Superintendent of the year says education must continually be pursued to stay on top
By Mike Jiggens
After almost 33 years as the superintendent at Victoria, B.C.’s Uplands
Golf Club, Brian Youell has experienced the change in the nature of his
profession over the decades, from that of a hands-on turfgrass
management practitioner to one which has evolved into more of a
Speaking in January at the Canadian International Turfgrass Conference and Trade Show in Toronto, he said times have changed within the golf industry, and the role of the superintendent has become a large part of that change.
Youell is only the fifth superintendent to work at the 90-year-old club, recalling that when he began working in the late 1970s superintendents were “hands-on” workers, pulling their share of the necessary labour to ensure conditions were just right for golfers.
The business end of the job, he said, involved about five minutes to draw up a budget that would typically amount to a two per cent increase from one year to the next. Today, superintendents deal with zero-based budgeting, having to start from the bottom up and accounting for every necessary expense.
“We need to let people know why we need these expenditures and why the need for the change,” said Youell, who was honoured at the conference as the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association’s 2012 superintendent of the year.
At the time he studied turfgrass management, only about 10 to 15 per cent of course study was devoted to business matters while everything else was turf-related.
“Realistically, as we go forward, I think turf programs, without a doubt, have more business-related opportunities.”
Even though business management has become a much more significant aspect of the superintendent’s profession in recent times, issues on the golf course continue to challenge his knowledge of agronomy. Youell said it is therefore important to continue the education process through such means as networking with fellow superintendents, attending conferences, listening to webinars or working with outside consultants such as the USGA’s green section.
He cited education as “a fantastic part of my career,” noting his post-secondary pursuits provided him with the foundation for his education, yet belonging to such organizations as the CGSA and Western Canada Turfgrass Association and attending their conferences and seminars have “really helped me get up to speed in today’s current industry and other trends.”
Youell said he is also a firm believer in learning from mentors. He recalled that when he served as WCTA president, a research project was being conducted at Idaho’s famous Coeur d’Alene Golf Course, and he called its superintendent John Anderson, asking to be trained as a new employee during the week on site.
Research was being conducted regarding nutrient leaching on the golf course’s unique floating green. Youell said he read standard operating procedures for the golf course, read standard operating procedures on equipment and was trained by a seasoned employee.
Additionally, Anderson shared with him information about salaries, budgeting and on-course practices.
“The attention to detail was absolutely amazing. Iâ€ˆlearned just as much in that one week on this property than I have on the newest golf courses that I’ve played or visited over the years.”
Youell’s week-long visit to Coeur d’Alene in 2001 was one which opened his eyes to a number of things, including Anderson’s willingness to share plenty of helpful information.
He said a grounds maintenance team of 24 employees groomed the course in the morning, and 24 were back for evening maintenance which began at 4 p.m. The day’s first tee time was 8 a.m. while its last one was booked for 2 p.m., allowing sufficient time and freedom to complete necessary tasks.
“There was not a blade of grass that was messy or unkempt,” Youell said. “They had the time to do it. They had a reasonable budget.”
Youell said he was particularly impressed with Coeur d’Alene’s three-quarter-inch rough height which helps speed up play. He noted golfers who miss the fairway are able to easily find their ball yet still be able to soak in the golf course’s awe-inspiring vistas and be off the course in slightly more than four hours. From a superintendent’s perspective, that’s ideal, he said.
Another valuable opportunity for which superintendents can further their education is by volunteering at other golf courses which may be hosting a large-scale tournament such as a PGA Tour event or perhaps even a lesser event which still calls for tiptop course conditions.
Uplands will soon be the host venue for its 13th Canadian Tour event, which Youell said is a great opportunity to challenge his team. He acknowledged it may not be as large-scale an event as the Canadian Open, but it still involves the setting up of bleachers, scoreboards and other apparatus to accommodate large numbers of spectators.
About 65,000 rounds of golf are played yearly at Uplands, including about 125 rounds daily during the winter months.
“It allows us to develop plans to peak for the tournament, to push the turf a little bit more, and we’re able to produce some great conditions.”
Youell said he remains in constant touch with other superintendents, and especially those who work at courses on Vancouver Island. The information sharing and networking which goes on among these superintendents is particularly critical when one doesn’t wish to gamble on a little-known product or method.
“The value of the network really takes the guesswork out,” he said. “There’s so much we can learn from our fellow superintendents.”
Youell said he is also a big believer in working with consultants such as the USGA’s green section, noting it’s an ideal way to know what’s happening not only on the golf course itself, but within the industry. Uplands works with the USGA every other year. The organization recommended the golf course develop some course maintenance standards.
“It’s one of the best moves we’ve made, especially in today’s economy.”
When budgeting, Youell said he asks himself if his budget will meet his maintenance standards. The golf club doesn’t have a greens committee but struck a maintenance standards committee which, for a year, looked at various aspects of the course. Among other recommendations, the committee suggested maintaining green speeds between nine and 10, with an emphasis on keeping the putting surfaces consistent and healthy.
The maintenance standards committee meets about every third week and produced a 35-page book which specifies how Uplands should be maintained. Key areas of the book include environmental standards and course closures.
Youell said the guide indicates how frequently greens are being mowed, for example, and provides a start for suggesting how the club can cut back somewhat and achieve more for less. One such measure is to groom bunkers three times a week instead of daily.
Not only should the superintendent strive to further his education, he should also broaden his communications skills, he said.
Youell said he once had a fear of public speaking, but opted to join a local Toastmasters organization several years ago so that he could become more comfortable when addressing large groups of people. Additionally, he underwent Dale Carnegie training to better his credibility through enhanced confidence and clarity, adding it has helped him immensely in communicating with his general manager.
When Uplands’ current general manager began his position in 1995, Youell invited him to join the grounds crew for a week and get a better flavour for that end of the operation. For about four hours every morning that week, the general manager performed almost every task imaginable, including changing pin placements—a subject area for which he had fielded numerous complaints from members.
The general manager had also experienced a hydraulic leak which killed a significant amount of turf.
“At least the general manager knows what we have to do.”
Youell said he’s a firm believer in telling the story about what the turf maintenance department does every day to the club’s key decision makers.
“We’re selling the experience.”
A superintendent should never be afraid to ask questions, he said. Sharing information with other superintendents and one’s own staff is an important means to become better educated.
“I ask that you help your up-and-coming superintendents and share your knowledge—your goods and your bads.”
One of the challenges an experienced superintendent faces is dealing with different generations of employees. As a “baby boomer,” Youell said he finds he and other members of his generation are often different from those from generations X and Y as well as from “zippies.”
Baby boomers under his wing at Uplands are “the most loyal, hard-working individuals” who perform well at about three different jobs on the course. But they are often petrified by significant change which comes quickly. Younger generations of workers, on the other hand, are better suited at adapting to change, but tend to become bored quickly.
Youell said he sees dealing with the complexities of newer generations of employees to be a personal challenge for him.
In spite of the need to continue to learn, it is important for the superintendent to maintain proper balance in his life, he said, adding a solid home life must weigh equally with career demands.
“We’re marathon runners. We have to pace our careers, our lives in the profession and also our personal lives.”