Getting a helping hand

Darren Davis finds a career in golf course management, thanks to the help of his friends and the programs and services offered by GCSAA.

Darren Davis, My GCSAA Story

By Jeff Bollig
Photo by Steve Puppe

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of GCM.
Related article: The strength of advocacy

By his own admission, Darren Davis was "a bit of a wayward soul" before he pursued a career in golf course management.

Having earned an associate's degree from a community college in his hometown of Tallahassee, Fla., he set off to study civil engineering at Florida State University. But just weeks after dipping his toes in those waters, he found them not to his liking.

So Davis took a position managing a Christmas tree farm simply as a means to establish a source of income. Unfulfilled by that experience, he took the advice of a friend and applied for a crew position at a local golf course.

"I loved the outdoors and I wanted a career that would allow me to pursue that," Davis says. "A friend of mine worked at a golf course and told me about an opening. I had never thought about working in golf, but it sounded better than what I was doing so I applied for the job and got it."

Love at first sight

Davis was instantly smitten. He became a sponge, absorbing everything he could about the profession. Among Davis' favorite activities was to read each edition of GCSAA's magazine, GCM, from cover to cover as soon as it hit the mailbox. In fact, he joined GCSAA because he wanted to take advantage of the programs and services it offered. He also received encouragement from his supervisor at the time, 25-year GCSAA member Jeff Vietmeier, to pursue an education in turfgrass management at Penn State, his alma mater.

Davis heeded the advice of Vietmeier, who now owns Sweet Water Golf Course in Pennsburg, Pa., and left the security of his hometown and headed to Happy Valley. There, he would excel in the classroom, earning a 3.91 grade point average, and serve an internship at Augusta National Golf Club. Penn State is also where he gained an appreciation for the GCSAA network.

"Dr. (Joe) Duich is someone I consider a mentor," Davis says. "He encouraged students to join GCSAA. But he was also big on his students interacting with those who were established in the profession. I consider myself blessed that Dr. Duich introduced me to Frank Dobie. Frank is a Penn State alumnus and a GCSAA Distinguished Service Award winner. I cannot say enough about what I learned from him and others. The GCSAA network is invaluable."

Diving in head first

The education experience did not end at Penn State for Davis. Part of that was due to his insatiable appetite to become a better golf course manager and part thanks to a specific lecture from Duich.

"I will never forget that day," Davis says. "He was up at the chalkboard and he drew a circle and then outlined a sliver that looked like a small piece of pie. In that sliver he wrote '10 percent' and in the bigger portion he wrote '90 percent.' He then proceeded to tell us that only 10 percent of our jobs would be managing turf. The other 90 percent would be managing people. Furthermore, he told us that we'd be calling him when we got our first job telling him that he was right."

Davis would quickly learn what Duich meant. Upon graduation, he spent about a year and a half as an assistant superintendent at the Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Fla. Then, at the age of 24, he became the first and, as of today, the only superintendent at Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples.

"It was a big step for my career," Davis said. "I was comfortable in being knowledgeable about turf. That was an expectation. What would be more challenging is managing the people I dealt with — staff, members and other employees.

"I knew if I were to be successful in my career, then I would need resources to help me. That's where I see the value of GCSAA. I'm fortunate that my employer pays my dues. But if the club today decided not to pay my dues, I would immediately write that check. I feel that strongly about what GCSAA offers to its members."

A respected profession

Davis hears the concerns of those who question the value of membership in the association. He is quick to point out that, without lifting a finger, GCSAA members benefit from the advocacy the association conducts on their behalf. In his 20-plus years in the industry, Davis has seen a marked change in the image of the golf course superintendent. He credits GCSAA for much of the progress. Davis points to the media coverage, respect from employers and golfers, engagement from government officials and inclusion from allied associations.

"It's easy to get so focused on your particular job that you don't take time to think about all GCSAA does for you," Davis says. "You see all the media coverage that we never used to get — interviews, commercials, newspaper articles. When governmental issues arise, we are able to get the ear of lawmakers. That is GCSAA working for me. It's easy to take for granted, but I don't know where the profession would be without GCSAA."

Making the most of the opportunity

Over his 21 years of membership, Davis says he has taken advantage of nearly every aspect of what GCSAA has to offer: education, networking, research, committee service, the trade show, communications and leadership development resources, among others. He has written award-winning articles for GCM, appeared in commercials for the Golf Channel, served as a chapter president and managed course renovation projects.

"GCSAA really does a lot for its members," Davis says, "but there are even more opportunities for those who want to take advantage of them. I use GCSAA programs because they work. I am a better leader, a better communicator and, yes, a better golf course manager because of GCSAA.

"But to experience that, I had to take the initiative. You can lead the horse to the water, but you cannot make it drink. What I would say to my fellow GCSAA members is, 'Look at what areas you need and want improvement, then reach out to GCSAA for help. It's all there for you.'"

Jeff Bollig is GCSAA's senior director of marketing and communications.

The strength of advocacy

A core function of virtually every association is to advocate — or represent — on behalf of its members, Advocacy takes various forms and audiences for GCSAA. The association's main advocacy programs are in the areas of media, public relations, marketing and government relations. In terms of audiences, GCSAA primarily advocates on behalf of its members with employers, golfers, the environmental community, and legislators and regulators at all levels of government.

GCSAA programs are delivered on a macro level — those that are implemented by the association on behalf of the membership and the golf industry — and on a micro level — those that members implement at the regional, state and local levels, GCSAA often directly assists with these efforts as well.

Within the last five years, the golf industry has become much more collaborative in its advocacy efforts. By pooling resources, the industry gains in effectiveness and efficiency in targeting key audiences. Examples of such efforts are the annual National Golf Day and corresponding state golf day events, and the national marketing effort for the industry known as "Image of the Game." These two initiatives seek to give golf a stronger voice with lawmakers and enhance its image as a means to attract more participants.

GCSAA's advocacy efforts at the national level take shape in a wide variety of ways, including:

  • The We Are Golf coalition — GCSAA, the PGA of America, the National Golf Course Owners Association and the Club Managers Association of America — which is designed to strengthen the game by sharing with lawmakers golf's positive economic, environmental, recreational and social impacts. .
  • Issue coalitions, which are collaborative advocacy efforts on issues such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, water protection, pesticide and fertilizer use, and labor and small business issues. .
  • Image of the Game, which, as mentioned above, is an effort of golf associations and manufacturers to market the value of the game to golfers and non-golfers.
  • Federal lobbying, where the association works directly through the efforts of staff lobbyists, and its Washington, D.C.-based law firm to advance GCSAA's interests at the federal level of government. .
  • GCSAA golfer outreach, which includes paid and non-paid media efforts such as national television relationships, television commercials, television interviews, branded features on television, tournament fact sheets, media relations, the chapter outreach grant program, golf publication advertisements, environmental public service announcements, articles placed in state/regional golf publications, the sustainability newsletter, etc. .
  • GCSAA employer outreach, ranging from advertisements and articles placed in employer-focused publications, and exhibiting or participating in panel discussions/ presentations at industry events and trade shows to compensation and benefits surveys.

At the state and local level, GCSAA offers similar programs and services, including:

  • Media consulting, including news releases, media interview training, media contact lists, letters to the editor, etc.
  • Communications education, which includes social media, communicating sustainability, media interviews, newsletter writing, video and photography, etc.
  • Government advocacy training, which aims to provide members with education, tools and strategies to work with and communicate to lawmakers at all levels of government.
  • Issue management with chapters and individual members, which can include developing strategies, tactics, key messages and timing.