Best mentorship practices with Pat Finlen

In a profession that prides itself on the fellowship of the helping hand, Pat Finlen, CGCS, stands out.


Best mentorship practices
Pat Finlen (right), general manager at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, walks the course with Troy Flanagan, director of golf maintenance operations at the club, who took over his position after Finlen was promoted in 2013. Photo courtesy of EPIC Creative

Editor’s note: This article is part of a periodic series that highlights mentoring in the golf course management industry, and is presented in partnership with Syngenta and GCSAA TV. For more on the topic, visit The Mentor Channel at

The past few years have seen Pat Finlen, CGCS, ascend to some of the golf course management industry’s top posts, including GCSAA’s presidency in 2013. Later that year, he was named general manager of San Francisco’s venerable Olympic Club, where he oversaw operations for the 2012 U.S. Open. By any superintendent’s definition, Finlen’s has been a notable career, but the man himself defines his success by one of the profession’s most prized practices: mentorship.

Finlen, a 32-year GCSAA member, learned the value of mentorship in his first days on the job at Lake Quivira (Kan.) Country Club, where his boss was Mike McMillin. McMillin, who was a 28-year member of GCSAA and is currently “happily semi-retired,” remembers Finlen fondly. “I’m extremely proud of Pat. He was always very hardworking, and he’s always been a special guy to me.”

For his part, Finlen says, “Early on, Mike helped me in many ways by giving me a chance and in educating me. I had a degree in business management and knew very little, agronomic-wise. His patience in letting me do many things as an assistant made it possible for me to learn much about the agronomic side of being a superintendent.”

Finlen likewise credits the guidance of another mentor at Lake Quivira CC, Terry Williams, who was a member of Lake Quivira’s board of directors and the chair of the golf committee. Williams, who was also president of a manufacturing company, says that, despite Finlen’s success, he’s remained grounded. “He has never forgotten his old friends, and he’s not pretentious,” Williams says. “He’s very down-to-earth.” Finlen, in turn, recalls, “Terry taught me a great deal about how to operate in the political arena and keeping emotion out of your day-to-day operations. He was instrumental in helping me to navigate through some tough times early on as a superintendent.”

Finlen would later move on to head superintendent positions at Cypress Point Country Club in Virginia Beach, Va., and Bayonet and Black Horse Golf Courses in Seaside, Calif., before landing at The Olympic Club. Along the way, he learned the value of mentoring from many more, and deems it an important element in any professional field. “Having someone who has gone through life issues helps you to work through your issues in a way that is tried-and-true rather than going it alone,” he says. “It also gives you the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone who generally is much more intelligent on matters than you are.” And the relationship is mutually beneficial. “Anytime you can help someone to improve in their job — or even with non-job issues in their life — it gives you a sense of accomplishment in knowing you in some way contributed to their success,” Finlen says.

A ‘superintendent tree’

Like a successful head football coach who proudly sends assistants on to careers with other organizations, Finlen has created an impressive “superintendent tree.” Seeing those he’s guided go on to achieve great things is no doubt extremely satisfying for Finlen. “The best part is seeing those you have mentored succeed in ways you never imagined,” he says.

Jeff White, CGCS, the superintendent at Indian Hills Country Club in Mission Hills, Kan., worked for Finlen at Lake Quivira CC for two years, and says Finlen has been an “asset” to him — not only in his career, but also in life in general.

“It’s not so much advice as much as it is what I’ve learned just watching and listening to how he carries himself and interacts with all types, levels and groups of individuals,” says White, a 26-year member of GCSAA. “Getting and staying involved with GCSAA to continue my education, grow my network and advance my career has stuck with me. I learned more from him through observation than anything else.”

White remains in regular contact with Finlen for input on just about every major decision. “My career path and the professional I am today wouldn’t have worked out the same way had I not been lucky enough to work with, learn from and get to know Pat,” he says.

Lessons in leadership

Although it’s true that a mentor teaches by example, a good mentor does much more than just model success, says Finlen’s San Francisco colleague Brian Nettz, CGCS, superintendent at Presidio Golf Course. According to Nettz, Finlen has the desire to share what it takes to achieve that success, a trait that imbues winning qualities in the people he encounters. During his tutelage under Finlen, Nettz says his mentor never made things personal, and always went out of his way to deal with others evenly and fairly.

“Pat knows how to treat people and how to hold people accountable without being overly heavy-handed,” says Nettz, a 21-year GCSAA member. “You could be the best grass grower in the world, but if you can’t inspire and manage people well, you’re going to have trouble.”

Best mentorship practices
Career cultivator: Finlen (left) chats with former equipment manager Kevin Rendules in The Olympic Club’s maintenance facility. Finlen, whose career in golf course management began at Lake Quivira (Kan.) CC, has been at The Olympic Club since 2002. Photo by David Paul Morris

Earlier in his career, Zach Ohsann, a 13-year GCSAA member who is now assistant superintendent at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, worked for Finlen as an assistant at The Olympic Club. Ohsann says he’s been lucky to work for some top-notch superintendents, but feels “spoiled and truly blessed” by his relationship with Finlen — both during and after the time he was employed by him.

“The most valuable lesson I learned is to be cautious of who you seek advice from,” Ohsann says. “Pat has been and will always be a go-to when I need advice. It won’t be long before I call Pat again and preface the conversation with, ‘OK, Pat, this is what I’m looking at and tell me what you think.’”

Darren Davis, CGCS, the superintendent at Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples, Fla., and GCSAA’s 2016 secretary/treasurer, believes a good mentor is someone who not only teaches an individual new skills, but also enhances the individual’s abilities to make him or her a better person. Davis met Finlen while serving on a GCSAA committee chaired by Finlen. “Pat’s leadership and professionalism were immediately evident,” Davis says. “Pat has a way of facilitating a meeting that makes every participant feel appreciated and respected. In addition, he has a way of connecting with people. I will never forget the handwritten notecard Pat sent me after our first meeting. It helped create a bond, and I have replicated it often throughout my board service.”

Finlen encouraged Davis to run for the GCSAA Board of Directors. “With his support, it was an easy decision for me, and I was fortunate enough to be elected in 2012,” Davis recalls. “At the time, Pat was the vice president, so he was involved in my orientation at GCSAA headquarters. This meeting was the start of several terrific years of service to the GCSAA membership with Pat. I have told many people that if I am 75 percent as effective as Pat, I will consider my service to GCSAA very successful.

“Pat is one of my most relied-upon mentors, in particular as it relates to the GCSAA,” Davis continues. “Although his board service has ended, I call on him often for advice.”

From assistant to peer

Dan James, now assistant superintendent at Stanford University Golf Course, was studying at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and working during the summers at The Olympic Club when he met Finlen for the first time.

“The first two summers, I worked for (the late) John Fleming. The last summer, in 2002, I worked for Pat (who had replaced Fleming),” James remembers. “That summer, he had his hands full, as he was taking over a large operation and laying the groundwork for what the maintenance operation eventually became. Near the end of that summer, I told him I was interested in doing an internship somewhere else in the country, and he helped guide that process. He told me to get started right away, as the guys at the top courses would be getting their interns lined up that fall. I drafted a letter and sent it out to 25 courses, and secured an internship at Oakmont Country Club by Thanksgiving.”

Even though James didn’t return to The Olympic Club, he has made it a point to meet with Finlen at different times during his career to glean his insight. “He’s always been generous with his time and given me great perspective on my decisions,” says James, a 14-year GCSAA member.

Finlen encourages all young assistants and superintendents to seek out colleagues in their area. “Many times I have told assistants to call a superintendent and ask to spend 15 minutes with them to learn about their career,” he says. “Most people like to talk about themselves, and the 15 minutes turns into a lot longer than that, and, in many cases, it then becomes a lifelong relationship.”

The learning curve

Finlen believes that a willingness to learn plays an important part in mentoring, and that goes both ways. “I continue to learn from those I have mentored,” he says. “Some of the best things I have learned have come from those I think I am mentoring and they actually are teaching me something new.”

Effective mentoring, Finlen says, is not so much about your reputation as it is about your actions. “No matter where you are in your career, there is someone who will seek your help, and that is an opportunity for you to mentor,” he says. “Mentoring can be on many different levels. If you are a leader, all under you watch every move you make. You are actually mentoring whether you know it or not.”

Mentoring may come with a learning curve for both the mentor and the mentored. Finlen says he made many mistakes while being mentored, “but I only made them once.” He adds, “Turf has a way of humbling you very quickly. It’s easy to think you are very good at what you do until you take a risk against the advice of your mentor and have a bad year.”

As for those he has mentored, he says he generally tries to give them options rather than telling them to do it his way. “There are so many ways to do something in this business, and superintendents are some of the most innovative people I know,” he says. “I try to be there for those that want to be mentored rather than forcing it upon anyone. If someone does not want help, that is fine; I have tried very hard to keep an open door to those that don’t want help but may need it in the future.”

Finlen’s philosophy and practice of mentorship has had positive effects on the lives of dozens — if not hundreds — of individuals in the golf industry, and like Finlen, Ohsann says he sees it as his duty to mentor aspiring turf managers to become objective, hardworking and autonomous. White agrees, and says he finds mentoring and assisting the people who make him look good to be highly rewarding. For Nettz, good mentorship means listening and understanding, the dividends of which go far beyond the world of turf. “I have helped some of the staff here with unscrupulous creditors, and I got an alcoholic employee cleaned up and in AA,” Nettz says. “I’d like to think that any one of these guys could go to any other job and take what they’ve learned here and be a superstar somewhere else.”

Finlen’s teachings, as shared by Jeff White, CGCS

  • “If you’re not 10 minutes early and the first person to a meeting, you’re late. This shows organization and timeliness, and establishes power, presence and trustworthiness.”
  • “It’s just grass; it will grow back!”
  • “Never let them see you sweat, even under the most uncomfortable and pressurized situations. Remain cool, calm and collected.”
  • “Know and understand your audience. The best communicators are those who listen, not talk.”

John Torsiello is a freelance writer based in Torrington, Conn.

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