Editor’s Note: In honor of National Golf Course Superintendents Day, Golf Digest is republishing this important piece from 2019 by Ron Whitten that chronicled the effects of the high-stress profession of greenskeeping. Whitten’s award-winning piece highlighted the pressures facing these men and women. Make sure to send your appreciation to the grounds crew at your golf course.

By any measure, Dave Wilber is an expert in turfgrass. He started working on golf courses when he was 15. At 21, he became a superintendent in Denver. At 24, he took a job in Northern California and instituted one of the first fully organic golf-course maintenance programs in the country at Lake Wildwood Country Club, a quiet second-home community at the base of Donner Pass. That was in 1990, half a decade before sustainable golf became an industry trend.

As a leader of the movement, Wilber began advising other superintendents, and in 1993 he left Lake Wildwood to work full time as a turfgrass consultant. He was quickly in demand and became an early presence on the Internet, first as a blogger, later as a columnist, most recently with podcasts.

Big, bulky and bearded, Wilber, now 53, is passionate about his profession. He calls himself the Turfgrass Zealot and has a stock speech about his successes.

“As an independent consultant,” he says, “I’ve built golf courses on six continents, I’ve played golf on seven continents, I’ve worked in over 80 countries, I worked on more than 45 of the world’s top-100 golf courses in some advisory capacity.” Those courses include Friar’s Head in New York, Kingsbarns in Scotland and Barnbougle Dunes in Australia.

Wilber is the last person you would think would try to take his life. Yet behind his gregarious façade was self-loathing. He feared not failure, but success—as more clubs beckoned him to solve their problems, the more time he’d be away from home, slapping on his master showman smile each day, retreating each evening to the isolation of a crummy motel room. He was convinced that he wasn’t worthy of anything­—not acclaim, not friendship, not love.

So in 2015, Wilber picked up a 90-day prescription, a beta-blocker for his heart rate, opened the bottle and swallowed its contents.

“I was thinking it would shut off my heart,” Wilber says. “All it did was make me super sick. I dozed off, then woke up vomiting it all up. I’m thinking, God, I’m such a f—up I can’t even off myself. I can’t even get that job done.

Wilber drove himself to a local emergency room, seeking help. It wasn’t the first time he’d made such a drive.

Wilber is not the only one in the turfgrass business dealing with such an issue. Maintaining a golf course is a high-risk occupation and can put one’s physical well-being, personal relationships and mental health at risk. But revealing struggles with anxiety, depression or something worse is still considered taboo in this occupation, just as it is in many other lines of work.

Wilber admits his candor about his suicide attempt, which he revealed two years ago on the website Turfnet, might cost him his career. But he no longer cares. He believes it’s essential to bring these issues to the forefront, because it might save someone.

“When I started writing about my struggles on Turfnet,” he says, “I got an inbox full of responses from golf-course superintendents—­like 60 emails­—mostly supportive. One said, ‘Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve dealt with depression, too.’ Another told me, ‘I wanted to kill myself, too.’ It was mind-numbing.

“We need to get this out in the open. Real people have real struggles, and they shouldn’t have to beat themselves to death for what they are or aren’t at work.”

A worst-case scenario in the industry has long been, Lose Your Greens, Lose Your Job. The concern of Wilber, as well as others going public with their mental illness, is a far more horrifying possibility: Lose Your Greens, Take Your Life.

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The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017, the foundation estimates 47,173 Americans died by suicide, and there were 1.4 million attempts, though the numbers might well be under-reported.

In the past decade, there have been reports of superintendents ending their lives, most of them unconfirmed because loved ones wished to keep the information private. Perhaps the most prominent name associated with that fate is Stan George, the highly regarded, even beloved, superintendent of Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. In his 30 years at Prairie Dunes, George had prepared the course for many prominent tournaments, including the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2006 U.S. Senior Open.

At George’s funeral in 2013, friends and acquaintances quietly but openly discussed the generally accepted conclusion that his death was a suicide, the official record being sealed. No one saw it coming. One friend thought George had found bliss in a cabin he had built about 20 miles from the golf course, a place where he could get away from the job. But that’s where his body was found.

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At 31, Kasey Kauff was head superintendent of the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club and prepared its state-of-the-art turfgrasses for the 2011 PGA Championship. The course was so flawless that Golf Digest proclaimed it the standard by which tournament golf in the Deep South would be judged.

After a short stint in Orlando, in 2014 Kauff moved to Dallas, where he grew in the turf at the new Trinity Forest Golf Club, then prepared it for the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson the past two years. There, tour players faced a new strain of zoysia grass named for the club, which Kauff had tightly shaved everywhere to be firm, dry and springy. For his efforts, Golf Digest awarded the club its annual Green Star environmental award in 2018.


Dan Winters

But Kauff considered himself a failure at his personal life. He bounced from incredible highs to days where he refused to leave the house, or even get out of bed. His inability to cope with his depression and anxiety led to a failed marriage and then a failed relationship. He refused to seek counseling at first, then was reluctant to confront his problems in counseling. His depression became so deep that he began thinking about how he might kill himself. The idea became so realistic, and so frightening, that Kauff took his shotgun, which he used for duck hunting, and put it in a storage locker, then stored the shotgun shells at another location.

Do not keep them together, he remembers thinking. It’s too enticing.

This article was originally published on golfdigest.com