Surviving Your Rookie Green Chair

By Roberta Isleib

First published by Golf Course Management in December, 2003

A new green committee chair and her superintendent face a challenge.

I was well aware of this several years ago, when I was appointed to the position in spite of my sex (female), relative newcomer status to the game (ten years golfing), handicap (nineteen), hobby (organic gardening), and profession (clinical psychology.)

Some people wondered if there could have been a worse combination of attributes. Questions smoldered among the membership. What did I know about golf course maintenance? How could I evaluate conditions at our course without the experience of having played hundreds of others? Could I avoid being intimidated by the greenskeeper? After all, he had served as our club superintendent for twenty years. Besides that, he measured sixteen inches taller and sixteen handicap strokes lower than I did.

A new business relationship of any kind can be difficult. In the world of psychotherapy, therapists depend on developing what we call a “working alliance.” That means the patient needs to feel the therapist is on her side—committed to understanding her personal worldview. Only then can she tackle difficult personal issues. Over time and with regular communication, a superintendent and a green chair can develop a similar relationship (the working alliance, not the psychotherapy!)

After three years on the job, I’ve learned a few things about the superintendent’s worldview.

First, his (or her) job depends on public evaluation of the golf course’s condition and appearance. If mistakes are made, the results are often painfully obvious. All fingers point one way—at the superintendent. This means that the superintendent is not eager to endorse experimental or amateur treatments that might result in an outbreak of disease or other turf disasters. Show him the research first.

Second, the superintendent wants to be respected as a professional with extensive education and experience in his field—considerably more than the green chair, in most cases.

Third, most superintendents dread discovering that a personal agenda or pet project is driving the new green chair’s interest in the job. Why? A dogged focus on that pet can overshadow the greater needs and priorities of the golf course.

From the other (dark!) side, here’s what might make your incoming green chair tick.

First, realize that the new chair would have been an unlikely candidate for the job if he or she were not interested in the topic of golf course management. Most chairs have the same goal as you do: a beautiful golf course in top playing condition.

Second, the green committee chair position is considered an important and prestigious rung in the golf club hierarchy. The chair wants to look good as much as you do. She does not want to spend her entire tenure getting buttonholed by angry members about the condition of the bunkers, the aeration schedule, or the frost delay policy.

Third, the green chair does want to make a difference. Sometimes he believes that involves leaving his mark on the golf course. Or maybe she simply feels strongly about a greenskeeping-related issue. This may include the dreaded personal agenda or pet project. (See #2 above. Okay, I admit it. I had one too: I wanted to get our club enrolled in the Audubon Sanctuary program.)

With that background in mind, here are several ways to develop a good working alliance with your rookie green chair.

First, start with communication. You’ll need to spend more time together early in the relationship. My superintendent was proactive in setting up frequent, regular meetings when I first came on the job. This gave him the opportunity to explain policies and procedures, answer questions, and listen for the ways I hoped to make a difference.

Second, look for the strengths that the chair brings and then make use of them. (I recommend assuming until proven otherwise that your chairperson is fair and open-minded.) While your chair may not be an expert on the technical aspects of golf course management, she may bring other helpful perspectives to the job—communication or management skills, for example. Sometimes a new perspective can bring possible solutions to light that you might not have considered. And your chair will appreciate your interest in her opinions.

Third, welcome the arrival of an enthusiastic new green chair as an opportunity to educate more club members. Encourage him or her to develop an active green committee that includes a cross-section of the players at the club. This can work three ways: (1) you will be able to take the temperature of the membership by receiving feedback from the committee members. (2) The committee can help educate club members about the importance of controversial or unpopular practices such as aeration. (3) The committee and the chair can provide support to you with the board of directors and the club membership.

No doubt about it: a rookie green chair with new priorities and a different management style complicates your job. My advice? Look for the common ground between you and develop a working alliance. Communicate early and often, identify your chair’s strengths and use them, and welcome the change as an opportunity for educating members. Here’s hoping you find your rookie chair to be more of an asset than a pain in the (gr)ass!

Clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib took up writing articles about golf psychology in order to justify the time spent maintaining a whopping handicap. Her mystery series, including SIX STROKES UNDER and A BURIED LIE, stars LPGA golfer Cassie Burdette. Her third book, PUTT TO DEATH (April, 2004,) features—what else—a golf course superintendent as a murder suspect.


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