Changing the flag: How ownership changes impact turfgrass managers

A veteran superintendent offers six simple ways to thrive during times of change.


golf course flags
Author Anthony Williams has flown several flags over his career during his three-plus decades in the industry. Here he offers some advice for weathering the uncertainty of change. Photos courtesy of Anthony Williams

The golf turf industry is at times a mystery.

As golf course superintendents, we are asked to do many things literally from A to Z, or from agronomy to Zoom meetings. Some tasks are easier than others. Just when you think you have solved your property’s puzzles and arrived at the stable, a rewarding part of your career, you get word that your property is for sale or that a different management company is taking over. Bam! It’s time to change the flag.

Literally, the logos on the apparel, the culture (people and processes) and every sign on the property (including the flags) will change.

The question is, will you and your staff transition safely into the new operation? Will you be the ones changing the flag? It’s a complex and stressful situation, and it’s happening more and more these days in every walk of life.

I have changed the flag many times during my career. In fact, I have a collection of logos that are souvenirs of the road I’ve traveled, and each one is a library of lessons learned. When the ownership or the management of your property changes, there are no words worthy of capturing the emotions. The first meeting with the news of the impending transition will still sting a little even years later, no matter how positive the outcome. If you have not experienced it yourself, I’m sure you have heard of someone recently in your local GCSAA chapter who has.

What would you do if you got the notification today that it was time to change the flag and you had 90 days before the new deal finalized? Do you have a plan? Everyone is looking to you for answers, and you are on the clock.

I have been there and learned a few things to help you successfully raise the new banner. In the last 37 years I have served four properties roughly 1,000 miles apart serving seven companies/brands (Nestle, Stouffer, Renaissance, Marriott, Canongate/Sequoia, Four Seasons and TPC, and I will add another in 2023), working in the private, resort and public areas of the golf industry. Through it all, I have found six simple ways to thrive during the most anxious times of change.

Be kind (control your emotions)

Once the shock of an ownership/management change happens, the first thing you must do is get control of your emotions and make a conscious decision to be kind. It is not easy, but it is necessary.

Anger and negativity will multiply and cause even bigger issues, so the first step in changing the flag successfully is to take a deep breath, accept the situation and commit to being kind to everyone, including yourself. Genuine kindness builds bridges of opportunity and slows the fear factor while demonstrating a skill so rare today — the ability to see a better future even in a time of transition.

No matter what transpires, make a conscious effort to be kind. Take the high road with every interaction, whether written or in person. Encourage others to do the same, and soon you will be seen as a solution that can overcome any problem — a valued asset now and for the future of the operation. The action step here is to become the kind, positive force that will help craft the new normal.

Bob Farren, Bruce Williams, Williams and Marsh Benson
Four venerable industry veterans ­— from left, Bob Farren (Pinehurst), Bruce Williams (LA Country Club), the author and Marsh Benson (Augusta National) — after bumping into each other at the 2018 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show.

Project professionalism

Another key to successfully changing the flag is earning the opportunity with new ownership/management.

You and your team will be evaluated on many levels by many different stakeholders. It is vitally important to project professionalism. This goes beyond the need to communicate accurately and articulately. Your image as a professional is a 360-degree view of everything that you do that can influence public/professional opinion.

Remember that perception is reality. Make sure that all of your social media is a reflection of your best self, worthy of a leadership position in the property’s new vision and mission. Make sure you dress the part you hope to earn. Take the time to be well groomed, properly uniformed and functional to your role. Ensure that your office and shop are in order. Inspect what you expect, because the new owners/managers will.

Course conditions are your professional signature and the cornerstone of any golf operation, so make sure the course speaks to your skill level. Prepare and practice presentations and documentation that tell your story and demonstrate your value to the operation. Certifications and licenses should be up to date, with proper documentation on file for you and your staff. Update résumés and professional databases such as LinkedIn. Be sure that all correspondence is timely, succinct and grammatically correct.

Organizing these efforts every day is the best strategy, but even if you have procrastinated and have some work to do, the sooner you get started, the sooner it will start boosting your professionalism and impacting your future. Today’s homework is to commit to professionalism in thought, words and deeds.

Rally your network

Anytime you face a serious decision, you should rally your network to help you see all angles and potential outcomes. Formal connections (life coach, mentor/boss, family, etc.) or informal connections (peers, friends, websites, etc.) can all be used to provide valuable insights. Try to focus on specific key elements, such as reaching out to a trusted financial expert on matters of budgets and compensation, or proven golf course superintendents who have experience in areas in which you seek advice, such as agronomy or best management practices. Don’t hesitate to compile online or traditional research that is pertinent.

A well-placed phone call can also give you answers and peace of mind. Word will travel fast through formal and informal channels, so be sure not to share sensitive information (remember that nondisclosure agreement you signed).

Another tip is that busy people are sometimes out of pocket for several days, so reach out to your network early and often during the transition. A professional network is a true commodity that is built on active participation and works like a garden: You plant seeds, tend them and care for them genuinely, and when the time is right, there will be a harvest in kind to your efforts. This applies locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

When it’s time to change the flag, sound the alarm: Reach out to your inner and expanded circle and look for wisdom throughout your network. It’s like GCSAA past president Bruce Williams says in his leadership seminars, “Sometimes it’s not who you know, but who knows you.” Unexpected help often arrives just in time, so be sure to rally your entire network. By the way: Make sure you attend the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show, the queen mother of networking events. The action steps here are clear: Serve others (answer the call and help others if the opportunity arises), be coachable, call for help early, genuinely invest your time and talents into every relationship and keep expanding your network.

Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club
Williams’ current post, as director of golf course maintenance at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club in Dallas, is undergoing at least a name change. Four Seasons is stepping away from its affiliation with the property at the end of this year.

Take one day at a time

Proper pace is important during any transition. Change can be overwhelming. Old and new tasks will be coming at you every hour on the hour, and expectations will be high and hard to anticipate. When you feel overwhelmed, just focus on getting through the day. Take it one day at a time. Just like a marathon runner, you should know that it’s finishing that counts; some moments you just put one foot in front of the other. You persevere. You keep moving toward the goal of being the one who changes the flag.

Adjust, delegate, contemplate and start over. Whatever it takes, realize there will be low points and that it’s OK to bend — just don’t break. If it seems too much just focus on the basics, open the course, handle the greens, process payroll and programs, support the staff, etc. Take some time to reevaluate and start better tomorrow.

Stay organized and work your plan but knowing when and how to adjust the plan is often the difference between success and failure. Winning small victories each day with a deep sense of timing will minimize stress and optimize your efforts. The guiding light for this tenet is to pace yourself and win today’s most important battles in order to win tomorrow’s war.

Develop a Plan B

If you were suddenly displaced for some reason and there was in that moment not a new flag to fly, you will need a Plan B.

Rule No. 1 about Plan B’s is that they should be in place before you need them. Successful Plan B’s are like a parachute for emergency use, with an occasional recreational use as well. Plan B’s are as unique as the people who employ them, and they offer financial and psychological benefits.

The ability to pay your bills through alternate means is the key. Turf legend Palmer Maples Jr. once told me, “Manage your money, or the lack of money will manage you.” You should live below your means and prepare for a rainy day (changing the flag counts as a rainy day).

Here are a few quick Plan B financial tips:

Strive to live below your means and have six to 12 months cash in your emergency fund.

Take care of your assets and avoid liabilities. Bad debt can be crushing.

Know your net worth by age and salary (your age multiplied by your annual gross salary divided by 10 should be your current net financial worth. If not, it’s time for change).

Craft multiple streams of income that can be ramped up in times of trouble. My martial arts and other businesses have not only been amazing adventures but have at times given my family comfort as we were changing the flag at the golf course.

Plan B’s could include shifting into sales (I did this in 2016), returning to school (be sure to calculate the return on investment) or changing to a passion project, such as a hobby business or nonprofit. Plan B’s usually start as short-term missions and grow as you become more aware of their potential.

The takeaway here is that if you have financial strength, the future is much less stressful no matter what the outcome of the present uncertainty.

Matthew Wharton, Williams, Andrew Wilson, Lucas Harvey, Josh Heptig and Bob Scott
Williams served on a high-power educational panel on the trends and technology of golf course irrigation at the 2020 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show. The panelists, from left: Matthew Wharton (Carolina Golf Club), Williams, Andrew Wilson (Bethpage State Park Golf), Lucas Harvey (Atlanta Athletic Club), Josh Heptig (San Luis Obispo Golf) and Bob Scott (Irrigation Consulting Services). When a fickle wind threatens to take the air out of your career flag, it’s wise to fall back on your extended network of friends and colleagues.

Expand your vision

You cannot change what you are willing to tolerate. There are times that changing the flag kindles a spark of needed change in you personally and/or professionally. Take some time to expand your vision. See beyond your current position and skills. What is your BIG dream or life calling? Can you see yourself as a multicourse or corporate/regional superintendent? Perhaps a path toward becoming a general manager or personal business adventure is more compelling.

I certainly expanded my vision when I moved to Dallas to take the job at Four Seasons, and over the years I have developed 20/20 hindsight, proving that you must first see and think more of your true self before you can make big leaps in your career, and if change is coming anyway, why not challenge the status quo and see what may be possible? Do you need more skills, education or certification? Start today. You are, after all, the author of your own life story, so why not make it a great one? This process will help everyone on your team and family as well, for just as Solomon said in the book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” All we ever have is now, so make the time to review/renew your vision, committing to quality actions today that craft the tomorrow of your dreams.

Changing the flag is never easy, as it touches everything and everyone you care about. It is my highest hope that all superintendents will find their way through the mystery that is the golf turf industry by helping each other whenever possible. Together we are stronger.

Here’s wishing you all the best on your golf turf journey.

Anthony Williams, CGCS, MG, is a 26-year GCSAA member and is the director of golf course and landscape operations at TPC Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Dallas at Los Colinas — although that Four Seasons flag will stop flying over that property at the end of this year.