed the sunrises.

This was right after the tech bubble burst, so a lot of people had just lost a lot of money. I had doors slammed in my face. I was called a crook. I was bitten by a dog. There were times I would park my car at the end of the street and throw up on my shoes.” — Kevin Sunderman

‘Harder than hell to get back in’

Americans switch jobs about a dozen times over the course of their working life, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the median tenure checks in at a whopping 4.0 years for women and 4.3 years for men. Eldridge has eight stops under his belt. Baker has seven. Sunderman has six. So does Deiwert. Some of them might hit a dozen professional changes, but if they do, every new job will almost definitely be in the turf industry.

They’ve ventured out, tested the waters and returned to what they love.

Sunderman scoured classified sections — still relatively robust back in 2004 — then leaned on what he describes as his “meager network” to land an interview at TPC Prestancia in Sarasota. “I basically laid it all out for them,” he says. “‘I miss it desperately, I want to get back into this business, and I’m giving up a lot to do it, but I like getting my hands dirty.’ And the thing that got me the job is that they had a terrible irrigation system. In an interview, you say whatever will get you the job, so I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I love irrigation’ — which I did, but I had no idea the extent of the irrigation work on that property.”

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Eldridge loved his two years as an area sales manager for Bayer, but the travel proved too large a hurdle to continue, every week on the road, especially with a 10-year-old son and 14- and 16-year-old daughters at home. He landed at Lake Quivira Country Club near Kansas City, where he worked for about five years as the superintendent and grounds manager, armed with new appreciations for chemistry and sales. “You’re spending a lot of time with Ph.D.s with that Green Solutions Team,” he says of his work with Dr. Frank Wong, Dr. Rob Golembiewski and Laurence Mudge, among others at Bayer, “and their knowledge is at a different level.”

Deiwert says he could have established a career at the warehouse distribution center — “The people were great people,” he says. “Great job, paid well, the benefits were fantastic” — but after about a year out of turf and about two years out of golf, he wanted back in. He landed at Trinity Forest Golf Club, working under director of grounds Kasey Kauff for just shy of the next four years before returning to South Carolina last year for family reasons.

After a couple years outside golf, Deiwert says he started to focus more on “just finding the good things about each day. I didn’t do a good job of that earlier. I just focused on the negatives and all the things I didn’t like about each day. … Find even the tiniest thing that’s good about getting to work, even if it’s just the five minutes you happen to be on a hole by yourself.”

Perhaps reading this story has sparked your desire to step away for a stretch. “Before you make that move,” Eldridge says, “you have to realize it is harder than hell to get back in.” One reason is that your course is your resume. “If you don’t have that for them to go physically look at, that’s a challenge. ‘I was the greatest grass-grower in the world two years ago. You’re just going to have to take my word on it.’ ‘Well, what are you doing now?’”

Or perhaps you’re already outside the industry and ready to return. “Lean on your network and the (GCSAA),” Sunderman says. “Those are the opportunities you have to meet the people who can help open doors for you. The GCSAA will provide you all kinds of educational opportunities, especially if you’ve been out of it for a number of years. All of a sudden, if you can somehow find a way to take advantage of some of the webinars they offer, or the certificate programs, these are ways to maybe increase your current knowledge base.” And yes, the GCSAA does offer an inactive membership for reasons of unemployment, illness or other adversity.

“We want to be inclusive,” Sunderman says. “We want to look for ways to help people in these types of situations.”

That whole period of time, from January through April 15, is fairly similar to what you can expect from a golf course in the Midwest June through August, a lot of hours and all that. I don’t mind that. It was just different getting used to it at that time of year. But the stresses are equal. I think I started realizing when the weather started turning nice again that first year, that, ‘Man, I want to be out there.’” — Jeff Eldridge

‘I’m a grower’

A couple years ago, a Spanish travel company called eDreams surveyed more than 12,000 people in the European Union and the United States. More than half of the American respondents said that a planned strategic pause in their working life would improve their mental health. Few companies anywhere in the country offer sabbaticals, either paid or unpaid — about a quarter of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For offer a sabbatical, and McDonald’s, believe it or not, is credited with starting the country’s first corporate sabbatical program in 1977. Not many clubs can offer a break from the grind. If you want a sabbatical, you’ll probably need to schedule it yourself.

You need to take care of yourself, too. Not long after Frito-Lay purchased Eagle Snacks from Anheuser-Busch and pushed him toward unemployment on a Friday afternoon, Baker realized there is little loyalty in business.

“Things can just change like that,” he says. “I’ve always been a little leery of security, and knowing this business, no matter how good you have the golf courses looking, management or ownership or membership, they can turn on you overnight. That’s what I learned at Eagle Snacks. Nobody seems to have any loyalty in this business. There are very few guys I know in this industry who have been a superintendent at their same course for 30 years. It’s not that type of an industry. Superintendents are expendable.”

A couple weeks after Baker embarked on his current sabbatical, his girlfriend, Sherry told him she didn’t care how he filled his days, “but you have to do something.” He started his novel days later, then added running and yoga, then started the pursuit of his pilot’s license, inspired by his father’s and grandfather’s past aerial exploits.

According to that same 2017 sabbatical survey, the reasons cited most often by Americans dreaming of an extended career pause are an escape from the stresses of working life (53 percent of more than 2,000 U.S. respondents) and the aforementioned improved mental health (52 percent). Improved physical health (40 percent), family travel (39 percent) and learning new skills (19 percent) check in third, fourth and seventh on the list, respectively. Baker has them all covered. He keeps his phone in a drawer until at least noon most days and spent two weeks with his family back in February.

“I never would have had those opportunities to just spend that much time back home if I was working crazy hours every day,” he says. “I did that the last time I took off, too. Spent about three weeks at home, got to golf, fish, spend some real quality time with my dad. You never know how long he’s going to be around, you know?”

When Baker interviewed superintendents or assistant superintendents, he would always ask, whether they were a grower or a mower. Responses were split about down the middle. “Some guys would say, ‘Oh, I can stripe up a fairway,’” Baker says. “I don’t care about stripes on a fairway. I care that there’s grass out there we can mow. The mow is the hassle part of it. I’m a grower.

“That’s what I’m kind of doing now, whether it’s just in my back yard with my tomatoes and peppers and all the plants that I’m growing, whether it’s a few landscapes I’m working on for other people. It’s just that whole mentality, I just want to continue to grow. That’ll never leave me.”

There are no guarantees in this life, of course. Paychecks and benefits can vanish in an instant. Hearts pump blood for only so many years. The prospect of retirement remains just that until that last walk on the course. In the end, business will remain business and loyalty will remain a mirage far more often than not.

The thrill of the turf, though. No matter how long or how far you wander, the thrill of the turf will almost always pull you back.

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Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.