Sean O’Brien, Director of Grounds for Hawk’s Landing Golf Club at the Orlando (Fla.) World Center Marriott, is driven to succeed, and he has the accolades to prove it.
Sean O’Brien, Director of Grounds for Hawk’s Landing Golf Club at the Orlando (Fla.) World Center Marriott, has always been goal-oriented. In fact, his personal scorecard, where he keeps track of his career achievements, is full of birdies.
He recently was named Marriott Golf’s Golf Grounds Manager of the Year. The award is based on performance excellence for current and previous years in various categories including maintaining turfgrass conditions, successful large-scale renovation or construction projects, loss-prevention efforts, personnel development, operating within a budget, and active pursuit of industry-wide certifications and education.
This recognition by Marriott Golf, which manages 61 golf courses at 44 locations in 12 countries, is just the latest award for O’Brien. He also was recognized recently as the Florida Chapter Award winner for Resorts by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and Golf Digest magazine as part of the Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards.
O’Brien recently spoke to Club & Resort Business about the award and his work at Hawk’s Landing.
Q. You have a list of professional goals that you want to achieve by a certain year listed on your website. How does being so goal-oriented help you in your career?
A. I firmly believe that you cannot be successful on your career path unless you know where you want to go. Knowing where you wish to end up gives you the foundation that is needed to improve as a professional and a person each day during your journey. I always say that keeping score in your career is very important. It drives you and keeps you competitive. It makes you want to put in the extra work to be successful. My career goals are my scoreboard, and how I am doing in accomplishing them tells me whether or not I am winning or losing. I believe that embracing competition and keeping score with your career goals in mind are essential to being highly successful.
Q. What type of environmental initiatives do you have in place at Hawk’s Landing?
A. We are making strong efforts to use more organic fertilizers for all of our applications. We are also adding more aquatic plant material to our lakes and expanding native bed areas to provide for wildlife habitat.
Q. Hawk’s Landing was one of the first facilities to use robotics greens mowers. Why were you wiling to try them on your course?
A. I believe that as turfgrass industry professionals, each one of us is responsible for doing everything that we can to make positive contributions and advancements to this industry. This technology is amazing. I do believe that it is going to have a big impact on our future and how we realize improved efficiencies. I got involved because I wanted to do everything that I could to help Precise Path Robotics advance their technology here at Hawk’s Landing Golf Club in hopes that it will make positive contributions to the turfgrass industry in the future.
Q. How do they work, and what kind of staff training was involved?
A. Each evening before leaving for the day, I will go into the Superintendent software that has been provided to me by Precise Path Robotics and set up the direction of cut and cleanup cut for the next day. Once I have established that, I save that information onto a thumb drive and take it out and stick it in the USB port on the robot. It downloads the saved information, and the RG3s are ready to go.
The next morning, four operators take the robots to their first greens, set up the four beacons around the green for communication purposes and hit the search button on the unit. Once the RG3 locates the beacons, it identifies where it is and begins the mowing process. It mows the direction and cleanup that was programmed for that day. While the robot is mowing, the operator is responsible for completing tee service, hand raking all greenside bunkers, and cutting and painting cups. The robot will finish mowing, return to an area off the green and wait to be picked up by the operator. Once the operator picks up the robot, they are off to their next green and the process is repeated.
The staff training is actually very simple. All of our guys know how to do tee service, hand rake bunkers, and cut and paint cups. All we had to do was get them familiar with loading and unloading the robot. It is a lot simpler than most would imagine.
Q. How do crew members keep an eye on the robotic mowers and still stay busy and productive at the same time?
A. The robot is very accurate and dependable, so operator confidence is developed very quickly. Also, most tasks that the operator is completing while the robot is mowing are close by and the robot is easily seen.
Q. What are the advantages of using a robotic greens mower?
A. I would say that the biggest advantage would be improved efficiencies. We have a lot of rough to mow here each week at Hawk’s Landing, and by utilizing the RG3s each morning, I don’t have to send out a tee service or cups guy, and I save one bunker guy. Because of this, I have three extra people freed up to do other tasks. It allows us to begin mowing rough two hours before the first tee time. This allows us to get more tasks completed and impact the golfer experience less.
Q. Any disadvantages?
A. The only disadvantage that I’ve seen is the price. This kind of technology is expensive, and not all clubs can afford it. Although, like all technology, when it first breaks onto the scene, it is expensive. But give it a couple years, and I’m sure you will see a drop in the price.
Q. How hard is it to maintain the mowers?
A. Maintaining the RG3s are not any more difficult than maintaining a walk mower. We have had some minor issues, but Precise Path’s support has been great. These guys understand how important the service aspect is, and they are dedicated to supporting our every need.
Q. How commonplace do you think it will become to use robotic greens mowers in the industry?
A. I think that it will be several years before they catch on. We are not an industry that adapts to change very quickly. The technology has arrived though, and I do believe that this is going to be the wave of the future. It’s a big investment, so I don’t see the smaller clubs getting involved right away, nor do I see the majority of the public clubs getting involved. The higher-end clubs are where you will see the most involvement initially.
Q. How did you get your start in golf course maintenance?
A. My father bought a nine-hole golf course in Ohio in 1990. I was ten years old at the time, and I began hanging out there after school and in the summers. Soon I was working on the course and playing every chance that I had. I graduated high school knowing that I wanted to be a golf course superintendent, but I knew that I wanted to do it on a high level. I decided that it would be more beneficial to go and get a degree in business first, so that is what I did.
I graduated from Kentucky Christian University with a business degree and then went on to The Ohio State University ATI to get my turf management degree. While getting my turf degree, I met a gentleman by the name of Lukus Harvey. At the time, Lukus was the Superintendent at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club and Spa in Jupiter, Fla. Lukus later hired me as an intern at the Ritz-Carlton and it was then that I became a part of the Marriott Golf family. Since then, I have worked hard, learned under some great people, and been fortunate enough to grow with the company into my current role.
Q. How has the industry changed since you’ve been a part of it?
A. The most obvious change to me is that our maintenance budgets continue to decrease and expectations continue to increase. Eventually something is going to have to give. When I first started, expectations were on the rise, but so were the maintenance budgets. It’s not like that anymore.
Q. What other changes do you foresee in the golf course maintenance business?
A. I do think there will be a day soon when technology gets involved in almost every aspect of our daily maintenance. There are a lot of opportunities out there where technology could be added to existing equipment to make it easier to operate and to help the operator be more precise. We always put so much emphasis on detail, and we should. I think we will see some new tools coming down the line in the form of technology that will help us with our operator accuracy and attention to precise detail.
Q. You say your dream foursome is Jack Nicklaus, Harry Truman and your dad. Why did you select these people?
A. I chose Jack because of what he has meant to the game of golf. I chose President Truman because of what he meant to our country during one of our darkest times and the unbelievable courage he had in order to make some of the decisions that he had to make for the long-term good of mankind. I chose my dad because there is no one that I would rather spend 18 holes of golf with than him.
Q. What does it mean to you to be named the Marriott Golf’s Golf Grounds Manager of the Year?
A. It’s a tremendous honor. I have been with Marriott Golf now for six years and have had the opportunity to meet most of the Director of Grounds/Superintendents within our company. We have a very intelligent, hard working group of professionals, so to be honored with this award is very humbling.
Q. How closely do you work with your General Manager and Golf Professional?
A. Our General Manager, Doug Ridge, is a tremendous person. He is a golfer and knows the game well. He is the General Manager of the largest Marriott Hotel in the world, so he is an extremely busy person, but he does keep a close eye on our department and has been very supportive to our operation.
Our Director of Golf, Mike Hodgins, is with whom I work most closely. Mike and I have always viewed each other as a team working toward the same goals. He is great to work with and a big supporter of our operation.
Q. How has your relationship with them helped you achieve the recognition from Marriott as well as any other professional accolades?
A. It is comforting to have such strong support from our General Manager, Director of Golf and our Marriott Golf corporate team. The successes that have been realized here at Hawk’s Landing Golf Club are a direct result of teamwork and a strong partnership from everyone involved. Without these relationships, these successes would not be possible.