Turning the page: Career advice from Anthony Williams

Outstanding careers don’t unfold by chance — they are deliberately authored. A veteran superintendent known for his fierce optimism shares secrets to success, overcoming adversity, and leaving a lasting mark.


Filed to: Leadership

Anthony Williams CGCSAnthony Williams, CGCS, (far right) leads the golf course maintenance team at TPC Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Dallas at Las Colinas, host of this month’s AT&T Byron Nelson on the PGA Tour. Pictured with the club’s Byron Nelson statue, from left to right, are Cortland Winkle, Landon Lindsey, Jacob Boelsche, Greg Neill, Brian Watson and Williams. Photo by Jacob Boelsche

The pioneering golf course superintendent Leo Feser kept the record of the professional greenkeeper — known today as Golf Course Management magazine — creatively edited and available to every GCSAA member in the 1930s, shortly after the formation of the association. Leo’s pages of shared experiences kept everyone connected in a time before the internet and social media. Leo realized the importance of communication and made it his personal mission. His legacy reminds us that we must never tire from sharing the best practices and encouraging stories of our profession, as it is through this that we pass the collective wisdom of our art/science from one generation to the next.

I have been in the golf course management business for 33 years, worked in the resort, private and public sectors, served single-course and multi-course facilities, and operated with budgets large and small. Through each chapter of my career, I have found ways to grow professionally, to persevere through tough times, and to give back to my community and fellow superintendents. My hope in sharing the following four, field-tested career strategies is that they will be a call to action for anyone who has ever dreamed of having a bigger impact as a golf course superintendent.

1. It doesn’t matter where you start, but you have to know where you’re going

There are many ways to find yourself working in this industry. Some cross over from a love of golf, others are legacies born into families of successful superintendents, and still others find themselves in golf course management through some other series of unique events. How you started in the business is secondary to what you accomplish, and once you’re on this path, it is critical to have a sense of where you want to go and the legacy you hope to achieve.

I was 21 when I began my career at PineIsle Resort in Lake Lanier Islands, Ga., as an assistant department manager. I thought I would only be there a few years; it ended up being 20 years, the last 14 of which I was the director of golf/grounds maintenance. It was during that time that I learned the fundamentals of career planning — namely, the concepts of making the most of every situation, rising to the needs of the property while filling in any personal résumé gaps along the way, and making daily decisions to move the needle of my career from average to excellent.

A step I highly recommend is to write a career mission statement. An example: “I want to be a resort golf course superintendent in South Florida with a 25-plus-year tenure, earning a reputation for exceptional playing conditions and environmental stewardship.” Be specific, and refer to your mission statement daily, using it to make on-the-job as well as future-focused, next-job decisions. My career mission statement from 1989 was to be a director-level manager of a multi-course facility in the southern United States that has a four-star hotel or other hospitality component, and that strives to be a best-in-class operation as measured by guest service, employee engagement and environmental stewardship.

The idea of a career mission statement may seem basic, but as I travel around the country speaking at events, I often hear, “I’m not sure what’s next for me” or “I’m just waiting for something to happen.” This is akin to following random directions instead of entering a precise address into your GPS — your odds of getting where you want to be are near zero. You must have a detailed route to guide your career, because you truly need only one phenomenal career opportunity if you are prepared when it arrives.

The sooner you can craft your career mission statement, the better, but keep in mind that this is a “living” statement that can evolve as you gain more experience and insight. Just as a skilled sailor adjusts to changing seas, a superintendent should be connected and responsive to industry trends. In addition to adopting your mission statement, seize all forms of continuing education, from traditional college courses and online learning to seminars and certification programs.

2. Change is a part of life, and your career

You’re making progress in both your life and your career, things are going great, and then — bam! Something unexpected happens, and change is at your doorstep. Sometimes the changes that affect your career are global (the 2008 economic collapse, for example), and other times they’re local (a new general manager arrives or a senior staff member leaves). Other changes that may touch your career path include regulatory shifts, product innovation and weather events.

In my 30-year career with Marriott International — at PineIsle Resort for 20 years, and then 10 years at Stone Mountain (Ga.) Golf Club and Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort — I served 15 general managers, nine directors of golf and four ownership groups. I saw record drought broken by record flooding, and everything from fires to political protests on the property. I managed through two buyouts, one property closure and multiple reorganizations.

Those experiences taught me a few things about navigating change successfully. It always comes down to this: Will you embrace the changes and carry on at the facility, or will you be one of the next changes? Sometimes circumstances will be out of your control, and during such hard times, one’s character will be tested. My advice is to be transparent. Communicate openly and honestly — not just at your property, but within the industry and your community, and not just about the good things, but the challenges as well. Control your emotions, and set an example of leadership for management and subordinate groups. Stay the course, treat others as you wish to be treated, and try to view change as a catalyst for growth. Remember: The best stories have peaks and valleys.

Any career will also inevitably face the influence of personal challenges. By many estimates, I should have died on Oct. 9, 2014. The cause of death would have been aortic aneurysm. That morning, I gave my crew instructions in case I never came back, and I left the course by ambulance. Doctors found the aneurysm, and I was sent by helicopter to Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, where I underwent six hours of surgery to save my life. When you’re strapped into the cage of a Life Flight helicopter, up in the air among all the lights and buildings, there is no doubt that you are not in control.

Now, more than two years removed from it, I am still overwhelmed by the emotions of 2014, during which time I buried my brother and almost lost my wife to a heart attack. I have, in many ways, completely started over, and have held fast to an outlook that each day is new, daunting and exciting. Life is a gift, and the struggle, no matter how difficult, is worth waging.

3. Engage with your community

One of the best conduits for a superintendent to help with the crucial task of growing the game is through a community outreach program. These can be golf-centered, environmental or specific to your community — there is no set formula for success. The key is to use the golf property and its resources to serve the community’s needs. It’s a win-win situation, and it brings the virtues of golf to the non-golfing masses in a heartwarming way. Veteran superintendents are typically the ones who undertake such programs, but as Leo might have said, there is no bad time to start a good project.

I have a lot of experience in this area. I worked with an amazing group of groundskeepers at PineIsle Resort for 20 years, whose jobs resulted from a meeting I had with representatives from Hi-Hope Service Center, a local nonprofit that supports adults with developmental disabilities. With training and 100 percent commitment from all stakeholders, over that 20-year period, we were able to answer with a resounding “yes” the question of whether these members of our community could work effectively and thrive in a golf environment. The initiative created lifelong memories, and showed that a golf course can be a hub of education, inclusion and inspiration.

Later on, at Stone Mountain, the golf course became an outdoor classroom for teaching greenkeeping and environmental skills to at-risk students from Warren Technical High School near Atlanta. The program was a tremendous success, and we went on to hire several of its graduates as full-time crew members. One of those young men, Tommy Bell, recently celebrated his 11th anniversary at the club, and has won numerous awards for excellence along the way. One of the highlights of my career was delivering the commencement address at the Warren Technical High School graduation ceremony in 2007.

4. Serve the greater good

I am one of them. I have been for decades, in good times and bad. Are you one of us? One of the more than 17,000 members of GCSAA? Are you active? Do you take advantage of the programs and privileges of membership? Are you a Class A member, a Certified Golf Course Superintendent, a Grassroots Ambassador?

I’m often asked how I got started in industry service. The truth is simply that Frank Siple, CGCS, called me shortly after I’d accepted my first superintendent position to let me know that the Georgia GCSA was having a meeting and that I was certainly invited to attend. “As a matter of fact, I will pick you up and we can ride together,” Frank said. From then on, once I was engaged with the Georgia chapter, I met people who would forever change my career and my life — legendary superintendents, professors and vendors, all of whom showed me how big golf really is. Frank and I remain great friends, and his example taught me that we all sometimes need a little push to get started.

I occasionally hear members who are sitting on the sidelines say things like “Someone else will do it” or “I don’t have the time.” Why not get in the game, use your skills and maybe even develop a few new ones? For those worried about time commitment, I think the best advice is knowing when to say “yes” to the things that matter. You see, it was also Frank who told me, “You should be on the editorial committee and write an article,” “You should host an event,” “You should run for the board,” and so on. Each of those was interesting and meaningful to me and the legacy I was trying to build as a superintendent, so I went for it.

I have served in various ways over the years and taken full advantage of my gold GCSAA membership card. What I value most is that my mentors and peers have stood together since 1926 in support of each other and the profession, and that they have allowed me to stand with them. It is noble to give back what resources we have to our professional association and the advancement it represents, to work alongside each other to guard the traditions of golf and its future — to answer the call to serve, just as Leo did.

Even in the lowest moments of my career, I still served and believed there was a role I could play, no matter how small it seemed at the time. Regardless of what level of membership you hold, aspire to become the bridge between those who welcomed and mentored you into the business and those who will follow you, as the very foundation of our association is to edify each other. Participate in and pay forward the mission of GCSAA, and see firsthand how it can impact your part of golf’s story.

The next chapter

We’ve covered a lot of ground, and in closing, I have one final story. Around the midpoint of my career, I was able to spend an afternoon with Dave Feser, Leo Feser’s son. Dave was a talented superintendent, and we talked turf, water and Leo. Soon afterward, I resolved to dedicate myself to telling great greenkeeping stories in person and in print, to chase the ideal that Leo demonstrated so well. It has taken a lot of work, but two books and dozens of articles later, I am still inspired by the legacy of Leo Feser. Leo was a bright light, and perhaps now more than ever, we find our industry in need of as many bright lights as we can muster.

I hope you’ve found something helpful in this article, and that you’ll also be motivated to share your own unique insights and perspective with your peers. Before you resume your busy day, take a moment of reflection, and remember that the history of golf and the golf course superintendent profession is made up of stories — our stories, your story. If Leo were writing today about your legacy, what would fill the pages? Go out there and give the industry something to talk about.

Anthony L. Williams, CGCS, is the director of golf course and landscape operations at TPC Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Dallas at Las Colinas. He is an award-winning speaker, author and environmental steward, as well as an inductee of the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame. A 20-year GCSAA member, Anthony has won the association’s Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards top honor (2006), the President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship (2010), and the Excellence in Government Affairs Award (2014). His most recent accolade was the 2016 Distinguished Service Award from the Georgia GCSA. Anthony hails from Indian Creek, Ga., and lives in Coppell, Texas.