A family affair: Spouses and golf course management

Juggling early mornings, long hours, family obligations and life in general, golf course superintendents and their spouses do whatever it takes to navigate the journey together.


William and Debbie Smith
William Smith, CGCS (with his wife, Debbie) is the superintendent at Country Club of Columbus, Ga., which in 2009 hosted the Georgia Amateur Championship in conjunction with the club’s 100-year anniversary. Photo by Robin Trimarchi

Spoiler alert: This story is about superintendents and their spouses. It is also about their children. The ups and downs. Romance. Taking the pressures of the job home with them. How they met. And who had to cook.

William and Debbie Smith

William Smith, CGCS, needed a ride. Last January, he had tried to pull a stake out of the ground, but the outcome was painful. Smith suffered a ruptured disk in his back that required surgery.

The injury didn’t stop Smith from his superintendent duties, so his wife, Debbie, drove — for three months. It was a 60-mile round trip in a gray Ford F-150, to and from the Country Club of Columbus in Columbus, Ga., early each morning. William would lie down in the back seat of the truck because his back pain wouldn’t allow him to sit longer than a few minutes.

Debbie’s support was no surprise to the man she married in 1976. “She went above and beyond the call of duty. She did what we needed to do. That’s how we’ve done it for the last 42 years,” says William, a 41-year GCSAA member.

Debbie, William said, has possessed saintly traits for some time, even before they married. They met when he was a student at the University of Georgia and she was at Auburn University. “Just a nice girl. My first serious girlfriend,” says William, who managed to win Debbie’s heart despite picking her up for their first date at 9 p.m. because he’d been golfing.

If Debbie wondered whether William truly was serious, she soon had the answer. “When we met, he had hair to his shoulders, parted in the middle. His front tooth was chipped from a bicycle wreck. He wore cut-off blue jeans,” she says. “His mother was a beautician. He went home, told her he wanted a haircut and that front tooth fixed. Next time, he was clean-shaven, tooth fixed. He was tall (6-foot-6), dark and handsome.”

They entered marriage with jobs. He was an assistant superintendent, and Debbie was a home economics teacher. Five years later, the timing worked out perfectly for a dramatic change in their lives: William landed the superintendent job at Killearn Country Club in Tallahassee, Fla., which hosted the PGA Tour’s Tallahassee Open.

Debbie, meanwhile, relinquished her career, without a hint of resentment. “My raise going from Green Island (Country Club in Columbus, his first superintendent job) to Killearn was more than she was making teaching,” William says.

Debbie had plenty to keep her busy. Their first child, Jamie, was born in December 1981. A son, Will, arrived a few years later. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom. We adjusted our living to fit our budget. We don’t have to have the biggest, best, first or the most. That was fine with me,” says Debbie, noting work hours were a perk of William’s job when the children were young. “He went to work early and got home early, around 4. Many dads aren’t home until 6 or 7, so he was there for the kids. When he’s off work, we’re together. The job has treated us well.”

When William had back issues, Debbie stayed nearby. “I had a recliner in his office. I took my computer and occupied myself,” she says. Don Branch, who hired Smith at Green Island, says Debbie’s loyalty to William is transparent. “We live 10 blocks from the club, and we’ve begged her to come visit us. She says, ‘He may need me; I’m going to stay here.’ I would hate to be the one to say something bad about him in her presence,” Branch says.

Including that stretch earlier this year, the Smiths have been on quite a ride together. “Neither one of us is selfish. You’re not an individual; you’re a team. That’s just how it’s going to be,” William says.

Kevin and Julie Hicks

As he stood inside his garage on Magnuson Street, Kevin Hicks looked up and watched the rain pouring over his gutters. This was a weekday, which is a story in itself. How many times had Hicks, a golf course superintendent for 25 years, been home on a weekday?

Yet there he was about a year ago, in a new job and, obviously, a new challenge. Like superintendents — even former ones — Hicks found a way. “Once the rain ended, I took care of the clogs,” he says. “I think that is when I finally realized I’d left everything in my personal life behind for my job.”

Being a superintendent was his life. For 14 years, he oversaw Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) Resort. Before that, he was in charge at Hillcrest Country Club in Boise, Idaho, and Desert Forest Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. After leaving Coeur d’Alene, Hicks landed as a regional agronomist for EarthWorks Natural Organic Products, a job he began last November.

His wife of 25 years, Julie, called the change “a blessing in disguise.” Kevin, a 28-year GCSAA Class A member, views it as such — and more. “It gave me a nudge to force me to think about things differently,” he says.

Perhaps his story serves as a cautionary tale for superintendents. Kevin wishes he would have seen the signs of how the job was affecting him — at the expense of his family — long ago.

“I really had my priorities messed up. I was at (his sons’) baseball games. My presence was there, but I really wasn’t there. I’m at a baseball game, thinking about it (work), and I’d go back to the golf course after the game. It’s a tough business to be a good family man, because you’ve got two families,” he says.

Julie, the mother of his three sons, Michael, Luke and Brady, managed. “You have to provide for your family,” she says, “and being a superintendent is kind of extreme. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. His parameters were sunup to sundown.”

Kevin and Julie Hicks
Julie and Kevin Hicks with their three boys, Michael (next to Kevin), Brady (front) and Luke (right). Kevin, who was a superintendent for 25 years, is now regional agronomist for EarthWorks Natural Organic Products. Photo courtesy of Kevin Hicks

At Coeur d’Alene, Kevin organized split crews. The first group arrived at 5 a.m. The second group came at 2 p.m. and worked until 10:30 those evenings. “Plenty of opportunity to overwork myself. Probably 80 hours a week. In hindsight, all of it wasn’t necessary. Maybe it was a lack of trust in myself. Maybe I thought I was indispensable,” he says.

Julie says, “When he was tired and going to bed before they (children) were, (it) was a little challenging. I know it’s hard when you’re working with a living product and there’s always something to do. We have done the best we could, made the best to have time that we can. I do think he’s positively influenced our kids.”

Julie has put up with a lot over their 25-year marriage, Kevin says. “I am grateful for her undying support of what I’ve done, including disregard of my family life. I was too interested in work to realize it,” he says. “I’m working hard to be a better husband, a better father.”

He sees the makings of a generational shift in superintendents, and much of it is positive. “This generation seems to have a better work-life balance, striving for a manageable schedule. They get something we (his era of superintendents) didn’t,” Kevin says.

His role at EarthWorks provided a new start. Although he’s on the road every other week, Kevin maintains a home office. It has taken Julie time to adjust to Kevin’s job change. “He’s coming down the stairs and having coffee at 10:30 in the morning. I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I wanted to give him a to-do list, but he said he already had a list,” she says. “Periodically, I’ll see him working outside at 2 in the afternoon, and I’ve got to pinch myself.”

For superintendents, Kevin sends this message: “You only get one chance with the kids. Don’t miss it. And don’t have the worst-looking yard on the block.”

Kathy and Tom Hauff

Kathy Hauff is a superintendent. Calling her a “female superintendent” isn’t necessary. “I never think of myself that way. I just feel that I am a superintendent,” Hauff says.

Hauff’s calling suits her just fine, says her husband, Tom Hauff, Ph.D. “We don’t buy into the gender identity thing. It’s just a matter of people being who they are, and she is intelligent and hardworking,” he says.

Kathy and Tom Hauff
GCSAA Class A superintendent Kathy Hauff met her husband, Tom, in the lunch line at Eastern Washington University. After they married, they worked together at Hayden Lake Country Club in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Kathy Hauff

In 2009, Hauff became the first female superintendent in the 100-year history of the Portland (Ore.) Parks & Recreation Bureau. She was chosen as the Oregon Golf Association’s Superintendent of the Year in 2015. Obviously, people have noticed Hauff’s professional competence as superintendent of Eastmoreland Golf Course, and last December, the city of Portland added RedTail Golf Course to her duties.

Her ascension was earned, according to GCSAA Class A superintendent Jesse Goodling, one of her mentors. “When she worked for me, she wasn’t afraid to repair irrigation or grab a shovel and see a project through,” says Goodling, a 26-year association member who runs Portland’s Heron Lakes Golf Club. “She’s always been focused on what the city needs, and she had the desire to move forward. Opportunity came for her, and she has set a good example.”

Hauff, a 20-year association member who worked 11 years for Goodling and who, according to GCSAA’s database, is one of 54 female superintendents, paid close attention to him. “I learned how to work with people, how to be fair, and to listen to all sides in making a decision,” she says.

The Hauffs met in the lunch line at Eastern Washington University, where Tom overheard Kathy and a friend talking about an upcoming concert. Tom ended up tagging along, and he and Kathy talked all concert long. In those days, Kathy wanted to be an art teacher. Tom wanted to be a rock star. Those early distinctions in their individual lives exist today. But a closer look reveals how much they have always shared. When newly married, they both worked at Hayden Lake Country Club in northern Idaho. She was the gardener; he worked on the crew. For seven years, the golf course was the setting of their shared professional life.

On their fifth wedding anniversary, he professed his love by ensuring that Kathy had to come to the clubhouse, in front of everyone. And often. “He sent me five bouquets of flowers throughout the day,” Kathy says. “I’d get a call on the loudspeaker. ... ‘Kathy, you have another delivery.’

“The golf course was a shared part of our life together. All of this golf experience means that nowadays, when I tell him what is happening at the course, he, having also worked in golf, completely understands, and he understands the rigors of the job — that I’m basically on call all the time. If the irrigation system goes down at a course, he understands the urgency of getting it back up and running.”

Tom no longer works in golf. He is a professor at Multnomah University in Portland, where he teaches New Testament and Old Testament Bible. Yet this change in his career hasn’t lessened their shared experience and core values. “We both have the same worldview because we’re both devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The Bible Tom teaches is critical to my life as well, so we easily can discuss his work, and often he will ask my opinions about his ideas,” Kathy says.

All this is to say that their relationship has remained on the same page. “It’s us. A team effort. No matter what it is,” she says.

Jim Jensen and Kathy Gildersleeve-Jensen

Jim Jensen and Kathy Gildersleeve-Jensen have it all figured out.

“I send golfers to go destroy his golf course so he has job security. He hands out my business card so I’ll have job security,” Kathy says with a laugh.

Gildersleeve-Jensen, a former collegiate golfer at Oregon State University, has been a club pro since 1990 and is a PGA Class A golf professional. Her husband, Jim Jensen, is a GCSAA Class A golf course superintendent. “He’s always looking down, inspecting the turf. I’m always looking up, watching the golf ball,” she says.

Jim Jensen and Kathy Gildersleeve-Jensen
GCSAA Class A superintendent Jim Jensen and his wife, PGA Class A golf professional Kathy Gildersleeve-Jensen, with their children, Brianna and Chase. Photo courtesy of Jim Jensen

Not surprisingly, the two met at a golf course. They worked at Downriver Golf Course in Spokane, Wash. He was in high school working in the restaurant; Kathy, four years older and in college, worked in the pro shop and restaurant. Their first date was 10 years later at a Diamond Rio concert atop Silver Mountain Resort in Idaho. “He always kind of had a crush on me, and I didn’t even know it,” she says.

Shortly after marrying, the two formed a team at Deer Park (Wash.) Golf Club when it opened in 1996. While Jim has remained at Deer Park, Kathy now teaches at Kalispel Golf and Country Club in Spokane, Wash., in the summer, and at Las Barrancas Golf Club in Yuma, Ariz., in the winter.

In several cases, the superintendent-club pro relationship is stronger now than it was decades ago. The two understand the importance of ensuring that tandem is cohesive. “When I first got into golf course maintenance, there was always a battle with the pro shop at one point or another,” says Jim, a 27-year association member. “I’ve gained an understanding to be more patient with the golf pros and to try to work with them. We have a chance to see both sides of the golf fence.”

Kathy, who in 2014 became the first woman to earn one of the PGA of America’s highest honors as the PGA National Teacher of the Year, has witnessed the fostering of relationships between the club pro and superintendent. “I think they both are really trying. It takes teamwork to make this business go nowadays,” she says. “I love the game. I want to grow it to the masses quickly.”

This couple’s banter is amusing. Asked about the magnitude of Kathy’s award, Jim couldn’t get a word in before Kathy interjected. “It meant he had to cook,” she says. Jim says, “I was proud. Her award was a life-changing experience. She became way busier and had a lot of engagements to fly all over the country for the PGA (of America).” Jim sometimes gets to tag along, which provides him with a better understanding of club pros. Kathy also has more insight into superintendents. “Before, I took it for granted ... the green grass ... yet water is always on his mind,” she says.

Yes, they play golf together. Kathy says he has paid attention to her instruction. “His hand action is awesome. He strikes it well. His golf hand-release action is pure talent. He’s a good player. I need him to get out and play more golf,” she says.

Empty-nesters (they are parents of Brianna and Chase) who will have been married 25 years on Nov. 22, Jim and Kathy keep track of their golf games. She’s right — Jim can play. “We’re competitive. We’ve got a little chalkboard going on. We’re pretty even,” she says.

And, they’re the perfect match, if you ask family friend Tom Conlon. “It’s a unique partnership, a great relationship. One made in golf heaven,” Conlon says. “It’s a relationship that had to happen. Both of them are ambassadors for the game.”

Dan and Jess Stang

Team Stang is living the dream.

Husband and wife Dan and Jess Stang purchased Territory Golf Club in St. Cloud, Minn., in April. This was no hasty decision. He has worked at the club as superintendent since 2004 and as general manager since 2011, but in the past few years he had been talking with Territory’s investors about their plans for the facility.

“I knew it was only a matter of time before some of the investors would be ready to sell, and I didn’t want them to put it on the market,” he says. When Dan initially informed Jess that he wanted to talk with her about buying the club, she didn’t exactly give him the thumbs-up. “My first thought was, ‘Oh, no.’ But I’ve always been supportive of him, and he knows the business inside and out,” Jess says. “Really, it was a pretty safe bet on his part.”

To Dan, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and an 18-year member of the association, it was so much more than a bet. It was a strong desire that he wouldn’t have pursued without her support. “We’d been talking about it for years. I’m trying to figure out how we can make it profitable. This is my dream,” he says. “Her support is everything. She’s married to a guy who works a million hours a year. This business takes a lot of time to be good at. Sometimes your family pays the price. I’m grateful she keeps putting up with me.”

Dan and Jess Stang
Dan and Jess Stang with their children, Lauren and Gavin. Photo courtesy of Dan Stang

Their relationship was launched at Territory. Jess began working there a few months after Dan started. He remembers their first encounter. “The club was doing some remodeling. She was staining wood,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m the new superintendent,’ and she said, ‘I’m the new office lady.’ We took the time to get to know each other.”

He definitely made quite a first impression on Jess. “He had a sparkle in him that caught my eye,” she says. Seven years ago, they married. Jess’ involvement in the operations is as bookkeeper. Sometimes she spends as many as 15 hours a week at the club, and the remainder of the time she is a registered nurse working 12-hour shifts. “I come home late, when he’s putting the kids (Lauren, 3, and Gavin, 1) to bed,” she says.

Dan’s goal is to ensure Territory is a success. The nearly 7,000-yard golf course features a front and back that don’t mirror each other. “Territory plays like two completely different golf courses in one. The first 10 holes play like a links-style course, with wide-open fairways and landing areas. Holes are separated by rolling hills and fescue. Across a bridge over the Elk River sit seven holes that seem like a sanctuary. More scenic, no homes, buildings, roads or noise — just nature,” he says. “The finishing hole brings you back to the open front side. Golfers appreciate the uniqueness of the design.”

His to-do list is ongoing. The goal is to make Territory, which opened in 2001, more efficient to maintain and to complete larger in-house projects along the way. “I know the potential of this place. I think we’re headed the right direction,” he says. “What makes it special to me is the time and effort my employees (25 in all, including 15 in maintenance) have put into this piece of land.”

For Jess, it really is all about the bond — led by Team Stang. “We’re in it together. Done it together from the beginning,” she says.

Greg and Mary Boyle

GCSAA Class A superintendent Mary Boyle was 14 when she met a boy named Greg in the summer of 1975. There they were, part of a group of teens on a school bus in Iowa, headed to a field with one purpose — detasseling corn, which is the practice of pulling off long green corn tassels and is the first step in creating hybrid corn seed that results in healthy crops and high yields.

Greg and Mary Boyle
Mary Boyle, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha, Neb., met her husband, Greg, in 1975. For a while, he even worked with her at the golf course. Photo courtesy of Mary Boyle

In time, that summer job also produced an ever-after union for Mary and Greg Boyle, who married eight years later. Greg has even worked with her at the golf course. After 35 years of marriage (and two children, Thomas and Sarah), they’ve developed a formula to keep their ties strong, regardless of whether Greg has been by her side at the golf course or away operating a fitness facility.

“Whether you’re a golf course superintendent married to somebody not in the profession or a policeman married to a teacher, you have to have communication, understand what each other is going through and still have time as a couple,” says Mary, a 30-year association member who oversees Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha, Neb. “He was always there for me. Still is. We work well together.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.

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