Your behavior appears to be a little unusual. Please verify that you are not a bot.


Growing more than grass: Mentoring future superintendents

By |  April 8, 2021 1 Comments
Left to right: PJ Salter, CGCS, director of agronomy, Drew Nottenkamper, golf course superintendent (pictured with Drew’s dog and resident fowl control Jett, a border collie from Fly Away Geese), Mike Heinz, second assistant superintendent, and Mike Smith, first assistant superintendent. (Photo courtesy of Riviera CC)

Left to right: PJ Salter, CGCS, director of agronomy, Drew Nottenkamper, golf course superintendent (pictured with Drew’s dog and resident fowl control Jett, a border collie from Fly Away Geese), Mike Heinz, second assistant superintendent, and Mike Smith, first assistant superintendent. (Photo courtesy of Riviera CC)

There are a million things on the minds of superintendents to keep the playing conditions of their courses at the top level — and many of these leaders are trying to grow people alongside the grass.

PJ Salter, CGCS and director of agronomy at Riviera CC in Coral Gables, Fla., says that developing and mentoring young superintendents is part of what keeps him going.

“I feel like a big part of the success I’ve had in my career and a big part of why I am where I’m at is because I had mentors take the time to show me the ropes,” Salter says.

The science and the business

Salter is from the metro Detroit area and grew up working on golf courses there, but after getting his degree in crop and soil sciences at Michigan State, his job search took him to the Sunshine State. He accepted a job as second assistant at the GC of the Everglades in Naples, Fla., and after that, took a job at Riviera CC as first assistant. There, Salter met his first mentor in golf course maintenance, Eric von Hofen, who was then the director of agronomy and clubhouse operations.

He says von Hofen was very open about the business side of being a superintendent. Salter says von Hofen would bring his assistants over to look at real estate properties to learn about buying and selling real estate and how to invest in the stock market — all to explain there’s more to the business than just having green grass, and there’s so much more when you’re the one in charge and managing money.

After his stint at Riviera, Salter took a role at Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., to work as a superintendent for Juan Gutierrez, who would become his second mentor and who von Hofen happened to mentor at Doral Golf Resort years earlier.

Gutierrez gave Salter a new perspective on being a superintendent. “Juan was the most detail-oriented person I’d ever worked for,” Salter says. “He was so good about actually managing the agronomy part of it and being proactive, looking for solutions and imparting that to his assistants.”

Growing your mentees

Salter’s mentor Gutierrez is now a colleague at the director of agronomy level. “I’ve been fortunate enough to see my professionals be on their own and running their own operations,” says Juan Gutierrez, now director of agronomy at Grey Oaks Club in Naples. “But, one of the highlights of my professional career has been to see (PJ) grow. He’s tremendous. He’s just a great pro, a great human being.”

While growing grass is important, PJ Salter says it’s not the only thing aspiring superintendents need to know. (Photo courtesy of Riviera CC)

While growing grass is important, PJ Salter says it’s not the only thing aspiring superintendents need to know. (Photo courtesy of Riviera CC)

He says a number of different factors combined to make his relationship with Salter a successful one and one that continues to this day. “It was agronomy, how to branch out and be not just a superintendent of one golf course, but also rallying within your profession in order to be more successful. That’s how he and I really helped each other,” he says.

When it comes to learning the business of golf course maintenance, Gutierrez says that schools aren’t preparing students to deal with much other than the agronomy.

“I report to people who own jets and who are former or current CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies, and I have to ask them for money for projects and raises. There’s not (an agronomy) school that prepares you for this,” he says.

He says that mentors help superintendents fill in those gaps in knowledge, and he credits his own success to people he’s had the opportunity to watch in his career, including Ken Mangum at Atlanta Athletic Club. “How he spoke to members, how he had achieved great professional success and helped other people grow — I know it was very important for me after witnessing that and how I should conduct myself in life and in my career,” he explains.

Branching out

Salter returned to Riviera in 2016 after von Hofen retired from the maintenance business. He’s working to make sure his staff is learning everything they need to know to move on and manage their own operation one day.

“When I worked for Eric, he brought us to every green committee meeting. He let us see the good, the bad and the ugly,” he says. “Every month when the financials came in, he pulled them out and went through them with us. A lot of us as assistants don’t really get exposed to that.”

Now, Salter brings his team to green committee meetings every month and gives them part of the presentation to run through. One talks about the weather and how that’s affecting the golf course and maintenance practices, another discusses how crew members are being stewards of the environment and offering environmental outreach and, finally, another presents the course’s green speeds and how the team is maintaining turf health and playability.

“(It’s) giving them that opportunity to get over being the deer in headlights so that when they get that interview, they’ve been there, done that,” he says.

Mentoring in the new age

Salter had a new opportunity to mentor with the 2020 Green Start Academy sponsored by Bayer and John Deere. Salter was one of five mentors who were assigned a group of assistants to coach during the four-week session.

Green Start attendee Mike Lopez, assistant superintendent at Baywood Greens in Long Neck, Del., started out working as a line cook at Baywood Greens. He began his career in turf when he thought it might be interesting to take a job on the grounds crew at Baywood. He’s now been in turf maintenance for eight years.

Lopez was a part of Salter’s mentor group and found the lessons he learned at Green Start and from Salter to be helpful. “I can’t say enough about all the sessions and PJ — his sessions were on point. He had a great email each week, called ‘Saturday Morning Cup of Coffee,’ where he would review the speaker and the topic for the week and let us know what he had planned,” he says.

Salter also led weekly Zoom calls with his own mentors, including von Hofen, and golf maintenance experts including Florida GCSAA representative Ralph Dain, USGA Green Section Southeast Regional Director Steve Kammerer, Ph.D., and resumé reviews with professional development coach Erin Wolfram.

Months after the November Green Start event, Salter’s mentor group is still going strong, and he’s added a monthly “Budget Beatdown” email where the assistant superintendents get a breakdown of budget fundamentals and share what projects are happening at their courses.

Now, Salter has come full circle, since he’s celebrating five years as the director of agronomy at Riviera, the role his first mentor von Hofen held. He says in his early days in the industry, he was naïve about everything interns and assistants have to do aside from mowing and hand watering.

“There’s a whole other learning side to it. Yes, you can have them do all that grunt work, but you also owe it to them to take time and show them the other side of the business,” he says. “I was fortunate to work for guys with the mindset of we want you to come and work hard for us, but we don’t want you to work for us forever. We want to promote you into your own position to better your own personal life.”



1 Comment on "Growing more than grass: Mentoring future superintendents"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erin Wolfram says:

    Working with PJ and his mentees has been such a great experience! They are a great group of kind, hard-working people. It has been a pleasure getting to know them.

Post a Comment