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There is no question that golf course maintenance has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. A large majority of superintendents are men, as are the members of their teams, but women make significant contributions to course care in many different ways and their impact is continuing to grow. More women are working in the field, women are taking more prominent roles and their contributions are being more widely recognized. It certainly hasn’t been an easy road for women in course maintenance and there is much progress yet to be made, but there are encouraging signs of what the future could hold.

Not many people have more direct experience about what it means to be a woman in golf course maintenance than Cindy Johnson. She started at Tumble Brook Country Club in Bloomfield, Connecticut, as an hourly crew member in 1978 while attending turf school, became the assistant superintendent in 1983 and has been superintendent since 1993. These days, when she’s hiring someone, whether male or female, Johnson simply asks them if they are up to the task.

That approach has helped Johnson succeed in recruiting woman to her staff, including two regulars who return perennially – one of them an assistant golf pro, the other a former superintendent. She finds that once on board, women can do anything men can do.

When Johnson started out in the industry she joined an all-male crew. “I really had to prove myself,” she said. Having a four-year degree from the University of Connecticut in plant and soil science helped. It was even more of a boost when Tumble Brook sent her to the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts for an eight-week winter course. “That was all turf,” she said, “and it helped me move ahead of some of the seasoned crew guys.”

For Johnson, the industry affords women more of an opportunity today than ever to establish a career. “The demands are there, for sure,” she says, “but so are the opportunities for people with personal determination. I was brought up to be self-sufficient. That kind of motivation is always a help."

At 54-hole Streamsong Resort in central Florida, director of agronomy Russell Mercer reports that his staff is 60% female. Mercer says he does not employ any special networking to recruit female applicants to the team, he simply has a fair and open-minded approach to hiring. “It started with three or four women, and grew from there by word of mouth,” says Mercer.

Women enjoyed working on the courses and those who had children found the hours fit well with family life. Mercer says his female staff are conscientious and attentive with precision work like syringing and are perfectly capable of operating mowing units and large machinery. He also thinks the need for brute strength is very limited in modern course maintenance, for men or women. “Most of the time,” said Mercer, “you can learn to use a piece of equipment to get a task done.”

Up at Pheasant Run Golf Club in Sharon, Ontario, 35 miles north of downtown Toronto, Leasha Schwab has been head superintendent for five years and presides over a staff where 10 of her 28 seasonal employees are women. She’s been something of a pioneer in the turf trade, having helped launch an educational series through the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) that was attended by more than 100 women at the 2019 Golf Industry Show in Orlando.

Schwab grew up on a farm and helped build a golf course right out of turfgrass school, so she was not lacking experience before being hired at Pheasant Run.

“As a woman in the industry,” says Schwab, “there will be times you deal with harassment or will be viewed as inferior. Continuing to strive to be the best superintendent or assistant you can be, while educating others that both women and men can be great superintendents, is the best way to push back and move on.”

Women in the industry deal with issues related to their gender on a regular basis. This can be attributed in part to the relatively small minority of female turf professionals. According to Shelia Finney, a former superintendent who is now senior director of members programs for the GCSAA, the trade association has 299 female members among its 18,500 members worldwide, or just over 1.5%. That includes 61 female superintendents (Class A and B) - 54 in the U.S., three in Canada and one each in Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and South Korea. Although still a small percentage, that number has grown since first being counted in 1990.

It should be pointed out that only half of the country’s golf course superintendents are GCSAA members, so there are surely a number of female superintendents who are not counted in that total. The number of women who work in staff roles on golf course maintenance teams is also unknown, but Finney has reason to believe that number is also growing.

“There are just so many more entry paths into the industry than when I was getting into it decades ago,” said Finney. She is referring to the impact of Title IX women’s varsity golfers as well as junior golfers who have been drawn into the game and see course maintenance as a career path. You also have youngsters being introduced to the golf course through LPGA*USGA Girls Golf and GCSAA’s First Green program.

Then there are the ongoing staffing issues that face so many golf courses. Successful superintendents need to be more adaptable than ever. Overlooking a huge percentage of the potential labor force would be foolish, especially since women have proven themselves capable of excelling at nearly any golf course maintenance task.

As more women find success in the field and gain increased recognition, we can hope that the number of women drawn to careers in turfgrass and course maintenance will continue to grow, which will continue the positive feedback loop. There are signs that is already happening. At this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, more than half of the course maintenance volunteers will be women. Not only will they have an opportunity to prepare a course for a major championship, they will also have a chance to share their stories with each other, with the golf industry, and beyond.

Back at Tumble Brook, Johnson is among those who hopes that more women get into the profession. “It’s the greatest job in the world. I have an office that’s 228 acres of beautiful land. I get to paint my own picture. What could be better than that?”

Brad Klein is a veteran freelance journalist whose biography, "Discovering Donald Ross," won  the Herbert Warren Wind Book Award for 2001.