Clinton Southorn grew up in Hobart before moving to the UAE and is now the Cluster Director of Agronomy at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. We caught up with the Tasmanian to learn more about his life and profession ...
How long have you lived abroad?
I have lived and worked overseas since 2004.
Where did you grow up?
What drew you to Abu Dhabi?
I was working in Dubai previously to the current position and had also worked in Abu Dhabi in 2007. With Abu Dhabi and Dubai only being an hour drive from each city, it wasn’t a big change.
When talking about working in the UAE there are many reasons why it’s such an attractive place to live and work. I have worked at Troon-managed facilities for 17 years now, starting off at Brookwater in Brisbane, back in the grow-in days. Being able to travel the world and work under their umbrella has been amazing. Troon manages a large number of high-end facilities in the UAE and the move to Abu Dhabi has allowed me to work at the best of them: Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which hosted its 15th Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January. And also Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, where I was the grow-in superintendent back in 2007-2008. Adding in Yas Links Abu Dhabi and you can see the appeal and professional growth that organically comes with the position.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting you/your business?
The pandemic has been a test on many different levels. There has been, and will continue to be, new challenges, both professionally and personally. I am sure that I am in the same boat as many people, but I will add that I feel fortunate to be placed were I am during this time.
I miss the freedom of being able to fly home to Australia and visit family. Whist from a work point of view, as we navigated through change, the scope of golf course management became much broader and more complex.
Working from home took on a new dimension for keeping operations up and running. Our top priority remains the health and safety of our teams. Technology is keeping us more connected than ever before as we maintain a routine during physical distancing. Video conferencing and collaboration tools have been indispensable in helping us stay informed and connected with colleagues.
What is the situation like in Abu Dhabi at the moment?
The golf courses in Abu Dhabi reopened on the first week of April, operating under strict municipality health, hygiene and distancing protocols and carefully managed guidelines in place. The directive has been very clear on safely and sustainably resuming operations. The scale of mass COVID-19 testing conducted throughout the country since the start of the pandemic has been reassuring and been taken positively, as well as highlighting the infrastructure and willingness to be tested.
Has the pandemic altered any of your future plans?
When it comes to managing the golf courses, yes. There have been a number of agronomic and people adjustments made within the facilities. The combined maintenance team has 120 associates, which we also take care of outside the physical working hours. In the unique situation of managing three golf courses within 30 minutes of each other, all under the same ownership and management company (Troon Golf), it has allowed for flexibility to work through the necessary changes and minimize impact on all involved.
During the summer (June-August) in Abu Dhabi, each facility traditionally completes two full cultural renovations on greens, with the aim of removing a total of 30 percent organic material. Given this new environment we find ourselves in, we have reduced it to one full renovation program. This will be of benefit to the members with the golf course open more, while we use less materials.
This is one of the managerial components we have needed to adapt within a short timeframe; working to find a balance between what is needed and what is not, and the potential impact of these changes. With a strong renovation program being in place previously, this year’s moderated cultural renovations will have minimal effect on the turf. We will still complete the micro programs throughout the year like ninja tinning, grooming, and dusting and hope that some type of normality returns soon.
And I would say many peers in the industry can relate to these modifications. There will be additional minor changes to our programs, and I am positive that they too will bring about learning opportunities.
Can you tell me a little bit about your family?
My family still all live in Tasmania, which I love going back home to visit. Golf has been a part of the family for a long time, with my grandmother being the standout player of the family. My grandfather was also a superintendent at the local golf course, south of Hobart, many years ago, but I don’t think that had an influence in my career choice.
What was your first job in the golf industry?
I was lucky enough to do my apprenticeship at Kingston Beach Golf Club, 15 minutes’ drive south of Hobart.
How long have you worked with Troon International?
Seventeen years and five countries: Australia, Fiji, Portugal, Russia & UAE
Which courses are you currently overseeing?
Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and Yas Links Abu Dhabi.
How attached are you to the courses you look after? Do you have a favourite?
I have a soft spot for Saadiyat, as I was involved in construction and grow-in 12 years ago. I think with everyone that has been fully involved in a golf course from its raw construction to opening, knows there is a special bond. Then to be able to go back, host three Ladies European Tour events and three Gary Player Invitationals with Mr Player hosting and playing in them all, is pretty cool.
One of the things that is unique is that the golf courses are all within a 20 minute drive of one another, but the courses are all very different. It keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure.
Do you have many interactions with the architects of the courses? How important are those relationships?
During the design and the construction is very important and I think the architects are looking for the input as well. They all want what’s best for the golf course and if you can suggest some enhancements that will help with the maintenance of the course, they are happy to listen. Spending time on the course with legends such as Ernie Els and Gary Player is always memorable.
“Spending time on the course with legends such as Ernie Els and Gary Player is always memorable.” – Clinton Southorn
What have been some of your proudest moments in your career?
They vary. Doing a full construction and playing the golf course some years later is very rewarding and being part of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship award ceremony is also a great honour.
Do you come back to Australia often?
Approximately every 18 months, I wish it was more that’s for sure. Maybe next year I will get home more often.
What are some of the challenges living internationally?
In the UAE it’s not too much different to living in Australia. Especially with the language barrier not being a problem, everyone speaks English. Apart from being away from family and friends, the language barrier in the other countries I have worked at has been one of the more challenging obstacles. You also get a sense of achievement and accomplishment from being able to find a way to work through that as well.
Where do you see yourself working/living in 10 years?
Maybe back home in Australia. It’s a big world and it’s exciting when you see the way golf is evolving. If you put yourself in the right place, then with a little luck there are some amazing opportunities out there.
What are some of your greatest aspirations?
They change but one of the things that stays common is seeing the staff you work with grow and become great superintendents themselves. I have been lucky to work with some talented guys and when you see them do so well, that’s very cool.