As golf courses continue to grapple with the ramifications of COVID-19, many superintendents are having to make significant changes to their daily operations. The most important focus of course has to be maximizing the safety of the maintenance staff. With safety measures in place, superintendents are also having to address agronomic and budgetary challenges.
Golf rounds and other revenue sources have undoubtedly been negatively affected by the ongoing pandemic, and uncertainty surrounding the financial markets is adding to the burden. Declines in revenue have already started to impact golf course operations and many superintendents are being required to make substantial adjustments in real time. This comes at a time of year when there is traditionally a lot of work required to prepare a golf course for a successful season. The grass isn’t going to stop growing and superintendents continue to be asked to protect the ultimate asset – the golf course – with fewer inputs.
Below are some steps superintendents can apply to maintain the golf course when resources are severely constrained.
Recommended Strategies for Maintaining Golf Courses During Times of Crisis
1. Focus on maintenance up the middle.
According to a recent USGA-funded survey of U.S. golf facilities, an average 18-hole golf course has approximately 95 acres of maintained turfgrass. The tees, fairways and putting greens account for 36% of the maintained turf areas and the remaining 64% is comprised of the rough, practice areas, nursery and grounds. Superintendents should focus maintenance efforts – both labor hours and other inputs – on the 36% where the majority of golf takes place and scale back efforts in less important areas.
2. Reduce fertility and irrigation in low-play areas.
There is no need to try and maintain a lush, green turf across your entire property. Cutting back on the amount of fertility and irrigation in areas that see less play can help reduce the need for frequent mowing and allow you to reallocate inputs to the greens, fairways and tees. Apply only what is necessary to maintain turf health and do not worry about cosmetics. It is okay if the turf in some areas goes off color and into a semi-dormant state given the current circumstances.
3. Increase inputs to high-traffic areas where golf carts are causing turf injury.
Many golf courses are now encouraging golfers to ride independently to abide by social distancing recommendations. This means potentially four golf carts per foursome. The added cart traffic will likely cause damage to certain areas of the course. Targeted solid-tine aeration and supplemental fertility spot treatments can help alleviate such issues. At courses that have discontinued cart use in an effort to reduce touchpoints, traffic will be less of an issue than during normal operation.
4. Remove unessential golf course accessories.
This is not only recommended for limiting potential spread of COVID-19 but can also help when trying to maintain a golf course with minimal staff. Ball washers, water stations, trash cans and benches require frequent attention. Reducing the number of these accessories, or at the very least reducing the amount of time spent servicing them, can help free up labor for more important tasks like mowing.
5. Utilize high-efficiency, wide-area mowers that can cover a lot of ground.
Many golf courses throughout the country have already adopted the use of triplex mowers for maintaining greens and tees. If you are one of the courses that still walk mows these areas, now would be a good time to switch. The same principle applies to fairways and roughs – these too should be mowed with the largest units available to maximize efficiency.
6. Consider increasing mowing heights in the rough and fairways.
Bumping up mowing heights can lessen the need to mow as frequently. This is particularly effective for higher-cut turf like the rough. A 25% increase in height of cut could result in three to five days of additional relief between mowing, thereby extending the mowing interval for rough areas to 10 to 14 days.
7. Apply heavy rates of plant growth regulators to turf areas in the event you will not be able to maintain your regular mowing frequency.
High dosages of plant growth regulators, such as trinexapac-ethyl, can drastically reduce the need to mow the rough each week. Another product that has been useful for curtailing vertical turf growth while also preventing weed development in bermudagrass is imazapic. This product will cause some discoloration, but that shouldn’t be of much concern when trying to maintain a golf course during a crisis.
8. Adjust the aeration program.
Aeration is a labor-intensive practice that generally requires the support of the entire maintenance team. If you are concerned about staffing shortages or trying to prevent close contact among employees, core aeration should probably be avoided. A less labor-intensive practice like solid-tine aeration would be wise as employees can be easily spaced out and cleanup is not necessary. Another option would be to adjust the aeration timing so that it can take place when restrictions on staffing are no longer an issue. However, a golf course’s location and grass type will determine when aeration can be completed.
9. Cut back on bunker maintenance.
Daily bunker conditioning and frequent trimming around the perimeters should be limited if staffing levels are lowered. The overall presentation and expectations for bunkers will likely need to be adjusted during this period of uncertainty. It’s time for bunkers to truly be a hazard.
10. Forego flower plantings and mulching.
Although they are nice to look at, these landscape features do not directly benefit the game and can come at a hefty cost. Think not only of the material costs, but also the labor hours that are required during planting and throughout the season. It doesn’t make sense to plant elaborate flower beds now and not have the necessary staff or budget to maintain them throughout the year.
11. Use flexible scheduling or split shifts to better manage employees and avoid widespread layoffs.
It is probably better to reduce employee hours across the board as opposed to laying off numerous individuals if you are forced to make significant cuts to your operating budget. Most golf course superintendents have contingency plans for 10% or even 20% reductions in labor hours. However, some superintendents have been asked to reduce labor hours by 50% during this unprecedented time.
12. Make sure to have at least a 90-day inventory of necessary fertilizers and pesticides.
It is important that you have essential pesticides on hand to combat a pest outbreak and enough fertilizer to maintain minimum turf health. Acquiring a fungicide for an emergency treatment on your putting greens in short order could prove difficult given the business disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the growing scrutiny around golf course expenses.
13. Review course security measures to safeguard against theft or vandalism.
In the event your golf course is required to close for an extended period of time, make sure that it is well-secured. What type of security features do your maintenance facility, clubhouse and other assets have in place? Will there be regular patrols to deter theft or vandalism?
Golf course superintendents are being expected to reduce expenses while still providing a well-conditioned golf course, either for play now or when courses reopen. Resource conservation – whether we are talking about labor, water or fuel – has been a trend over the past several years, but the pressure has greatly intensified in light of recent developments. Now is the time to really focus on what is truly important.
For more helpful tips on what you can do now to maintain your golf course in the event of significant budget cutbacks or labor shortages, please reach out to your regional USGA agronomist.