At Lake Geneva (Wis.) Country Club, superintendent Jeff Heaton has had some successes — and a few challenges — getting young workers interested in joining the golf course maintenance profession. Photos courtesy of Jeff Heaton
The O’Brien family was fortunate enough to have four brothers.
Throughout the past 10 years, Nate, Nick, Nolan and Niles O’Brien have worked for Lake Geneva (Wis.) Country Club in various capacities. Within their respective departments, they have been all-stars.
Nick O’Brien was working with the grounds department when I arrived in 2014. Detail-oriented and willing to work hard, he immediately stood out to me. Nick struck me as someone who could be a great superintendent. He and I had several conversations
about a potential career in the turfgrass industry. Ultimately, he decided to pursue a degree in turfgrass management through the Penn State World Campus Online. After one board meeting, the club agreed to work the cost of his tuition into our annual
Nick excelled in the program. Shortly after graduating in 2019, Nick secured a position as the assistant superintendent at a top-100 club not far from Lake Geneva CC. In 2019, Nick was invited to work at one of the best new courses in the world, the Tara
Iti Golf Club in Te Arai, New Zealand, and he flourished in his new setting. In 2021, he was asked to work on the construction of Te Arai Links, a 36-hole resort affiliated with Tara Iti Golf Club, and Nick recently was named as a superintendent of
the new facility. In 2014, Nick was a young man in search of direction. Nine years later, he is the superintendent of a world-class golf course. Nick and I are so grateful to the club for making that possible.
When I heard the good news about Nick, I shared it with our membership via the monthly newsletter. A few days later, a member stopped me on the course and exclaimed across the fairway, “Jeff! I read the newsletter!” Then tapping his chest
over his heart, he said, “It made me so proud to be a member here.” It seemed to me that the club could be ready to support a new candidate.
A dearth of turf grads
Now 33 and technically a member of Generation Y (or a Millennial), Nick was about the same age as many of the young crew members I’ve had on staff through the years when we first connected. Over the past three years, I have hired nearly 20 members
of Generation Z — roughly those born 1997-2012, or those 11 to 26 years old now. Most were either close to graduating high school or had recently graduated. Though I had a large crew, the 2019 season was fraught with managerial challenges. I
wrote an article for GCM about our successes and failures in managing employees 16 to 20 years old, addressing issues like attendance and tardiness. I thought it might be helpful to share lessons we learned managing young and inexperienced employees.
Despite potential problems, this generational dynamic could become a larger part of the golf course industry’s workforce in the future.
As we all know, finding seasonal and hourly help is difficult these days, but the pool of assistant superintendents seems to be drying up rapidly as well. Even the best turfgrass management educational programs are seeing less enrollment. This phenomenon
is a strain on the industry, but it’s fortunate for the few turf professionals emerging from these programs.
Finding an assistant superintendent job was incredibly competitive when I earned my bachelor’s degree in agronomy in 2007. By today’s standards, the pay in 2007 was terrible, and top jobs seemed totally out of reach. Typically, one had to
dive in wherever possible and work long, draining hours for little reward.
In today’s market, obtaining any kind of degree or certificate in turfgrass management virtually ensures a successful job search. A high percentage of turf graduates can quickly add a recognizable course name to their résumé. Lower-profile
courses are struggling to compete. We are in that boat.
Over three years, Heaton has hired 20 members of Generation Z, most of them close to graduating or recent grads of high school.
Have you thought about school?
It may have been partly due to my bleak outlook for filling management positions, but I started to see potential in the Gen Z’ers. In conversations with them, I learned some lacked direction, and few had a plan for their futures. I began to have
more serious conversations with outstanding members of the staff about the state of the industry and how superintendents are drooling over educated turf professionals. I explained how salaries for assistant superintendents were climbing into the six-digit
range more frequently, and some of the top-paying head superintendent jobs could garner $400,000 or more a year. I had to temper my bait, explaining that those jobs were rare and probably out of reach at first, but the pool of candidates could be
miniscule 10 years from now, and their chances would be better than ever.
I had a conversation with nearly a dozen employees about going through the Penn State World Campus Online turfgrass management program. I described how the club would pay for their education using an employer deferment program. Basically, the club would
pay for 100% of a student’s tuition, but if the student/employee did not meet the club’s expectations or failed to complete a semester, Penn State could make the cost of tuition the student’s responsibility. Their job performance
would have to be excellent for a few seasons to prove they were willing and able to succeed in their future positions. They had to stay with me while going through school and after graduation move into a salaried position as my second assistant for
at least a season. Then they would be encouraged to move on to a higher-profile position at another course.
The pitch worked more often than I thought.
Hits and misses
Since 2019, we have had seven serious candidates emerge. Here are their stories. I have used nicknames to keep from tainting their future employment opportunities.
EZ got his name because of his easygoing personality. When I hired him, he had already worked for some fantastic golf courses in Wisconsin and proved to be tireless with a consistently bright personality. He was the first employee I considered as a candidate
for schooling after Nick. He was interested but not thrilled.
To test his interest, we added more responsibilities to his daily routine of typical maintenance. He was introduced to spraying and watering, which is usually done by assistants and interns. His mood immediately soured. He did not like spraying. He did
not like staying late and coming in on weekend afternoons to water. The final straw was a soil spray we did in the rain when it was a bit cold. He was clearly miserable. I pulled him aside and said, “It gets a lot worse than this.” I couldn’t
lie to him and say it’s all cupcakes and lollipops when you become an assistant or a superintendent. If he were to gain a degree and move on to a high-level program, his experience would likely become more challenging and exhausting.
His interest in the job clearly waned after that. Eventually, I had to let him go. Two seasons later, a friend of his on the crew told me he missed working with us. He gladly accepted when I asked if he would come back. EZ is once again a cheerful personality
even in the dog days. He is not asked to work more than the according hour, but he expressed an interest in irrigation. This season, he has developed into our full-time irrigation technician. It seems this is where he is happiest, but I plan to have
another conversation with him about his future someday.
Creamy earned his name when he drank a bowl of sour cream in the break room. Our small crew hosts a four-day tournament every year, and the resulting exhaustion can induce a mild delirium in some of us. On the third day, after the second shift ended at
10:30 p.m., we all sat in the break room talking about how tired and hungry we were. Despite our complaints, the tournament was going well, and spirits were high. Amid some joking, Creamy said he could drink the bowl of sour cream left over from the
day’s taco lunch. It took almost no cajoling for him to scoop it up and down it.
We loved Creamy. He was an all-star his first season — mechanically inclined and hard-working. He stepped it up in his second season. Without being asked, he would show up early to help managers set up for the day. Most mornings he was there in
his truck waiting for me to open the building. At the conclusion of his second season, I asked him if he was interested in going to school. He seemed shocked, but excited. We stayed in contact over the winter doing some preliminary preparation for
enrollment. We agreed that if the upcoming season went well, he would start school in the fall.
For that entire season, his job performance was awful — an absolute 180. He stopped coming in early and begrudgingly performed his usual tasks. He developed a disregard for the course that felt almost hostile at times. The last straw for Creamy
was a couple of cases of insubordination. Again, I had to let go of a promising candidate.
I almost don’t want to bring up Surfer because he was never genuinely interested in my offer to school him. He was not a great worker and showed little dedication, and expressed only the slightest interest in going to school, which was all I had
to hear. I never gave him a sincere offer, but we discussed it several times. His performance stayed about the same, and he has been off and on the crew three times for various reasons. Surfer has not squashed my hope that a stab in the dark could
Wolfy was hard-working and smart, but I discounted him as a candidate because he did not graduate high school. In his second season, he approached me about going through a turfgrass program, assuring me he could get his GED diploma. I was impressed by
his determination and agreed to start the process.
He continued to work well, even assuming a self-imposed managerial role when working with the crew. Wolfy quickly got his GED diploma and nonchalantly brought it to my office. I congratulated him and told him how excited I was to get started with his
new career path. He agreed, then asked me if I needed the physical diploma for the process. I had not explained the process well enough. I assured him I would be supportive, and the club would cover the cost of his tuition, but it was his responsibility
to complete the admissions process. A look of realization came over his face like, “Oh, shoot, I actually have to do this now.”
After that, Wolfy became toxic without explanation. He was late, absent and seemingly dissatisfied most of the time. A few weeks after getting his GED diploma, there was a simple error on one of his checks. The problem could have been easily remedied,
but he went into a profanity-laced tantrum. I didn’t try to keep him, and he left the job that day.
Big Kat got his name because he slinks comfortably around the course. Of all my Gen Z employees, he was the only lifelong golfer, and I feel understanding the game is an excellent start to a career in golf course maintenance.
Early in his first season, I was in Big Kat’s ear about going to school. He was interested and had been a dependable worker. Eventually, I had a serious conversation with him about the path I was offering. I told him about the employer deferment
program and how the cost of tuition could become his responsibility if he did not meet the club’s expectations. I thought this part of the conversation was an opportunity to snap a candidate to attention and focus them on the challenges ahead.
It might have seemed like a threat to Big Kat, to work hard or he could be yoked with a tuition bill for several thousand dollars. It was a terrible mistake. I had laid stress upon stress. Facing the addition of some serious stressors apart from work,
we decided he should take a break for the rest of the season. Before he left, I assured him, if he returned, he would be a candidate for school again.
Big Kat did return. He is with me now and about to intern over the winter at a top-100 course. To relieve the pressure I initially created, I told him the chance of that doomsday scenario (where the cost of tuition would become his responsibility) was
very low, and I was prepared to go to great lengths to ensure his success. I might be making a new mistake by being too reassuring. There is a chance that Big Kat does not finish the program, but I will make every effort to keep him out of student
debt. Currently, he is committed and ready to start school next fall. His job performance remains exemplary.
Spicoli was one of the first Gen Z’ers I interviewed in 2019. He reminded me of Jeff Spicoli from the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” If you know the character, you can understand my thoughts during the interview: “This kid
isn’t going to last a week.” Minus a brief hiatus with a lawn care company, he has been with me since that interview.
I always pursued Spicoli as a candidate. He was chill, with a talent for math and a tireless work ethic. Tough assignments were always met with a slight smile. Despite his ongoing lack of interest for three seasons, I continued to nag him about school.
Early this season, out of the blue, he told me he was “in.” Like Big Kat, he is going to intern this winter at a fantastic course and start school next fall.
At any given time since 2019, we have had no less than 15 total feet of hair on the crew. Hippie claimed the bulk of it. His story is a bit different, as he was already attending college when he began working for me. He did well for a season, then returned
to school. I asked him to keep our program in mind if he became dissatisfied with his direction. He was interested and thankful, but said he was happy with his current situation.
I saw him recently on my way to the first tee of a nearby course. He was sharply dressed, his hair cut back; I thought one of the assistant professionals was walking toward me, but it was Hippie. After returning to school, he had started working at a
course where the superintendent made a similar offer to put him through a turfgrass program. Hippie took that offer, and he is now the assistant superintendent of that course.
Frenchy worked for me in 2019 and was fantastic but never became interested in turfgrass as a profession. I was thrilled to hear he had two younger brothers interested in working with us. His middle brother started on the grounds crew when he turned 16.
Frenchy’s brother flew under the radar at the time, seeming slight in size and personality. Since then, he has been a powerhouse for the program, literally. An accomplished wrestler, he regularly takes bigger crew members to the ground in friendly
matches. A lapse in workplace decorum I know, but I have several guys from Iowa … they wrestle a lot.
He surprised me in the hallway one day toward the end of his first season and told me he wanted to go to school. I had never brought up the program with him directly, but he seemed surer than any candidate yet. Frenchy’s Brother is on track to achieve
a certificate in turfgrass management through the Penn State World Campus Online this year.
Frenchy’s brother is the success story we have been waiting for, and it could not be better timed. Our second assistant just moved on to a great new job, and we have “home grown” his replacement. Frenchy’s brother will be 20 years
old next season and a salaried employee with benefits. Frenchy also has two other even younger brothers, one of whom has expressed interest in working for us this summer. We may have another O’Brien clan in the making.
The young members of Heaton’s Lake Geneva CC staff are exposed to all facets of the golf course maintenance profession.
I hate to say that our industry is heading toward a crisis, where superintendents are unable to find assistant superintendents, but it is. But in crisis there is opportunity for heroism. I believe Generation Z contains some of those heroes. If they are
introduced to this profession with positivity that sparks their interest, they have the potential to revitalize waning turfgrass education programs. If we remove the burden of student debt and offer career-long support, their choices become clearer.
Nick O’Brien may have been an anomaly. The turf students I help through school might not be successful superintendents within a decade of graduation.
Most will not have the opportunity to run one of the great golf courses of the world — but maybe they will.
It has happened before.
Jeff Heaton, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 11-year member of GCSAA, holds bachelor’s degrees in English from the University of Puget Sound and agronomy from Texas A&M University. As part of the golf course maintenance industry, Heaton has worked in Washington, Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin and has been director of grounds at Lake Geneva (Wis.) Country Club for nine years. He won GCSAA’s Leo Feser Award — presented to the author of the best superintendent-written article in GCM — in 2021.