Changing course: An interview with Kevin Sunderman

Sunderman, CGCS, trades a long career in golf course management and a track record of industry service for his new role as the chief operating officer for GCSAA.


Kevin Sunderman
Kevin Sunderman, CGCS, has traded life as a golf course superintendent and a spot on the GCSAA Board of Directors for the role of the association’s chief operating officer. He began his new duties Oct. 24. Photo by Roger Billings

Kevin Sunderman, CGCS, knew that 2023 likely would be a big year for him, both personally and professionally, and that outlook hasn’t changed any as 2022 prepares to give way to the new calendar year.

But the reasons behind why 2023 will be such a prominent year for Sunderman have changed substantially more than he might ever have dreamed.

In September, Sunderman — then the director of grounds at Isla Del Sol Yacht and Country Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., and GCSAA’s vice president — accepted a new role as the association’s chief operating officer. He replaced another former superintendent and GCSAA board member in that role, Bob Randquist, CGCS, who retired in October after 4½ years on the staff and 46 years as a GCSAA member.

“I am extremely excited to be joining GCSAA as the COO,” Sunderman said in a news release announcing his new position. “Being a member of the association has had a tremendous impact on my life and career as a golf course superintendent. From the time I first served on a chapter board to the GCSAA Board of Directors, it was always about service and leadership. That hasn’t changed. This gives me the opportunity to continue to serve the industry that has meant so much to me in a new way.”

In making this decision, the 22-year GCSAA member took a pass on the opportunity to serve as GCSAA president in 2023, a position he had been nominated for that would have been voted upon by association members in February during the Annual Meeting and Election at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in Orlando. Instead, Sunderman relinquished his position on the board to become COO. To fill that void, current GCSAA president Kevin P. Breen, CGCS, has been nominated to serve as second term.

Sunderman brings a unique set of qualifications to his new position, including more than 19 years of experience in professional golf course management, prior experience in the financial services sector, a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University in turfgrass management and a recently earned master’s degree in business administration from Florida Southern College.

In addition to his 17-year stint at Isla Del Sol, Sunderman previously held the superintendent position at Whetstone Golf Club in Caledonia, Ohio, and assistant superintendent positions at TPC Prestancia in Sarasota, Fla.; Snee Farm Country Club in Mount Pleasant, S.C.; and East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar, Fla.

After six years on the GCSAA Board of Directors, Sunderman has had deep exposure to the GCSAA headquarters team, including work with the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show; corporate partners; education; diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; advocacy; environmental programs; and the GCSAA Foundation.

“When the opportunity arose for Kevin to join the GCSAA team, we knew we had found our next COO,” GCSAA Chief Executive Officer Rhett Evans said in that same news release. “His knowledge of GCSAA and the industry, business acumen and leadership skills provide the association with a speed of transition that will prove advantageous as we expand and enhance the programs and services we deliver to our membership.”

Sunderman, whose family includes his wife, Melani, son, Trent, and daughter, Elise, will relocate from Florida to Kansas for his new role at GCSAA headquarters. He began his new duties Oct. 24. 

GCM sat down with Sunderman to discuss his transition from the golf course to GCSAA headquarters, his short- and long-term goals as he settles into his new position, and his family’s expectations in making the move from the beaches of Florida to life amid the four seasons common in eastern Kansas.

Sunderman family
Sunderman (left) with his family in front of GCSAA headquarters in Lawrence, Kan. — (from left) daughter Elise, wife Melani and son Trent. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sunderman

GCM: Why were you interested in GCSAA’s COO position, and why did you decide that now was the time to pursue it?

Kevin Sunderman: When I think about my skill set and what I love to do most, it’s always been about people and projects, helping people succeed and grow and effectively managing projects. This job is all about people and projects, a tailored fit. While the timing seemed less than ideal, as I was about to become president of the association, my wife and I believe everything happens for a reason. The association had a void to fill with Bob Randquist’s retirement, and we felt the calling that this was the right move for us and for GCSAA. Having spent the last 15 years in voluntary leadership roles for the industry, no doubt I am passionate about and care for GCSAA and what we do to impact the lives of our members. This role allows me to extend my dedication beyond the term limitations of serving on a board.

GCM: Your role on the GCSAA Board of Directors and the potential as serving as association president in 2023 must have weighed on you as you considered the COO position. How did you ultimately reconcile that with accepting this new career opportunity?

KS: I did have to take pause when deciding to resign from the board to join GCSAA as the COO. However, it wasn’t much longer than a pause. The right path was clear for my wife and me as we weighed the decision. I always considered it an honor to serve GCSAA on the board of directors, and I did look forward to representing the members at the highest level. However, in all my years serving at the local, state and national levels, it was never about someday being president of GCSAA. It has always been about leadership, service and the opportunity to have a positive impact on people’s lives in an industry I love.

GCM: You’ve been on the golf course in one role or another for more than 20 years. What will you miss most about being a working golf course superintendent?

KS: Hands down it’s having a golf course as my office. Most specifically, it’s the sunrise as it illuminates the features of the golf course and the sense of tranquility it brings. I never let a sunrise at work go unappreciated, even if only for a moment. In addition, there is a sense of pride knowing that every thought, plan and action taken had an impact in providing a beautiful landscape for so many to enjoy.

GCM: You will join a small group of GCSAA staff members with a background as a superintendent, including your predecessor in the role of COO, Bob Randquist. How do you think your previous on-the-ground experience will benefit you in your new role? Any drawbacks?

KS: The primary statement of the GCSAA mission is “GCSAA is dedicated to serving its members.” Being a member and having worked two decades in the profession gives me insight on what is most impactful to our members’ lives and success. The staff at GCSAA is awesome, but being able to provide the perspective of our members takes what the staff can do to a whole new level.

GCM: In a relatively short period of time in recent years, you both earned your certification with GCSAA and completed an MBA program in logistics. Why were those continuing-education opportunities important to you, and how do you see that manifesting itself in your new role as COO?

KS: I believe it is important to challenge yourself to continually grow and strive to be the best you can be. For me, this has been amplified by my board service to the industry. I’ve been around so many great men and women who have inspired me to do more. It was these individuals who encouraged and mentored me to achieve the designation of Certified Golf Course Superintendent. It was a taste of this accomplishment that served as a catalyst for my pursuit of an MBA. The studies surrounding my MBA were truly life-changing in what they brought to my perspective and understanding of the people, processes and world around me. I haven’t stopped learning and continually look to gain greater perspective. I take this approach into the COO role as I look to learn and collaborate with our staff in order to most effectively serve the needs of our members and industry.

GCM: Your first days at GCSAA headquarters in Lawrence, Kan., came at a very busy time for the association, with the Chapter Delegates Meeting taking place, preparations for the upcoming Conference and Trade Show in Orlando underway, etc. What will your first 90 days in this role look like?

KS: Now that I have a few weeks under my belt, the first 90 days look to be extremely busy! In a perfect world, one would enter a new role and do nothing but observe and ask questions to learn about their new job and organization. However, we don’t have the luxury of time due to so much going on at GCSAA. Because of this, I am looking to have an even balance of learning, participating in meetings and taking on my own projects firsthand. One significant advantage to having served as a board member immediately prior to joining staff is a deep level of familiarity with the organization. This will allow me to accelerate my onboarding process and become most effective quickly.

GCM: What will your priorities be in your role as COO? Are their particular GCSAA initiatives or services that you’ll focus on?

KS: My priorities lie within the fulfillment of our mission. I think this can most effectively be done by leading our team of employees who are all specialists in their own fields. In addition to leading our team, I will have my own list of internal projects as well as external projects collaborating with allied industry partners. To highlight any specific programs or services right now would be shortsighted, as everything GCSAA does means something to someone. In a nutshell, I aim to make GCSAA as effective as it can be providing all the programs and services to our industry to ensure our members’ success.

GCM: Lawrence, Kan., is a much different part of the country than the Gulf Coast of Florida, where you’ve spent the last 20 years. What are you most looking forward to about a move to the Midwest, and what will you and your family miss about the Sunshine State?

KS: I was born and raised in rural Ohio. In many ways, a move to Kansas is like a homecoming. Florida served as a great home for more than 20 years. We have many fond memories there, as that is where we raised our family. However, home truly is where the heart is. We are extremely excited about the relocation to Kansas, as it brings new surroundings and experiences. As Florida continues to take in approximately 1,000 new residents every day from all over the world, we look forward to living in Kansas, where there still seems to be a strong sense of community. Even though our kids are now in their 20s, it seems that they both plan to relocate to Kansas within the next year as well to take part in new surroundings. We’re even looking forward to becoming Chiefs fans! What we will miss about Florida is the ocean views and possibly the mild temperatures in January when we’re shoveling snow and scraping ice from windshields in Kansas.