Effective turfgrass management practices and exemplary people skills earn well-deserved recognition for a Colorado golf course superintendent.
With more than a quarter-century of service at The Inverness Hotel and Conference Center in Englewood, Colo., Golf Course Superintendent Joel Christensen has displayed a longtime passion for his job. Last fall, industry peers in the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association CHLA) recognized his devotion to their profession, by presenting him with the association’s 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Christensen was surprised and honored when he received the accolade at CHLA’s annual Stars of the Industry luncheon. After he sat down with his award, he turned to his boss, Director of Golf Dave Steinmetz, with one question: “So, am I supposed to retire now?”
The answer was a resounding “No”—and that’s just what Christensen wanted to hear. At age 53, he is hardly ready to call it a career. After all, there is still so much to learn and do.
Club Name: The Inverness
Ideas + Involvement = Improvement
“He’s always looking for new ways to do his job better. He’s always on a handful of industry boards. He’s always going to conferences,” Steinmetz says of Christensen. “He’s a great leader, and a great motivator. He and his staff are constantly trying to better themselves. He always wants to learn and to improve, and to make The Inverness golf course better.”
Recently, for example, Christensen and Steinmetz attended a four-hour conference to pick up tips on how to increase the pace of play. Christensen also attended another conference last year to learn how Canadian golf courses rid their bentgrass greens of pesky Poa annua. “He wants to try these procedures here,” Steinmetz notes.
To stay on top of his game, Christensen knows he needs to keep pace with the demands of the ever-changing golf course maintenance field. Continuing education and keeping up with the latest technology are essential to the course’s success.
“The industry has changed tremendously since the late 1970s as far as the expectations of the maintenance of a facility are concerned,” says Christensen. “The demand for firmer, faster and more consistent greens speed has made everybody adapt to give golfers what they want. Players expect nearly championship conditions at all times.”
The inevitable ebbs and flows in the industry—and a long memory—have helped to shape his management style as well.
“In the early 1980s, we had an oil crisis. It was a challenge to maximize our productivity,” Christensen recalls. “I don’t think you forget the lessons you learn during times like that, and as a result we still strive to be more thrifty with fuel and fertilizer. Every year, we look for new ways to be more economical.”
Superintendent Profile: Joel Christensen
Education and Training: Degree in landscape horticulture with an emphasis in turf management from Colorado State University, 1979
Years in the Golf Course Maintenance Business: 37
Because of increased demands and expectations at the property’s Preston Maxwell championship course, the summer staff at The Inverness has grown from a 10- to 12-member crew to 20 people. Even during the tougher economic times, Christensen’s ability to run a lean operation has allowed him to maintain full staffing levels—and also shown that, despite all of the technological advances made in recent years, one of the most enduring aspects of the course’s success is also one of the simplest.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned over time is how to manage people,” says Christensen. “We have a great staff here and we strive to treat one another with respect.
“We give our team members the tools and encouragement to do their best, and the end result benefits everyone,” he adds. “It’s my job as superintendent to encourage and motivate them. I’ve found that positive reinforcement works best.”
Christensen credits The Inverness’ previous Golf Course Superintendent, Rollie Cahalane, with whom he first worked during his high-school years, for showing him the value of these management techniques. “He got me in the business, and he taught me what I know. He’s been one of the biggest influences on me and this course,” Christensen says. “He retired in 2001, but he’s like a second father to me.”
The Inverness, a Destination Hotels & Resorts property, has a core group of about 265 members and other repeat customers that include hotel guests and golfers at corporate outings. The parent company supports the course maintenance staff in every way possible, according to Christensen.
“The hotel is not going to be successful in producing revenue if the golf course is not successful in producing a product that people want to play,” he says.
“We are all part of the same picture and we all have the same goal: to not only provide a good playing facility, but something that’s attractive and that people want to go out and use.”
Christensen’s devotion to his craft extends beyond the grounds of the hotel, which is located 20 minutes south of downtown Denver, in the city’s high-tech corridor. He is a member of two boards: for the Inverness Water and Sanitation District, which provides water to the entire office park where the hotel is located, and for the Inverness Metropolitan Improvement District.
“I joined those boards after working closely with the management of the park for several years,” Christensen explains. “The Inverness course is the largest user of water in the park, so it made sense to be involved in the conversation.”
The golf course, which acts as a green space for the corporate park, uses treated effluent water for irrigation. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of communicating with folks that we’re not wasting fresh water,” Christensen says. During a drought several years ago, the course posted signs and explained in its newsletter that the golf course was still green because it uses recycled water.
“Joel is known for keeping a great golf course,” says George Fischer, Vice President, Managing Director of The Inverness. “He’s working with the water district here to create native areas to reduce our water usage.”
In addition, Fischer notes, “He understands usage, pricing and future planning. Our main line is used to water the landscape around the entire park, and he is able to anticipate usage.”
Other green initiatives of the maintenance department include grinding pruned trees into wood chips for use as mulch in the hotel’s shrub beds and recycling. There are also plans to increase the use of organic fertilizers in the near future.
As a result of these and other efforts, The Inverness has won several environmental accolades, including the 2010 Green Hotel of the Year Award from the CHLA.
Annual Budget: $747,000
“It’s been especially good for the hotel,” says Christensen. “A lot of people want to utilize hotels and companies that are green.”
The Value of a Yes-Man
As the property’s Managing Director, Fischer ensures that the management team works together to set goals in different areas. Christensen views his role in the growth and profitability of the property as his greatest contribution to the hotel’s operations.
As a member of the Hotel Safety Committee, Christensen also helps to ensure that employees throughout the organization follow the safety culture that reinforces practices, ranging from lifting correctly to operating equipment properly.
Steinmetz calls the open channels of communication, along with the positive example that Christensen sets, a big part of the golf course’s success.
“Every conversation you have with Joel is ‘Yes, I can.’ It’s a can-do attitude and it’s contagious among the whole team,” he adds. “He listens to anyone—guests, members, management—about how to make the golf course better.”
The strong working relationship between Christensen and Steinmetz is built around consistent communication.
“We have lunch together every single day. We might talk about the Broncos, and we might talk about work,” Steinmetz says. “I also have one-on-one meetings once a week with him. We take a tour of the golf course in our one-on-ones. We’ll check out our fairway cuts or approaches, and see if we need to make any changes.”
While Christensen has earned recognition from the PGA and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in the past, Steinmetz notes that “It’s a big reward to have the Hotel and Lodging Association recognize his efforts. A golf course isn’t necessarily on the association’s radar,” he says.
Fischer agrees. “He’s an excellent manager, and receiving recognition for his hard work is a great honor for him,” he adds. “The award is not only for superintendents—it’s for all managers throughout the state of Colorado. [Winning it shows that Christensen is] an all-around, well-rounded manager, and not just of turf. He’s also a great manager of people, and he’s passionate about his job.”
As far as Christensen is concerned, he believes he has the greatest job in the world.
“I have a neat balance between managing and public relations, and actually going out and getting my hands dirty,” he says. “No day is the same. It’s always something new and challenging.”