The Turf Zone: Welcome to The Turf Zone. In this episode of Tennessee Turfgrass, we’re interviewing Paul Webb, General Manager and Golf Course Superintendent at Humboldt Country Club and TTA Board Member. Good morning Paul, how are you?
Paul Webb: I’m doing well, how are you?
TTZ: Doing good. Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to us this morning. I’m just going to jump right in and ask a little bit about your current position there in Humboldt. How long have you been in that job?
PW: I’ve been the general manager and golf course superintendent since August of 2011, so just a little over nine years. I came to Humboldt Golf and Country Club in February of 2010 as the superintendent alone and after a year and a half of being here, there was some turnover in different management positions and I was asked by the Board to become general manager and superintendent on an interim basis and nine years later we’re still here.
TTZ: In having both of those titles, what additional responsibilities do you have and what does a day look like when you hold both of those titles?
PW: It’s more focused on the turf side because I still feel like that’s the most important asset of the club and it is my background, so I feel more comfortable in it as well. As far as the general manager, I used to have to do a lot more day-to-day tournament operations and food and beverage, and over the years, our club has expanded in a way of hiring some more management underneath me and it’s given me an opportunity to do more oversight and not as much hands-on with those different operations. I’m still responsible of reporting to our Board of Directors on a weekly and monthly basis, I work hand-in-hand with our club officer and committee members and I’m responsible for the yearly budget of the entire property, so every day is a different challenge. Whether it’s something on the golf course, in the clubhouse, dealing with a swimming pool – just all aspects of a country club.
TTZ: That is a wide scope of work and responsibility. I frequently hear that there are unique challenges to addressing what the Board wants to see and also what members want to see. Do you feel like that’s sometime an uphill battle or have you leveled off on that part of the job?
PW: It’s somewhat leveled off. I’ve been here so long that I know for the most part what they expect and I know what are the areas where we need to improve. Our Board is constantly looking at ways to make things better, which is exciting for someone like me, that they don’t want to just have status quo, whether it’s on a monthly/yearly basis, the entire club is looking at any facet or any angle to make this place better and that’s a good thing for me because we don’t just get stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over.
TTZ: Let’s rewind a little bit. How did you get into turfgrass and what jobs and what path led you to your current position?
PW: I’m a little bit different than your typical turf manager. I did not start out in college to go through the Agronomy path. I went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville looking, started out as a business major and then after a couple of years decided that I wanted to do something within sports, but I didn’t know what. So I got a degree in Sport Management and I minored in business. In sport management I did a couple internships at various golf courses like Fair Oaks in Oakland, Tennessee and Gettysvue in Knoxville and Covington Country Club in Covington, TN. After graduation, those opportunities opened my eyes to the fact that I wanted to be on the Agronomy side of it. So once I graduated from Knoxville, I began dating my wife and she was a nursing major at UT Martin, so I decided why not go get another degree, so I went to Martin and continued to work in golf at a couple different courses and ended up getting a degree in agriculture with golf course and landscape management. Once I graduated from there is when I got my first assistant job at Colonial in Memphis.
TTZ: So that’s an interesting balance that you’ve got the Sports Management, Business and the Turf Management side of it. I think that probably gives you a unique perspective from both the management side and the golfers and turf. Has that been helpful in guiding your career path?
PW: It has. Right out of college, I had worked at a golf course and while I was at UT Martin and became superintendent. After five months or so, I realized that I wasn’t ready to be a superintendent and that’s when I decided to go back into the assistant area and then was in Memphis for a couple years. I wasn’t even there two years and I was at that point ready to back out and run my own show. I think one of the things that gave me a leg up getting the job as superintendent at Humboldt was the education background that I had with sport management and business along with the turf degree. And it’s also helped me as a general manager being able to have the perspective of the entire operation, not just what goes on at the maintenance shop.
TTZ: You are now a Tennessee Turfgrass Association Board member. How long have you been serving in that role?
PW: January will be four years.
TTZ: What changes have you seen over that timeframe that you think have been important to turfgrass managers in the state?
PW: The biggest change I’ve seen as far as the association, is I believe that there was a perception for many years that TTA was just basically a golf course superintendent’s association and conference was strictly geared towards superintendents and I think the TTA, since I’ve been a board member, I’ve seen the change of making it more open and welcoming to the sports turf and the landscape and really making it a turfgrass association, not just golf course superintendents association. I think that’s important because there’s only roughly 300, 325 golf courses in the state in 95 counties, so it’s very important for the association to be geared towards turfgrass managers of all kinds because it’s a lot bigger than just golf.
TTZ: In the last six months in 2020, as we’ve been dealing with some unique challenges, the TTA has really gone to bat for turfgrass managers across the state in all areas with COVID restrictions and lockdowns. Can you give us a little perspective on how the board worked together to create that response that we’ve all seen and appreciated so much?
PW: I think the board did a great job of not just working together as a TTA board, but also reaching out to the other associations that are relevant to turfgrass, and made a collaborative effort of reaching out to our elected officials and different people to make sure that they understood how essential golf was. I think that the ability for golf to be viewed as an essential business has really kicked off an unbelievable year for a lot of golf courses. I know for us, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of growth in our membership and the amount of play over the last six months. We sat there in a March board meeting talking about how many people we were going to lose. The board basically told me to go back to the drawing board and present another budget, of just a massive loss, you know, how are we going to cope with this. A month later, our membership had grown by probably ten percent, or two months later. It’s been a really good year for us. I know there’s examples of golf courses that have not had as good a year as us, but I think the association and the board making sure that the elected officials in the state knew that we were going to be an important part of getting through this COVID situation just by getting individuals in the state an avenue to get out of the house and go do something normal. And I think that’s very important.
TTZ: When you prepare yourself and your team for a slowdown and with the board sending you back to the drawing board with that budget, and then the surprising boom and a lot more business… does that change how you had to manage the course this season?
PW: Yes, somewhat. Besides pulling all the rakes off and the tee markers, removing all the things that people could touch and possibly spread the virus. I feel like our fertility program was probably upped a little bit because of the amount of traffic, we’ve got areas that they’ve just been beaten down. We didn’t change a whole lot of our cultural practices, we kept aerifications and stuff like that the same as we normally would, except for having to move them. We did have to move some tournaments around and back some things up because we were in such a period of unknown, so those are really the only examples of us doing anything different outside of a normal year. We just saw a whole lot more people at the course, and it’s a great thing for us. I love—well I don’t want to have a virus every year, I don’t want to have to wear masks and do all that stuff, but the interest in golf the last six months has been exciting.
TTZ: Let’s shift gears and talk about outside of what I know is a very busy schedule at work and with serving on the Board… what do you do in your free time? Do you have a family and how do your guys find some time to blow off steam outside of work?
PW: Yes, I do have a family, my wife and I have been married a little over 13 years. We have four boys—they’re 11, 8, 3, and 1. So they are the main focus outside of work, because it’s always something going on. I’m a pretty avid outdoorsman, I love hunting and playing golf. I don’t play as much golf as I would like to and I really don’t like playing here because I feel like I see more stuff that I think needs to be worked than enjoying my round of golf, but just going and spending time with friends and family and getting a chance to be outdoors doing something away from work.
TTZ: Frankly, I’m surprised you get to play golf at all with four boys at those ages, so congrats on that, it’s pretty amazing. It’s good to start early. Do your older boys get to hunt with you at all?
PW: They do. My oldest is more into it than the second one. The second one likes playing golf a little bit more. They both are really excited to do really anything outside or with me, so it’s a good time, anytime I can go anywhere with them. They do enjoy hunting, fishing and going to the lake, doing all that kind of stuff.
TTZ: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the turfgrass industry right now?
PW: I think most people would agree that the biggest challenge to our industry is labor. As far as, especially on the golf course side, a lot of it boils down to two things – finding younger individuals these days that really want to work and want to work outside, for the money that we’re able to pay. I think most clubs struggle with the idea of paying a decent wage for the individuals that they have. We rely so heavily on seasonal help and I feel like it hurts a lot of clubs, especially ours, because it would be so much better for clubs to find some more money in the budget and pay their fulltime staff more and be able to retain more fulltime staff year-round and have that training and retention that a lot of companies have, where we just, it’s like a revolving door for us as far as labor goes.
TTZ: Paul, let’s close with one final question – What would your advice be for people entering the turfgrass industry now?
PW: The best thing that I would tell them to do is be openminded about, well maybe not openminded. Be willing to go and gain any experience you can get from any course – I think a lot of these guys get to a position where they don’t want to, they only want to work high-end golf. I don’t blame them, there’s a lot of great experience. But for somebody like myself that came as an assistant from a Colonial Country Club and came to a small town country club and thought, I’m going to be a superintendent here for a few years, then I’m looking for the next step. Almost 11 years later, I’ve got three more kids and a great job for a great club. I just think these younger guys should get as much experience as they can and be willing to go to any kind of club that makes them happy. It’s not always about the title and the money, it’s also about being at a club where you feel like you can make a difference and be happy.
TTZ: That’s great advice, Paul. Thank you again for joining us. Don’t miss an episode of Tennessee Turfgrass. Subscribe at Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also visit us at TheTurfZone.com.