Peninsula perspective

Ben Gibson talks to 18-year Portarlington Golf Club course superintendent Steve Burchett about his career, the importance of family and catching a wave or two...

When you get to the number of years that Steve Burchett has been in the turf management industry, you develop a pretty good perspective not just about work but life in general. The now 54-year-old has notched up 33 years as a turf manager, including the past 18 as course superintendent of Portarlington Golf Club on Victoria’s picturesque Bellarine Peninsula.

Whether it has been at resort style courses, private metropolitan clubs or smaller regional facilities like the one he is currently custodian of, Steve has experienced the gamut during a rewarding career. He was also a long-serving member of the Victorian Golf Course Superintendents Association (VGCSA) Board, joining the committee in 2013, becoming treasurer in 2015 before stepping off in 2020. Throughout all this, with wife Natalie and their five children, Steve has nurtured a fulfilling family life outside of turf which, as you will read in this edition’s profile, is the focal point of his world and provides him with some all-important perspective and grounding.

How did you end up in the turf industry? Did you choose turf or did it choose you?

From my teenage years, turf always held a fascination for me, whether it was the lawn at home or the green stuff (or sometimes not so green) that I used to play sport on. Whether footy, cricket, tennis, golf, lawn bowls or running, being on turf at some stage during the week was second nature to an active young fella who loved to play sport. So I guess it sort of chose me without me realising. The joy of being on a natural surface either with boots or bare feet gripped me tight and hasn’t let go yet (I will still gravitate to the barefoot option most times and love the feeling of turf under the feet). So, there was certainly a spark ignited early in the piece and with parents’ interests in gardens and the environment, I too soon embraced the natural world.

My first memories of seeing truly manicured turf was watching the Australian Masters on TV in the mid-80s. One year I ventured to Huntingdale to not only watch the golf but enjoy the course and turf conditions. Subsequent years would see me return to the Masters and thus probably cemented in me a desire to pursue a career in turf.

Tell us about your career and how you ended up at Portarlington Golf Club?

I grew up on a dairy farm in Kyabram, Victoria which was a terrific place for a kid. Being the youngest of four meant I was coerced into plenty of adventures and amazingly I managed to scrape through with only one major injury – a broken arm from falling out of a tree!

After leaving school and with a burgeoning interest in turf, I made up my mind that I wanted to be involved in the turf industry. Fortunately for me, Commonwealth Golf Club was looking for an apprentice and I somehow landed the job. Under the supervision of then Commonwealth superintendent Tony Owen, we had a great crew and I loved almost every minute of it. Challenges came and went among the 3am starts to turn irrigation on and off while trying to stay awake in the old HQ Holden ute that was our course vehicle.

Five years on, after experiencing a taste of greens and tee reconstruction, irrigation installation and fine turf establishment and management, my wife Natalie and I decided to move interstate. We settled in Rockhampton (Queensland) where Nat went nursing and I was fortunate to pick up work as a greenkeeper at the then named Capricorn International Resort. We enjoyed our time living and working in this community and I relished the opportunity to experience golf course management at a resort managing warm-season turf.

The desire to experience more construction and development work lingered within though and I caught wind of a new golf course being built in Melbourne – Capital Golf Club – headed up by construction superintendent Graeme Rogers. Thankfully he gave me a go and the next six years was spent living out a boyhood fascination – playing with diggers, moving soil around, growing turf, managing high level fine turf, installing and managing irrigation systems and all that goes with developing an exclusive golf club.

We got plenty of practice as on a number of occasions sites were redesigned and rebuilt. There was lots of head scratching and wondering what we were doing, but we certainly had a lot of fun and I valued every moment.

The benefit of age and experience allows me to reflect and value the contribution of every challenge that presents itself. It all goes into the melting pot of life, in part making me who I am today. Capital was no exception and I’m thankful to Graeme and Lloyd (Williams) for allowing me the opportunity. The learning curve was steep, the working hours long and the diversity of the extensive crew always provided plenty of entertainment.

City life for both Natalie and myself was never going to be a long-term option, so with a couple of kids in tow we decided on a tree change and moved to the Victorian country town of Ararat to undertake my first superintendent’s role at Chalambar Golf Club. This brought with it more learning curves as now I was the one responsible for how the site was managed and how best to maintain and improve the playing surfaces.

During our time there we travelled around Australia for a year which brought with it many valued experiences and memories that our family holds dear. Upon our return we decided on a sea change and I was fortunate to be appointed superintendent at Portarlington Golf Club. Eighteen years later still sees our family here on the Bellarine, loving the lifestyle and the community.

Steve Burchett has been superintendent at Portarlington Golf Club for the past 18 years. Pictured is the 12th hole.

You’ve got a basketball team of kids! How did that happen and what advice do you have for turf managers with a young family or considering starting one?

The kids happened one at a time and we stopped at five! I am very thankful to be surrounded by a close-knit bunch of people who love and care for each other. I feel I have been placed in a very fortunate position – I have a career that has given me the privilege to work and provide for my family. For me, this sense of providing for a bunch of people and inspiring them to face and overcome challenges has been an important driver in why I go to work. I feel honoured to contribute to their wellbeing and future, while in some ways inspiring them to be all they can be.

Understanding this concept earlier on in my working life, when my family was young, has been a great source of motivation for me during the ups and downs of a long career. As most of us would be aware, working in the turf industry has plenty of great moments, but equally we are constantly faced with challenges, whether that’s Mother Nature or the people we work with and for.

For those coming through, I would say enjoy the ride and put people first. I believe it’s the relationships that we have with those around us that influence us and assist us in getting the outcomes we are looking for. People can inspire us, teach us new things, achieve great things and get things done, so best to look after them I reckon.

Having five kids and an active family lifestyle has helped to give Burchett a unique perspective on the world and reinforce the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Has your family shifted your perspective and has it influenced the way you lead?

I clearly have a greater awareness that life exists beyond the boundaries of the golf club and being surrounded by loved ones taught me this early on. There definitely are times though when your commitment to the course requires more time; I think experience has taught me to prioritise though and appreciate what can wait until tomorrow and what can’t. Gaining understanding and remembering this is true for my team members too, has helped me lead and gain empathy in this space.

Having been married for 32 years (with our eldest now 25), has taught me new perspectives. Life has happened and I have experienced much, but I am definitely still learning and continue to do so. To learn and inspire myself is to encourage and spur others on and that absolutely influences the way in which I lead.

You are a passionate surfer and love the ocean. How important is having that as an outlet?

Yes, I do love the ocean and a surf. For me, being in the ocean is a time to reset, refresh and literally wash away a few worries. The bonus is I get to do it with family and friends, so what’s not to like! Finding and being involved in an interest that allows time for my brain to switch off from work is important for me. It also helps me to be more present when around loved ones. Outside of surfing I love bushwalking and overnight hiking, music and reading, tending the garden and turf at home and hanging out with family and friends.

A keen surfer, being in the ocean is a time for Burchett to reset, refresh and literally wash away a few worries.

How do you balance the demands of turf management and your personal life?

I listen to my wife – she is the wisest person I know. Who knows whether we get the balance right as everyone’s circumstances are different and individuals need to function at different levels, so there is no judgment here. I’ve learnt that gaining understanding is far more important than getting it right. I’m now in a period of my life where I have the privilege of being inspired by my children, so hanging out with them as much as I can refreshes me and spurs me on.

What is at the top of your priority list as a superintendent?

Producing the best possible product for members and guests with the available resources. Sounds like a pretty bland statement, but I try not to lose sight of this. It’s their club and I am just the custodian at the moment, so leaving the property in a better situation than when I first started is one of the top priorities for me, whether that be turf conditions, course design and vegetation management.

You have a relatively small crew. How do you structure and delegate your work?

For us, it is important that every team member can undertake most tasks. This allows us greater opportunity for flexibility when numbers are short. I also think it is good for team culture that everyone can do any task; we all know we can cover for each other if needed and I feel it creates a sense of support for each other. Anthony ‘Larry’ Donohue, my assistant, has been at the club as long as I have. Having that level of experience around is priceless, so a huge shout out and thank you to him for his support along the way. We’re a great team.

A great team… the Portarlington Golf Club maintenance crew, Burchett’s second family.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would like to think I work in collaboration with people so that a team culture can be fostered, with each person concerned for the wellbeing of the rest of the crew. At the end of the day we are all people, so trying to be kind and patient is at the top of my leadership objectives, while giving space for empathy and understanding. I still enjoy being on the tools as much as possible and try to be involved in all aspects of our course management. I feel this allows me a greater understanding of the requirements for each task and helps me assess future priorities.

While wanting to be across everything, I also think it is important for each team member to feel trusted and empowered to thrive in their environment. Therefore, I like to give people as much opportunity as I can to be responsible decision makers, in essence allowing them to feel confident to lead themselves which enables a strong contribution to the team. This I find builds a desire to produce a top-quality course and positive sense of achievement. Providing time and space to inspire team members to look beyond and prepare for future opportunities is another aspect I see as important. This enables them to represent themselves well in subsequent opportunities that come up, if they so desire to aspire beyond what we offer here.

On the whole, positive momentum brings good results. If I am aware of areas that lack this, I reassess my approach and try a different strategy to bring a different outcome. This sometimes is quite humbling and so worth doing as the alternative can make the work environment challenging.

Who has influenced your career and why?

Natalie, my wife, has always offered me a balanced and considered view on things. She’s been a listening ear when needed and offers fresh perspectives to situations that have been challenging. This I have needed on multiple occasions and she’s probably the reason I’ve been in the industry so long while remaining mentally stable. Her love and support is critical to how I function.

I have learnt a lot along the way about how to do things and how not to do things from a career spent observing and taking in new things. Many people have inspired me along the way. Spending time on the VGCSA committee was a great time of gleaning information from my peers and time that I valued greatly. I also attend as many education meetings and opportunities to network with other turf managers which has provided terrific insight over many years.

One of the best things about the turf industry is the people involved and getting alongside to learn how each is doing it. This has contributed enormously in making me a better superintendent. I also love spending time in nature and am a keen observer of the surrounding environment. This is a source of great inspiration to me when considering design elements and revegetation strategies.

What is the biggest mistake you have made and what did you learn from it?

I accidentally left the handbrake off on a Cushman while I was doing some irrigation work at Capital. I tore up to an irrigation control box and jumped off the machine all in the one motion, not really even thinking about it as I had done it on countless occasions. Unfortunately for me, I stopped on top of a bank of one of the large waterways. I did my thing in the box, turned around to race off to the next one only to see the Cushman heading flat out down the bank and into the water, fully submerging. Nice one Steve! Me and a few of the crew eventually pulled it out (thanks Abbot) and Billy worked his magic and got the thing going again. Graeme was very patient and I always appreciated his measured response. Note to self… always apply the handbrake!

You would think that one would learn from one’s mistakes, but at Portarlington not long after I started the same thing happened. I left an old ute running while I raced in to adjust something on the irrigation computer. Sure enough when I came out, there’s the ute trundling off towards the back of the clubhouse. Nice one Steve! Thankfully it crashed into one of the poles holding up the verandah which promptly stopped it. Note to self, again… always apply the handbrake!

What is something no one in the turf industry would know about you?

I bake sourdough bread weekly and play the guitar (not necessarily at the same time).

What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges facing the turf industry?

Recruitment is always challenging as we compete against the major trades, as we know that the qualified salary potential is most likely less in our industry than others. The future could look like reduced hours at the same pay rates and conditions – something like five six-hour days or a rotating roster of four days per week. This will probably be a reality in the corporate world in the not-too-distant future so maybe this is one thought to make our industry look progressive and attractive. This would also free up time for side hustles or lifestyle choices. The ‘Women in Turf’ initiative is a great and timely strategy and will hopefully open up avenues for future staff recruiting.

On the golf course, we seem to be squeezing all our tasks into the first couple of hours of the day to keep ahead of the play. In one sense this is great as there is a lot more people wanting to play the game, but the problem is the majority of them want to play early in the day. In terms of managing the site efficiently and safely this may be an area that needs addressing from a course perspective.

From what I’ve seen, the average golfer sees the staff member as a target to be hit or missed rather than a person requiring value and respect. This has a huge effect on staff morale and personal satisfaction. For example, the majority of golfers will wait for another golfer down the way, but if it is a staff member would freely hit up. Sounds like a bit of a whinge session I know, but just expressing what I’ve seen and continue to see. Without the golf course staff, we don’t have a game.

Finally, any advice for younger staff in the turf industry looking for their next opportunity or building their careers?

Take responsibility seriously. Respect and honour the process of learning. Be diligent and kind in every aspect of your life. Ask lots of questions and presume nothing. Learn everything (usually done by making some mistakes). Build while you have the energy to do so, for as age comes different priorities come too. Make peace with the highs and lows and persevering is worth it.

This article was originally published in the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal

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