Transitions through turf

Features - Career

What mentality is required to shift geographic locations in the middle of your career? Three experienced leaders share moving motivations and revelations.

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November 8, 2021

What is the first thing you do when you move into a new home? Decide where to put the bed? Find your toothbrush? Stock the fridge? Maybe you plan carefully or just make it all happen. Approaches vary but course concentration, management perspective and a flexible mentality have helped three respected leaders shine as changing locations has contributed to their growing success. And they’re more than willing to share guidance on how to make a big career move work with their peers.

Myers

For Russ Myers, the superintendent at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shifting to a new property and relocating is about more than a geographical change. “For me, it’s a desire to be on the world stage,” Myers says. Previously, he worked at Augusta National Golf Club, Card Sound Golf Club in Key Largo, Florida, and the Los Angeles Country Club. “I like that my work is scrutinized at a high level. I want to be where people care about what I do and it really matters.”

When he starts in a new position, Myers concentrates on the property as opposed to rushing to join professional organizations or spending time networking. “I focus mostly on the golf course and know the other stuff will take care of itself. Each club has been different for me and I let things happen organically,” says Myers, who returned for a second term at Southern Hills after working at LACC from 2010 to 2016. This approach has empowered Myers to see the potential in different opportunities and to be able to live and work in some very different regions.

Myers likes morning meetings with everyone together, or checking in with everyone in the evening. That was more difficult at LACC due to crews moving in different directions (sometimes through a tunnel under Wilshire Boulevard) to maintain two courses while also respecting stringent local labor laws. Myers unified the crew with technology that helped track and distribute assignments and technology that aided communication when team meetings weren’t possible. It was different because it had to be, but it worked.

He also worked with Gil Hanse at LACC for the restoration of the North Course and, in 2019, Hanse renovated and restored Southern Hills to its 1936 Perry Maxwell design. Southern Hills added a hydronics system to help condition the greens, which are Pure Distinction bentgrass. Myers enjoys classic courses and is acutely aware that a course is so much more than a pristinely manicured space. What matters is how people feel while they are enjoying the three-hole short game area, a driving range, a bunker-chipping green and 27 beautifully designed holes.

The members at Southern Hills are enjoying an exciting stretch of golf. The club recently hosted the Senior PGA Championship and will host the PGA Championship next year for the fifth time, the only course to have that honor. The members love championships and Myers enjoys hosting them but what he says he enjoys most is “providing classic, traditional golf. That’s my focus day in and day out.”

“The biggest challenge for me is to enhance the atmosphere of the club and promote a culture that embraces its own history,” Myers says. “That’s what no one can replicate and you don’t have that luxury at a lot of places. What you can do at a place like Southern Hills or LACC or Augusta National is recreate 100 years of the history of what was there and the experience that everybody had. You can only try to share that with the next generation by giving them a similar experience. That’s what keeps me loving to be here.”

Plotts

Myers manages with that goal in mind. Sometimes his management style is more authoritative and sometimes responsibilities and leadership are more widely distributed, depending on what the short- and long-term situations demand. Myers recognizes talent, such as with Roy Bradshaw, who has been the assistant superintendent and is now the equipment manager. Bradshaw has been with Southern Hills for 36 years and no matter the duration of the stay, Myers develops talent at every level. Being perceptive regarding work opportunities, what the course needs and how his staff is productively managed has helped Myers develop his own potential while serving the properties for which he works.

Jeff Plotts, director of golf course operations at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, started in the Atlanta market, moved to TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee, then to TPC Scottsdale in Arizona before arriving at TPC Sawgrass. “It’s nice to see different parts of the country and you can learn something at every location,” he says. “People worry that if you grow warm-season grass you can’t grow cool-season grass and vice versa, but superintendents are educated and experienced enough to grow grass in any environment. Determine the nuances of each zone and solve the problems. It’s not something people should be intimidated about.”

Nor is Plotts intimidated about settling into a new environment. “You have to learn the things that are going on and be involved, and that helps on the golf course, too,” Plotts says. Becoming familiar with local restaurants and hotspots and participating in community activities not only enhances local knowledge but also helps facilitate recruiting. With more than 100 staff members, the managers at TPC Sawgrass are always recruiting.

The Stadium Course, home to The Players, and Dye’s Valley Course, both created by Pete Dye and both extremely popular, boast 36 holes to maintain. A good organizational structure is essential. “We have an assistant superintendent on each golf course and a landscape superintendent, and I want those people actively recruiting all the time,” Plotts says. Staffing is something they think about every day. Even if positions aren’t available, TPC Sawgrass will make room for dedicated and interested applicants so they remain fully staffed when people naturally move on.

Learning how to maintain different turfgrass species and varieties represents an adjustment facing industry professionals who uproot their lives for new jobs.
© courtesy of tim Cunningham

“At the end of the day, you can pick me up and put me anywhere there is a golf course. The characters are all the same but the names have changed,” Plotts quips. There are some leaders within the TPC network who actively change courses and there are others who choose to stay in one region or even at one property. Situations vary and Plotts proactively let Cal Roth, the PGA Tour’s now-retired senior vice president for agronomy, know that he enjoyed working for the Tour and was open to moving.

“As in anything, if we tell ourselves that we can’t do something or we’re not going to like something, then generally we won’t,” Plotts says. “If you’re open-minded and go anywhere with the mentality that it’s going to be successful, chances are it’s going to be pretty good for you. Moving makes you stronger within the industry. It teaches you different angles, not only from an agronomic perspective, but from a managerial perspective and just as a person.”

Plotts acknowledges that a big part of being comfortable in a new zone is that your family has to be comfortable, and immersion with the community helps. “Don’t get up, go to work, come home, get up and go do it again. Create the opportunity to get involved in your church, have an opportunity to grow within the community, not only for yourself and your family’s sake, but because extracurricular activities will make you feel more comfortable,” he says. “And at local chapters and courses around town, when you meet people from other facilities, don’t be fearful to ask for help or ask, What am I seeing here? What’s going on here? What do you guys do in this environment during this time? People are willing to share. There is no reason someone can’t go into any region and be successful, but you have to have the willingness to move.”

Cunningham

Tim Cunningham, the superintendent at Lockwood Folly Country Club in Holden Beach, North Carolina, lived in Ohio for 52 years and endured as a diehard Cleveland sports fan, so when he thought about moving, he yearned only for better weather, a nearby beach and fresh shrimp. That’s not strictly true, but he and his wife had always discussed relocating to the Carolinas. Cunningham worked at Weymouth Country Club and The Country Clubs of Fox Meadow, both in Medina, Ohio, as well as at Youngstown Country Club in Ohio, where Col. John Morley was the first superintendent.

Cunningham moved before he was certain of what his next job would be and he didn’t know if he wanted to stay in the golf industry. He took a crew job at Tidewater Golf Club in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, “and the bug hit me again,” Cunningham says. Soon after that, he got a call from Jim Noel, a former superintendent from the Cleveland area who was the greens chairman at Lockwood Folly, about an opening for the superintendent position. The rest, as they say, is history.

Moving requires belief in yourself and the confidence to know that you can navigate a new job, the challenges of a new area, and regional differences in beliefs or habits — that’s all mental. When Cunningham moved, he didn’t know anyone, but he got involved with his local chapter, met neighbors and was “like a sponge,” he says. “Frustrating me to no end, I wondered why things I previously had done didn’t work.” As he conversed with locals and his peers, the work got easier. He also read a lot and his staff and club colleagues have been tremendous.

Opportunities to work at TPC Sawgrass are attractive to industry professionals willing to move to advance their careers.
© courtesy of TPC Sawgrass

Clinton Weeks has been a vital, knowledgeable assistant superintendent and Chris Green keeps the machines and cutting units fine-tuned as the equipment technician. (Green cheers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which makes for lively autumn shop talk.) Dan McGougan is the current green chairman and with his background in agriculture and as an educator in horticulture, he has been very supportive with both agronomic issues and in sharing the golf course history of Lockwood Folly.

When Cunningham joined, there were significant challenges. It’s a 300-acre residential golf community, previously a hunting preserve, and it’s about 33 years old. The irrigation system needed work, equipment upgrades weren’t accounted for, the property was heavily wooded, and some topdressing used previously about eight to 10 years ago is now prohibiting root growth that is clearly visible in the soil profile.

Member-owned and -operated, the Lockwood Folly board volunteers its time and it has made a commitment to the course. This 18-hole layout designed by Willard Byrd borders both the Intracoastal Waterway and Lockwood Folly River and just about every one of its 26 ponds has an alligator. The members are helpful, especially with divots and hurricane clean-up — which is good, because three hurricanes hit during Cunningham’s first two years. Staffing hasn’t been a problem and they are working on the right nutrient combination for their Sunday Bermudagrass greens.

Jeff Plotts moved from the Arizona desert to northern Florida to lead the turf team at TPC Sawgrass.
© guy cipriano

Cunningham had to adjust his management style to be successful. Some differences from his work in Ohio include overseeding; using the irrigation system all year; accounting for travel and package play; different pests, wildlife, and weeds; sandy soil compared to clay and loam (which holds nutrients better but also doesn’t drain as well); and working steadily all year round. There are more tourists and with a lot of his family traveling in from Ohio, there are fun and frequent visitors to host in their sunny residence.

You have to “be willing to learn, be yourself and always believe in yourself. It’s OK to be uncomfortable at times. Be open to that in your career,” Cunningham says. The challenges of warm-season grass and other elements of turf maintenance that he wasn’t as familiar with have been invigorating. Lockwood Folly is moving in a great direction, the staff and members are happy, and so is Cunningham.

So, in addition to stocking the fridge, finding your toothbrush and setting up your trusty bed, try hanging some photos. Pictures make a house feel more like a home. Course concentration, perceptive management and a flexible mentality go a long way toward a smooth transition. Myers, Plotts and Cunningham have benefited as leaders in turf from their willingness to go somewhere different. Move, grow and enjoy it. With some photos on the walls, your loved ones will welcome you home, wherever that may be.