skip to main content

What is your budget? It might seem like the answer to this question is the key to how successful your golf course maintenance operation will be – and it certainly plays an important role – but budget alone is rarely a good predictor of success at golf courses. Maintenance budgets are as unique as snowflakes, making comparison nearly impossible. $500,000 at one golf course is likely very different than $500,000 at another, even if the two golf courses are in the same neighborhood. So how do you figure out the right budget for your course?

Budgets need to be customized for the individual property and the overall expectations, and those expectations need to be in line with the resources available. Too often, golf courses are judged not only by the quality of their conditions and attention to detail, but also on how they stack up to their neighbors. These comparisons rarely include vital context relating to environmental characteristics, equipment fleet, infrastructure, age of the course, acreage or countless other important differences. 

Often, budgets are not in line with expectations. When trying to address this issue, parameters need to be clearly set around the key factors that influence both. Acreage, intricacy of design, grass types, growing environments, equipment and infrastructure all play major roles – but at the end of the day, it comes down to labor. Labor used to account for 50%-60% of golf course maintenance budgets but that number has gone up significantly in recent years, now often exceeding 70%. Other line items matter, but how golf courses recruit, hire, train and manage their teams is the number one driver of success. This is why calculating a labor budget is a critical part of figuring out what your maintenance department needs to be successful.

The Labor HYA Method

Labor hours per year per acre (HYA) is an effective way to measure staffing needs for each unique golf course property. If it takes four hours for two people to mow fairways at your course and you mow fairways 90 times per year, your fairway mowing requires a minimum of 720 labor hours per year. You can do the same calculation for each golf course task: greens mowing, chemical applications, bunker raking, fertilizer applications, landscape maintenance and everything else to get an estimate of how many labor hours are required at your facility. Then you can convert that to the number of staff required to arrive at your labor budget for the year. Distilling staffing needs down to a single unit of measure will help provide insights into goal setting. Even if it gets complicated with multi-course properties, capital resources, growing environments or labor parameters, standardizing labor resource allocation will provide key insights into your team’s capabilities and how they align with expectations.

Tracking labor hours per task is a great way to understand your needs, prioritize resources and guide investment. This data is also a great tool for handling suggestions and complaints from golfers or decision-makers at the facility. When asked whether something can be done, the superintendent can always say yes, here’s how much time it will take and here’s what we would have to add or stop doing to make that change. This helps people outside the golf course maintenance world understand the very real trade-offs involved in their requests and expectations.

Understanding the unique challenges of the property and converting collected data into budgeted resources is critical to success. Whether you have tracked labor hours per task to the exact minute over multiple seasons or have never done it, you can easily take the following steps to start understanding your labor budget better: 

  1. Make a list of each task your maintenance team performs. You may decide to group some tasks together for simplicity.

  2. Assign each task a number of labor hours per year to accomplish. This number should be realistic based on historical context and experience. If you don’t have this information readily available, just track how long certain tasks take for a week or two and you’ll have some information to get started.

  3. There should be a line item for “general labor” because some tasks won’t fit into a routine category. For example, storm cleanup is not an everyday task but it’s one that likely occurs multiple times each year so it should be accounted for in this general labor category.

  4. Total up the labor hours for an overall budget.

  5. Divide that total by your maintained acreage for your HYA value. 

  6. Divide your total labor hours by the hours worked by full-time staff to arrive at the number of full-time equivalents required to accomplish your tasks. In reality, your staffing will probably break down into full-time, part-time and seasonal categories, but that’s easy to figure out once you have the full-time equivalents calculated.

This exercise should not take more than a few hours. Even if resources are not available for the “ideal” budget, you should start with a realistic scenario that would allow you to accomplish everything and work backward. For example, if your golf course requires 250 labor HYA and you are only budgeted for 200, you will need to prioritize the frequency of jobs and clearly communicate what the discrepancy means for the golfer experience. If ownership or committees don’t like the sound of the adjustments needed, now you have the tools for a productive conversation with them about needs and expectations. If they want bunkers raked six days per week and you’re already short on the labor hours needed to rake them four days per week, something has to change – either more resources are required or priorities need to be adjusted.

Setting Expectations

Every golf course maintenance team wants to exceed expectations, but expectations need to align with reality. Resources matter and the most important factor is labor. That has never been more evident than it is today. You can have all of the equipment, fertilizer and sand in the world but if you don’t have a great team to operate, calibrate and apply these products with skill and precision, you will fail to meet expectations. 

"Every golf course maintenance team wants to exceed expectations, but expectations need to align with reality."

The key to setting expectations is constant communication and relationship building. While most superintendents got into the job for the love of the outdoors and the game of golf, the most successful superintendents are great communicators and team builders. This role requires communication up to facility leadership, laterally to other department heads, externally to partners and contractors and within the maintenance team. Establishing yourself as a data-driven subject matter expert will create trust and respect. There will certainly be challenges and curveballs, but a culture of respect and trust will make it much easier to find solutions. 

Partnering with other facility leaders and decision-makers, superintendents must establish an optimal labor budget for the property that is designed around resources and expectations. If the resources are not available to achieve the stated expectations, what trade-offs are available to save time and labor? Reduced mowing frequency, reduced bunker maintenance, reducing maintained acreage or higher pest/weed thresholds are all ways to reduce labor inputs but they come at a cost. Those costs must be communicated in the form of expectations. Clearly setting expectations for the presentation and conditioning of the golf course will not solve all of your problems, but it will be a valuable benchmark for assessing performance and resource needs. 


Any conversation about budgets, expectations and labor requirements has to include an evaluation of infrastructure. Golf courses require the ability to remove water (drainage) and the ability to add supplemental water (irrigation). The grasses on your golf course are also part of the infrastructure. Modern turfgrass breeding constantly provides improved varieties with better drought and disease tolerance and/or improved playing characteristics. All of these assets have a life-cycle and must be replaced in a timely manner for optimal performance. 

Aging infrastructure also has a tremendous impact on labor efficiency. If your maintenance team is struggling to meet expectations with the staff time available, the last thing you want to be doing is fixing a growing number of irrigation leaks or regrassing wet areas that keep failing. Investing in infrastructure helps you get the most from your labor HYA, and deferred upgrades are a drain on this critical resource. When renovating infrastructure or key features like bunkers or teeing grounds, always keep future labor requirements in mind. Shrinking or eliminating a few unnecessary features can lead to significant labor savings without much impact on the golf experience.

Another important aspect of infrastructure is the equipment used to maintain the golf course and the facilities used to store it. “The Fundamentals of a Modern Maintenance Facility" takes an in-depth look at how a maintenance facility can enhance or hinder your operation. “Understanding the Lifespan of Golf Course Maintenance Equipment" is another great resource that can help you explain when and why equipment needs to be replaced. Without the proper infrastructure, equipment and facilities, no golf course will be able to reach its full potential. 


There is no one-size-fits-all labor budget or maintenance plan for a golf course because each has features that make it unique. Expectations should be based on resources, budget, infrastructure and the features of the course and site. Explaining the labor needs for your property in a digestible, standardized way will help you set and meet expectations. This is where the labor HYA approach has tremendous potential for superintendents. Using labor HYA to establish expectations and balance trade-offs won’t eliminate all of your challenges but it will help establish trust and respect among facility leaders and get everyone speaking the same language, which goes a long way toward putting your operation on the right path.