COVID-19 is impacting every aspect of our lives and the USGA Green Section wishes the best for you, your family, and loved ones. Our first priority should be protecting ourselves and others by heeding the advice from medical professionals to practice social distancing and adhering to all applicable regulations on restrictions for businesses. The USGA article “Golf Course Maintenance Strategies to Limit the Spread of COVID-19” outlines strategies our agronomists have been hearing golf courses are implementing to reduce the risks to their staff and golfers.
Whether your golf course is open or closed for play, superintendents across the country are grappling with how to keep the golf course in good playing condition under new restrictions and with unexpected resource challenges. Maintaining a golf course has changed dramatically as a result of COVID-19, but superintendents are some of the best at finding novel solutions to difficult challenges.
Reports are flooding in that golf courses are having to make do with significantly less resources than normal. At the moment, the most impactful reduction has been limitations on labor hours. The impact of labor reductions is exacerbated by the fact that spring is the busiest time of year for many superintendents as grass is beginning to greenup and important spring programs, such as aeration and weed control, are typically performed soon.
As your course navigates how to handle reductions in labor and resources, we can look back to the 2008 financial downturn as a guide for strategies that can mitigate the negative long-term impact of deferred maintenance. The USGA article “Managing a Golf Course During a Crisis” describes how golf courses can focus on the tasks that most impact golfer enjoyment and the long-term health of the course while reducing maintenance inputs.
It’s important to remember that reductions in staff and resources will have an immediate impact on course conditioning at your facility. However, given the current events, reductions are likely essential for employee safety and the financial well-being of the golf course. Therefore, it’s important to understand the short- and long-term ramifications of these reductions so that golf courses can make the best decisions now.
The following are strategies for minimizing the impact of reduced golf course maintenance:
1. Summarize and communicate the immediate impact that reduced maintenance resources have on playing conditions.
Communicate with golfers that the maintenance team is focusing their limited resources on areas of the course that matter most. This means that bunkers may not be raked, more weeds may be present, and out-of-play rough may be left unmown for extended periods. Communicating what to expect and the purpose behind these initiatives will help golfers to be understanding during this difficult time.
Expansion of low-maintenance rough areas to reduce mowing requirements is likely to occur at most facilities. Low-maintenance rough is typically located in out-of-play areas, but it may still impact some golfers. Communicate the purpose of these areas so golfers understand they are required to allocate more resources to areas of the course that matter most, like the greens.
2. Consider the recovery cost associated with forgoing or reducing a particular maintenance program.
Reductions in various maintenance practices are being implemented to address immediate needs, but long-term recovery costs are important to consider as they may influence which programs are best to reduce or eliminate. The cost of rectifying certain types of deferred maintenance can be prohibitive in the future.
Forgoing aeration at a course with excess organic matter in the soil is a good example. A gut reaction may be to completely forgo this year’s aeration as this practice is often time consuming and labor intensive. However, if excess organic matter is currently an issue, forgoing aeration will exacerbate problems that will eventually require additional resources to remediate. Instead, performing solid-tine aeration this season may be a good option given there is less labor involved in the process, but it still improves drainage and turf performance.
3. Recognize that sacrifices to aesthetics and convenience don’t translate to poor playing conditions or long-term agronomic issues.
As superintendents allocate their reduced resource pool to a more focused “maintenance-up-the-middle” mindset, course aesthetics may take a hit – but that doesn’t mean playing conditions are suffering. Flower beds, course accessories, and visually appealing mowing patterns should be some of the first things to go when necessary reductions are made. These items don’t have any impact on playing conditions and eliminating them gives the maintenance team more time to maintain or improve conditions in areas where a majority of play occurs.
4. Gather feedback on reductions to help determine what golfers value most at your course.
Take note of what golfers value during this tough time. It can help guide you in the future. You may be pleasantly surprised that most golfers don’t place a high value on pristine naturalized rough areas, “perfectly” maintained bunkers, weed-free turf and other items you feel they currently require. This difficult time can be used as a guiding light for future priorities.
As we all navigate these uncertain times, please know that the USGA Green Section is here to help. If your golf course is grappling with how to manage reduced maintenance resources, please do not hesitate to reach out to one of our regional USGA agronomists. We are here to help.