Assist the assistants

By |  April 27, 2017 0 Comments
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The path to promotion is longer than ever for assistant superintendents. Is it time to rethink the hours they work and the pay they receive?

Kris Negley takes his job seriously as senior assistant superintendent at the Clubs of Cordillera Ranch in Boerne, Texas.

And he should. His job managing a crew of 16 is his passion. For the last seven years he’s been putting in the hours, working at the pace of “a sprint, not a marathon.” With bentgrass greens in the Texas summers, 70-hour summer weeks don’t even make him blink.

But after eight years of working at this breakneck pace — and following his marriage, the birth of his two sons and now the end of his marriage — he’s starting to wonder about the cost.

“I didn’t get into this to be a career assistant superintendent. I want to run my own course someday,” Negley, age 34, says. “That’s looking less and less possible to happen in the near future. So now I’m trying to justify the hours worked and the pay.”

Negley’s two sons are young, ages 4 and 3. He has split custody of his children. He says his current marital status partially can be blamed on his career choice.

“A lot of guys in my position, it’s hard to justify (the job) to our wives, girlfriends, kids. ‘No, no, no, the payoff is coming!’ — when it doesn’t seem to be happening,” he says. “A lot of guys are telling us that the industry has changed, everyone acknowledges this. Things are different than the way they used to be. OK, that’s easier said than done, being in my position.”

A long ride

Though it’s of little solace to Negley, his superintendent brethren largely agree with him. According to a recent Golfdom survey, 62 percent of readers say assistant superintendents are not being paid a fair wage, while 68 percent say it has become more difficult in recent years to keep talented assistant superintendents.

Certified Golf Course Superintendent Ralph Kepple, who hosts the Tour Championship at East Lake GC in Atlanta, has two assistants who are “outstanding,” but he worries that the clock is ticking for them.

“I think there’s going to be a point where, sooner or later, their wives are going to say, ‘How long is this going to take?’ There’s going to be some pressure at some point,” Kepple says. “It’s difficult because right now, in the Atlanta market anyway, there’s not been a lot of superintendent movement. I’m going on my 25th year, and there are a lot of us in that age bracket. I’ve still got 25 years to go, in my opinion, if not more. There’s not an increasing number of golf courses, there’s a decreasing number of golf courses.”

Josh Heptig is the superintendent for San Luis Obispo County in California. Three courses fall under his supervision; Morro Bay GC, Chalk Mountain GC and Dairy Creek GC. He sees the same thing as Kepple in Atlanta — a lack of movement.

Heptig has been with San Luis Obispo for nine years and says he has some of the least experience on staff. A lot of his crew have been there for 15 years, and three have more than 20 years of experience.

“I have two titled assistants, but the reality is I’ve got six or seven guys who could be superintendents somewhere else right now,” he says. “We’re unionized labor. We pay well, we live in a beautiful place, guys went to school there, they don’t want to leave.”

Kepple says he has been fortunate in that East Lake has a budget on the rise and not in decline. Like Heptig, he has been able to pay his assistants a competitive salary. Still, he says, “It’s a long ride these days from assistant to superintendent.”

For Dave Burr, assistant superintendent at Sycamore Creek CC in Springboro, Ohio, that ride is coming to an end. Not because he’s moving up, but because he’s moving out.

Burr, age 32, got married last October. His wife has a good job in Dayton. While he loves the work at Sycamore Creek, he does not like the feeling that he’s stuck in his current job with only lateral moves available in the area.

“I’m not willing to pick up and move anymore like I did when I was younger,” Burr says. “I’ve been an assistant since 2009. I can think of maybe one guy I know who I went to school with who moved up to be a superintendent. A lot of guys are moving on instead of moving up.”

Worth the while

For Burr, his move is back to school to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. His superintendent, Brian Burke, says the toll will be heavy when Burr leaves in August.

“I’m competing with clubs in this area on a limited budget. A guy like Dave as the assistant is why we’ve excelled in the past,” Burke says. “I know assistants leave all the time, but we’ve made a great team. It’s going to be very difficult to replace his value to the department and the club.”

Wherever he lands after completing his new degree, Burr says a 40-hour work week in an air-conditioned office isn’t the end goal. The hours have never bothered him, he says. If the prospect to move up were just better, Burr wouldn’t be leaving the industry at all.

“I don’t need a $150,000-a-year job,” he says. “I like the work. But when you start off below where you should, and the bumps are so slow and the jobs aren’t moving… it’s not worth the while.”

Jon Canavan is the golf and recreation turf manager for Milwaukee (Wis.) County Parks. He oversees 15 courses, nine championship-level courses and six par-3 courses. The crown jewel is Brown Deer GC, which hosted a PGA Tour event for 27 years.

Canavan manages a total of nine assistant superintendents. He says he is so desperate for talented assistant superintendents that he has started grooming young staffers himself, even helping them pay for schooling.

He believes the Millennial generation has begun to turn its back on a job that asks for too much for too little in return. He warns that a change in the industry already has begun.

“I don’t think you’re going to have guys working more than 40 hours. I think you’re going to have to respect people’s weekends. I just don’t see people making that commitment in their lives anymore,” Canavan says. “You’re going to have a few guys, but I don’t think you’ll have an overflow of people willing to work 65 hours, get paid X, and never see their wife, girlfriend, kids for six months a year. I think those days are long gone.

“I think when people adapt to that sooner, we’ll have better luck having younger people stay in this profession.”

A different breed

At Cordillera Ranch, Negley says he “100 percent” has had the conversation with his boss about his career and his frustration with a lack of advancement. They even discussed if he should pursue a different career path.

Negley loves the profession too much to leave it.

“There’s no other job that brings me the same joy of watching my course green up after a long winter, or of seeing the members enjoying the playing conditions,” he says. “I haven’t found that elsewhere yet.”

Negley says his friends all tell him he’s a “different breed” to love the work he does, and he agrees.

“We are a different breed. The average person can’t do this job, I get that,” he says. “So maybe we shouldn’t (anger) the people who are different enough to do this job.”

Negley’s favorite thing to do outside of work is to “wrestle with his two little chaps,” Cyrus and Augustus. He says they also love coming out to the golf course with him.

But would he let them pursue his career?

“I’ll tell them what my dad told me: ‘Be smart, use your brain, not your brawn,’” Negley says. “Dad was a garbage man for 30 years and died early, age 51, a massive heart attack while at work. I don’t want to end up like Dad did. It’s a tough pill to swallow when I think about it and realize I work more hours than he worked. But I’ll never tell my boys they can’t do something they love.”

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About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 25-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at

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