As the golf season begins to ramp up, most golf courses are operating with a fraction of the typical maintenance staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some courses have already taken action to reduce the 2020 maintenance budget in anticipation of a revenue shortfall this year. While maintaining a golf course with fewer employees and less resources is being implemented as a short-term adjustment to the current situation, the reality is this could become the business model moving forward at some facilities. While a quality golf experience can be delivered with a smaller maintenance team, golfer expectations for course conditions will have to adjust accordingly.

 

What to Expect in the Short Term

With the exception of golf courses located where it is warm year-round, spring is a time when many maintenance operations are beginning to switch from offseason projects to more routine maintenance that prepares the course for daily play. Even during a typical year, spring maintenance is challenging because of unpredictable weather and a long to-do list. Factor in fewer employees working less hours, daily logistical challenges to accommodate social distancing, and many other obstacles and productivity is inevitably reduced. So, what can golfers expect in the short term this season?

Golf course superintendents are adjusting maintenance programs to maximize the resources that are currently available. A strategy being implemented at some golf facilities is mowing at slightly higher heights than normal, so mowing intervals can be extended to allow other tasks to be completed. From a playability standpoint, higher mowing heights will likely result in slower green speeds, less ball roll when shots land in a fairway, and more challenging rough. Golfers may also notice grass clippings in the rough or on fairways because the smaller maintenance team is stretched thin and clearing clippings is not a priority. 

Since a triplex has three cutting units, a wider stripe is produced when this type of mower is used. Mowing quality can match that of walk mowers, the difference is only visual.

 

Many courses have started mowing putting greens with triplex mowers to save labor. Walk mowing often requires between four and six employees depending on the size of greens while triplex mowing only requires one or two staff members. Updates in triplex technology make it possible to produce the same quality of cut as walk mowers with fewer labor hours. Golfers may notice wider striping patterns on putting greens, but this is only cosmetic. For reference, triplex mowers have been used at numerous USGA championships for putting green mowing. There is no question that consistent and smooth conditions can be produced when using triplex mowers.

Rolling is often utilized to improve putting green conditions but rolling requires a skilled operator. When labor resources are reduced, a decision will have to be made as to where rolling falls on the priority list. This is not to say that throughout the golf season putting greens will not be rolled, but an adjustment will likely have to be made to how frequently rolling is performed. Some superintendents may experiment with alternating between mowing and rolling to reduce turf stress with resources stretched thin. This strategy has been proven successful at courses where it has been implemented.  

Along with beginning to mow in the spring, applications of plant protectants for preemergence weed control, insect control, disease control and reduction of localized dry spots are made. Timing is critical when applying these products and, depending on labor availability, some applications may need to be made outside of the ideal time period or skipped entirely. Golfers should not be surprised if they see more weeds this year and some turf blemishes because of insect feeding, disease damage and chronic dryness.

Golfers will likely see increased weed pressure in native areas. Even during an average year, weed control in native areas is a challenge for most courses. Given the current circumstances and the fact that these areas are typically not in play, any expectations for weed control in native areas should be put on the back burner. Some courses may also selectively expand their native areas this season to reduce the time dedicated to mowing rough.

As the season progresses, there are some areas of the course that will not be maintained as intensively. This would include detail work such as string trimming around trees and water features, or maintaining flower beds. It is not that these areas are going unnoticed, but they have little impact on play. In time these areas will receive attention but there must be an understanding of why they do not rank high on the priority list when staff time and maintenance resources are severely limited.

Under normal circumstances, some courses dedicate more resources to maintaining bunkers than putting greens. With less labor and resources available at most courses this spring, bunker maintenance will not be performed as regularly. This may involve switching from hand raking to machine raking, using the “Aussie method” of raking, or completely raking bunkers less frequently and only touching-up areas that were disturbed on most days. Regardless, if a shot ends up in a bunker, this is not where the golfer intended it to land and the lie does not need to be perfect. As Old Tom Morris said, “Bunkers are not a place for pleasure, they’re for punishment and repentance.”

If heavy rainfall is experienced and bunker washouts occur, it will take time to repair all the bunkers. Depending on the severity of washouts, it can take more than 100 labor hours to repair bunkers. Don’t be surprised if only the greenside bunkers are repaired initially, and fairway bunkers are repaired a few days later. A balance between all the other scheduled maintenance practices and repairing bunkers will have to be found based on the resources available.

The timing of certain maintenance tasks will likely have to change and golfers will need to become accustomed to the sight of more maintenance being completed during play. Many maintenance practices are typically scheduled for early in the morning, but the logistics of completing the same necessary maintenance practices with less employees will force some practices to be scheduled as second or third assignments later in the day. Golfers should take it upon themselves to practice proper etiquette towards maintenance employees.

Many golf courses have made changes to reduce touchpoints on the course. This includes removing bunker rakes, removing flagsticks, adjusting the hole liner so golfers do not have to reach in to retrieve their ball, limiting cart usage and removing course accessories such as ball washers. If only one person is allowed per cart, rounds may be shorter but the additional traffic will have serious turf health implications if it continues all season. Golfers will likely notice wear patterns and even turf loss from increased traffic if a single-user cart policy is in place. If this is something that becomes a long-term policy, new strategies will have to be implemented to manage cart traffic. 

What to Expect in the Long Term

Decision-makers at some facilities will look back on 2020 as only a temporary period of adjustment to maintain a golf course with a smaller staff and less resources, while others may find that changes made this year become their new business model. For those facilities that make a permanent shift to maintaining the course with fewer employees, many of the adjusted expectations that were just outlined would become standard. 

Trimming around trees is time consuming and has little impact on playability. When labor is limited, resources must be dedicated to more important tasks.

If decisions are made to continue working with a smaller labor force, deferring critical maintenance cannot become the norm. Cultural management practices such as aeration and topdressing are often reduced when courses are forced to do less maintenance. Time still needs to be allocated on the golf calendar for these practices to be completed. In fact, more time may be needed since the same practices are going to take more time with less employees. Strategies could be implemented such as working with contractors to perform aeration so it can be completed in a short period of time and the golf schedule is not significantly disrupted.  

Golfers and decision-makers must realize cultural management practices are like changing the oil in a car. Catastrophic engine failure can occur if you drive your car 50,000 miles without changing the oil. Turf decline and poor playing quality will result if cultural management practices are deferred. It may be possible to make temporary adjustments to get through 2020, but this cannot be the new standard.  

Just because the golf course is being maintained with fewer employees does not mean long-term planning is not necessary. It is understandable that long-term planning is put on temporary hold in 2020, but the long-term success of a golf facility will hinge on continuing to invest in golf course improvement projects, especially those that can lead to a labor savings. This could include reducing the number of bunkers, eliminating intermediate rough or even converting fairways to an improved turfgrass variety that requires less inputs to maintain. While there is an investment required for projects such as these, the return on investment can be realized in a few years and funds can be reallocated to other areas of the golf course. 

It is difficult to predict how long the changes of the 2020 golf season will impact facilities. One thing is for sure, the adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic will have both short- and long-term implications. Golf course superintendents have already started adapting to the challenges they are experiencing every day and will continue as new ones are encountered on the uncertain road ahead.