Editor’s notebook: an educational program in its own right

Scott Bordner received direct messages before the end of the event: his colleagues, peers, friends and former colleagues are already looking to participate in the second edition of a career development and training program that his huge club launched earlier this this month.

Bordner is the director of agronomy for the Union League of Philadelphia, a 160-year-old club that had no golf courses less than a decade ago. Today a three course operation, the Union League is the fastest growing private golf operation in the country.

Sustaining rapid growth — the club purchased its third golf course last March and will unveil the 27-hole Union League National Golf Club in southern New Jersey this summer — requires talented and committed employees. Finding and retaining these employees in 2022 requires investing in people. Investing in people requires providing opportunities for continuing education and career advancement.

Enter Union League University.

The two-day event brought together more than 70 industry professionals at Union League Liberty Hill, a suburban Philadelphia clubhouse and conference center with an 18-hole golf course. Nearly half of the attendees were employees of the three field teams supervised by Bordner.

Bordner handpicked outside attendees, deliberately trying to avoid overloading the room with industry professionals from clubs or similar backgrounds. Bordner urged attendees to sit next to different people during meals and training sessions. Union League University represented a rare event where a horticulturist, assistant superintendent, equipment technician, salesman, and established superintendent traded stories at the same table.

And to think that Bordner only started the process of organizing the event in mid-December. Hectic might be a sweet way to describe the current Union League pace of golf, so the accelerated planning process.

“I knew what I wanted,” says Bordner. “I knew the speakers I wanted, I knew the personality differences I wanted and I wanted all levels of clubs to be represented. I handpicked year 1 and had to text some of my friends to say, “Don’t be offended. You’re on the guest list, but not for this year. I want different perspectives every year and I want different lines here. I didn’t want all the wardens I worked with at Merion hanging out here together because they hadn’t seen each other. Go do it somewhere else.

“It was my social experiment to see who I can invite over and how I can make sure there are enough vocal, loud people combined with these ‘silent assassins’, the real silent people who when they pose a question, that’s a really good question. How do you mix that with the more outgoing people and make it all work?”

And …

It worked beautifully.

Since the event was not affiliated with any association or presenting sponsor, discussions were candid, with attendees receiving inside information and advice from respected internal and external voices, including the Union’s CEO. League. Jeff McFadden and director of golf Sean Palm, President of the Thinking Partners Club Dan Denehy, Green President of the Manufacturers’ Golf & Country Club Jeff Jones, former superintendent turned sales professional Jamie Kapes, and industry consultants steve mcdonald and Tyler Bloom. Macro-level presentations from McFadden and Palmer on the Union League and its golf business combined with breakout sessions led by the club’s three course superintendents – Pat Haughey, John Canavan and Andrew Doley — localized the program for club employees.

Union League National Irrigation Technician Herb Phillips led one of the most engaging presentations, using hands-on concepts, hands-on visuals and a zest for his craft to depict the transition from PVC to HDPE pipe and satellite to 2-wire. Phillips, a former superintendent who temporarily worked as a carnival game operator before returning to the industry in 2019, introduced a dry wit to the descriptions, causing laughter from all generations present. “I tell everyone with irrigation that you have to use your 95 senses that you were born with,” he deadpanned at one point.

Union League University looked like a turf retreat. Every educational session, meal and networking event took place at the Lodge at Liberty. Bordner quickly found businesses to sponsor meals and a networking night. “I looked at our financials and thought, ‘Who do we spend the most money with?’ says Bordner. “I went to the top five and they all said yes straight away.”

The massive scale and huge facilities make it difficult for most clubs to emulate Union League University. But as education needs change and the focus shifts to employee well-being, it may be time to consider bringing structured programming and different personalities to your facility for a day or two.

It doesn’t take 95 senses to understand the need for employee growth.

Guy Cipriano is the editor of Golf Course Industry.

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