COURSE CARE
Golf Facilities: Focusing on What Matters Most May 5, 2017 By USGA Green Section Staff

Limiting course accessories and expanding native areas allows maintenance staffs to spend more time on primary playing areas. (Westchester Country Club/Evan Schiller) 

Every morning, golf course superintendents and their maintenance teams work hard to prepare golf courses; without their efforts there wouldn’t be golf courses to enjoy. Unfortunately, labor costs are rising and it is becoming increasingly difficult for superintendents to hire and retain workers. These challenges are driving significant changes in golf course maintenance.

“With workers in short supply and costs rising, golf facilities everywhere are rethinking their maintenance programs and focusing on the tasks that will have the most positive impact on the golf experience,” said Dave Oatis, director of the USGA Green Section’s Northeast Region.

“An easy way for golf courses to streamline maintenance is by reducing the number of course accessories such as ball washers, benches and ornamental planting beds. Golfers do not need these accessories to enjoy their round and tending to them can take hundreds of hours away from maintaining the playing areas each year.”

Like many golf courses, the West Course at Westchester (N.Y.) Country Club had numerous course accessories. Meant to be conveniences, these accessories increased maintenance costs, diverted resources from primary playing areas and gave the golf course a cluttered appearance.

As part of a recent renovation project, Westchester Country Club dramatically reduced the number of course accessories on the West Course. David Dudones, director of golf and grounds, said there were two primary motivations for the change: “We wanted to focus our staff’s time where it would have the most impact on the golf experience and we wanted to restore a clean and uncluttered look to the golf course.”  

“We were pressing to keep up with daily maintenance, but we also spent a lot of time on ball washers, benches and flower beds. That just didn’t make sense.” 

Reducing Course Accessories at Westchester Country Club
Change Annual Time Savings
Fewer Benches & Tee Accessories 
  • 434 hours of moving, trimming and cleaning 
  • 120 hours of sanding and staining 
Removing Ball Washers 
  • More than 100 hours of sanding and painting 
  • 120 hours of filling and cleaning 
  • 48 hours of string trimming 
Removing Flower Beds 
  • 150 hours of routine maintenance 

Reducing the number of course accessories gave Dudones and his staff more time for agronomic and detail work. 

“We’re filling divots on tees more often, mowing the rough more frequently and spending more time fine-tuning the putting greens,” said Dudones. “Playing conditions are better and the course has an improved look and feel. Our golfers have really noticed the difference.” 

The labor shortage in the golf course maintenance industry is not just a problem for a few courses; it affects golf courses in all regions, at all budget levels. When labor hours must be devoted to less critical conveniences such as ball washers, time is taken away from improving course conditions.   

As Oatis reasoned, “Most golfers find a way to clean their ball prior to putting, so why have a ball washer on the next tee? When labor is scarce, courses need to decide what is most important.”

Rocky River Golf Club is a city-owned, hotel-operated golf course in Concord, N.C., with a golf course maintenance staff of 11 – including the superintendent, assistant superintendent and mechanic. With a small staff and a busy facility, some of the more labor-intensive design features and maintenance programs were becoming increasingly difficult to manage.

Superintendent Joel White and the management at Rocky River recognized that they were on an unsustainable path.

“We needed to completely change how we maintained the golf course without detracting from the golf experience,” said White. “We began using triplexes to mow greens instead of walk-behind mowers, saving approximately 40 labor hours per week while maintaining excellent mowing quality. We also eliminated the intermediate rough around the fairways and lowered the height of the primary rough. That saved 15 labor hours per week and improved pace of play.”

Photos: Streamlining Course Labor Practices

 

White and his team also removed more than 100 ornamental grass plantings, saving 300-400 labor hours per year and reducing the number of lost golf balls.  

“We reallocated all that staff time toward improving playing conditions and quickly started seeing the benefits.”  

Rocky River is currently performing a bunker renovation project to further improve the golf experience and reduce bunker maintenance.

“We are eliminating out-of-play bunkers and those that pose serious maintenance issues,” said White. “We are also scaling down some of the remaining bunkers to lower costs while preserving the strategic intent.”

Along with reducing the number and size of bunkers, they are also softening the steepness of sand faces, improving bunker drainage and installing new bunker liners. These efforts will enhance playing conditions and reduce the risk of washouts that need repair after a heavy rain.  

“We used to spend about 70-80 hours per week on routine bunker maintenance,” said White. “Through this project we’re hoping to get that number down to 30-40 hours per week. We can put the time saved into further improving playing conditions on other parts of the course.” 

The benefits of the labor-saving efforts at Rocky River are impressive. They have reversed an unsustainable economic path while continuing to build on their positive reputation. “Golfers are appreciating the improved conditions and attention to detail, and we’re seeing that generate significant value for the facility,” said White. 

Maintenance Adjustments at Rocky River Golf Club
Change Annual Time Savings
Mowing Greens with Triplexes  1,600 hours of mowing 
Eliminating the Intermediate Rough  480 hours of mowing 
Reducing Ornamental Grass Plantings  300-400 hours of routine maintenance 

USGA Agronomist Patrick O’Brien worked with Rocky River during this process and said, “What Joel and his staff have done to streamline and focus their maintenance operation can be done at courses everywhere. The labor shortage affecting the golf course maintenance industry is a serious challenge, but it is also a tremendous opportunity for facilities to re-evaluate their practices and focus resources where they matter most.” 

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