Agronomy – What Does it Take to be a Superintendent?

Agronomy – What Does it Take to be a Superintendent?

Avid golfers are very aware of the importance that the role the Golf Course Superintendent and their team plays in creating excellent playing conditions. I have worked for some amazing memberships at clubs across the country and they often express how thankful they are for our team’s effort to keep the courses/facilities in top condition. This year as President of the North Texas Golf Course Superintendents Association I have met even more golfers and golf course superintendents than usual. In that light and of course as we head towards the Thanksgiving holiday be sure to thank your golf course superintendent and staff. They have done more than you may know to hold their place in the golf industry.  To help you understand better the life of a golf course superintendent I thought I would give you all a glimpse behind the green curtain and review a few things that clarify just what skills, relationships and attributes that craft a successful golf course superintendent. So this month’s question is, what does it take to be a successful golf course superintendent? 

In general terms golf course superintendents are known for their work ethic and their ability to wear many hats such as agronomist, mechanic, electrician, plumber, life coach, counselor, referee, rules official, gardener, arborist, meteorologist and so on. They are by in large introverts (I am an exception) quiet and stoic. They have a passion for growing things and the game of golf. They work long hours in all sorts of weather. They make the impossible, possible and they have a servant’s heart and strive to leave things better than they found them. They live the traditions of the game while ever searching for ways to innovate, they are always on call and the stresses they face are sometimes epic and unreasonable but they love the job, the game and the challenge. All that said, let’s look a little deeper. 

A Mix of Education and Experience

A successful golf course superintendent is a mix of experience and education and while there are no absolutes there are a few things that stand out when you look at the most revered superintendents. This is probably a good time to point out that the term greenkeeper and golf course superintendent are considered synonymous. I have personally had many titles over the years for doing essentially the same job. In the United States we generally use the term Golf Course Superintendent where as in Europe they prefer greenkeeper.  The modern golf course superintendent/greenkeeper usually has some measure of formal education with many having degrees in agronomy, horticulture or turfgrass management from outstanding universities such as Texas A&M, Penn State and the University of Georgia to name a few. Whether the education is formal or informal there is a unique ability to apply the science and a heavy dose of hands on experience required to become a respected and tenured golf course superintendent. There is still a strong network of apprenticeship within the industry. It is quite common for an assistant golf course superintendent having proven himself under a veteran to be selected for an open superintendent position at a nearby club. It is a network of excellence bound by ethics and tradition. Golf course superintendents are committed to life-long learning as the technology and techniques are constantly changing and one must remain vigilant to keep their skills and course in top shape. The job requires long hours and perseverance so a love of the outdoors, the game of golf and the sciences involved are on display every day, resulting in the quality of the golf course. The golf course superintendent’s shadow is often the best agronomic practice for the course as he is the local expert.


Credentials and Licenses 

Golf course superintendents maintain many licenses, certifications and professional memberships. If you are a loyal reader of this column you may wonder what all those letters after my name stand for, they stand for MG – Master Greenkeeper, CGCS – Certified Golf Course Superintendent, CGM – Certified Grounds Manager, CA Certified Arborist. These represent a lifetime of education, service and testing. Every superintendent should hold a State Pesticide license (many hold multiple categories in multiple states) in Texas these licenses are managed by the Texas Department of Agriculture and superintendents are licensed in Category 3A – Landscape Maintenance, these licenses require annual education and renewal.  Golf course maintenance activities fall under local, state and federal oversight (but that is another story). The modern superintendent may be an active member of several professional associations such as the Golf Course Superintendent’s Association of America (GCSAA) which has 20,000 members and 99 Chapters. GCSAA offers many programs including the CGCS designation. The Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) is the oldest green industry association in the country founded in 1911 they also have many programs including the CGM designation. The British and International Golf Greenkeeper Association (BIGGA) is another major industry association overseeing the coveted Master Greenkeeper certificate. In over 30 years BIGGA has only issued 85 MG certificates, I am MG #82, there are two MG’s working in Texas, Alan Hess, MG #55 is the other and he helped me complete the program. The International Society for Arboriculture is the authority on all things tree related (on and off the course) they have over 23,000 members world-wide and offer several certifications including Certified Arborist and Board Certified Master Arborist. Many superintendents will add education/certifications as needed for property or personal needs in things like construction, irrigation, water conservation, pools, fuel storage etc. they are famous as life-long learners.  

Perfectionism and Communication 

Most golf course superintendents are perfectionists. They want everything in order and they want things done right and as quickly as possible. They have an eye for detail and a gift for strategic thinking as they manage many things that are evaluated on many levels. This perfectionism often goes with them 24/7 as many superintendents excel at their hobbies and other interests away from the course. It is quite common to see world class skills in photography, carpentry, painting, archery, martial arts, car restoration or collecting any number of things. Superintendents apply their skills to everything they pursue. 

Successful superintendents are excellent communicators and are often multi-lingual. They use written and verbal skills to build respect and awareness in the staff, club and industry as a whole. I remember clearly one of my mentors Palmer Maples Jr. telling me that you can’t just mow your way to the top of this business, beyond solid agronomy there must be highly effective communication, spoken and written. The quality of your communication skills will set the bar. This is a focus I stress to young professionals, the top superintendents in the industry are all great communicators. 

I hope that you found this glimpse into superintendentship informative and I encourage you to get to know your superintendent better. Avoid the temptation to just drop off a complaint or suggestion rather simply start a conversation and notice all the skills and commitment they bring to work each day. I promise it will be appreciated. Next month we will be back to more traditional topics but until then play lots of golf, keep reading Avid Golfer magazine and support your local golf course superintendent.