A school holiday job pulling out weeds at Auckland’s Gulf Harbour Country Club set 15 year-old Ben Taylor on a career path that most golfers can only dream of.
In the 20 years since, he’s worked on some of the most prestigious golf courses in the world – including the Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters Tournament.
“It was pretty mind-blowing,” Ben admits. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life and I was on cloud nine just to be standing there. I was 21 years-old at the time and my 10 month internship at Augusta has certainly taken me a lot of places since.”
Ben’s interest in pursuing a career in the sports turf industry began when his mum arranged a summer job for him at Gulf Harbour back in 1998. “I was doing a lot of weeding and planting. The grunt work basically. Then I started mowing tees and I kept pestering my superintendent about the possibility of doing an apprenticeship. He wanted me to grow up a bit first so sent me back to school to get my Sixth Form Certificate before he took me on.”
Ben subsequently enrolled with the New Zealand Sports Turf Institute and studied Level 4 turf management in conjunction with Primary ITO while working on the job. His immediate ambition was to be selected by Ohio State University for their internship programme which gives young international workers the chance to spend up to 18 months on several US golf courses.
After completing his three year study programme in New Zealand, Ben was successfully chosen by Ohio and posted to Kingsmill Resort in Virginia. “They had three golf courses and I spent several months on each one to get a taste for how they all ran. One of them hosted a LPGA ladies golf event so I was involved in all the course prep for that. The world was watching and it gave me a taste of the direction I wanted to head in.”
Ben says qualified greenkeepers in the US are generally assisted by an army of labourers, so he and the other interns became the ‘go-to guys’ and were given a lot of responsibility to run crews and oversee major tasks like bunker re-builds.
He obviously created the right impression because his next posting by Ohio State University was to the holy grail of golf itself – Augusta. “They would have had 50 or so interns to choose from and I was one of two who were picked to work there that year. I got to see everything from growing the golf course in, to tournament preparation, seeing it ripped apart by the players and then having to rebuild it again.”
Ben says unlimited resources means a lot of what he experienced at Augusta simply can’t be replicated on golf courses elsewhere. But the opportunity to work closely with the full-time greenkeepers and learn how to manage people, was invaluable. “It’s certainly been a big ticket item on my CV since then and it’s opened a lot of doors for me.”
His one and only chance to actually play a round himself came at the end of his stint there. His mum, (a keen golfer), flew over from New Zealand to join him at Augusta’s ‘staff appreciation day’ – an experience he’ll never forget.
Following a break to enjoy a traditional OE in Europe, Ben headed to Australia and worked at the Manly Golf Club before taking on an Assistant Superintendent role in Adelaide. With the arrival of his first son imminent, he returned home to one of New Zealand’s top golf courses – Jack’s Point in Queenstown. “I don’t want to be on any golf course. I want to work on the best. The expectations I place on myself and where I want to be are pretty high.”
The 35 year-old is currently the Assistant Superintendent at The Hills golf course in Arrowtown where the New Zealand Open is held at the beginning of March each year. He is largely responsible for the day-to-day operations on the massive 500 acre property and oversees as many as 28 staff in summer.
“It’s huge. The maintenance on the golf course doesn’t end. I could employ 50 people and have jobs for everyone. Aside from mowing the course, we do spraying, tree work and have to shift cattle and grazing stock. This summer we built a new nine hole course on site. We don’t ever really slow down.”
But being outdoors in a stunning alpine environment each day makes all the hard work worthwhile. “I have an ever-changing office which I get to drive around and buzz out about each day. In winter I go skiing in the mornings and then head to work in the afternoons.”
Despite having already climbed high through his industry’s ranks, Ben decided to pursue further study with Primary ITO last year, completing his Level 5 Sports Turf Management qualification just prior to Christmas.
“Knowing where my career is taking me, I felt the management side of greenkeeping was something I needed to be sharper on and delve deeper into. The Human Resources paper was probably the most interesting one for me – learning how to manage different personalities and get the best out of people.”
The opportunity to fit study in around paid work was “perfect” and Ben says the support offered by his Primary ITO Training Advisor was outstanding. “She always made sure I was on track and looked out for me to make sure I wasn’t burning out or not able to do the job right. I have nothing but praise for her and Primary ITO.”
Ben says it’s easy to spot those in the sports turf industry who have received practical hands-on training compared to those who have studied full-time.
“The on-the-job training and education we have here in New Zealand is right up there with the best in the world. Kiwis are regarded as hard-working employees and I’d definitely recommend the route I’ve taken. Getting experience on big international courses and bringing those skills back here is only going to make our industry stronger.”