Just rewards: Showing appreciation for your golf course crew

Superintendents share budget-friendly ideas plus strategies for garnering the funds for team recognition initiatives.


Filed to: Management, Labor

Golf course crew appreciation
Members of the turf care staff at The Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club in Aloha, Ore., at the annual Cinco de Mayo event organized by Mike Turner, CGCS. Photo courtesy of Mike Turner

National Employee Appreciation Day may fall in March, but superintendents and their management staffs can celebrate the efforts of a greens crew anytime of year. When it comes to such efforts, a little can go a long way.

There are many creative ways that superintendents can express their thanks and appreciation for the work done by their staffs. In his 2010 article “The ten ironies of motivation,” reward and recognition guru Bob Nelson wrote, “More than anything else, employees want to be valued for a job well done by those they hold in high esteem.” Nelson added that people want to be treated as adults.

Organizing an appreciation event can be a challenge during a busy work season when the golf course is packed every day and projects seem never-ending. But some type of an event is most effective in recognizing staff accomplishments, especially when it’s supported by the course, club or resort management.

Several years ago, it was more common for a superintendent to include the cost of a small appreciation event in his or her budget at the start of a fiscal year. That would allow the flexibility of planning something without worrying about receiving approval. Unfortunately, with budgets tighter than ever, that’s not always possible today.

One big party

Like many superintendents, Mike Turner, CGCS, has employees from a number of different demographic backgrounds as part of his staff. Turner, a 15-year GCSAA member, is the director of agronomy at The Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club in Aloha, Ore.

Many of Turner’s full-time crew of 23 and 10 to 12 seasonal part-time employees are Hispanic Americans and are not avid golfers, so he has developed an annual Cinco de Mayo event in which the non-golfers can play soccer and enjoy barbecue and other outdoor activities.

Those who do play golf tag along with Turner at least once a year to a neighboring golf club, often a private one, where they get to play 18 holes and enjoy lunch and/or dinner as part of the day. Turner thinks these initiatives allow his staff to experience activities they enjoy the best.

“Either way, it’s a fun activity where one is a big party and the other allows us to enjoy golf in a different setting from where we work,” Turner says. In fact, he uses the golf trips to other courses as a bit of an informal teaching tool, where he and his employees view and discuss course management and upkeep strategies that are being implemented there.

“It’s interesting how different people, including me, will see and notice different things being done to the course,” Turner says. “It’s one of the things we’ll discuss during or after the round — how they are handling the sand traps or types of grass used.”

Pennies for pizza

Jim Alwine recently took over as the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Bernardo Heights Country Club in San Diego after working in a similar role in Stockton for several years. During his time as a superintendent, the 14-year GCSAA member has sold old department equipment to help raise money for team or club staff events. He has also installed a pop machine for the department with inexpensive cans of pop (40 cents). The department nets a profit of about 2 cents per can, which also goes into the event fund.

With that money, Alwine has purchased small prizes for various events. For example, he has hidden money of various denominations in balloons and then had his staff use darts to reveal what they win. He has thrown pizza parties and hosted par-3 competitions, finding that even staffers who are not regular golfers can enjoy par-3 events as well as chipping and putting contests.

He took one idea he read about and created an obstacle course on the golf course property. Team members tested their skills in several challenges, such as circumventing “mines” in a field while wearing a heavy backpack. Such an event really helps the working relationship of a staff, Alwine says.

“We’ve had these fun little events, and then we’ll get prizes for just about everyone, including last place,” Alwine says. “With that obstacle course event, we had people cheering for each other and really having a blast. Giving people money is not how you motivate them, I have found, but it is these fun events that you can do together that everyone really enjoys.”

Getting creative for employee appreciation

Alwine’s opinion is supported by the book “The Human Capital Edge” by authors Bruce Pfau and Ira Kay. Pfau and Kay write that people want recognition for their individual performance with pay tied to their performance. Employees want people who don’t perform fired; in fact, failure to discipline and fire non-performers is one of the most demotivating actions an organization can take. It ranks at the top of the list next to paying poor performers the same wage as non-performers in deflating motivation, Pfau and Kay write.

Additionally, the authors find that a disconnect continues to exist between what employers think people want at work and what people say they want for motivation. “Employers far underrate the importance to employees of such things as flexible work schedules or opportunities for advancement in their decision to join or leave a company,” Pfau and Kay write.

Alwine also may tell some of his staffers to take off from work a few minutes early on the clock if they have been working hard on a particular course project or have gone the extra mile. He says it may only be for a 10- to 15-minute period but such “rewards” are appreciated, especially after a long day or week of work.

Golf course staff appreciation
A challenge course tests team skills at Bernardo Heights Country Club in San Diego, where Jim Alwine is the superintendent. Photos courtesy of Jim Alwine

A few years ago, as the U.S. economy was starting to slide, most of the discretionary funds Turner had previously used to fund staff events were taken away. Now, much of the money for the Cinco de Mayo event is raised from recycling empty pop and beer cans. In Oregon, those returnables can be taken to any retailer for a 5-cent refund. Turner estimates that the course collects up to $3,500 per year from returnables that are thrown away or recycled by players.

“We run golfers through here pretty solidly throughout our golf season,” Turner explains. “It’s a busy course.”

Turner’s staff also participates in the annual employee appreciation event for all departments that’s often held at a local bowling alley, with family members, including children, invited. Employees can win such giveaways as Portland Trailblazers tickets, weekend hotel stays and gift cards that are purchased by or donated to the course.

Turner will often receive gifts or free items from vendors he purchases supplies from during the course of the year. He’ll save those items, which can include various tools and landscaping products, and give them to employees as rewards for going the extra mile.

“We have to be creative with how we recognize our employees because we don’t have the same amount of discretionary money we used to, and I think that is true just about everywhere,” Turner says. “But I try to mix it up so that everyone on my staff gets some recognition during the year.”

Scheduling fun to recognize staff

As a result of these and other activities, Turner experiences very little turnover. Many of his employees have worked at The Reserve Vineyards and GC since before 2004, when Turner himself arrived.

When Alwine attends industry events such as the Golf Industry Show, he grabs as much SWAG (“stuff we all get,” or giveaways such as hats, T-shirts, etc.) as he can to share with his staff. In addition, members at courses where he has worked in the past will often be willing to put together a small collection of donated money for the staff for a fun event, even if it’s $5 per member.

“There are times, obviously, I just take my team out somewhere or bring in pizza with my own money because I remember my bosses doing that for me when I was younger,” Alwine says. He has never really budgeted for such events as part of his annual expenditures, but adds that there are plenty of creative ways to help recognize staff.

Here are a few ideas for events and activities from business consultants and superintendents around the country:

  • Staff cookout/dinner. A significant recognition event would include higher-end food and some sort of formal recognition of the staff. A luncheon may be ideal, so that staff who work both the morning and evening shifts can attend without much hassle.
  • Tickets to a local sporting event, such as a professional or minor league team or a major college team. The San Diego GCSA, for example, traditionally holds an appreciation day for members’ staffs at a San Diego Padres game at Petco Park. Renting transportation, such as a bus, can be a good strategy. Superintendents will need to be cognizant of early-morning work schedules the next day.
  • Half-day with pay. This could be built into the budget. While it may not be an effective way of publicly recognizing certain employees, a paid holiday may be the most appreciated form of recognition.
  • Gift cards. These could be awarded through random drawings, to specific team members for specific achievements, or to everyone on staff. Choose gift cards that can be used anywhere or ones from major online retailers to appeal to the broadest range of tastes.
  • Golf tournament. Even if they aren’t golfers, almost everyone on your staff will enjoy a casual golf event. Making this tournament a fun competition with small prizes and even trophies for teams or individuals can add to the camaraderie of your staff.

Mike Scott is a freelance writer based in White Lakes, Mich., and a frequent contributor to GCM.