Chris Tritabaugh has developed a reputation over the years for achieving both goals during his 12 years as superintendent at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., site of the 2016 Ryder Cup championship, and spoke about his winning formula in November at the 30th annual professional turfgrass seminar in Waterloo, Ont., sponsored by Ontario Seed Company and Nutrite.
He told his audience that he not only has a love of turf, but an enthusiasm for the culture of getting people to be passionate about their work which invariably leads to an increase in productivity.
“I have no shame saying as a superintendent that I want my job to be as easy as possible,” he said. “I think sometimes we might get caught up in this idea that if our job looks difficult and it seems difficult to us, then the people we work for – whether it be the membership or owner or some sort of a public company – might say, ‘He really works hard at his job.’”
Tritabaugh said it has never been a problem for his maintenance staff to arrive to work on time and show enthusiasm for their jobs. He attributes the work ethic of his team to making his own job seem easy. Among the benefits of having such a dedicated staff is having more time to spend with his young family.
Recalling his pre-superintendent days, he said the things that made work exciting for him included the chance to work with friends, being part of a team, developing a sense of accomplishment and being tasked with responsibility that led to personal satisfaction.
“I love being trusted. I think we all like to be trusted in our jobs, whether we’re an assistant or working on a crew. We want to be trusted by those who we report to.”
Superintendents are in the business of making key decisions, Tritabaugh said, acknowledging it’s often the workers in the field who make many of those decisions. Those raking bunkers or mowing greens tend to have more information than the superintendent himself.
“Giving them the opportunity to make some decisions and how they do that work and how they go about it is important to our team functioning at a high level.”
Tritabaugh said managing turf and managing people can be similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The first goal is to pursue the easiest task, much like taking the edge puzzle pieces to form the frame before building up the remaining puzzle. The process needs to start with the superintendent, he said, suggesting that if he isn’t thinking about the things that need to happen on the golf course, his employees will experience a shrinking of their own thought processes.
“They’re not really thinking about what they’re doing or how to make what they’re doing better. They’re just out there doing things to get through the day.”
He said those assigned to rake bunkers, for example, won’t be thinking about how they can make the bunkers better or how to rake them more efficiently.
“They’re thinking, ‘this is what I’m supposed to do and when I’m done I get to do something else and then I get to go home.’”
Meanwhile, the superintendent spends his day trying to make decisions pertaining to the golf course, “pulling a trigger or putting out a fire.” When the superintendent finds that every little decision has to happen in his head, “you’re not taking advantage of all the brains you have on your team.”
Collective brain power
Tritabaugh said he considers the superintendent to be the “brain in the middle” or the leader of many brains. The staff becomes a “collective genius” that is far beyond any one person.
During peak season, the maintenance staff at Hazeltine numbers about 35 employees, representing a lot of problem-solving potential.
“If I try to think of the solution to those problems myself, I am eliminating a huge amount of thought and potential information coming from my team.”
Tritabaugh recalled a bunker issue from several years ago that led to some personal stress for him, especially as the club’s membership chimed in about it. The club has more than 250 male members with single digit handicaps who have strong opinions of the work done by the superintendent and his staff. The maintenance employees’ input was sought to see how the bunker issue could best be resolved.
“It allowed me to concentrate on the stress of dealing with the golfers,” Tritabaugh said, adding he was able to project to the members that he and his staff were doing the best they could.
“What we learned that year and using the crew and getting information from them really helped us down the road and to ultimately have great bunker conditions for the Ryder Cup and beyond for our membership.”
Tritabaugh likened his approach to dealing with his staff in preparation for the Ryder Cup to the story of a navy captain who had just been assigned the worst ship in the fleet after having studied for command of a state-of-the-art vessel. Many of the commands issued were intended for a more modern ship, and the captain realized his crew had better knowledge of that type of vessel than he had.
“He knew he had to give the driver more ability to make a decision so that when he gave the order, it wasn’t so much, ‘I’m going to give you this order and you need to do what I’m doing,’ but ‘this is what I intend to have us do and now you tell me how you want us to do it.’”
During preparations for the Ryder Cup, Tritabaugh told his staff how he wanted the bunkers to look and play, but added, “Now we want you to help us find the best way to do that in the most efficient way that will take the least amount of manpower and gets the job done the quickest.”
The Hazeltine superintendent said he likes to give his staff roles to perform rather than tasks to complete. His assistants are given roles in a specific area of concentration such as applications or moisture management on greens. He’ll say to the individual, “I want you to handle moisture management on greens and I want you to have intimate knowledge of it. I want it to be something you concentrate on and you’re thinking about it all the time.”
The assistant whose role is to oversee moisture management on greens will instinctively know when to use his TDR moisture meter and how to plan his strategy. Tritabaugh said the assistant knows his role and doesn’t need the superintendent to assign him tasks. He knows what needs to be done to maintain optimal moisture levels and retain the highest quality of the greens. The individual assigned that role will take ownership and pride in what he is doing, he added.
“It’s amazing to see what happens to an employee when you give him that type of responsibility and give him the ability to make decisions within his own role.”
Avoiding negative leadership
Tritabaugh said he has been reading a book that explores how not to lead, citing the author’s contention that a negative way of leading is reducing work to tasks and “to do” lists and then ensuring people do exactly what is wanted, only to call them out when the work is done incorrectly.
“This keeps us from getting into position as a leader where we’re worrying about tasks and ‘to do’s.’”
Tritabaugh said he doesn’t have to tell his assistant whose role is to look after moisture management to determine if watering is necessary on a given day. The assistant understands it’s his responsibility and he deals with it.
“It keeps me from having to pull all of these triggers throughout the course of the day, making my job much easier. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders. When we tell people to get the job done, we get workers.”
During the Ryder Cup championship, Tritabaugh presided over a team of about 180 people, most of who were volunteers from other golf courses in the United States, Canada and around the world. The outside volunteers were able to approach any of the Hazeltine staff for guidance as each had his personal set of leadership skills.
Motivation is key in creating an environment where people enjoy coming to work, he said, adding he wants his employees to look forward to their work day and to know they’ll have fun.
Adopting a list of guiding principles to inform employees of the things that are particularly important is vital, Tritabaugh said, noting No. 1 on the list should be safety. Other points include the commitment to be a good teammate (completing every job and task and taking the initiative to do more than what was asked), being honest (telling someone if a task was done incorrectly) and being innovative (encouraging inspiration among employees).
Of the latter, Tritabaugh said superintendents sometimes overlook their employees’ ability to innovate. If a high school student was hired to the team and shown a picture of a properly raked bunker and was given the tools to emulate what he saw without further instructions, “that person is naturally going to innovate the way that they do that job.”
He compared that to the puzzle building scenario, suggesting the student will put the pieces together to form the picture he was provided and will become increasingly more adept as he moves on. The first bunker he rakes will likely take longer than the last.
Tritabaugh said superintendents sometimes might be accused of stifling the abilities of their team members, blocking their natural instinct to innovate.
“When we send someone out to rake the bunker, we’re not so concerned about them doing it the way we told them to do it. We will give them instruction and the best idea of how we want them to do that job, but if they come up with something more efficient that makes the product better and makes four people work together better in a more efficient manner, we’re happy to let them dictate those sorts of decisions when they’re off doing this job.”
Tritabaugh tells his employees that when they are working at a specific job and the instructions they have been given fail to lend efficiency to the task at hand, they shouldn’t make a fuss about it or grumble to themselves that the superintendent doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Instead, the employee should meet with his superior to suggest a better way.
The superintendent, in turn, should express admiration to his employees for a job well done and to stress the importance of them having fun.
“If you’re not coming into work and having fun, it can be a miserable place to be and a miserable thing to do.”
A superintendent who sets up his team to have as much fun as possible will likely find that his role as team leader will be that much easier and fun as well, Tritabaugh said.
If an environment can be created to motivate fringe employees to work positively, to work as a team and still have fun while accomplishing set goals, “I think you’ll find your employees will raise their game.”
Employees who fail to show immediate promise aren’t necessarily dismissed at Hazeltine, but are often paired with high performers in an effort to raise their games.
“Rather than having this negative synergy, we’ve created this positive synergy by getting them in with other people and working them in a better environment.”
Hazeltine has been endowed with a reputation as being a great place to work, Tritabaugh said, adding he doesn’t want to see that standing compromised. Keeping both the golf course and the work atmosphere in the best shape possible will continue to be a key goal, he added.
Hazeltine has already been selected as the site for the 2028 Ryder Cup, making it the first course in the United States to host the event twice. In the meantime, the golf course will host this year’s women’s PGA Championship as well as the junior boys amateur the following year.