At the onset of the new Millennium, Hollywood fed the anti-ageist genre with Space Cowboys, which found the crew of Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland — all over the age of 60 — sent to space to repair a dated satellite and, of course, save the world in the process.
From space fiction to earthly turf: This same demographic is helping save golf courses across the Midwest and beyond.
Golf’s on-course labor forces across the country face staffing challenges from a host of factors: a strong economy has presented better-paying options (i.e., construction or home-building); the desire for demanding work in mercurial outdoor conditions has waned; the limitations of student employees; the occasionally fickle nature of the H 2-B nonimmigrant work program; and a reluctance among many young adults and Millennials to embrace manual labor.
Enter the retiree — golf’s “Turf Cowboys.”
While the 60-plus fella’ at myriad U.S. courses has traditionally been found serving the role of starter or marshal, a host of top Midwest courses have seen the demographic fill a crucial maintenance need for part-time, seasonal work.
“The struggle for labor is real, and I don’t think it depends on geography,” says Alex Stuedemann, director of golf course maintenance at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois. “It’s partially because working in the elements presents a range of environments, but also because the competition for good wages is just heavier.”
From a macro view, the TPC Deere Run superintendent says maintaining an adequate on-course labor pool is near the top of the industry’s list of concerns along with environmental and water issues.
“In recent years, we started to realize that we were losing out to local department stores or even fast food restaurants or oil change places,” Stuedemann added. “It wasn’t attractive anymore to work outside for pay which was often slightly exceeded by those other entities.”
Stuedemann’s TPC colleague six hours north would agree.
“You talk with people at courses around the country and the top challenge for many, if not most, is labor,” says Mark Michalski, golf course superintendent at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minnesota. “And a lot of that, I think, is attributed to a strong economy, with not a bunch of folks looking for a job.”
With a penchant for early-rising, a strong work ethic and a financial stability earned from their lifelong vocations, retiree course workers have proven a crucial stop-gap, especially at seasonal courses offering part-time shifts which have long relied on high school and college students seeking summer jobs.
“It’s always the biggest issue, particularly in Minnesota, during the shoulder seasons,” says Matt Cavanaugh, the assistant golf course superintendent at Rush Creek Golf Club in Maple Grove, Minnesota. “It’s just kind of the way it’s always been, making April and May a challenge, along with September and October.”
Compensated at a shade above minimum wage, the Turf Cowboy typically isn’t looking to pay the rent or mortgage with course work.
“They’re not here for the money; never have been,” adds Cavanaugh.
At Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota – one of only two clubs in the country to have hosted every premier PGA of America and USGA championship – course maintenance contributions from retirees were founded with a social element in mind.
“They’re people who, for the most part, are looking for something to do in the morning,” says Chris Tritabaugh, the golf course superintendent at Hazeltine. “They’re retired or semi-retired, and often looking to have some form of group. Retirees often go out to meet friends for coffee in the morning. What we hoped, when we started this, was that we could be that kind of place for these guys.”
Its retiree concept founded in 2014, Hazeltine now has eight part-time contributors, primarily working divot-filling tasks for four-hour shifts, though they’ll devote time to other minor course work as well. In addition to a small wage, the retirees also get free golf and gratis coffee and newspapers to start the day.
“They’re generally the first ones here; in fact, a lot of them are here waiting for us when we unlock the gate in the morning,” Tritabaugh adds. “They come in, have coffee, read the paper, chat a bit and then go out on the course and fill divots.”
Michalski echoes the sentiment.
“Half the time when we arrive at 5 o’clock, there’s a handful of them in the parking lot waiting for us,” says the TPC Twin Cities’ super.
Three years ago, with the course struggling to fill course work staff through online job postings, TPC Twin Cities, now host to the PGA Tour’s 3M Open, put a work-related sign outside its’ grounds – and had four retirees come in the first day.
“The core of our staff has become the retired gentleman that wants to work somewhere in that 25 to 30-hour-a-week range,” Michalski says, adding that 15 part-time retirees buoy his team. “Most of them worked a desk job in their career, and they like being out and moving. And they’ll do any job I ask of them. Sometimes, I’ll feel sheepish about it, because it may be a crummy job. But they never hesitate; they enjoy being busy.”
The retiree staff at Rush Creek also numbers 15 (including two women), double the amount from when the course began the endeavor ten years ago. Most of them work around 15-plus hour weeks, with nine retirees on-site a day. And while walking mower tasks are spared, the 60-plus set does everything from riding mowers, tending flowers, rolling greens, divot-filling, changing cups, and applying or removing green covers in the spring and fall seasons.
“Honestly, we can’t keep the retirees away,” Cavanaugh says. “They just keep coming in during winter and asking if we need help – and we never turn them away. We honestly couldn’t do our work without them.”
Staffing two full-time (“second career”) and two part-time retirees on his maintenance crew, Stuedemann notes that the dependability of these seniors has lowered attrition rates of employee turnover, adding stability to a turnstile gig.
“I’ve learned that the best thing is to never say no,” says Stuedemann. “Even if that means just taking somebody on to work two weeks for the John Deere Classic.”
Collectively, Michalski and his superintendent colleagues say that the addition of retirees to their respective staffs has necessarily-altered the paradigm of shift scheduling amid a time of labor concerns.
“It’s important to try different things, try different work schedules, and to not get locked into ‘there’s just one way to do this,'” concludes Michalski. “Just like there’s not only one way to grow grass, there’s not just one way to fill out your staff.”
Judd Spicer is an award-winning writer, co-host of The Press Box radio show on ESPN 103.9 FM-Palm Springs and contributing columnist to The Desert Sun newspaper. A Minnesota native, he relocated to the Palm Springs area in 2011 to pursue his Champions Tour dream.