Golf Management and Turf Care: An Often Tricky Triangle

 As seen in Golf Business March/April 2022 

By David Gould:

Well-groomed fairways, tees and greens—especially those greens—are the product anyone reading this magazine strives to deliver at consistent quality to the golfing public.

So it tends to be what course operators think about when they go to sleep at night and when they wake up in the morning. Now when they do wake up, the staff member whose sole concern is the course’s tender turfgrass—the superintendent—has likely been awake and on the job for an hour or maybe longer.

In this business there is a triangle: the golf operator, the golfing public, and the course superintendent. How exactly are decisions made, and money spent, and marketing messages put out, so that green fees and memberships, maintenance work, customer satisfaction and the profit-and-loss numbers all work out nicely in the end? It’s a balancing act, and not a simple one.

“Golfers don’t understand the superintendent’s world,” asserts Jim Haslam, CEO of Atlanta-based HMS Golf Management. “When bad things happen to the playing surface, players lose out on enjoyment, the owner loses money, but the superintendent might be on the hook for his job.”

Haslam, who founded his company way back in 1978, is quick to note that reactionary firings of this type don’t happen under his watch. Having built some 40 golf courses himself, and having studied best practices for managing the operator-superintendent-golfer triangle, he relies on a system for communication and planning that seeks consensus from all three on what ought to be done, when to do it and the resources that should be allocated.

“Our process gets the various parties involved as close as possible to being on the same page,” Haslam says. “I’m glad for that, but I also know you don’t get to 100 percent agreement.” In his part of the world, with today’s hybrid grasses, a course could go with bermuda and deal with inhibited growth in the cold, or go with bent and risk losing the greens completely in the heat. “There’s nothing that petrifies the superintendent more than that,” he says, “so they’ll naturally lean toward bermuda, and you can’t blame them for it.”

Lately the industry has come upon a strange set of conditions in which—finally—there is no shortage of golfers but there are shortages of so many other things:  workers, supplies, equipment and sufficient time between periods of heavy play for crews to do their work.

Under this new and unexpected scenario, the ways in which facility management and turf management coexist and cooperate have taken on new wrinkles. Pilgrim’s Oak Golf Course in the Pennsylvania town of Peach Bottom is still owned by the family that built it, with Peter Trimble as its longtime managing partner. Just like HMS Golf and many other ownership groups, the Trimbles have more money to put into their golf course these days, and less time available to get any significant work done.

Trimble’s brother is the facility’s mechanic and operator of heavy equipment, so he naturally bridges the gap between ownership and the view from the maintenance barn, where the Pilgrim’s Oak superintendent is both long-tenured and influential in operating decisions.

“We had a warm December and lots of demand for play,” says Trimble, “but business in 2021 had already been so strong there was a feeling across the whole staff that we wanted to close down and get our projects going.”

A decision was made by the group to shrink the online tee sheet or selectively close it down completely, despite the unusually high temperatures. “Not every operation would do that, so for our superintendent it’s a decision that was appreciated,” he says.

The other good reason for doing so was the persistence—despite unseasonable warmth—of morning frost. In the list of course conditions that create tension between the golfers and the person in charge of the turf, nothing tops a string of frost delays.

“It’s been said that course superintendents aren’t good communicators, and there’s some validity to that,” Trimble allows. “But you can’t accuse them of doing a bad job justifying frost delays, because golfers either don’t want to hear it or they don’t have the attention span to follow what’s being said.” Restless golfers tend to study the sunniest areas to check for melting. They often suspect the superintendent of not keeping the same vigil they are.

“People don’t consider the possibility that the turf crew has gotten busy with a project, whether that’s tree-pruning or equipment repair or something else,” Trimble notes. “They’ve got other things to do besides constantly rechecking our shaded areas and north-facing spots to see if the frost is cleared.”

Trimble has been tempted to take an area near the golf shop that’s out of play and turn it into a “frost damage experimental zone,” encouraging customers to walk freely across it under frost conditions and showing them the damage that would inevitably result. In the meantime he advises his players to study the dark, damaged spots along one of his woodside fairways, where deer hoof prints offer clear proof that turfgrass is especially vulnerable on chilly mornings.

Amanda Fontaine, superintendent at The Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, Massachusetts, uses the term “bedside manner” to describe a greenkeeper’s level of skill in communicating with golfers. The challenges of 2021 notwithstanding, this past year at The Ledges was, in her words, “the most seamless you can imagine in terms of communication between maintenance and the golf shop.” The key to this harmony was, in Fontaine’s words, “working super-closely with our head pro, Rick Fleury” and Fleury’s particular gift for “translating to the golf population,” as Fontaine puts it, the information and reports he receives from the turf side.

It wasn’t always this way for Fontaine. “I’ve had frost-delay situations that were awful, where golfers put their hands on my utility cart to stop it so they could ask me, ‘Why are you doing this to us?’” When asked if being female might have some effect on the communication challenge with golfers, she responds in the affirmative. “Yeah,” she says. “It makes it worse.”

As CEO of the management group Landscapes Unlimited, John Pugliese has studied intently the triangular relationship among the golf shop, the players and the superintendent. “You have to acknowledge the natural divide in all this,” says Pugliese. “There’s a world of technical knowledge the superintendent walks around with, that only he knows, to the point where it can limit his awareness and savvy about the business nuances.” There’s a physical distance, too, as Pugliese points out, with maintenance barns usually located far from the clubhouse and golf shop.

His organization includes a corporate director of agronomy, regional directors and on-property superintendents, so it’s easy to maintain an ongoing discussion about the “bedside manner” challenge. “We’re proactive about engaging the maintenance team with the golf shop people, and with the customers as well,” Pugliese says. “It helps to have the superintendent playing the golf course and spending time in the grill room, so that at least some of the course-condition questions golfers have can get answered directly by the person in charge.”

It seems to help when the owner-superintendent collaboration gets separated into two categories: everyday operations and long-term capital improvements. The best way to build a cap-ex schedule can look different to a superintendent than it looks to the general manager and, by extension, to the paying customers. Projects can be logical and sensible, or they can bring some marketing sizzle or, if you’re lucky, they can do both.

“There was so much deferred capital work in this industry after 2008 that a superintendent could end up their own worst enemy,” says Pugliese. “All the workarounds and patch repairs they came up with, especially to their irrigation systems, in some cases caused them to underestimate the need for full-scale renovation or replacement.”

Pugliese took note of how much new bunker sand was purchased and installed in the difficult years post-2008. “Owners seemed to be fighting all the talk about bankruptcies and closures by upgrading a very visible feature,” he comments. “Whatever the superintendent might have said about pump stations or other key infrastructure, those bunkers with their beautiful new sand was considered the best way to say, ‘We’re in business and we’re okay,” to the customer base.”

At two Virginia clubs owned by Acumen Golf, Brandermill Country Club and Birkdale Golf Club, decisions about day-to-day course maintenance come easily, says Acumen owner Mike Hatch, while cap-ex decisions involving the course sometimes require him to sharpen his pencil.

“One of my superintendents brought me an equipment-lease deal last year that came to $9,000 a month,” says Hatch. “It was addressing a definite need, but I had to cut that number down to $5,500—just a matter of making the numbers work, and I’m the one responsible for that.”

On the turf side of the Acumen business, labor costs have been way down because workers have been so hard to find, and the superintendents have taken pride in keeping quality up even with costs down. While Hatch appreciates this, he doesn’t consider it the correct way to turn a profit as a golf operator. “I tell them all the time to spend their whole budgets,” he says. “Whether that’s more chemicals or more growth regulators or something else, we’re going to use our budgeted funds somehow or some way on course conditioning.”

He has a similar take on his capital-improvements budget, only this time the guiding principle is not to deviate from it on the plus side, when you’ve got the funds to do so.

“I have a consulting practice along with my own business and the clubs I consult to are piling on the projects because they’re flush with cash, which I advise against,” says Hatch. “You should always have an updated capital schedule and you should stick to it, so you’re reinvesting consistently. But if it’s a sound schedule, there’s no need to expand it—and at the same time there’s a need, in my view, to build up your rainy day fund. These big years we’re having won’t last indefinitely.”

One improvement area he’s been spearheading at his own clubs is expansion and re-sodding of tee boxes, especially toward the front ends. “Players are moving up and playing the course at shorter yardages,” Hatch reports. “The superintendents aren’t as aware of that as we are, in the clubhouse and the shop, because we hear golfers talk. So that’s an example of a project a superintendent might not have thought to suggest.”

There’s always some psychology involved in customer relations. When you apply that to golfers and superintendents, it’s oddly important to note the canine factor. Having a dog that rides along in the utility vehicle is guaranteed to warm things up, according to Amanda Fontaine of The Ledges.

“The dog absolutely makes a difference,” she says, referring to her German Shepherd wing man, Simba. “Things automatically warm up when I bring him around and let the golfers make a fuss over him.” Part of Simba’s job is to chase away geese, a role that many courses have assigned to border collies. That choice doesn’t enhance the golfer-relations function very much, due to border collies being extremely shy with people.

When course operators and the grounds crew collaborate on feel-good projects like pollinator habitat, songbird trails or wood duck houses, it can enrich the triangular relationship and contribute to an in-this-together sentiment at the course. That’s long been an article of faith for Jack MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Golf Course Superintendents Association and a career greenkeeper before taking on his administrative role. MacKenzie has written a series of articles on the topic, including several about pollinator habitat on golf property.

“It takes a strong management team with a commitment to environmental stewardship for golf to play the role we all know it can,” says MacKenzie. “The industry’s reputation got a boost from the pandemic and safe social distancing, so now would be a great time to build on that.”

Loss of habitat and food sources have become a major threat to bees, which pollinate a large portion of the crops humans live on. Leaving space in the far rough for dandelions to bloom in early spring sounds like a bridge too far for golf operators, but MacKenzie feels it’s both doable and worth doing. In any case, finding space on your golf acreage for willow blossoms, wild violet or even chickweed comes under the heading of the-right-thing-to-do, environmentally.

“Some courses here and there are doing a great job of creating pollinator habitat, and I’m convinced it adds a level of customer loyalty. We have the tools and the knowledge to accomplish a lot in this area,” says MacKenzie. One additional incentive, in his view, involves the specter of government action, requiring certain of these practices on golf courses, something he considers quite possible and hardly optimal.

Along with getting credit in the media for providing a safe form of recreation, golf has benefitted during Covid-19 by increased consumer demand. To Mike Hatch of Acumen Golf, that’s all the more reason to communicate with his customers frankly or even bluntly, when they gripe about cart-path-only or any other edict from the superintendent.

“The real complainers are a minority,” says Hatch, “and I don’t put up with it. We all work too many hours to have to listen to whining. I tell people straight out, if you don’t like the way we take care of the golf course, there’s plenty of other courses you can go play.”

Not every owner would feel confident using that approach, but countering the tendency of golfers to make the superintendent into the bad cop is a sound practice. This triangle is a tricky one. It’s management’s responsibility to keep it from getting bent out of shape.