The economic recession that started nearly 10 years ago has had a significant impact on the golf industry, one that is still being felt today. A few golf facilities have prospered since that difficult time but far more have struggled, some closing their doors while numerous others changed hands or significantly altered their business model. These effects are not surprising given the challenges created by an oversupply of golf courses that is partially the product of the aging golfer demographic and declining participation rates among younger generations. Furthermore, extended periods of severe drought have increased the price of water and limited its availability for golf courses.
When the recession hit, golf course superintendents faced the familiar challenge of trying to do more with less. Out of necessity, maintenance budgets were frozen or cut at many golf courses while the cost of many inputs – e.g., plant protectants, water, equipment – continued to rise. The maintenance budgets at some courses still remain lower today than they were 8-10 years ago, testimony to the long-term effects that changes in demographics and the economy have had on golf.
Golf course superintendents are accustomed to budget cuts. Recent rounds of belt tightening, however, were accompanied by pressure to reduce costs and course closures by avoiding disruptive maintenance practices. Convenient changes to maintenance practices, such as skipping or rescheduling aeration and topdressing, took precedence over more sensible ways to reduce costs such as reducing the intensity of bunker maintenance or scaling back unnecessary landscaping. Golf facilities also wanted to achieve budget cuts without a noticeable change in course conditioning. Unfortunately, cutbacks were noticed by golfers at many facilities.
When it comes to cutting costs, there is a big difference between eliminating needless amenities and compromising essential agronomic programs. The good news is that the recession caused golf facilities to re-evaluate maintenance practices, presentation options and course amenities. Many golf courses were forced to differentiate between essential and nonessential maintenance programs so they could focus on what matters most. Surprisingly, some cost-saving changes had positive effects on playability and aesthetics.
Numerous strategies have recently been utilized to reduce golf course maintenance costs; a brief review of the more common strategies and their overall impacts follows.