A deep-seated issue in turf management is not going away without intervention.

 [Getty images: Brendan Moran]

As we welcome back the star-studded ISPS Handa Australian Open this month and revel in the beauty and splendour that is the magnificent Kingston Heath and Victoria golf clubs, bubbling away in the background is an issue that needs our full, undivided attention. 

The term ‘crisis’ is often overused in today’s clickbait world, but when describing the current state of affairs in golf-course maintenance, sadly, it’s all too apt. Even sadder is the fact nobody is talking about it. Until now.

Australia, we have a problem. Superintendents, greenkeepers and turf professionals are being driven away from our sport. Stressed from being “micro-managed”, continually held to unrealistic expectations from power-hungry committees, and working around the clock for little to no extra pay just to meet the sport’s COVID-driven boom, courses not blessed with bottomless coffers and understanding management are waving the white flag.

As senior writer Rohan Clarke reports from page 124 in the December 2022 issue of Australian Golf Digest, a serious situation hit crisis point earlier this year with the tragic deaths of a superintendent and a turf-equipment technician to suicide.

Speaking with several traumatised turf managers on the condition of anonymity to protect their identities – not their club’s – Clarke shines a light on a dark issue that’s not going to go away unless behaviours and working conditions at golf clubs change. 

It’s one of the most revealing (and most challenging) pieces of reporting we’ve delivered. If it serves as a catalyst to begin a proper conversation within the four walls of our sport, it will have been worth the months of digging.

Clarke’s work reveals some horrendous realities: maintenance staff vomiting before work due to stress; people without formal qualifications (i.e. committee members with degrees in “Googling”) intent on micro-managing the actions and decision-making of fully qualified superintendents; and a lack of proper financial remuneration for the right candidates outside the bigger clubs. 

Confusingly – or perhaps inexplicably – the poor treatment is in direct contrast to how highly Australian turf specialists are regarded overseas. It doesn’t add up.

As highlighted in this column only last month, recruiting firms like EnvoyGolf are doing wonderful things helping fill the void via seasonable employee exchange programs with Canada, the UK and many Scandinavian countries. But there needs to be a long-term fix here before we lose more of our home-grown talent for good.

“Given the tight labour market, clubs need to be mindful of how they treat course-maintenance staff,” Clarke writes. “Give them a bit of incentive in terms of working conditions or extra pay above the award wage.”

And yet that’s only one of the plethora of problems that need a solution – and quickly.

Adds one recently retired super: “You can’t give a superintendent the responsibility of managing a course without giving him the authority.”

Truer words have never been spoken. 

Our supers need more authority anddeserve more appreciation for everything they put up with. Just like those responsible for getting this month’s Aussie Open courses in pristine condition. 

We all need to sit back, reflect, and have a better understanding of just how demanding these roles have become. They’re having to deal with the ongoing and complex impact of an extreme climate and uninformed suits on a daily basis, all for our playing pleasure. 

Maybe it’s time we all lowered our expectations just a little? 

Upon some self-reflection while writing this, your author concedes he was a little blasé about the ‘International Thank A Superintendent Day’. As well-intentioned as the concept may have been, I often wondered how many golfers and club staff really paused to reflect and acknowledge their people’s hard work. I feared it was bordering on tokenism and questioned its legitimacy.

Not anymore. 

Consider this editorial a doff of the cap to our turf experts across the country for the next 365 days and beyond. Without you, we don’t have the sport we’ve all come to love and treasure.

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