Proving grounds

Golf course management internships can provide great value not only to students, but also to the golf courses that open their doors to these future turf managers.


Proving grounds
Morgan Robins works on the 18th hole at Capilano Golf & Country Club in Vancouver, British Columbia, during his internship in 2014. Robins, a student in Penn State’s turfgrass management program at the time of his internship, is now on board full time at Capilano. Photos by John Kaminski

Boot camp, guest lectures, leadership training, lifelong friends, life lessons, table tennis and even table manners — a golf course management internship offers students these experiences and much more.

Internships are valuable programs in the golf course industry. For students, these placements present an unrivaled opportunity to work somewhere they’ve always dreamed of working, advance their career, and learn new skills under the direction of an experienced industry professional. For superintendents, interns fill a much-needed labor gap and allow them to contribute to the future of the profession.

“My interns are a major part of my success,” says Mark Kuhns, CGCS, director of grounds at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., host to this month’s PGA Championship. “Without interns, I don’t know how we would have the level of care and maintenance that we have at our club today. We owe them a lot.”

Matt Shaffer, director of golf course operations at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., who hires about 10 interns each year, agrees. “Everyone was an intern at one time. It’s our seed stock for all our supervisors,” says Shaffer, a 35-year member of GCSAA. “I’m fortunate Merion embraces the program, understands its importance, and allows me to continue to develop it. It’s not cheap to run, but it fills an enormous void. Interns are a great workforce. They are here because they want to learn. A good intern equals one and a half people on the street.”

What does Shaffer look for in an intern? Someone who works hard, is passionate, and brings a positive attitude to the course every day. Internships at Merion and other top courses provide more that just turfgrass management know-how — students can also acquire valuable life skills, from proper table manners to business etiquette.

Getting started

What should turfgrass management students interested in an internship do to get the ball rolling? A complete self-assessment that examines both strengths and weaknesses is a wise place to begin. After you have identified the skills missing from your turfgrass toolkit, define your internship learning objectives, which will help you narrow your focus to only the internship postings and job descriptions that align with your ambitions.

Goal setting and customization are two of the key elements students learn in the first-year internship class that John Kaminski, Ph.D., designed and teaches as part of Penn State’s two-year turfgrass management program.

“If someone is weak in construction but strong in general maintenance, I can tell them not to go to a course where they are going to sit on a mower all day,” Kaminski says. “When it comes to finding an internship, I don’t push the students. I make them do a lot of work first to find out which one is right for them. It is customized to each student.

“Every student can have a successful internship if they find the right spot,” he adds. “If I put a student who only wants to work 50 to 60 hours per week at a place like Merion where they will work at least 80 hours, then they will probably be unsuccessful. At the same time, if I have students who want to work 80 to 90 hours per week and I place them at a course where their hours are limited, they also won’t have a good internship experience.”

Kaminski’s class prepares students not just for their six-month internship, but also gives them professional development tools for future success. It covers a variety of career-related skills, such as résumé and cover letter writing, interviewing tips, how to accept and turn down a job, and how to use social media to network and advance in the profession.

Strengthening the weak spots

Josh Dixon is a recent graduate of Penn State’s turfgrass management program, and says he can’t say enough about the value of the internship class he took from Kaminski. It was a steppingstone in his fledgling career.

“Knowing my weaknesses was important,” says Dixon, who interned in 2013 at The Los Angeles Country Club (LACC). “It helped me look for internships that would provide experience in these particular areas. The self-assessment tool also helped me create my internship goals.”

Dixon’s three main objectives at LACC were to increase his knowledge of irrigation practices, gain experience on spraying equipment and practices, and make new connections to expand his professional network. He set a further goal to learn three new things each day. A couple of highlights of his internship included working the Pac-12 Conference golf championships and being involved in a driving range renovation project.

After graduating, Dixon worked at The Club at Mediterra in Naples, Fla., where he was introduced to the challenges of tending bermudagrass. A year ago, he returned to LACC, where he’s currently an apprentice superintendent.

“I decided to come back to be involved in the ongoing South Course renovation, as well as getting experience at the upcoming Walker Cup that we’ll be hosting in 2017,” Dixon says. “Looking back now, I value most the water management practices learned from then-superintendent Russ Meyers during my 2013 internship. Managing water content is multi-beneficial and plays a pivotal role in the golf course industry.”

Collin Harley, one of Dixon’s classmates, completed his internship at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa. “It was an amazing experience,” Harley says. “I learned so much more than what I expected going into it. The staff at Aronimink had everything to do with this. They made going to work fun.”

The biggest lesson Harley learned was to always treat employees with respect. Three of his primary objectives were to learn more about pesticide use, increase his knowledge on water management issues, and take on leadership roles, no matter how small.

“I met these goals by making it known entering my internship,” says Harley, who is currently the assistant superintendent at Gulph Mills Golf Club near Philadelphia. “I tried to get involved with everything that was happening on the course, and the responsibilities and jobs naturally fell into place.”

Take the long view

When choosing a place to intern, it’s best to look beyond three to six months. Think of your short- and long-term career goals. Where do you see yourself in five years? An internship can set you up for continued career success. If you are a superstar among interns, you’ll guarantee yourself a good reference from your boss for the rest of your career.

Proving grounds
Hands-on how-to: Turfgrass management internships hone operational and interpersonal skills not so easily picked up in a classroom.

Many people want to work at a course set to host a U.S. Open or PGA Championship. While these experiences are good, often you will get stuck doing one task, such as mowing greens, and will not get the opportunity to meet your learning objectives. No one wants to risk any mistakes when they are preparing to host a professional event, and because so many volunteers are brought in to help a course host a major tournament, interns can easily get lost and not receive as much one-on-one time and tutelage from the superintendent.

If students want to add major tournament experience to their résumés, Kaminski suggests they pick a course that is slated to host a major in a few years. “That is where the magic really happens,” he says. “That’s when people are building new tees and reshaping fairways.”

How do students find out about these potential employers? Each turfgrass program shares postings internally with its students on its website and intranet. There are also job fairs each fall. Students should follow clubs that they have an interest in working at on social media, and check turf industry websites, such as, frequently.

A Canadian perspective

North of the border, the University of Guelph offers a two-year turfgrass management diploma, which is one of the most respected programs in the industry. Interns are required to keep a daily journal, and, following their internship, they must develop a year-long daily operations management plan for the course where they worked.

Sean Van Beurden (class of 2014) interned at Capilano Golf & Country Club in Vancouver, British Columbia. Developing crew-management skills was his No. 1 learning objective.

“No matter where you go, that skill set is essential for success,” says Van Beurden, who is now second assistant superintendent at Westmount Golf and Country Club in Kitchener, Ontario. “With the assistant as a backup, Sundays eventually became a day for me to be in charge of the crew and make all the daily decisions. I’ve since used the managerial experience gained through my internship at Capilano to help me effectively manage many of the day-to-day operations here at Westmount.”

What advice would Van Beurden offer others for taking full advantage of what he says is the best learning opportunity a turfgrass student will ever get? “Don’t be afraid to try something new,” he concludes. “There are so many ways to manage turf, and every single course does it differently. Learning as many strategies and techniques as you can will make you a much more effective manager.

“Lastly, have fun. The reason we are all in this industry is because we love what we do. Finding a place that challenges you to become a better turf manager will not only benefit your career, but is also personally more satisfying.”

Boot camp at Baltusrol

When Mark Kuhns, CGCS, talks about the internship program at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., he often half-jokingly refers to it as a “turfgrass boot camp.” He’s not kidding, though — this isn’t for everyone.

“Some really want to learn, and some are here just to get away, drink some beers, and have a good time,” explains the 35-year GCSAA member. “We let them know that is not the objective here. If they are not prepared to spend one of the most difficult summers of their career, then this isn’t where they want to be. If they can get through this successfully, they will get a good recommendation from us wherever they go.

“When I say ‘boot camp,’ it’s to separate the crew out a bit,” he adds. “Some will say, ‘Oh man, if being a superintendent means for the rest of my life I have to get up at 4:30 a.m., get showered, shaved and get to the job, I don’t think I want to do that.’”

For those who are up to the task, Baltusrol offers an unparalleled internship experience. “Our interns do more than they will do anywhere else in the country,” Kuhns says. “One of the requirements is they have to study for the pesticide exam, which is a half-day seminar, and then they have to take the exam. We issue the study guides before they come. It’s not because they need the New Jersey license, but it’s because I want them to understand what it’s like to take the pesticide exam and put it on their résumé to show they’ve studied safe spraying practices and spray rig calibrations.”

Interns at Baltusrol are also required to attend a lecture series for which Kuhns brings in industry leaders to share their expertise. Past guests have included Norm Hummel, Ph.D., Dave Oatis from the USGA Green Section, and Joe Vargas, Ph.D.

Kuhns always tries to have a diverse group of between 10 and 12 students, and says he selects interns based on a number of qualities — not just grade-point average. “It’s about a desire to learn,” he says. “The guys who melt my heart are the ones who come to me and say, ‘I know my future depends on whether I complete all these learning objectives in my career, and I’m hoping you will be a part of that.’”

A summer spent as an intern at Baltusrol isn’t all work. Meals are included, and the club offers dorm accommodations with weights, table tennis and dart boards. “They do have some time to interact, make some lasting friendships, and enjoy life a bit,” Kuhns says. “We also give them time off periodically to freshen up. You get pretty run down after a few weeks. We don’t beat them nearly as hard, but when things need getting done, they are there.”

5 tips for internship success

  • Think long-term. Have a five-year plan.
  • Take a risk. Get out of your comfort zone. Travel. Don’t be afraid to try something new.
  • Before you apply anywhere, know yourself. Clearly define your learning objectives to make sure the course you choose matches your needs.
  • Research all of your options, and then narrow down your choices to two locations.
  • Resolve to learn something new every day during your internship. Have fun. Network and make friends.

David McPherson is a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario, and a regular GCM contributor.