Year one as a golf course superintendent

A newly minted head superintendent shares the challenges and highlights of transitioning from an assistant to holding the superintendent reins.


Broken Tee Golf Course
The fifth hole on the par-3 course at Broken Tee Golf Course in Englewood, Colo., about 8 miles south of Denver. The facility has two courses: an 18-hole championship course and a par-3 nine-hole course. Photos by Mitch Savage

On May 7, 2018, I stepped into my first golf course superintendent role. After 19 years in the industry, 10 of which were spent in foreman and assistant superintendent positions, my big opportunity had finally arrived.

While hard work and determination no doubt factored into getting the job offer here at Broken Tee Golf Course in Englewood, Colo., I would tell assistant superintendents that, perhaps more than anything else, my recent engagement efforts within our profession were what helped me land the interview and, ultimately, the job.

A few years ago, I decided to get more involved to build relationships and add value wherever I could in our industry. In the process, I learned to live by the motto, “The best way to get what you want is to first help others get what they want.” I was amazed by how much support I received when I volunteered to lend a hand to my colleagues.

From participation in my local GCSAA chapter to joining GCSAA’s Grassroots Ambassador program, everything I stepped up to do helped others achieve goals while allowing me to make lifelong connections and friendships and teaching me worthwhile lessons. It truly is about relationships and the people you meet along the way.

Getting down to business

Of course, now that I’m here as superintendent, the real heavy lifting begins, right? Now the spotlight shines brighter than ever, and at times during those early weeks and months, I felt as though the entire weight of the Broken Tee Golf Course maintenance program was resting heavily and solely on my shoulders.

I admit my head was spinning when I first took over the superintendent position. I had a lot to learn, and it was already May — golf season was upon us, and there would certainly be some “shooting from the hip” taking place before I could figure some things out.

I had some apprehensions and obstacles to overcome in season one. First and foremost, I was assuming an important leadership position while being one of the youngest people on the entire golf course maintenance staff. My philosophy from the start was to prove to everybody that I was there to serve them and do whatever I could to ensure our team’s immediate and future success. I figured my best approach would be to frequently ask, “How can I help?” I was going to have to find the proper balance between identifying things I thought needed attention and not rocking the boat too much, risking throwing everyone off it— including myself.

Part of that process was a concentrated effort to establish trust and rapport with my maintenance staff as well as with colleagues from other departments within our municipality (Broken Tee is a public course operated by the city of Englewood). This attention to building relationships has paid off, which has strengthened my belief in the notion that “People don’t care what you know until they know you care (about them).”

I’ve become comfortable asking fellow managers for advice and help, and they, in return, know that our department is ready to pitch in whenever they may need assistance. Colleagues from other departments are happy and excited to collaborate on projects with us at the golf course. And, most important, getting to know people — really getting to know them — makes working alongside them much more enjoyable and rewarding.

The responsibility of pulling the trigger on big decisions — especially when it comes to spending city and golf course money — was intimidating to me at first. As an assistant superintendent, it’s easy to go to your superintendent with ideas because you know, in the back of your mind, that he or she is ultimately a safety net for you and that the final decision is theirs. The superintendent is the one who has to answer any hard questions after the fact.

But now that safety net was gone, and I realized quickly that I needed to learn how to weigh all the options but still make tough, critical decisions in a timely manner so as not to hold up the overall operation.

Another necessary adjustment that I found to be part of making the leap from assistant to head superintendent had to do with my approach to my duties. As has been true for many former assistants, I still struggle with being too much of a “doer.” The transition from less “doing” to more planning, coordinating and leading isn’t always easy or natural.

More than once this past summer, I was asked by others around the golf course, “Don’t you have other people to do that job?” On one hand, I don’t mind explaining that I take pride in being skilled at the tasks I’m asking my staff to perform, but on the other hand, such a question makes me pause and re-evaluate my priorities.

As easy as it may be to simply take the reins and do the work myself because I know I can get it done faster and perhaps better, I know this isn’t the best way to lead my team. I’ve learned that I will always be a highly motivated “doer” who leads by example and doesn’t hesitate to jump in and get my hands dirty, but that I have to control how much of that I do. Otherwise, it takes away from my new responsibilities. Ultimately, I want to be able to look back and say I went from being a great day-to-day manager to being a great larger-picture visionary, goal setter and leader for those around me.

Growing as a new superintendent

I recently had a discussion with some peers about different leadership styles, and it led me to reflecting on the topic, specifically on how it pertains to a new superintendent. Although every good leader has to venture outside their comfort zone sometimes, I’ve discovered that I’m at my best when practicing a democratic leadership style.

Those who know me would agree that I’m not an authoritarian, but I also realize I can’t always be a passive leader either. I thoroughly enjoy asking others what they think and getting input from all parties, yet at the same time, I’m learning to embrace the responsibility of being the person who ultimately has to make the final decision, whether it goes with or against the advice and opinions I’ve been given and the information I have at my disposal. As I mentioned earlier, this was something that was frightening to me six months ago. I like to think my newfound comfort with it shows that I’m finding my way and gaining confidence.

Broken Tee Golf
The 14th tee at Broken Tee Golf Course.

There are three primary areas of responsibility that I’ve adapted to and focus on every day in my new role as golf course superintendent. First is recognizing the things that need to be done to better the golf course and then helping coordinate those efforts. That’s the obvious part of the job. I also believe it’s every good superintendent’s responsibility to direct the culture and morale of the work environment. And perhaps most important, it is my responsibility to motivate, encourage and help develop our team members. This is the difficult aspect of the job, as it involves understanding and working with people’s feelings, personalities and interests. The golf course changes from day to day, but people change minute to minute. I’m noticing that I like playing this role of motivator and coach, though, and that it’s a very gratifying aspect of leadership.

Although the golf season here along the Front Range has turned into a 12-month season with the lack of winter in recent years, this portion of the calendar still affords me the opportunity to slow things down for a bit and put together some plans. It’s a time that I’m not taking for granted or letting go to waste as I reflect on season one, learn from the mistakes I made, plan for the future and move forward with courage.

There were definitely some mistakes — I killed some grass, I inadvertently angered some league members, and I under-communicated on a few occasions. But I’m not dwelling on those mistakes — I’m learning from them and striving to make myself and our team better each day. I’ve been spending this winter evaluating the needs of our entire facility and considering new ways in which I can utilize team members and put them in positions to thrive and take ownership of their work. This goes back to the less “doing” of specific tasks on my end and the greater focus on building a team.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank everybody in my life and career who has helped me reach this level professionally. You know who you are, and hopefully by now, I’ve thanked you many times. I owe special thanks to those who not only taught me how to grow and maintain turfgrass, but who went the extra mile and taught me how to be a true professional in this industry. By that, I mean the people who taught me how to treat others and how to carry myself and act like I belong. The intangibles, if you will. I hope I can do for others what those people have done for me.

I also want to thank my entire Broken Tee maintenance staff. Bob Littig (assistant), Paul Simon (irrigation), Jeff Thal (equipment manager) and everyone else on the team helped make my transition as smooth as possible and have been extremely patient with me as I learn to ride without training wheels.

Cheers to a great 2019 season, everyone! If you see me calling, please answer the phone — I may be seeking some advice.

Mitch Savage is the golf course superintendent at Broken Tee Golf Course in Englewood, Colo. A 16-year member of GCSAA, Mitch gained valuable golf course management experience working at a number of courses in Colorado, including Cherry Hills Country Club, Denver Country Club and Green Valley Ranch Golf Club. He has volunteered on various committees and task groups with GCSAA and the Rocky Mountain GCSA, and is also a member of the inaugural class of the Nufarm/GCSAA EXCEL Leadership Program.