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The state of golf: a super’s outlook

Superintendents can lead the way in cutting costs, promoting efficiencies


February 14, 2020
By Jim V. Riopelle, CGSA, AGS

Topics
Are ball washers and other golf course accessories really necessary on every hole?

There was a time near the end of high school when I remember the confusion of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. As I mulled over this question for much too long, I got a job on a golf maintenance crew for the summer. I believe the year was 1976.

Well, I fell in love with the work and instantly knew what my future path would be. I continued to work on the crew while attending university. After graduation, I secured employment at a high-end golf course and my foray into golf course maintenance began to take shape. Thirty-seven years and a few golf courses later, the passion burns as strong as ever. There isn’t anything I would rather be doing than caring for golf courses.

I’ve experienced the good times in our industry but more recently have seen a beleaguered industry, as our core players age, younger people don’t play, and revenues struggle to keep up with expenses. Perhaps it’s just me, but national associations on both the player and maintenance side seem to be in denial of the facts. More than 800 facilities across Canada and the U.S.A. have closed over the last decade, yet there is little, if any, conversation going on. Why it’s so hush-hush, I don’t know.

So I thought it was time I put in my proverbial two cents and offer a few practical solutions to help courses survive – what looks like – a permanent downturn.

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There was a time when courses were packed from dawn to dusk and then some. Junior members numbered well more than 100, with each having burgeoning men’s and ladies’ memberships. Pay-as-you-play golfers struggled to secure a tee-off time.

All that has gone away. We are now dealing with reduced membership numbers, with few, if any, juniors, reduced green fee players and empty restaurants. Sure, there are courses that are doing well, but most are upper end private facilities with strong membership bases and clubhouse minimums. The construction boom of the 1990s is now a faint memory. Many facilities tried in vain to hold on, but eventually failed, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. The marketplace was saturated and competition fierce among golf facilities. PGA-like course conditions were and are not sustainable at most facilities, but golfer demand for these conditions persisted and eventually drove courses to the brink of financial meltdown. Bar and restaurant facilities at one time held their own and made an overall profit, but more recently have struggled to stay out of the red.

Until recently, golf course superintendents, like myself, have been reluctant to reduce expenses, citing local competition as their reasoning, and that is a valid argument in a burgeoning industry, but that’s just not the case for golf anymore. As superintendents, we must be proactive in identifying and implementing not only cost savings, but also efficiencies within our entire operation.

It must be noted here that superintendents and their staff are very dedicated individuals who love their facilities and rarely compromise on quality. My suggestions attempt to not compromise on quality, but reduce course conditioning to help save facilities and the employment of the people who maintain them.

Herein, I will list a few based on my 35 years of experience as a golf superintendent, but it’s by no means a complete list. Each facility, being unique, will have its own ideas for revenue generation and/or cost reductions.

Operate golf facilities as one operation rather than three separate entities (pro shop, restaurant, greens department). Too many courses operate with these entities at arms length from each other. Bringing them all together will improve efficiency and communication within the entire operation and not only save money, but improve customer service. The golf season is a hectic and busy time for all operations, but it is essential to have department heads meet on a regular basis. Controlling expenses is not just the GM’s responsibility. It’s rather a team effort.

Greens departments need to take one day a week off or at the very least have two short days during the week. Obviously it cannot be from a Friday to a Monday due to busy weekends. On most courses, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are full cutting days (greens, tees, collars/approaches, fairways, rough, pins, bunkers, etc.). This leaves Tuesday and Thursday that could be four-hour days or make one of these days a day off. Either way you’re saving eight hours of time per employee per week. That can translate to approximately $20,000 in savings over the course of a season with an unnoticeable effect on course conditions. Golf courses can be maintained in very good condition with reduced inputs. It just takes a little creative scheduling and a “willingness” to do it.

All superintendents need to utilize their education and skills to become better golf agronomists. Without insulting anyone, because that is not my intention, we need to get out on the course more and stop relying on calendar days for when we apply plant medicines or nutrients. We have marvelous technology available to us today that needs to be utilized to its fullest potential. I’ll give a shameless plug to the “Greenkeeper” app (free), and “Turf Log” (inexpensive) that are both wonderful apps for greens departments – the latter being a diary-based program.

As superintendents, we purchase some products that we could do without. Sure, it’s exciting to try new products and chemistries, but they’re usually expensive and unproven under real world conditions. I tend to let the high-end courses experiment with new chemistries before jumping in. By that time their use has been tweaked, cost reduced, and they become more palatable to utilize.

In the case of fertilizers and supplements, there are so many available products out there. The old adage still remains. If you don’t see a discernible difference in the plant, then why use it? There are no magic bullets in plant nutrition. Decipher your soil test results and get back to basics when it comes to plant nutrition. Have a solid understanding of nutrient sources, release rates, and their corresponding effect on plant growth. I have been utilizing a methyl urea/ammonium sulfate blend on fairways and roughs with excellent results for the past few years. As an added bonus, it’s significantly cheaper than the newer technology. I get more bang for my buck. If your soil test results don’t show P or K deficiencies, then why purchase a fertilizer that contains them? Stay on top of your soil test results and apply deficient nutrients as required. Keeping your soil in proper balance is the key to success and will save money long term.

Greens are one area where I do not compromise on quality when it comes to the products I utilize, although I do only supply three or four granular applications per season. The remaining nutrient applications are all soluble through the spray tank along with a growth regulator and an iron product. Growth regulators are only applied based on a growing degree day (GDD) schedule rather than calendar based. The “Greenkeeper” app has this function built in. This will also save money over the course of a season.

Monitoring temperature, humidity, moisture content, dew and guttation water formation can impact the application of plant medicines. Mowing is an important cultural management practice for dew/guttation water removal and may have a positive impact on reducing plant medicine applications over the course of a season.

In the case of course fixtures (ball washers, tee blocks, bunker rakes, water coolers, spike cleaners, ropes, tee signs, etc.), do we really need a ball washer on every hole? Probably not. Even with a modest yearly replacement program, they’re expensive. So why not have them on every second hole instead and use the remainder as replacements when needed. Think back to your own experience playing golf. How many times did you actually utilize a ball washer at a tee? Reduce the quantity of rakes in bunkers. Unfortunately, most players don’t use them anyway, and they’re inefficient for mowing personnel who have to get off their machine to move them. Reducing their numbers on the course will provide for replacements when required.

Keep ropes and signage to a minimum except on those wet days and shoulder seasons when they’re really needed. Once again, from an efficiency perspective, you’re ahead of the game and therefore saving more money.

Purchase used or refurbished equipment rather than new. It’s available at a significantly lower purchase cost and has usually just come off lease from a course where it was well maintained. And on that note, retain a good mechanic. They are worth their weight in gold. My last mechanic had no experience whatsoever with golf equipment when he started, but ended up being the best I ever had. I know he saved me thousands of dollars and, better yet, he was also passionate about his work. Needless to say, he fit right in.

If you don’t have a mechanic at your course, then you’ll have to put on that hat as well. Find someone who can help you with the complicated stuff. Otherwise, it’s not that difficult to keep up on regular maintenance.

Although I have limited experience in the restaurant end of the operation. I do think we need to simplify menus and provide good food at a reasonable cost to our customers. Although a higher end menu may work at exclusive facilities, I don’t believe that type of menu works at most clubs. People are very price conscious today, so we must do everything within our power to increase food service use and, conversely, revenues. Charging exorbitant amounts for our food has not enamored us with our clientele over the years and has done nothing but create animosity toward our food service operations. There are opportunities to generate “volume based revenues” within our food service facilities.

We need to get more young people exposed to the game. If it means providing free clinics and a club to use, then that’s what we have to do. We need to align ourselves with schools and business so that we can “grow the game,” or at the very least maintain existing numbers. Every facility should have a driving range of some sort. The revenue potential is too good to pass up.

These are just some ideas from a golf superintendent. There are many more cost saving and revenue generation proposals that can and will work. Raising fees for green fees and club membership is not the answer. That ship has since sailed. Members and the golfing public will not be receptive to increased fees. They will be receptive to good value and service. Keeping this great game accessible and affordable to the masses is in everyone’s best interest.


Jim Riopelle is superintendent at the Glenboro Golf & Country Club in Brandon, Man. and has 36 years of experience in the golf industry. He has previously worked at a number of other courses in Canada, from Alberta to Quebec, and owns his own consulting business.