Some would argue a superintendent is the most important person employed at a golf course. But their stature is undermined by Hollywood stereotypes.

Carl Spackler from Caddyshack has a lot to answer for. When it comes to our perception of greenkeepers, golf course superintendents have struggled to shake off the image of Bill Murray’s fictitious character from the 1980 comedy.

Another take on the peculiar mind of the course super came some years ago when Callaway produced a series of advertisements about the wicked greenkeeper, whose overriding purpose in life was to deny golfers the satisfaction of sinking putts.    

With the vindictive greenkeeper creating tortuous pin placements with invisible breaks, apparently you needed an Odyssey White Hot putter to even the score.

Bill Murray eye to eye with a groundhog in a scene from the film ‘Caddyshack’, 1980.

PERCEPTIONS are hard to change, especially when films such as Caddyshack become cult hits. “I purely saw it as a comedy. But I’m sure that it did give [rise to] opinions that we weren’t the sharpest tools in the rack,” says Peter Frewin, chief executive officer of the Australian Golf Course Superintendents’ Association (AGCSA).

“Golf course superintendents now are looking after million-dollar budgets and probably the biggest asset at the club. Old Carl from Caddyshack was far from that. I found it light-hearted and entertaining but I’m sure some of the stigma is still attached.”

It may be mere coincidence the superintendents’ association was formed in 1981, the year after Caddyshack opened in movie theatres. Much has changed in the industry over the past 34 years says Frewin, who recalls a former boss mixing lead arsenic with his bare hands. Protective clothing was unheard of in an era of mercury-based chemicals.

Today, it’s an extremely professional workplace with strict health and safety procedures, plus demanding environmental regulations. With this in mind, 10 of the world’s leading professional golfers – led by Jack Nicklaus – recently featured in a promotional campaign, “Thank A Golf Course Superintendent”, to acknowledge the “unsung heroes” of the game.


IT’S an interesting profession says Frewin, who vividly remembers patrolling Barwon Heads Golf Club on New Year’s Eve and “finding a couple at it on the third green. And you’ve never seen a bloke run so fast with his pants around his ankles.”

To anybody who thinks the role of a superintendent is simply about growing grass, think again. Increasingly, it’s more the bureaucracy that goes with the job – from dealing with various club committees to documenting chemical usage.

Golf courses are an occupational hazard. You would be very lucky to find a superintendent who hasn’t been hit by a golf ball. (At least half a dozen solid strikes in Frewin’s case, including a broken nose during his apprenticeship.)

It’s a unique working environment, one in which accidents do happen. Every golf club would have an incident of a golf cart being driven into a dam or some piece of machine running into, or sometimes over the lip of, a bunker.

One harmless tale concerns a greenkeeper at 4am one morning. He fell asleep on the greens’ mower, only to wake up after he bumped into a flagstick. According to the super: “He reckons he nodded off. He dropped the units and started mowing. The next thing he knew, he woke up when he hit the flag. It would’ve only been five or 10 seconds. So that could have ended up in the lake or he could’ve ended up anywhere.”

Such tales are the exception, rather than the norm. “The thing that’s changed in the last 20 years, people are a lot more cautious with machinery than they were in the past,” Frewin says. “It wouldn’t happen now because you go through an induction on the machine, you sign off on it, there are certain protocols when you’re using a machine that you don’t do.”

Vandalism is a scourge of the course maintenance crew. As the superintendent at one of the country’s busiest public golf courses, Darren Wilson has seen some ugly scenes during his time at Perth’s Wembley Golf Complex. One vandal poured petrol onto a green and set it alight. The burnt area had to be returfed. “He must have brought a little five-litre jerry can of fuel in with him, poured it on the green and set it alight,” Wilson surmised.

Another time, all of the club’s flags were stolen and left outside the golf course, standing in the grates on the road. But some instances of vandalism are very unsavoury. The most distasteful occurred when somebody defecated inside a cup hole. Not once, but a few times. “It’s a horrendous thing to clean up, if you know what I mean,” says Wilson rather dryly.


WILDLIFE on a golf course poses its own set of challenges, especially so for greenkeepers at Sanctuary Cove Golf and Country Club, on the Gold Coast. With approximately 50 hectares of green space, the 36-hole complex is virtually a wildlife sanctuary for 5,000 birds and 350 eastern grey kangaroos.

Just recently a few male kangaroos have become a little too frisky. One guest at a corporate day chose to relieve himself in the trees near the 18th tee. Next thing he knew, a large male kangaroo was attempting to ‘mount’ him from behind. He escaped with a torn shirt and trousers. A couple of Asian members also had a nasty experience.

The resident population of about 250 kangaroos aren’t the problem as they’re relatively docile, according to

superintendent Paul McLean. It’s the ‘transient’ kangaroos, numbering about 100, which are the aggressive ones because they’re not used to human contact. They enter Sanctuary Cove by swimming up the Coomera River.

McLean says they will grunt at you, lie on the greens and in the bunkers. On more than one occasion, a greenkeeper has been chased down the fairway. Culling is not an option. Instead, Sanctuary Cove has adopted an environmental management plan, which involves identifying and marking the kangaroos. They can dart the dangerous ones, then relocate them to another site where they won’t return.

But kangaroos are the least of McLean’s problems. Ducks and waterfowls are his pet hates. Why? Well, as any greenkeeper will tell you: “They shit everywhere.” No sooner has a putting surface been mown than it’s covered in poop.

During summer, corellas (white cockatoos) are a nuisance. Up to 1,000 live in the pine trees, eating the pine cones. They’ll even chew the top off a flagstick or an aerial on top of a satellite box. But they cause most damage when they target a fairway and can demolish chunks of turf the size of a bucket in an instant.

Elsewhere, club committees are the bane of a course superintendent. One of the best retorts occurred in a boardroom when a new director began spruiking the fact he’d been playing golf all around the world for 40 years. The director continued on with his monologue, telling the super that we should be doing this and doing that. To which the super replied: “I’ve been cleaning my teeth for 50 years. But that doesn’t make me a [f—–g] dentist.”

Superintendents can make their point in a more subtle fashion. One board came to the conclusion its superintendent shouldn’t have the ultimate say on carts being taken off the course in wet weather. The board deemed its club captain should be notified and that a course inspection should take place with the superintendent. Through that consultative process, it thought both parties would come to a mutual agreement on whether carts should be banned for the day.

But at this particular club, the Tuesday competition hit off at 6.30am. Hence, a ruling would need to be made beforehand. One wet Tuesday, the super rang the captain, who used to enjoy a bit of a ‘tipple’ at night. The phone rang at 5.15am, much to the disgust of the captain’s wife, who received the news that her husband was required for a course inspection. The captain came to the phone and said, “Just make a decision and tell me later what we decided.” Later that day, he told the super, “Never, ever, ring me again at that time of the morning.”

Frewin adds: “Committees change on a very regular basis. You go through a process of educating a group people as to what the long-term vision of the golf club is. All of a sudden that dynamic can change overnight at an annual meeting, which makes it quite a volatile industry to work in at times.”


PROBABLY the most stressful time for a superintendent involves staging professional tournaments. Superintendents are asked to produce slick putting surfaces that challenge the players. It can be a delicate balance not to lose the greens.

The 2009 Australian Open at New South Wales Golf Club caused grief when Mother Nature unleashed wind gusts of 65km/h, rendering several greens

unplayable and forcing play to be suspended. Several players were whingeing about the speed of the greens.

Tour players can be a bit precious and NSWGC superintendent Gary Dempsey wasn’t in a sympathetic mood: “My boys and I have been working 17-hour days for the last six weeks. We’ve earned our money. Now these blokes can go out and try and earn theirs.”

As for confrontations with tour players, there wouldn’t be a tenser environment than coming face to face with a Great White Shark. Martyn Black was serving as a volunteer on the Thursday of the 2006 Australian Open at Royal Sydney. Along with other members of the AGCSA, Black was raking greenside bunkers (instead of the caddies) to help speed up play.

The former long-time superintendent at Castle Hill Country Club was stationed at the 12th green. Incidentally, with the temperature at 5 degrees and rain falling sideways, it just happened to be the coldest November day in Sydney for 100 years. So it wasn’t the ideal situation when Greg Norman arrived at the 12th green to find his ball buried in the face of the front bunker. “Shit bunkers here,” declared the Shark in that broad American accent. Black takes up the story: “The people in the crowd couldn’t see the lie he had. So he put on this big show to make sure everyone knew that he had a terrible lie. He’s remonstrating and throwing his arms in the air, hands on the hips, and stamping around. I thought, Get on with it.

“Eventually, he hacks it out and top dressed half the green – left it 15 feet away [from the flag], which was a pretty good shot. So I came and did my little job. I’m in there, starting to pack the mess he’s made. Then I hear this voice, ‘So now you pack it.’”

Black looked up to find Norman staring at him. “It’s funny how quickly your mind can work. I’m thinking, What am I going to say if he says one more word? I’m going to say, So you hit a s—house tee shot, a stupid second and now you’re blaming the poor old volunteer. Well, that would be bloody right. And I had it all lined up in the split second.

But he didn’t have to respond. The pair faced off for about five seconds, before a disgruntled Shark turned and walked away.

Black is said to have prevented the first 59 being posted in Australian tournament golf. The occasion was the first round of the 2001 Canon Challenge at Castle Hill. Local hero Paul Gow had set the course alight on Thursday morning, reaching 8-under par through his first 12 holes. The crowd had started to build and Black told his greenstaff they should watch Gowie play holes 7, 8 and 9.

At the time, Black was trying to sell his house at Normanhurst. So he was in frequent contact with the real estate agent – while Gow was trying to create history. Through 17 holes, Gow had picked up four more shots to move to 12-under par. Having hit the ninth green in regulation, he was left with a makeable putt – 25 feet, downhill with about five feet of break, right to left – for a place in the record books.

As Gow settled over the putt, Black’s phone rang. The super ran over towards the fifth tee to take the call. Gow reset, but didn’t make the putt and much was made of the indiscreet super who cost an Aussie battler the chance of shooting the magical 59.

Since that day, Black has challenged many golfers to make that putt from the same position. All have failed. But it hasn’t stopped Gow from dining out on the story that Martyn Black cost him a 59.


THE camaraderie among greenkeepers is unique. There wouldn’t be too many professions in the world where people share their mistakes as much as superintendents. They’re quite open about what they’re doing on the golf course whereas in a lot of other professions the people are very secretive due to the competitive nature of the business.

If a superintendent has a problem, that person can speak to peers for advice and assistance. After the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, a number of superintendents travelled to Victoria from New South Wales and South Australia to save the Horsham and Marysville golf courses. They cut turf from their own nurseries, packed it on a truck and drove hundreds of kilometres to help their mates.

“You’ve got terrific blokes. Most of our guys are really professional,” says Black. “And a lot of them don’t get a lot of money. The top end of town does, but a lot of the guys just struggle along for 40 or 50 grand a year out in the bush. And they work their clacker out.”

“A good bunch of people. If you had a choice between having a drink with a bloke in a three-piece suit who worked for Rupert Murdoch or a drink with the greenkeepers, I know where I’d go.”