Five decades of GCSAA's certification program

A former association president reflects on the program's the past, present and future.


Certificate on a green
GCSAA’s certification program — now in its fifth decade — was designed to recognize those “who have demonstrated a high degree of knowledge in their profession.” Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/@Tiwat

As a GCSAA member for 40-plus years, I have served the association in various areas, including as national president in 1989. While on the GCSAA Board of Directors, I also served as chair of the Certification Committee.

In reflecting on my career as a golf course superintendent, I proudly recall the day, in 1979, when I became a Certified Golf Course Superintendent. To me, becoming certified was a valued professional goal. I have now been recertified six times, and although I am currently retired, I am still a proud CGCS.

According to GCSAA, “the Certified Golf Course Superintendent (CGCS) designation is bestowed upon those who have demonstrated a high degree of knowledge in their profession. The CGCS designation is the most widely recognized in the golf industry and the highest recognition that can be achieved by golf course superintendents.”

Taking the next step

Just as Col. John Morley is recognized as GCSAA’s founding father, I think Stanley “Stan” Metsker, CGCS Retired, should be recognized as the founder of GCSAA’s certification efforts. In 1962, Metsker spoke at GCSAA’s 34th International Turfgrass Conference in San Diego in a session called “Our Professional Image.” His topic was, “My Career Looking Forward.” During his presentation, Metsker emphasized the profession’s need for a certification program.

In Metsker’s book, “On the Course: The Life and Times of a Golf Course Superintendent,” he states that his motivation for promoting certification began in the mid 1960s. At that time, Metsker saw other golf associations competing to achieve professional recognition and felt GCSAA needed to get involved.

At the time, Metsker was employed as a superintendent at a Colorado country club and held a degree in horticulture from Colorado State University. Despite that, the reality was that his superintendent salary was insufficient to support his family. A professional certification program was, in his opinion, key to the profession achieving the recognition and status it deserved, along with the appropriate compensation for professionals such as himself.

In the mid-1960s, GCSAA was not yet ready to implement a certification program, according to Metsker. As an alternative, he partnered with the Rocky Mountain GCSA and developed a chapter-based certification program, and in 1968, the chapter certified its first three superintendents. In 1969, two more superintendents were certified by the chapter. With other superintendent chapters nationally expressing interest in certification, GCSAA’s board approved an association-wide professional certification program in 1970. Since its formal establishment in 1971, 3,348 GCSAA members have achieved certification.

Palmer Maples, CGCS Retired, and Charles Baskin, CGCS Retired, are the longest-tenured living certified superintendents. They were both certified in 1971, the program’s inaugural year. As of the end of last year, there were 1,014 active certified superintendents and 648 who held CGCS Retired status. The 1,014 certified members represent 20% of the members currently eligible for certification. At the end of 2021, 45 applicants were in the process of attaining certification.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Stan Metsker, CGCS Retired, is considered one of the founding fathers of GCSAA’s certification program, driven by his personal job situation and observations of the work of other allied golf associations to move in that direction. Photos courtesy of Stan Metsker

Following the process

Originally, certification was achieved after five years’ experience as a head superintendent, with three as a Class A member. Applicants were also required to successfully pass a challenging, six-part exam. In the early 2000s, this process was changed to require earning continuing-education credits, facility attesting and submission of a portfolio. While pressure was taken off the exam, the portfolio components were quite substantial and time-consuming.

In 2021, the GCSAA Board of Directors approved modifications to the certification program, primarily in response to current workplace demands on superintendents. With guidance from the Certification Committee, GCSAA staff and psychometricians — professionals who study people’s knowledge skills and abilities — the time-consuming portfolio process was removed. But even with that requisite removed, the program remains as professional and challenging as before. The skills previously identified through the portfolio are now confirmed in the exam, course attesting, and the leadership and communication requirements. With these changes, it is anticipated the number of superintendents who achieve certification will increase.

So what steps are required today to earn GCSAA certification? The first requirement is the superintendent must have Class A status and be actively employed as a golf course superintendent. Once that hurdle is cleared and the application has been accepted, the remaining steps can be completed in any order.

Pass all three sections — agronomy, business and environmental management — of the written exam. The exam is taken online with an online proctoring service, and all three sections can be taken in one sitting or scheduled on different days.

Course attesting by two certified superintendents who evaluate course conditions, maintenance facility safety and organization, recordkeeping and communication skills. The attesting must be done during growing season and after the superintendent has been at that course for at least six months.

Communication and leadership attesting, which can be achieved by either completing the Communication and Leadership Certificate in the Assistant Superintendent Certificate Series or by completing three of the following four items — publishing an article for a chapter newsletter or GCM; serving as a chapter volunteer, GCSAA committee member, hosting a First Green event, becoming a grassroots ambassador, or attending National Golf Day; giving a presentation; or completing or updating a facility BMP or creating a BMP manual.

The full details involved in the certification and recertification process are available on the GCSAA website at

Westminster First Green event
A First Green event at Westminster National GC in Westminster, Md. Hosting events like these can satisfy the communication and leadership portion of the new certification requirements that GCSAA debuted earlier this year. Photo by Scott Hollister

What it means

I spoke with several members — some certified, some not — about the effect these updates would have on their perception of the association’s certification program and, if they weren’t already certified, their desire to become so.

Steve Hammon, who is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Traverse City (Mich.) Country Club and a current member of the GCSAA Board of Directors, says, “The certification program was overdue for an update, and I believe the changes to the program are fabulous. The fact that you can take the three separate test portions of the program, one at a time, online, in your own office, with an online proctor is a solid change. The revised certification program’s real-world changes, which include hosting a First Green Program and participating in the BMP.

program are very refreshing and help make certification more reachable for golf course superintendents.”

The 34-year GCSAA member adds, “I would also like to state that I am planning to, once again, go down this certification road and am looking forward to the changes.”

Another superintendent inspired by the changes to pursue his own certification is Chris Reverie, who is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Allentown (Pa.) Municipal Golf Course. He calls the changes “a great win for our association.”

“Eliminating the time-consuming portfolio requirement is a positive program change. The reality is today’s workplace already makes it difficult for superintendents to achieve a life-work balance,” the 10-year GCSAA member says. “The approved program changes will help make certification more attainable to many qualified superintendents. I believe a side benefit of the program changes will be increased GCSAA member engagement. My goal is to continue the certification process to achieve a CGCS designation.”

John Magnuson, CGCS, completed his certification in 2006. The superintendent at Meadow Hills Golf Course in Aurora, Colo., says his desire to achieve certification was “a way to prove to myself that I could accomplish this goal and demonstrate to others my commitment to the profession.”

Back then, he was among the first to experience the portfolio process that was a newly introduced part of the certification process at that time. “I did not find the portfolio that difficult or unreasonably time-consuming,” the 24-year GCSAA member says. “Completion of the portfolio made me think as an individual, a business professional and as an agronomist, all at the same time. The portfolio encompassed what a superintendent will experience throughout their career.”

Still, he’s supportive of the recent changes to the program. “With the recent changes to the certification program, the process remains a rigorous achievement with ambitious standards,” Magnuson says. “Certification’s exacting standards and the program’s ability to judge superintendent competencies will keep the certification process challenging and rewarding, as they should.”

Brian Birney, CGCS, at The Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Fla., called earning his certification in 2021 “a rewarding experience.”

“The impacts of the time and resources required to attain certification were outweighed by certification’s valuable, positive benefits,” the 15-year GCSAA member says. “Like most things in life, your get out of it what you put into it. In achieving certification, I have fulfilled a long-term career goal. I am proud of what I accomplished, and at the same time, I am honored to join such an illustrious group of certified golf course superintendents.”

Certification luncheon
Certified superintendents have been recognized during a Certification Luncheon, presented in partnership with Syngenta, at the annual GCSAA Conference and Trade Show. In February 2023 in Orlando, other turfgrass professionals who have reached notable milestones will be included in a Career Achievement Luncheon. Photo by Montana Pritchard

Continued growth

Since 1970, certification has been a key component in the maturation of the golf course superintendent profession. Certification has also helped establish the superintendent and GCSAA as valued participants within the community of golf.

If becoming a certified golf course superintendent is a personal/career goal for you, please step forward and begin the process. By becoming certified, you will join the over 3,000 fellow superintendents who have preceded you. You will also be recognized as having attained the superintendent profession’s highest standards.

Dennis Lyon, CGCS, is a retired superintendent and a 49-year GCSAA member. Lyon was GCSAA’s president in 1989 and received GCSAA’s Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award in 2013.