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The Biggest Office

Posted by mynormas on June 3, 2015


This picture? The

This picture? The “Golf Course Superintendent” sign? Totally not photoshopped or tricked out in any way.
To be fair, the super has moved to new facilities; thanks to new management and they went on be one of the top clubs in Malaysia.

Reading or writing by squinting through one eye is a bummer; I’ve had to go through a minor operation on one eye due to cataract yet I really felt the need to say something about this issue. This past week I’ve had four discussions about Malaysian golf course conditions  (I know thats what you go through in a day but bear with me) and all of it relates to the man in charge, commonly called as the golf course superintendent. In Malaysia, they are also referred to as the golf course manager, supervisor, director or assistant superintendent but the fact remains, they are in charge. I divide them into a few categories:

  1. Superintendents who don’t know what to do
  2. Superintendents who won’t do
  3. Superintendents who can’t do
  4. Superintendents who’s knowledgeable, can and will do.
  5. The corrupt.

It has been said that the golf course superintendent (or whatever the designation) has the biggest office in a golf club; anything between 120 to 300 acres. He, other than the club manager, should be the highest paid person in the club. Such privileges do not come easy; on his shoulder rest the reputation and prestige of the club and he is responsible for the highest expense department, not to mention taking care of the item with the highest construction cost; the golf course.

Right about now I can hear the cliché already; “it is a team effort”. Of course it is, but the team would have to be led by someone that needs to know agronomy, plant pathology, soil science, entomology, agriculture engineering, hydrology, not to mention golf rules and even golf itself. No? Then how is he (or she) to know about plant health, fertility, insects, drainage, machinery, irrigation and how to set up the golf course?

Cliché alert: “It’s not rocket science”, “it’s just growing grass”, anyone can do it bla bla bla. For these managers/owners, I say good luck in managing your clubs but actually, these are the minority. The majority of clubs know that maintaining a golf course takes a knowledgable person with skills. Here’s the tricky part, many clubs know that and want to hire them, but most clubs do not seem to recognise or respect what they already have and I mean this as recognition to both sides of the argument: some superintendents are lacking in knowledge but are still retained, some superintendents are in their comfort zone (and still retained) and some superintendents know what to do but do not get the support and respect they deserve. Of course, there are some who are knowledgable and are supported.

I’d love to comment about the superintendents who are lacking in knowledge but I won’t. Sometimes I can’t help but pity them; for the most part they were thrown into the deep end because of their good work in a previous position or loyalty (or they can’t find jobs elsewhere) and really don’t know what to do except repeating what their predecessor have done or what they think what their predecessor have done and what the suppliers advise. Somehow I can’t find in my heart to blame these people, they were examples of the Peter Principle: people who were promoted and promoted until they reach the level of their incompetence. To these clubs, there is hope because these people in general have good attitudes and are hardworking (hence the promotions), so send them to seminars, courses or pay for them to attend classes (I had a club willing to pay for my Diploma in Accountancy which was of no use to them at all!) or send them to a neighbouring club once a week or month to learn from the superintendent there; or pay the superintendent to come over to teach – just make sure you know the superintendent’s background too.

I’ve also met superintendents who are – on paper – knowledgeable but have voluntarily capped their limits at a certain level. They would not do more than that level, never mind the condition of the golf course. There are of course, justifications and reasons for it: no budget, interference, not enough workers, the weather, poor construction bla bla bla. Have a chat with them and you realise that it is easier to play the victim’s role in a blame game. You get told the idea that this is a hopeless situation even if you know of other clubs who faced similiar circumstances yet are in better condition. This also means that the golf course’s potential is also capped at that level and would not rise any time soon. To the clubs that hired these superintendents; tough luck. No seminar I know will change your golf course. No consultant or adviser too, unless the reports are discussed with the bosses; then maybe there is a chance. I’ve seen that happen, then again, I’ve also seen where the report was discussed with the boss; and the little that was done was to cover the bigger things that was supposed to be done but not, and after listening to the old story of “why it can’t be done”, the bosses gave up (thats part of the problem anyway) and things go back to what it was. To these clubs: good luck. Some superintendents in this category have been … wait: no… a MAJORITY of these superintendents have been in the same club for a very very long time.

What? You don’t know what I’m talking about, but yet your heart rate is increasing, temperature rising and you are upset? That, sonny, means you DO know what I am talking about; you’re just in denial. Okay fine, there are some superintendents who are in one place for too long with their golf course is in good condition. Happy? I’m talking about other clubs where the condition is poor and it is always someone else’s fault. But now that we’re at it, how about taking your club up another notch? Perhaps the weeds on the fairways? The greenspeed? No you can’t? Because of (insert excuse here) right? I rest my case.

The third category of superintendents is the one I pity most. He (or she, I know of one lady super) can usually get a job elsewhere but to him (or her) this job is a challenge to his/her ability and they just want to give it a try. These superintendents are usually  young or relatively new at the club and usually are up against a culture or a bureaucracy that has dug in, fortified and willing to fight to not change. Buying a fungicide that the superintendent needs to apply by the end of the week will take three weeks to process because it has to be justified, three quotations have to be searched and that one form needs to have three (or five!) signatures from three or five levels up and those people are usually not at their desks because of course they are in charge of other projects too. Or the superintendent is regarded as an outsider, an alien, an aberration even. Or a club that can only make decision after a committee meets which is usually at the end of the month… maybe three. Then there are clubs with real issues, for example; a non-responsive workforce – for want of a better description – they have the numbers but they can only work certain hours and at certain limits, never mind clubs with a small work force. Or a club that really tie their superintendents down with a very low budget. Just in case you think I am contradicting myself with superintendents in the second category, be advised that superintendents in this here third category, are still putting up a good show despite their restrictions.

Clubs with these two challenges (1. the non-performing superintendent as well as workforce – because it permeates into the department’s work culture, I promise you – and 2. the club with plodding bureaucracy or work culture – because it permeates into the club’s work culture, I promise you) are good candidates for the golf course maintenance contractor. No kidding. Hire one company to maintain your golf course and you will rid yourself of non-performers and plodders; and consign your golf course to forever be average. What? You think these companies were set up to serve golfdom and golferkind while turning your golf club into the best? No, they were set up to make a profit, so they think fast on their feet and are super-efficient for their own good but it will translate into comparatively better golf courses for you, at least for the first year and the final year of the contract. After which you are ‘doomed’ to appoint a contractor again because you don’t have the know-how and lets face it, you don’t know what went on the past five years anyway.

Someone is upset reading this is it? Lets be realistic, to look for the ‘right’ contractor, you are going to call for a tender exercise which will primarily focus on the cheapest tender after which you will negotiate again until the guy with the cheapest price hurt his knee begging you to stop: so of course lah the contractor will work his a$$ off to beautify your golf course without cutting any corners. Right? Unless – dare I say it? Oh heck, there are some people who will thank me – the contracting company is orang putih/gwailo/angmoh; then we will be the one on our knees begging. And the golf course will be better than average while some of us wonder why the expats do a better job than locals. No, not really about skin colour or just about the budget too. Find out why in the next category of superintendents.

I would be remiss in my ranting to not talk about the fourth category of lucky superintendents and their clubs. The superintendent who knows what to do or if they don’t; they find out, they are willing to do what it takes and they are allowed to do what it takes as they see fit. They are working for clubs who say things like “What? You need a new RM180K fairway mower? We don’t have the budget now but can we talk about it and see if we can postpone or perhaps look for a reconditioned mower or repair what you have now?” Or “So you need to hollow-tine the greens next month eh? Let me talk to the tournament organiser and see how he feels or if he wants to postpone or if he is willing to continue if you use smaller tines/do half of the greens”. In the world of management it is called ‘discussion’.

Did you notice that the two top clubs in Malaysia routinely get their superintendents on stage during award presentation ceremonies? Even if its held overseas? You think that’s because of gratitude to the superintendents’ efforts? No, that’s the mark of the attitude of the clubs to the superintendents’ office. It started long before that walk up the stage. It causes the walk. Not the budget. Not the machinery. Not the skin colour.  Its the attitude. The respect. The clubs respected the superintendents work, decision and opinion.

Ya, ya, ya… here comes the cliche: “Respect has to be earned”. Kinda hard to sympathise or empathise with some clubs (I hesitate to use the pronoun ‘you’ here, because there are some who will take this personally) who insist on hiring the cheapest person they can, to maintain the most expensive department they have. Respect your superintendent and see the difference. If there’s no difference, then perhaps, change the superintendent (sounds harsh? It has to work both ways fellas).

This article is too long already. Is anybody still reading? Very few now I bet. So it is time to introduce the fifth category of superintendents; the ones that people know but talk about only in whispered circles. The almost-unmentionables; the Mr. 10 percent. The what-do-I-get-in-return guy. The corrupt (oh, you think that’s too harsh? Lets see if I can find another term… urm… nope).

You think every one else does it? No, you are a minority. You think because your boss/purchaser/storekeeper does it, it is ok for you to do it? No; two wrongs do not make a right. You think because your salary is lower than market rate then it is ok for you? No. It ruins your reputation to go look for another job that can pay you higher than market rate. You think because the golf course looks good you can do it? No you can’t, because it IS your job to make the golf course looks good. You think nobody knows? Wrong, the industry is small (in Malaysia) and people talk. Ok, they whisper. Behind your back.

Stop. You are ruining not only your reputation but the other superintendents’ too. You will be indebted, nay trapped, to one or two particular suppliers and you will find it hard to change because… easy money is addictive or after a while your hand in the other guy’s pocket so often that you get used to it and he becomes your twin; hard to tell where he ends and you start. Your office is his office. There’s also guilt, fear and conscience. Then the golf course stagnates because your pool of resources and ideas has shrunk to one or two companies. No doubt they’re good and the golf course is good, but it won’t get any better.

So, to improve the golf course conditions in Malaysia; to the superintendents, let’s pull up our socks, raise our game, stay clean, increase our skills, share our knowledge or find another job. To the clubs themselves, treat the superintendents as a professional, respect his position, give him authority: if you can’t, send him for training or a makeover, or find a new one. Otherwise we have to continue as if nothing is our fault and like everything else that goes wrong… blame the government.

Note:

I wrote this opinion based on my observations in Malaysia. It should not be used without evidence to point fingers to any single person, club or group or organisation in particular. Hopefully it provokes thought, if not action. Get angry if you want but do something productive we must. 

Anonymous comments will not see the light of day on this site; I won’t even read it.

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