It’s October 2019 and I am standing outside my home, deflated, my pregnant wife waiting with a glimpse of hope we would be returning to our home state of Pennsylvania. I poured the bad news that I came up short for the ninth time in a golf course superintendent search. Only this time, I could not hide the disappointment as I knew an opportunity was stolen from me not due to lack of experience, passion or proven systems, but rather a factor of pedigree.
I felt shamed by the search committee and general manager. At no fault of my own or of the committee’s, but they could not get behind our organization’s culture or existing infrastructure decline despite my qualifications, references and proven systems. This is a dark truth that many outstanding professionals in our industry are faced with in their climb up the professional ladder.
Selfishly, I placed great importance on my professional ascension over everything else, including my personal health. Anger, frustration and envy of others moving forward in their careers were feelings I had a difficult time letting go. I experienced dramatically self-defeating lows that I imagine others feel throughout the course of a season or job search when things don’t go according to plan.
The trajectory of my career as a golf course superintendent was at a crossroads, even though I knew I had many years left to grow and accomplishments to attain. Genuinely, I loved my job and being a golf course superintendent. I enjoyed the changing variables and environments, team development, networking, the learning opportunities and the strategizing of course management programs. In a weird way, I enjoyed the challenges of club politics and developing interpersonal skill sets to build relations even with my greatest adversaries. I could describe my career in one simple word: passion.
We are? not born with this passion. We don’t get a passion on our 18th birthday or on the day we ascend in the professional ranks. It’s something we have to work at, it’s something we have to refine. In the winter of 2019-20, I did some serious soul searching about my passion in the industry, and to find my why.
Setting the foundation
Starting with my personal life, I made a commitment to my wife that 2020 would be my last season in Baltimore. Her happiness and total support were of utmost importance to me. I realized how fortunate I am and how short-sighted I was to think I was not blessed. The golf industry provided us friendships, financial support and the ability to travel to places that most of my non-industry friends envied.
Through the advice of my closest peers and mentors, I began to develop an exit strategy by legally formalizing a conceptual business idea I had spent many nights dreaming about. The simplest way to formalize a business for me was using a Limited Liability Company. I did not get hung up on a name, as I knew I could come back later on. Requiring fewer formalities, I had more options in setting up a management structure. I could also protect my assets — car, home and bank accounts — from liability. Most importantly, I needed flexibility on tax purposes.
The total cost to set up an LLC: $390. I would recommend most if not all superintendents set up an LLC for future usage. It is an educational process when starting to think about business formation.
I was already in the process of earning an Execute Certificate in Talent Acquisition and Recruitment from Cornell University and certified partner with the Predictive Index as part of my continued education and training. These credentials would end up being important in distinguishing my credibility in my current position and establishing proper succession. I can’t overstate the value of diversifying your résumé and credentials.
At the 2020 Golf Industry Show, I received notification from a supplier on scene that club finances were struggling, and they wanted to know how they could assist us. Embarrassed that I was unaware and left out to dry by my own club leadership, I returned from GIS with restored frustration about my circumstances.
Where would my career go? The pain and emotion of losing out on another superintendent opportunity came back fresh, so I did not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was dealing with conflicting emotions. In one instant, I was excited and rejuvenated for the 2020 season, but the realities of our business continued to elevate friction.
There were many sleepless nights not knowing how to manage up and address some underlying tones and issues. I searched for answers from key mentors and industry professionals. I fell back into the downward spiral — and the season hadn’t even started. Would I have a job at the end of the season? Did my club leadership even respect me? Were my skills transferable to other facilities? Would I need to take a step back in my career to get where I want? I assume many of these same questions are resonating with readers.
As COVID-19 took on an unpredictable path in March and April, I recognized that I had to put aside my personal differences and manage up. The big-picture reality was that I needed to play my part and put a plan in place to help the club survive, maintain course conditions as best as possible for a return to golf, and communicate with transparency.
At the same time, my wife lost her job. I knew I had to honor our commitment and it would be much earlier than expected. Saving our pennies, the rainy day appeared to be coming. Our second daughter was born on April 29, when the club remained shut down. As I returned to work 14 days after quarantine, the state of operations was at peak uncertainty.
Unsure of what to do or where to go, I knew I was coming to the point of no return. Quite frankly, I began to drive by the little things that got under my skin. Mediocrity started to become acceptable with no consequences because financial hardships and uncertainty outweighed expectations. While we focused on the basics, I knew I was losing my passion and edge. I will be the first to admit that a lot of low-hanging fruit started to pile up. I am sure we can all look back at Q1 and Q2 with self-reflection and justify some of the limitations and sanctions imposed.
I recognized that no matter how much I wanted to help set the right course of direction, I couldn’t force issues that were out of my control. By no means am I throwing the club leadership under the bus, but I learned a valuable lesson to stay in my lane. I was not tasked to be the COO or general manager. I needed to play my part as best I could, and stay away from trying to play hero and solving the world’s problems.
These words are not meant to influence individuals to steer toward a different career path, but to relate to those who may be experiencing some of the downward spirals and to encourage consideration of Plan B. The fallout for some facilities in the face of COVID-19 is real and still unclear. I am not a skeptic, I do not believe the sky is falling, but you have to protect yourself and put yourself in the best possible position.
After careful consideration of all options, including staying with my position, I recognized my personal life and my family’s well-being would be at risk. The hardest part for me wasn’t jumping into a new venture, but my fear of other people’s opinions about my departure. I felt I was letting down a lot of friends, colleagues and members who had invested into me.
I resigned on June 1. Just 24 hours later, I ended up in the Franklin Medstar Hospital ER in Baltimore with kidney stones at 2 a.m. I had been pushing off feelings of anxiety, doubt and nervousness for months. I had played out all the scenarios in my head, obsessed about things out of my control, and pushed myself at the expense of my own health and wellness. In an odd way, this was another example of the stars aligning to my next step.
I stepped aside from the daily role as golf course superintendent on June 12. Fortunately, the club respected my decision and supported my family’s transition. We were able to develop a succession plan for someone else to take over my role, and I couldn’t have been happier to see a close peer come back into the profession. The club got a renewed sense of energy, my staff got a new leader to bring different ideas and management style, and I felt I did not leave a property so special to me underserved. If anything, they got an upgrade!
As luck would have it, a few opportunities presented themselves upon my return to central Pennsylvania. I knew I had a bit of security to fall back on while we pivoted to a new career path. The network I had developed throughout my career came back to assist me in my transition. Suppliers, former superintendents-turned-consultants, former members and new business relations had my back — it was a true win-win.
Transitioning from a ‘side hustle’
Now with a fight-or-flight scenario, I needed to transition my “side hustle” to paying the monthly bills. The summer months were spent building the foundation with financial advisors, investment groups, networking on digital platforms, taking sales webinars and acquiring new skills that I would need to grow as a potential businessman. Looking back, I intentionally committed to professional and career development by growing my network outside turf, building new critical thinking and business skills that would have served me in my previous role.
We relocated back home to central Pennsylvania, with my in-laws and parents within 20 minutes. It didn’t take more than a day to realize we made the right decision for our family, despite some hurdles on the path ahead. What I embarked on was a vision to restore my passion in the industry I love and redefine my role in it. Golf is all I know.
There were many challenging days and weeks during the summer season amid a global pandemic. Superintendents are busy people and the rigors of the job can restrict business meetings and catch-ups. On the flip side, I recognized how quickly the challenge of being on the supplier side of things is when management does not return a phone call, email or text message. We as professionals can do a better job of respecting each other.
After five months in my consulting role, I have been humbled and at times vulnerable to my own ignorance and cluelessness. While I am self-aware enough to understand my strengths, I continue to explore my blind spots as I am reminded of how much I don’t know by all the great leaders and golf courses I visit.
Through nearly 70 site visits and a week volunteering for the LPGA Championship at Aronimink Golf Club, I have a textbook of notes to share with others. I realized quickly that many individuals are at career crossroads, just as I was. If you are uncertain about your future, you need to do a hard self-evaluation of your next steps. Connect with trusted advisors who can keep an eye out and provide realistic viewpoints.
The power of networking and building relationships cannot be overstated. As I continued to share ideas with industry professionals on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, I built an interesting connection with club golf professionals. As it turns out, there are plenty of PGA members who enjoy professional development and team-building and are dealing with similar career and professional development challenges.
Creating my own luck
The irony in my story is that nearly a month to the day after telling my wife I failed to secure that next career opportunity, I received a phone call asking if I would be interested in assisting a Philadelphia-area club in their pursuit of a new golf course superintendent. Coincidentally, a large focus for my original superintendent search was to oversee a William Flynn-designed property in the state of Pennsylvania. Now I would be tasked with helping the club find their newest caretaker of one of The Nature Faker’s finest work.
I couldn’t have been more lonely the last year, doubting my self-worth and my professional worth. I questioned my abilities and career decisions and had many naysayers along the way fueling the fire. However, it was my passion for the industry that helped me withstand the obstacles and keep me centered on my why. I found myself exactly where I belonged, as a steward of the golf industry and an ambassador for professional development. Accepting that there are things in this world we can never explain or control allowed me to just enjoy the process.
That is the irony of life. It is also its beauty.