The 10 commandments of successful golf course superintendents

Heed the wisdom of tenured turf managers to get to the top of your game.


Lake Tahoe Golf Course
The Sierra Nevada furnishes a spectacular backdrop at Lake Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. The Upper Truckee River travels through the 18-hole course, which was built in 1959 and is overseen by superintendent Bobby Jaeger. Photos courtesy of American Golf

I recently had the opportunity to hear Tim Barrier, CGCS, speak about his “10 commandments of Poa greens management.” A seasoned superintendent and 28-year GCSAA member, Tim has spent 25 years at Rancho Santa Fe (Calif.) Golf Club, and he has studied with the best, immersed himself in data, tried everything in the book, and, after years of experience, dialed in on what he thinks are the best of the best practices, which he has deemed his 10 commandments. It was a superb presentation, as I’m sure anyone who has heard it would agree.

This got me thinking. I’ve worked with many great superintendents over the years in my role as a regional agronomist for American Golf, and if I picked their brains, I was sure we could come up with the 10 commandments of the effective and successful golf course superintendent. (I wouldn’t even have to do anything!) The guidance would be helpful to our peers, particularly newcomers to the profession. So I reached out to about 20 superintendents and asked them to share their own best tips for thriving in our line of work. Here are their top responses, along with insight on how to better put the principles into practice in your career.

1. Communicate well

Although it’s almost a cliché, we’ll begin with communication, because it was the only commandment mentioned by every superintendent. All of us know how vital communication is, but that doesn’t make it any easier to master.

Learning to listen is probably the No. 1 improvement people can make to their communication skills. If you’re not a good listener, understanding what’s being communicated to you is going to prove quite difficult. I’ve found that it helps to practice listening — pay close attention, ask questions, and rephrase what is said to you to help it sink in. Don’t assume you understand — clarify. At the time of a conversation, the person speaking should be the most important person in your life.

With email, always double-check your message before hitting that send button. Spell check can be a lifesaver, but it’s not foolproof. Review what you’ve written by reading it back to yourself slowly to make sure your written words are communicating your intended message. If you’re replying to an email, read the entirety before responding. (How many of us have learned that the hard way?) Also, be cognizant of the length of your emails. Most of us don’t have time for an email that would take 10 minutes to read. Keep emails brief and specific, providing only the information necessary for the recipient to understand what you need to get across.

Do you have a lot to say? Pick up the phone. Is the message sensitive? Are you correcting behavior or holding someone accountable? Pick up the phone. Such conversations are received far better verbally than via email. In many situations, I’ve found it’s simply more appropriate to communicate over the phone, and too often we seem to overlook this tool.

Body language and other forms of nonverbal communication can speak louder than words. Eye contact, hand gestures and tone of voice all factor into conveying a message. Do your best to be relaxed and approachable, and to speak with a friendly tone. Resolve to be honest, open-minded, empathetic and respectful with every person you deal with. Maintain eye contact so that people know you’re paying attention and are focused on them. Small courtesies such as eye contact, remembering names, and actively listening help cultivate sincere relationships, improving communication among all parties.

2. Hold people accountable

This is such a simple concept, and it’s imperative to smooth golf course maintenance operations, yet it can be among the most challenging of tasks with your staff. After your team members have been trained, monitoring their performance and holding them accountable will ensure that the high standards you have set are being met. Get out on the course, watch them do their job, and steer the ship as necessary.

The Oregon Golf Club
The Oregon Golf Club in West Linn, Ore., where Russ Vandehey, CGCS, is the superintendent.

Accountability was high on retired superintendent David Ing’s list of commandments. David, who previously oversaw Canyon Oaks Country Club in Chico, Calif., says that even though he had a highly experienced staff, holding his employees accountable was still part of his everyday duties.

This commandment encompasses holding yourself accountable too. Know your mission, understand what’s expected of you, and train your staff thoroughly. The golf course maintenance crew is only as good as you are. If the members of your team aren’t productive or are poor performers, that’s a reflection of your leadership abilities. As a superintendent, I always took responsibility for any glitches on the golf course. If there was a product failure out there, that was on me. On the other hand, when receiving praise or appreciation for superior course conditions, my reply was always that the maintenance team did all the work. If you let everyone know that you are responsible for any problems on the course and that your staff is responsible for all that is right on the course, you’ll gain a lot of support over the years, from both your crew and your clientele.

3. Find balance

The challenge of maintaining a personal life alongside a demanding career transcends professions, and striking a work/life balance was another recurring piece of advice from the superintendents I polled. The word “balance” is important, because for superintendents, personal lives must coexist with a strong work ethic, even though those two things sometimes compete. Some superintendents mentioned developing the ability to “shut it down” when they go home. After a 10-, 12- or 14-hour workday, it’s important to let it go and not carry the stresses of the workplace home with you.

In most regions, summertime is crunch time. Long days are the norm. It is neither good, noble nor healthy, however, to tip the scales with work and neglect the things that are more important. You must decide what those things are — nobody else can prioritize your life. For some, the ranking is faith, family and work. Yours might be family, health and career, or maybe golf, fishing and then work. No matter how you score it, work and career should not be in the No. 1 slot.

4. Plan and organize

Bryan Riek has been the superintendent at Palm Valley Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif., for 21 years. Private clubs sometimes have a way of chewing up superintendents, but Bryan is an example of how a great superintendent stands the test of time. He credits his success to learning to plan, establishing systems, and anticipating challenges so he can produce a top-quality product every day.

Consistency does not come from “winging it.” All superintendents would benefit from a good overall agronomic plan that outlines cultural practices, fertility matters, and a schedule for chemical applications and labor requirements, with that last item based on the superintendent’s own “manpower” studies done to determine the time required for each task. Develop capital improvement plans regardless of whether you have the financial support for the projects. You should always know what upgrades your property needs and about how much they would cost. Equipment replacement planning should include a thorough understanding of the cost of ownership of each piece of equipment, and how this improves with a solid preventive maintenance program.

Golf course superintendent training
Adequately training your team figures prominently into two of the 10 commandments: holding people accountable and delegating.

Most planning efforts stem from historical data and information gathered over time, so excellent record keeping is an integral part of this commandment, as it will allow you to optimally prepare for the future. Obviously, budgeting is a component of planning, and budgeting is an exercise in which past data is paramount. Keep meticulous records of all expenses. Knowing what you spent is a decent indicator of what you are going to spend the next year.

Finally, always keep a clean, organized and professional-looking office and maintenance facility. All the planning in the world won’t help a bit if your space is in disarray. You can have the best-laid plans, but if you don’t know where those plans are or you rarely look at them, they’re about as useful as a rotary mower for mowing greens — it’s just not going to cut it!

5. Embrace humility

This one surprised me a little, but it was noted by half of the respondents. For 12-year GCSAA member Bobby Jaeger, superintendent at Lake Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., taking responsibility when things go awry is a sign of a good leader.

Humility also pertains to asking for assistance when you need it. Chances are you don’t know it all, so don’t be afraid to reach out for help from the various sales professionals you work with, and from your fellow golf course superintendents. At the end of the day, asking for help makes us better, as these are instances in which we learn. I’ve seen superintendents who would rather struggle through turf issues, trying to figure it out themselves, than admit a lack of knowledge. Do not make that mistake. As author Criss Jami puts it, “To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”

6. Hone your agronomic skill set

Obviously, you need to know what N-P-K is to be an effective turfgrass manager. The importance of the agronomic skill set cannot be overstated. Ryan Zuehlsdorf, superintendent at Oakhurst Country Club in Clayton, Calif., and a 23-year GCSAA member, exemplifies dedication to continuing education in turfgrass management. Ryan understands that a desire to keep learning is essential in this ever-evolving business — you simply cannot learn it all and be done.

While formal education is valuable, not all the answers are contained in books. A couple of summers in the desert will teach you more about growing warm-season grass than any text on the subject could. Books and classroom education are important, but combining these with experience is more important. Nothing will be as beneficial to you as time under your belt growing grass. In my conversations with superintendents, most say their agronomic knowledge is 10 percent classroom, 90 percent experience.

7. Cultivate work ethic

This one is a big deal, but “work ethic” can mean different things to different people. When I interview a superintendent job candidate, I always ask, “What does work ethic mean to you?” For me, it means investing the amount of time needed to get the job done correctly rather than just cutting out when the crew does.

Oregon Golf Club
Ponderosa pines tower among the 18 holes of The Oregon Golf Club, which has been a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for 23 years.

Jon Christenson, superintendent at Spanish Trail Country Club in Las Vegas and a 31-year association member, epitomizes the exceptional work ethic that is the hallmark of many successful superintendents. For Jon, there is no clock — the amount of time it takes to keep the course in pristine condition is the amount of time he works. If there’s a job that needs to be done, he’s going to do it, even if it means he’s out digging ditches with the irrigators.

A strong work ethic will sometimes clash with the earlier commandment of finding balance. You need to put in the time when necessary, but you must also balance your work with your home life. This can be a struggle, and it is up to each superintendent to weigh the circumstances and make these decisions on a case-by-case basis.

8. Engage

“Be friendly to all members and golfers. Wave, smile, engage. It always comes back beneficial in the long run,” says Russ Vandehey, CGCS, superintendent at The Oregon Golf Club in West Linn, Ore., and a 34-year GCSAA member. I couldn’t agree with Russ more!

Yes, there are successful superintendents out there who are more reserved and reclusive, but you up your odds of success and advancement by being engaged and letting your personality show. Beyond connecting with your membership, players and guests, you can take engagement to another level by establishing rapport with and assisting other managers at your facility. You’ll gain a mountain of support, and by making their success your success, the entire business will be stronger.

9. Delegate

This seems like a no-brainer — we all know a golf course superintendent must delegate. But some superintendents are able to take even greater advantage of the power of delegating because they take the time to set clear expectations and communicate those expectations to their team.

Delegating involves training, scheduling, understanding the strengths of each team member, prioritizing, planning, and then training some more. I once asked Ryan Meredith, superintendent at The Club at SpurWing in Meridian, Idaho, and a 13-year GCSAA member, how he achieved such impressive results at a previous golf course given the small crew he had there. His response? “It’s my guys.” As mentioned before, your staff is only as good as you are. Empower your team, and your course will benefit. A nice side perk of delegating is that it will substantially boost job satisfaction among your employees. It’s a win-win.

10. Mind the details

Attention to detail is a quality that will absolutely set you apart and serve you well in this profession. Many superintendents have great eyes and pride themselves on being able to see all the little things. For some, though, the detailing issues on a property can be hard to spot — they might drive right by them repeatedly and never notice. If you struggle to be detail-oriented, you must train your eye. Deliberately pause and concentrate on each golf course feature in order to examine it thoroughly.

Oakhurst Country Club Clayton
The ninth hole at Oakhurst Country Club in Clayton, Calif., set in the foothills of Mount Diablo and overseen by superintendent Ryan Zuehlsdorf.

Check the tees closely. Are there broken tees? Faded tee markers? Water stains on ball washers? Dirty towels? Tee markers not aligned with the target? Look down the fairway and see the hole as a whole. What isn’t right? Drive the fairway — or, even better, walk your fairways occasionally — looking carefully at quality of cut, clippings, weeds, and dry or wet spots. Take notes. Continue on the course from there.

The idea here is that you are out looking for the minor details of the property that do make a difference in the overall course experience. Most superintendents are by nature driven toward perfection. We may not be able to deliver it day in and day out, but it is certainly our goal. Detailing is a big part of that perfection. Zero in on the details to make your course shine.

Rounding out the list

One more example of success I would like to share is that of Miguel Llamas, superintendent at National City Golf Course, a nine-hole facility south of San Diego. Nine-hole golf courses can be growing grounds for superintendents who want to cut their teeth and eventually move on to bigger and better things. I get that. But what I have learned from Miguel is this: Work ethic, dedication and a sense of pride can produce better results than considerable amounts of experience and education can. Miguel may not be the most veteran or formally educated superintendent to oversee National City, but he is by far the best superintendent to be at its helm. The course has never been in better shape — and consistently in better shape — and it is due solely to pride and effort.

Seascape Golf Club
Seascape Golf Club in Aptos, Calif., is one of more than 80 golf facilities operated by American Golf.

The lesson is this: If you’re working your way up the ladder, you must produce at every level to create the reputation you want to have. Consider every day a job interview.

And there you have it — the 10 commandments of effective and successful golf course superintendents, plus a couple of bonus thoughts. Maybe there’s something you would add to the list? Maybe there’s a commandment that you consider a weakness for yourself and need to focus on getting better at? If that’s the case, write it down or print it out, frame it, and display it prominently in your workspace. A constant, front-and-center reminder of the goals you’re aiming for will help you ingrain them in your daily endeavors.

Honorable mentions

The superintendents I surveyed suggested a couple of commandments that didn’t quite make the top 10, but that still stand as essential characteristics of successful turf professionals.

Keep a sense of urgency. Superintendents deal with a living, breathing entity, and because of this, issues can arise that require immediate attention. You can’t go home when your greens are screaming at you that they’re thirsty. You can’t take off on a long holiday weekend when your crew is short-handed. There is no “calling it in” with this profession — the buck stops with you.

Be conscious of your personal appearance and conduct. Being a “hands-on” superintendent is a good thing. But showing up to the clubhouse with mud up to your waist after repairing a mainline leak doesn’t prove anything. Go ahead — get dirty. But be mindful that a necessary trait for superintendents is attention to personal appearance and conduct. Look and act like a professional, because like it or not, you will be known for something, and others form their opinion of you based on your appearance and patterns in your performance. Your appearance and actions should contribute positively to their perception. Finally, know that your mood is very contagious. A happy superintendent has a happy staff.

Press on

Steve Burgraff, superintendent at Lomas Santa Fe Country Club in Solana Beach, Calif., and a 21-year GCSAA member, has the following quotation framed and displayed prominently above his desk. It’s something he learned from his father-in-law, and they’re words he has lived by for many years:

“Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Dave Waymire, CGCS, is a regional agronomist for American Golf, where he has worked for 19 years. A 37-year member of GCSAA, Dave earned a two-year turf management certificate from Penn State University and has been a Certified Golf Course Superintendent since 1993. He and his wife, Shelly, live in San Diego.