Family + Community + Golf + Challenge = Comfort.
OK, maybe it’s not that simple. And maybe it’s not the exact equation Amanda Fontaine pondered as she spotted her middle school math teacher and golf coach last month while driving around the 244 acres she manages.
Former student: “Hey, what are you doing here?”
Teacher: “I live here.”
“I sometimes forget that I know people around here,” Amanda says in a reflective conversation two days following the encounter.
Amanda returned earlier this year to the Ledges Golf Club, a municipal facility managed by International Golf Maintenance in South Hadley, Massachusetts, to assume the superintendent position. Since then, she has identified and solved more irrigation issues than she ever imagined, hired and developed a young staff, interacted with pieces of her past, received lunches from her sister, and toured the 20-year-old course dozens of times with the person who held her job for 14 years.
She refers to her predecessor as Michael, a passionate, bald-headed, middle-aged man raised in South Hadley, a small western Massachusetts town along the Connecticut River. Michael experienced a similar homecoming in 2005, leaving a desirable and secure job with venerable New England turf products distributor Tom Irwin, Inc. for the demands of maintaining a young layout with sooner-than-expected infrastructure challenges. The South Hadley Golf Commission selected IGM, which provides clients with agronomic guidance and services, to oversee the revival. IGM offered the superintendent job to Michael.
Michael stabilized the course, bringing joy to thousands of residents, members and guests, many of whom are friends, or friends of friends, or names he recognized from his youth. The conditions Michael and his teams produced helped the Ledges expand its base and attract golfers from neighboring New England regions such as Connecticut and Boston. “Consistency of conditions has been a huge thing and allowed us to build on each season,” IGM regional director Tyler Minamyer says. “It’s really turned into a pretty darn impressive golf course.”
The other parts of the Ledges didn’t match the consistency of course maintenance, so South Hadley went searching for a company to manage inside operations. IGM submitted a bid to the town, a rare move for a company with a maintenance-focused purpose. “They had a need,” Minamyer says, “and we had a talented staff there that we knew could handle expanded roles.”
The town selected IGM to manage all aspects of the Ledges in 2019. The company promoted Michael from superintendent to general manager. Michael coped with losing one of his best employees to a course in New Hampshire during his first year as general manager. Prolonged COVID-19 interruptions tested him last year. This year, the key employee returned and Massachusetts lifted pandemic restrictions. Rounds are up, events are returning. Optimism abounds. Even better, Michael is surrounded by family.
Amanda Fontaine, the employee who left for an assistant superintendent at Lochmere Golf & Country Club, is Michael Fontaine’s 27-year-old daughter. His 20-year-old daughter Maddie also works at the course, serving customers in the restaurant and performing accounting duties. Michael, who has spent most of career outdoors, sees Maddie more than Amanda during a typical day.
“I think of it like a second home,” says Maddie, a junior biology major at UMass Dartmouth. “It’s been a part of our lives. Everybody has been a part of this since 2005. The people and atmosphere mean a lot to us, even our workers and our members are family to us. We all fight for this place as much as anybody else does.”
Amanda is becoming increasingly comfortable with being home again and her new job maintaining the land she’s roamed with Michael — he’s always known as Michael at work — hundreds of times. Maybe the equation that lured her back to the Ledges makes total sense. Amanda excels at accepting and thwarting challenge. Plus, she’s never strayed far from the golf course.
Before the Ledges, there was Northfield Golf Club, a venerable course on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. Michael and his ex-wife, Chris, raised their daughters in Northfield, a quaint town 40 miles from South Hadley. Michael became the superintendent at Northfield GC when he was 21 years old; Amanda started visiting the course well before she turned 21 months. Pictures of a young Amanda playfully digging in irrigation holes and energetically riding alongside an exhausted Michael are saved in the family archives.
“When I say Amanda has worked with me her entire life … from the day she was in a walker, she was on a putting green, changing cups with me as a small child,” Michael says. “My daughters were born and raised on the golf course.”
The frequency and length of Amanda’s course visits increased when Michael accepted the job at the Ledges. Amanda was 11 and her first memories of the course involve chasing the family’s German Shepherd Toro (yes, named after the turf company) in the snow as Michael learned the intricacies of a course melding golf with farmland, wetlands, forests and mountain views. The family once had a German Shepherd named Hogan (yes, named after the golfer). Their current German Shepherd, Simba (named after a character in Amanda’s favorite movie, “The Lion King”), spends the day with Amanda, Maddie and Michael at the course.
Amanda obtained a work permit when she turned 16 and immediately started in a variety of pro-shop jobs, including course starting, washing carts and answering phones. Finally, when she turned 18, company policy permitted her to hold a golf course maintenance position. “I knew working outside was going to be a little bit more money and I didn’t have to deal with golfers as much,” she says. “It’s a lot more independent than working in the pro shop.”
Amanda handled more than a golf course maintenance job as a young adult. A talented hockey goalie, she played collegiately at Division I Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Amanda juggled the demands of playing a sport, studied exercise science and held three jobs in college. She worked in the Sacred Heart equipment room and as a gameday operations employee for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the professional American Hockey League during cool-weather months. College hockey teams play games from October through March and competing at the Division I level requires a year-round commitment. Amanda spent summers preparing her body for the upcoming season and preparing bentgrass greens and fairways for daily play.
The Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League drafted Amanda following her final season at Sacred Heart. She traveled the 90 minutes to Boston for evening practices, but women’s professional hockey provides little job security and compensation, and she continued working 5 a.m. maintenance shifts at the Ledges. When her brief professional career ended, she coached at Nichols College, a Massachusetts school that practices in Rhode Island, and Northfield Mount Hermon, the boarding school she attended, while working as Michael’s assistant superintendent.
Amanda wanted to explore coaching fulltime and accepted an assistant position at Plymouth State University. As uncertainty surrounded her coaching future, she applied for assistant superintendent jobs following the 2018-19 hockey season. “I started coaching all this hockey and I was given an opportunity to coach in New Hampshire and I said, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ I had nothing but hockey. But my contract was going to be up, and I was thinking, ‘What else am I going to be doing for money now? So, I started looking online. I saw there were places that were hiring assistant superintendents. I had the credentials to do it.”
Determined to launch her own golf industry career, she applied for jobs without telling Michael. Because he has more than three decades of industry experience, including a stint in sales and consulting, Michael knew more people than Amanda realized. He quickly received word that somebody with the same last name wanted to work somewhere other than the Ledges.
“She didn’t realize how small the golf world is,” he says. “When a couple of golf courses called me and said, ‘We got a résumé from Amanda Fontaine,’ I said, ‘Oh, really?’ And one of those guys said, ‘Mike, isn’t that your daughter?’ I said, ‘It is.’ I was taken aback a little bit. I didn’t realize she was applying to other jobs.”
Amanda had practical reasons for seeking work elsewhere: she knew that learning a different property, management style and perspective could boost her career. She received the advanced training she sought from Lochmere superintendent Dan Freeman. She learned how to maintain Poa annua and keep a course protected from a harsh winter in an atmosphere she calls “more laidback and easygoing” than Massachusetts.
Most important, Freeman showed Amanda how an irrigation system operates. She had never been forced to repair wiring, control nozzles, level and adjust heads, and troubleshoot, because Michael employed a fulltime irrigation technician. That position doesn’t exist on Amanda’s current team.
“I started working in New Hampshire and the job was better than what I remembered, and I just kept going,” she says. “I worked hand in hand with my boss up there. He was awesome. It was nice to be away from somewhere where everyone knew me and had a predisposition of what I would be like and who I knew, and all those kinds of things. It was only me up there.”
Amanda spent most of the past three years away from the Ledges, besides an occasional trip to get Simba from Michael’s office. She knew Michael, Maddie and the course’s other stalwarts endured challenges stemming from COVID-19 throughout last year. Maddie’s versatility and dedication epitomizes the ingenuity and flexibility Michael’s reduced team demonstrated last spring and summer: She handled security to ensure only golfers with tee times entered the property, sanitized carts and equipment, removed trash from the parking lot and course, filled divots and repaired ball marks, and trimmed ornamental plantings. When the superintendent position opened at the end of last year, Amanda says Minamyer urged her to apply. The timing felt right.
“I’m not saying I did it to help out Michael, but I know he’s been stressed,” Amanda says. “COVID was tough on everybody. Tyler told me the position was open and he said, ‘You should apply.’ I don’t think I would have gotten the opportunity had I not gone to New Hampshire and learned all the things I learned there. One of the biggest questions was, ‘Do you know how to do irrigation?’ If I hadn’t gone to New Hampshire, I would have had to say no. I learned so much up there. It definitely helped my application and my résumé.”
Regardless of whether she received the job, Amanda planned on attending the UMass Winter School for Turf Managers. She earned her turf certificate this past winter. “That’s when I realized how committed she was to moving forward in this industry,” Michael says.
A good clubhouse server knows to ask members and guests about their golf experience. A great server listens intently to the responses.
“I’ll get things like, ‘The greens were really fast, or it’s really wet out there, or the golf course is playing tough, but I like it,’” Maddie says. “They are good conversations. It’s funny when people don’t realize who I am with respect to my sister and my dad. Normally, it’s all good things, and I’ll say, ‘I’ll let my sister know.’”
Feedback filtered through a trusted server represents one of the perks of Amanda’s new job. Amanda visits the restaurant frequently during afternoons and Maddie will supply her lunch. They are now something age never permitted them to become during their athletic careers: teammates. Their personalities are different — Amanda considers Maddie more extroverted — but they are both striving to elevate the customer experience.
At least once a week, Amanda rides the course with Michael. Their rides are more nuanced than when Amanda once chased golf balls and begged to play in irrigation ditches. They are now the unlikeliest of teammates, one of the few daughter-father combinations where the child and parent both ascended to superintendent.
The traits the bosses have appreciated in Michael for 16 years are noticeable in Amanda. She has calmly guided a young and inexperienced team through the beginning stages of the New England golf season. Her staff included just two returning employees (both retirees), yet Maddie hears good things when post-round conversations turn to the course.
Amanda is building a staff where everybody feels accepted and valued. She permits employees to wear headphones as long as they aren’t being trained or interacting with others. Staff listening selections range from the Grateful Dead to political science podcasts. A few employees relish silence, others enthusiastically chat while working. Her assistant superintendent is a former hockey player and two hourly workers played high-level ultimate Frisbee. But she gives no hiring preference to current or former athletes. Unlike many colleagues, Amanda had a fully staffed department as summer commenced. “I don’t search for athletes,” she says. “I search for people who have a good eye for detail and who I think are going to be good workers.”
Employee retention rates at the Ledges exceeded 70 percent before COVID-19, Minamyer says, and the quality and loyalty of people Michael attracted helped make him a successful superintendent. Amanda is trending in the same direction.
“The potential is pretty amazing,” Minamyer says. “With her sailing the ship, she has the ability to attract different people. It’s been interesting to see the different types of people and personalities that we are able to attract who are really just good, quality people that in the past they probably wouldn’t look twice at a golf maintenance role.”
The Fontaines are ultra-competitive, a trait they harness around co-workers. Every winter, Michael takes his daughters shark fishing in Key West. Catches are measured and compared, and Michael says Maddie typically lands the biggest fish. The vacation represents one of the few times when discussions about the Ledges are kept to a minimum.
Amanda and Michael don’t play as much golf together as they once did, but when they do, they always keep score. “If she starts beating me, we’re going to have a problem,” Michael says. But what happens if Maddie begins hearing from longtime customers the Ledges has never looked and played better? “As the general manager, how can you argue with that?” Michael says.
The equation suggests the right people are in place to elevate their second home.
“It would be awesome to have it be better than what it was,” Amanda says. “I have already had plenty of people tell me it’s better than it has been in many years, maybe even better than what Michael had it. But how do you really benchmark what’s better than what? How can you measure grass being greener now than back then? There’s always another level. It’s not like we are competing against each other. We are working with each other.”