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Voices

Up to Speed: The elephant in the room

Can we take steps to foster a happier, healthier work environment for those employed in the golf course industry?

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Happiness has often been derided as a frivolous, idealistic emotion by kings, tyrants, or any individual or group trying to dominate others. Happiness has been so lambasted by the powerful throughout history that our nation’s Founding Fathers included its pursuit in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. It is an American right to pursue happiness and to despise those who would deny us happiness and freedom.

When we were born, we departed a warm, protective amniotic solution and were thrust into an unfamiliar, air-filled environment where we took our first breath and began to cry. It seems intuitive that bewilderment, insecurity and instability were among our very first feelings. Soon after birth, most of us were given to our mother, where we felt comfort and warmth and were taught a new way to gather nourishment. As we grew, we formed bonds with family and perhaps some friends who made us feel happy and secure. However, as we departed high school, most of us began our individual pursuit of happiness and stability.

When I took a position as a golf course superintendent, I moved my young bride away from her family and friends and began working 80 hours per week. Midway through my first summer, I had gained the respect of my crew, and the course was darwing praise from the members. At that time, ownership called me into a meeting and informed me they expected more of me. They expected me to work 100 hours per week, and I began to feel like a tool.

I spent 10 years working on a golf course, and I loved being outside in all kinds of weather, laboring, scheduling the crew, and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. I left the golf course because I was offered an opportunity to pursue a stable job while having time to spend with family, friends and, at times, myself. I have been carrying out research and teaching in the turfgrass management program at Michigan State University for more than 25 years. In that time, I have met many good people who have had outstanding careers on golf courses. I have also watched many fine young men and women burn out from being overworked and undercompensated. I have also observed very intelligent, professional and experienced superintendents who have had their jobs taken from them because a new board member didn’t like them or their pay had gotten too great to keep them on staff. They had spent a career being loyal, only to have that loyalty be a one-way street.

So when I read emails, letters or magazine articles that ask, “Why are enrollment numbers down at universities?” or “Where can I get qualified people to manage on my staff?” I think it comes down to the fact that professionals in this line of work are offered few opportunities to spend time with their families. Too often, I’ve heard this told to superintendents regarding how they should view their work and personal lives: “You are married to the golf course; you sleep with your wife.” Sorry, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid, and there aren’t as many people waiting in line to take a sip as there once were.

Isn’t it time we talk about the elephant in the room? Can we begin to create a healthier, happier and more stable working environment for those in the golf course industry? Maybe not, but perhaps we should try.


Thomas A. Nikolai, Ph.D., the “Doctor of Green Speed,” is the turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and a frequent GCSAA educator.