On a course for mental health

After years of struggling with issues beyond his control, a veteran superintendent reached out for professional help — and now regrets not having done so sooner.


Filed to: Montana, Health

fallen tree
Many aspects of a golf course superintendent’s job are uncontrollable, like unanticipated wind damage, while others are within the superintendent’s control. Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between the two, so it can be beneficial to get an objective, outside viewpoint. Photo by Pete Grass

For many years, I have struggled to not let parts of life maintaining a golf course cause me excessive stress and anxiety, and for many years, I have at times failed miserably. I have always stressed about things in the pursuit of the turf perfection that many of us strive for — and hopefully, at least a couple of times a year, achieve. For me, it seems the stress has steadily increased for several years, building to the point I realized last summer that I needed some help.

It was only early June, but we had already experienced several weeks of temperatures well above average and little natural moisture. What I call “July weather” had started before Memorial Day. One day, the stress of my quest for perfection, mixed with stressed turf and a wind event (those of you with lots of trees on your course understand), led me to break down and cry, thinking, “I just can’t do this anymore.” Adding to that stress was knowing the summer was just beginning, realizing I need to work a few more years (so I couldn’t just quit or retire) and that we had an unusually full tournament schedule ahead in 2021. I knew this feeling was not good, and I needed help.

Pete Grass, Kee Dunning and Stacy Stellflug
The author flanked by his “guardian angels” — Kee Dunning, left, and Stacy Stellflug, who introduced him to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Photo courtesy of Stacy Stellflug

Luckily for me, I knew whom to reach out to for help, and they agreed to work me into their schedules. I have as facility members friends a therapist (Kee) and a nurse practitioner (Stacy) who specialize in mental health issues. I explained to them that I often wake up in the middle of the night and think about the sticks or a pine cone that were not picked up or what I should have stayed longer and done, even though I just spent 12 to 14 hours at work that day. I feel I shouldn’t go home until things are perfect, even knowing that perfection is almost impossible to achieve. A windy day or thunderstorm can raise my blood pressure and anxiety to the point where I sometimes throw fits, even though there is absolutely nothing I can do to change it. These traits and feelings can make me feel horrible — along with making it difficult for my family and employees.

My “mental health intervention,” as I call it, was actually an interesting process of looking inward about what internal and external factors made me feel this way and basically how I had arrived at this point. Even though some may take being told they have mental health issues as hurtful or embarrassing, I often say and must live by, “Sometimes the truth hurts.” My diagnosis? Tendencies of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and slightly on the autism spectrum.

If you have these issues, what can you do about them? With Kee and Stacy’s help and encouragement, I learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT — which, according to the American Psychological Association, can be used to treat a host of problems, from depression and substance-abuse problems to severe mental illness — is basically learning to understand what is within your control or truly your responsibility and how to move on without causing concern over or anxiety about the things that are not in your control. They helped explain that I for sure — and I would say many of us in this line of work — stress about things that no golfer ever notices (like a stick, pine cone, wet/dry spot) or let one comment or complaint (by someone who just missed a putt or had a bad round) make us feel that we are not properly doing our jobs.

I would dwell on one complaint or negative comment, even after multiple compliments the same day, still feeling that things could be better. I therefore was never content with the course conditions in that unachievable drive for perfection.

Since that day back in early June when I knew I needed help and reached out for it, I can honestly say my life has become so much better. I would in no way say it has become perfect, as changing long-term or even lifelong habits is always a work in progress. But using the CBT process to think through situations and react accordingly has changed me and how I meet the challenges of each day. In our initial meeting, we discussed that if using only the CBT process was not enough to bring relief to my stress and anxiety, there were also several medication options to try. I said I would first try just the CBT, and so far it has given me the relief I needed. I hold open the idea that at some point I may need something else to help me.

fallen tree
Grass started at Hilands Golf Club in Billings, Mont., as a cart boy and has served as its superintendent since 1990. This is a look at Hilands’ No. 2 hole. Photo by Pete Grass

I share my story to have us all think about how we deal with our work and home lives. If there are situations or circumstances in your life that cause extended struggles for you, do not hesitate to reach out for help.

An interesting thing I learned in reaching out was that some of what Kee and Stacy told me about myself, and my needing to let go and not worry about things beyond my control, was what my wife had been telling me for years. We often have family or friends who know us pretty well and can help — but only if we listen to them.

Another interesting aspect I look back to comes from a Ken Burns-produced documentary, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness,” that premieres June 27 on PBS in which Kee and two of her clients/families are featured. When I heard that title, I immediately thought about how many people (maybe ourselves) we know who are right in front of us who are struggling at times with mental health or other issues, yet we don’t know it, and they are, thus, “hiding in plain sight.” It could be you, a friend, your boss, an employee or family member. Offering help, encouragement or just being understanding of their struggles can make a huge impact.

The moral to my story is to realize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, nor should it be embarrassing. Realizing that you may need help often takes way too long, so the sooner you ask, the sooner your life can improve. In my case, I waited far too long. But I am so happy I eventually did reach out, as it has made a significant positive improvement to each of my days.

Should you be struggling with any type of challenges in your life, please do not hesitate and reach out to professionals in your area for help. I earnestly believe you and others in your life will be glad you did.

Pete Grass, CGCS, has worked at Hilands Golf Club in Billings, Mont., since he was a teenager and has been its superintendent since 1990. A 37-year member of GCSAA, he served as the association’s president in 2016 and was the first superintendent from a nine-hole facility to serve in that role.