All Things Considered – A USGA Staff Opinion
originally appeared in the January 2011 Green Section Record.
“We’ll get back to (insert any maintenance practice or
budget line item cut in recent years) as soon as things return to normal.”
Sound familiar? At face value, this comment suggests that, while the business
of golf is down, the situation is only temporary and operations and staffing
levels will return to normal. So what is exactly normal? For many, normal is
the general state of golf that existed prior to 2008.
The 1990s and early 2000s can certainly be referred to as
the good old days when golf was bursting at the seams with optimism in every
sense of the word. There were an increasing number of golfers, new course
construction and strong revenue streams at golf facilities of all types.
Positions for superintendents and assistants were being created faster than
turf students could finish their educations. In an atmosphere of pure optimism,
golf courses were also being designed for the best of times and maintained to
achieve the next wow factor. This meant extravagance at many levels, including
more bunkers with high faces, more tees, more yardage and more acres of
manicured turf. None of this came cheap, and courses became more expensive to
maintain with unsustainable business models.
In response to the recent economic recession and fewer
rounds, golf facilities needed to reduce expenses. As a result, golf course
budgets have generally decreased, and important cultural practices have been
scaled back. Central to cost-saving plans were fewer staff and less overtime,
which consequently meant less detail work on the golf course, use of inferior
products and fewer capital improvements. Many, if not most, of these
cost-cutting measures have at least some adverse effects over time, and some
even have detrimental effects with costly future implications. Educating
golfers about the difference between frugal spending and harmful cost cutting
is a whole other topic of great importance to the Green Section.
While the economy will eventually stabilize and create
greater financial security, I believe there may be a “new” normal for golf
course maintenance and golf operations. Many of the same management and
operational philosophies that worked in the good old days simply won’t cut it
any longer. For those who consider 2009 and 2010 to be years during which
maintenance operations, staffing levels and budget cuts were only temporary,
the “new” normal for golf course maintenance is more likely to include a
sustained focus on efficient operations. At first glance this view may appear
gloomy, but this is not necessarily the case. Sure, the number of golf courses
(supply) must be further reduced to better align with play (demand), and this
adjustment will be painful at times. But golf course superintendents have
always proven to be innovative and resourceful, and now is their time to shine.
To help close the gap between limited resources and high
expectations, research will also continue to produce more effective products
that meet stringent regulatory policies. Equipment, tools and irrigation
systems will become more specialized, more accurate and more efficient, given
the need for fewer inputs and greater environmental awareness. In time it will
become commonplace to recycle grass clippings, food waste and other kitchen
byproducts into bio-fuels that can be reused as electricity, natural gas, or
equipment fuel. Golf course superintendents will continue to become better
educated and more fiscally savvy. Again, science and innovation will help lead
the way, and golf will survive. Will it return to normal as it once was? That’s
a different question altogether.
What we do know is that maintaining golf courses during the
last golf boom was reflective of the times – somewhat extravagant and rarely
sustainable. This should not be viewed as normal. Many of the adjustments that
were necessary during the past few years may not be as temporary as some would
like to believe. There may be a “new” normal in golf course maintenance, and it
will likely resemble the philosophies, budgets and practices in place today.
So, rather than playing the waiting game for a return to normal, start planning
for the future by finding ways to get things accomplished.
Ty McClellan is an
agronomist in the Green Section’s Mid-Continent Region. He has seen significant
changes to maintenance operations in response to economic challenges during his
visits to golf facilities in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.