Deep Cuts and the Sweet Science
of Golf Course Maintenance

How the USGA's turfgrass experts can help cash-strapped golf courses in the Upper Midwest balance tight budgets and golfers' expectations

February 18, 2009

By Bob Vavrek, Senior Agronomist

The bottom falling out of the economy was the uppercut that dropped many golf facilities to the canvas in 2008. Courses across the upper Midwest were already reeling from the body blows of several years of diminished revenue caused by a decline in green fees and/or dwindling membership dues. Some courses were knocked out, never to open the doors of the clubhouse again, and others are not quite sure they will be able to answer the bell in 2009. The majority of courses that do fight on will be wobbly to start the season and are likely to clinch and hold for a round or two by slashing the initiation fee, dues or green fees hoping to regain their senses, but knowing they can't absorb much more punishment. Without a doubt, all golf courses will bleed profusely from the deep cuts made to the operating budget.

Many superintendents have that one short minute in the corner this winter to determine how they will accommodate the expectations of golfers despite a significant 10 percent to 20 percent cut in the budget. No easy task when there will always be a few influential punch-drunk golfers who reside in the bar and discuss raising the bar throughout the winter months. You know the type - those with chronic memory loss regarding the long-overdue need for fairway drainage or an upgrade from 40-year-old single-row irrigation, while having only the ability to remember the chant… great drive - no roll, mud on the ball, plugged ball … great drive - no roll , mud on the ball, plugged ball . Their total contribution to the dilemma of how to juggle painful budget cuts and golfer expectations is simple - we could save lots of money if we would just turn off the water.

Unfortunately, it's never that easy or simple. The first, and perhaps most difficult, step will be to convince golfers that deep cuts in the budget will necessitate more reasonable expectations for day to day play. A golf facility in survival mode won't be able to hand-rake bunkers seven days a week or collect clippings from the fairways. Maybe this is the year to eliminate those unnecessary bunkers from the course. Maybe the dew walks have to go and the leaves won't be blown off the greens two or three times a day during September and October. The key is to prioritize the maintenance operations to determine which practices are essential to an enjoyable, challenging round of golf. 

Championship fights have been stopped because of serious cuts. And, even under the best of circumstances, the blood flowing into the eyes can cloud your vision. No different for a golf course dealing with deep, painful budget cuts. Every corner needs a good cut man, and this is exactly where the USGA's Turf Advisory Service can be of service. We can help restore clear vision with respect to maintenance priorities and share the successes and failures of many other courses having similar financial challenges. We have nothing to sell and can make unbiased, objective evaluations of maintenance operations and can help determine reasonable expectations for a specific facility. There is no substitute for experience, and the Green Section has gone the distance for many years helping numerous low- and high-budget facilities make the most of their resources.Tough times can be the best time to arrange for an agronomist to visit your course. 

The bottom line…don't let deep cuts keep you down for the count in 2009.

 Bob Vavrek is a senior agronomist at the USGA Green Section. This article was adapted from a recent North Central regional update. This and other regional updates written by Green Section staff may be found on the USGA Web site byclicking here


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