Tips for better golf course staff training

The training period lays the groundwork for how an employee performs and views their job. Try these strategies to instill attention to detail and inspire buy-in among greenhorn crew members.


Filed to: Labor, Management

Training golf course staff
Cross-training employees ensures your team is never without a key performer, and it allows staffers to grow their skill sets and see their jobs as more than a monotonous string of chores. Photos by Montana Pritchard

Editor’s note: The following article first appeared in the December 1997 issue of GCM. Because of its timeless insights for turf managers, we’ve dusted it off and are presenting it anew.

Ask veteran golf course superintendents what kind of training a novice superintendent will need to prepare for the rigors of day-to-day maintenance operations, and you’ll get a long list of answers.

Mike Mongoven, CGCS, who oversees City Golf Course of Fort Myers in Florida, sums it up pretty well: “You need training as a priest, rabbi, motivational speaker, drill sergeant, adult diaper changer, fireman, physician, counselor, mind reader, CPA, agronomist, coach, referee, hydrologist, horticulturist, meteorologist, herbiculturist, mole cricketologist and faith healer.”

Most superintendents have plenty of ideas about the training it takes to make employees proficient and efficient. And some seem to have good ideas about how to motivate workers to move beyond a set sequence of tasks, accept more responsibility and strive for excellence on the course. They teach workers to be their eyes and ears out on the course.

The trick, superintendents and training consultants say, is to have a systematic, persistent training approach, to truly care about workers, and to create an environment that motivates them. Don’t let turnover derail your training efforts, and don’t settle for mediocrity — no matter what you pay your staff.

Toss out excuses

If you don’t use the argument, you’ve almost certainly heard it: “We don’t have enough money to hire really quality people.” It’s a common phrase among superintendents, says Gerry Sweda, a former golf course superintendent who is now a trainer and consultant.

As owner of Sweda Training and Development Services in Hilliard, Ohio, Sweda has spent 20 years training superintendents and other managers. He has heard that rationale countless times as justification for high staff turnover and other in-house employee problems. Unfortunately, it’s the same argument he runs up against when he’s teaching seminars to virtually all business middle managers, regardless of the industry.

It’s an argument Sweda understands, is sensitive to and, in some ways, even agrees with, but it’s so common it’s akin to complaining about the air you breathe.

“No one has enough funds to hire the best, most competent, most educated, best trained, most experienced, most motivated employees,” he says. “And even if you did, you couldn’t find more than just a few. And in a short time, they’d all be in management saying they didn’t have enough money to hire really good people. ’Cause that’s the way it really is.”

Sweda’s advice: Deal with it. Go on with the job you were hired to do. Hire the best people you can, and bring out the best in them. Use training to teach, educate and, in some cases, motivate your employees not only to do better work for you, but to increase their own abilities to improve their lots in life.

“Most are stuck where they are — unless someone like you helps them better themselves,” Sweda says. “Tell them that if they are willing to stay with you a couple of years, give you a good effort and apply themselves, you in turn will teach them the business, teach them skills they don’t currently have, help them make the most of their experiences, and help them be more marketable so they can then move on and up in the industry.

“Tell them, ‘I can only pay you so much, but I can raise your value on the street through my training here. I can make you a better and more valuable worker down the road, and then you can get a better job at more money with someone who is looking for a more talented, experienced employee and who can pay you more than I can.’”

Sweda believes if everyone in management would take such an approach, employees and future employees would be better off. “And you would benefit by having more employees who are trying to do better work,” he says.

An environment that motivates

Laurie Frutchey, superintendent at Black Diamond Ranch Country Club, a private, 27-hole golf course in Lecanto, Fla., has worked her way up through the ranks. Cross-training helped her develop the skills she needed to eventually head up maintenance operations, so it’s no surprise she offers the same opportunity to her employees.

“What we try to do is train everybody to do every job,” says Frutchey, a five-year GCSAA member. “I don’t have a fairway operator. I don’t have a Sand Pro operator. I have somebody different do it every day. That way they don’t get bored; they don’t get burned out.”

More importantly, employees gain the training and experience to move up within the ranks. When supervisory positions open up, Frutchey tries to hire from within. “I haven’t hired from the outside for a supervisor’s position since I took over,” she says.

Because employees know opportunities exist for promotion, they’re motivated not only to perform well in their jobs, but to take an active role in improving conditions on the course and spotting and reporting potential problems. Promotion is a powerful incentive, Frutchey says. “It would work for me. ... It did work for me,” she adds.

Frutchey takes advantage of local educational opportunities to train assistants and 43 full-time workers, and a consultant travels to Black Diamond Ranch every month to help provide a broad range of training that goes well beyond daily tasks.

Superintendents who supervise employees by merely training them to perform specific duties — mowing greens, pruning trees, raking bunkers — will likely get maintenance workers who view their jobs as a mundane sequence of tasks. Such a management approach isn’t conducive to employee satisfaction or to developing a “culture of involvement,” says Tom Maloney, senior Extension associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Maloney, who co-authored the book “Human Resource Management for Golf Course Superintendents” with Cornell agricultural economist Robert Mulligan, Ph.D., says developing a culture of involvement means motivating employees in several ways. Strategies include offering praise and positive feedback, creating the best working conditions possible, training carefully, promoting and compensating workers, including them in decision-making, and helping them set goals.

Sweda says superintendents can employ numerous management strategies to create an environment in which employees feel they’re more than mere cogs in a wheel. “Motivating, in my opinion, is a more advanced form of managing — a higher level of managing, if you will,” he explains.

Editor’s note: Optimal operation of the golf course lies in your ability to develop a motivated, productive staff. How? Regional agronomist Dave Waymire, CGCS, offers tips in Get the most out of your golf course crew.

Convincing employees to put maximum effort into a job involves making them feel truly connected to the company, empowering them to act on their own, and providing mentoring and effective leadership, Maloney and Sweda say. Management must listen to employees and instill a sense of worth through appropriate recognition when they’ve met job responsibilities, and especially when they voluntarily make an effort that goes above and beyond what’s required.

In his book, Maloney notes that superintendents’ training goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Rewarding and Timed.

Superintendents must also be willing to stand by their convictions and keep important issues on the table. Maloney recalls a superintendent who initiated regular staff meetings and encouraged workers to voice opinions and make suggestions. But persuading workers to buy into the process didn’t happen overnight.

“At first, workers kind of sat on their hands. They were afraid they’d get stepped on if they said something,” Maloney says. It took half a year for the persistent superintendent to convince employees to cozy up to the idea. “Slowly but surely, people started showing up with notebooks of ideas and things to discuss.”

Train golf course employees
Consider pairing a new worker with a member of your core group of experienced workers who can advise and observe during on-course training.

Superintendents should take every opportunity to pass along positive feedback from golfers and management to sensitize staff to problem areas and to continually drive home important issues, Maloney says. Because most enthusiastic golfers continually evaluate the course, superintendents should use that feedback to their advantage. “You have an industry where the consumer really cares,” Maloney says. “If workers know and understand that, it can be very gratifying.”

There are also a lot of little things superintendents can do to foster an environment where workers care and take the time to spot potential problems on the course and in the maintenance facility. Something as simple as taking the time to write out a specific list of potential warning signs for insect and disease problems and hanging the list on the wall is extra work, but it can be incredibly worthwhile, Maloney says.

Training means attention to detail, patience

Along with making sure an individual’s job is meaningful, make sure they understand the scope of the job, Maloney adds. A common mistake on some golf courses is turning new employees loose without any training. The workers will probably eventually figure out how to do their jobs — or they may learn from an employee who is equally as naive.

Taking the time to put a qualified trainer with new employees pays off, says 21-year GCSAA member Nels Lindgren, CGCS, who oversees Loch Lloyd Country Club in Belton, Mo. A rookie who applies 20 ounces of herbicide to a green instead of the recommended 5 ounces for the prescribed area will cause a seriously burned green that won’t recover for six to eight weeks. What better proof of the adage, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Superintendents agree it’s important to put new employees with qualified staff who are willing to coach, counsel and motivate. But who should do the training?

“I think most superintendents think they should,” Sweda says. “My recommendation is that they shouldn’t. The key is that training is best conducted by the most knowledgeable, most experienced, most credible person available. It may be you, but it may not.”

He recommends training in three stages: telling, showing and demonstrating. “Telling means clearly explaining the ‘right’ ways and time expectations. Here’s what, how, when, why, etc.,” Sweda says. “Showing means clearly giving workers an example to go by. ‘Here is what I want done. Here is what it will look like. Here is how much you should use, and here is how much it should cover.’ Demonstrating means having workers demonstrate or describe what they now know and understand to ensure that proper communication has indeed taken place.

“In the telling and showing stages, I would recommend using anything that might help visually communicate the ‘right’ way or the ‘right’ amount of time,” he adds. “Visual communication is much more effective than verbal communication, so pictures, diagrams, samples or examples that can be held or looked at are excellent training tools. Manuals, labels ... and actual demonstrations are great show-and-tell aids and go a long way in emphasizing effectiveness.”

Editor’s note: Find many more resources for hiring, managing and retaining your golf course employees in GCM’s collection of labor-focused articles.

A step beyond ‘basic training’

Edward Fischer, CGCS, a 28-year GCSAA member who has overseen the private Old Elm Club in Libertyville, Ill., for 16 years, teaches employees to “think prevention” by taking them out with him when he scouts the course. “If I happen to see a problem, I’ll take them over and show them, explain it to them,” he says. “We’re basically looking for diseases or problems with irrigation.”

He adds that in the process, a worker might see an oil spot on the grass or on a green, which can be a sign of potential equipment problems. “I usually tell them if they see anything that looks out of place to let me know,” Fischer says.

Golf course staff training
Training not only involves telling workers how to perform a task, but giving them an example to go by.

But superintendents say it can be difficult to know in whom to invest the extra training, as some employees soak up as much knowledge as possible and, like mercenaries, sell their services to the highest bidder. Is such turnover enough to warrant concerns about a wasted investment in training?

It’s a valid question that many superintendents worry about. But Lindgren considers quality training a necessity because it means fewer mistakes and a higher level of excellence. Often it comes down to selecting the most motivated, most receptive workers to receive that extra training, says Roger Stewart, CGCS, a 22-year GCSAA member.

Stewart spent 20 years managing maintenance operations and training workers in Chicago before taking the superintendent position a year ago at TPC Jasna Polana in Princeton, N.J. Over the decades, he has learned to spot workers who show promise and more than an average interest. “They ask a lot of questions,” he says, adding that they are usually sincere, so they stay long enough to hone their skills. “You’re going to benefit during the training time. It doesn’t really bother me if someone moves on. You can’t really hold that person back. You have to be able as an employer to reward those people. Maybe your budget doesn’t allow you to do that. If you can’t, it’s not your fault.”

Superintendents who train their staff to spot problems on the course often expect that keeping an eye out will become part of the employees’ jobs. And while some employees will eagerly participate — noting potential problems while performing their normal duties — others won’t.

The ones who do are the employees who get promoted at Black Diamond Ranch, Laurie Frutchey says.

The key to successful golf course staff training rests with the superintendent. It all starts with the desire both to create an environment where people really care and to provide the training to make workers confident in their jobs. That means helping the crew recognize their role in fulfilling golfers’ expectations.

“It’s the idea of mowing grass vs. maintaining a world-class golf course,” Cornell University’s Maloney says. Share a vision, and show employees how their jobs contribute to achieving that vision.

12 tips for training golf course workers

1. Train your full-time crew to carry small notebooks — in trousers or shirt pockets — as they perform maintenance duties. When they spot potential problems or come up with creative ideas and solutions, ask them to write those down. Their greatest inspirations may come while driving a utility vehicle down a cart path. Or they may overhear a suggestion for or a problem with irrigation in a conversation between two club members. Statistics show there’s a 60% chance your crew will forget those ideas before they get back to the maintenance facility unless they write them down.

2. Don’t assume that even your best seasonal workers — including the ones in agriculture and turf management schools — know what to look for when scouting for disease problems on your course. Spell out some of the evidence they should look for. Explain how yellow foliage or other nutrient deficiency symptoms might suggest that roots are under attack. Talk about wilting, thinning or gradual decline of turf and invasion of grassy and broadleaf weeds. Discuss the problems you typically encounter on the course. Phillip Gable, CGCS, takes the time when he’s scouting Oakwood Country Club in Enid, Okla., to train employees by pointing out problems and explaining what to look for when trying to detect dollar spot, brown patch, Pythium blight and other diseases.

3. Train employees to put themselves in the members’ shoes — to see the course from a golfer’s perspective. “We’ve been preaching harder and harder for them (the maintenance crew) to see the course like the customer would,” says Dick Craig, superintendent at The Golf Center at King’s Island in Mason, Ohio. Nels Lindgren, CGCS, of Loch Lloyd Country Club in Belton, Mo., encourages employees to play golf to gain that perspective. A surprisingly simple concept can create positive changes in employees’ attitudes and awareness.

4. Teach your maintenance crew to look for ways to cut down on work redundancy and improve proficiency and efficiency when they’re out on the course. Reward them for learning and suggesting shortcuts. Consider having them create a two-week time log — broken down into 30-minute increments — to keep track of what’s accomplished, interruptions, etc. When the two weeks are over, analyze the log. Is there any unnecessary duplication of tasks? Are there tasks that can be done away with entirely? Replace bad habits with good ones. Then get rid of the time log for six months or a year. If this process allows you to pick up only 30 minutes a day, that represents 22 more eight-hour days per year.

5. Challenge the status quo. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “What would happen if ...?” Scrutinize activities and tasks that may have been perpetuated for no apparent reason.

6. Make the best use of outside training options. Cooperative Extension Service programs may offer excellent speakers. Organizations such as the Bureau of Workers Compensation offer seminars on power equipment operations and proper use of hand tools. Many fire departments offer free safety classes, and golf course equipment manufacturers and suppliers often provide free training on their products. Landscape associations and parks departments may provide on-site speakers. If you come across some expensive but valuable off-site training, consider sending one person and have them report back to the staff what they learned. Beware of training consultants who offer boilerplate management solutions.

7. Priorities change from one day to the next. Consider a 15-minute meeting in the morning to discuss issues and ensure everyone is operating on the same page before they head out onto the course. Have a purpose and an agenda so the meeting doesn’t become a time waster. Discuss a few safety issues. It can be a time for hands-on demonstrations or to go over step-by-step lists. Gable of Oakwood Country Club holds “open sessions.” Great things can happen when workers feel free to speak their minds and share their ideas.

8. Don’t wait until training day to decide which qualified employees will coach, counsel, motivate and train new crew members. Lindgren uses a “buddy system” so experienced staff and new workers know who they’ll be with for extended training periods. This allows you to set priorities and objectives before you walk in the door. Otherwise, your best intentions for training day may fall prey to unscheduled problems and interruptions.

9. Training can be accomplished efficiently if performed in steps. However, be genuine and enthusiastic about training. Learning, like planting, requires warmth. Explain and illustrate, and question employees carefully, stressing key points, recommends Tom Maloney, senior Extension associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Don’t give too much information at once. Show how to do each part of the job or task. Provide feedback that reinforces good work habits and helps set goals for improvement.

10. As mowers and other golf course maintenance equipment become more technologically complex, the need for training is all the more important, as is hiring educated people, says Rick Bushey, mechanic for seven years at Washington Golf & Country Club in Arlington, Va. Bushey is admittedly “nearly fanatical about quality of cut,” so he suggests training workers to be quality-minded and to have a critical eye.

11. Train employees to prioritize their work and tackle the most important projects first. That way, they’ll have more time to notice potential disease, safety and efficiency problems when they’re out on the course. Many maintenance workers get sidetracked by working on the easiest things first, moving from chore to chore with no clear plan. Consider budgeting time into small increments to reach deadlines.

12. Finally, and possibly most importantly, train yourself to learn from employees. They have different backgrounds, new perspectives and different ways of thinking. They can be great for triggering fresh views of problems with which you’ve been wrestling unsuccessfully. Listen to everyone’s ideas, especially those from workers who are closest to the situation. Some may have extraordinarily simple and obvious solutions to problems.

Mike Perrault is a staff writer for GCM.