By David Gould, Contributor, Golf Business
Chicopee Woods Golf Course is closed one day a year, right after July 4, when they aerify the greens and hold a “Superintendent’s Revenge” Employee Appreciation Day. It’s an occasion for the 27-hole public facility in hilly Gainesville, Georgia, to throw golf convention out the window.
Check out the event’s photo gallery and you’ll see staff members hitting off mattresses, chipping with hockey sticks and attempting to putt through a maze of irrigation hoses. All these antics occur at a facility that has a big-time golf academy, has hosted a state Public Links Championship and chooses to emblazon its website home page with “Experience Pure Golf.”
But there’s a logic to it, as head professional Al Morrison gladly points out. “At Chicopee Woods,” he says, “we take golf seriously, and we take our work seriously. But we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” Golf people who remember when the “superintendent’s revenge” tournament was first practiced will recall it as an exercise in masochism for the participants. The version practiced at Chicopee Woods trades misery for something more like comedy.
In doing so, it helps build bonds between the turf maintenance workers and the golf operations crew.
“Our ‘Revenge’ event is designed so that people who never play golf — including most members of the maintenance group — can get out there and experience the fun of golf just as much as an experienced player does,” says Morrison.
Four years ago Chicopee Woods did 52,000 18-hole rounds, then 72,000 the next year, then another 72,000, and this year they’re on track to do 74,000. Covid forced the facility to move food service outdoors under tents, and they’ve never switched back. “We’re all about cookouts under tents with music blasting, and 25 racks of ribs coming out of our smoker every weekend,” Morrison says.
A basic goal in golf management is attracting the right employees, training them effectively and creating an atmosphere in which customers feel lucky to be part of the scene. Making the golf course a fun place to work (and yes, to work hard) would be a logical strategy for attaining that key goal. In the post-Covid era, it’s necessary to hire and train so the resulting atmosphere is welcoming to experienced golfers and newer recruits, alike.
“My feeling as a course operator is that we’ve got to protect the core and attract the diverse,” says Cathy Harbin, owner of Pine Ridge Golf Course, in Paris, Texas. “When the pandemic surge came, we experienced a flood of regulars but a new group of players came to us as well. We needed to be ready for them, with new-golfer programs we were either actively running or, if not, we at least had them in our back pocket.”
Harbin feels it is to golf’s credit that the programs were available — be it 3-hole golf, 6-hole golf, Operation36 or whatever you please — and likewise the workforce was ready to treat “families, minorities, kids, women” and the whole spectrum of customers with acceptance, “which wasn’t always the case,” she adds.
Participating with Harbin in that forum was Steve Skinner, CEO of KemperSports. His job calls for constant attention to issues of workforce and staffing for golf operations. Not surprisingly, Skinner tends to view those issues through the lens of traditional golf versus the fun-and-games version of the game we’ve come to associate with Topgolf and other frustration-free environments.
“Over a lengthy period of time,” says Skinner, “we’ve been able to change our attitude from being purely about the traditions of the game to having music coming from the loudspeakers and people wearing jeans and putting our emphasis on enjoyment and the game’s social aspect.” That evolution, as others have noted, was well-timed for the arrival of the diversity-equity-inclusion era, as well as for the pandemic golf surge.
Having a version of golf culture that everyone can relate to is vital for the business, and it’s true on the staffing side as well as on the customer side. For Skinner, that means trading an orderly “hierarchy” for an “open culture and conversation” with employees, especially younger ones. The workforce cohort made up of younger Millennials and older GenZ workers “will say anything to you, if given the opportunity,” observes Skinner wryly. He’s decided that what management can learn as a result of such candor is probably worth whatever minor discomfort it might induce.
Julius Rhodes has brought his expertise to NGCOA-sponsored forums on management principles and workplace culture — with leadership as the magic bullet. Rhodes, who is founder and principal of the Chicago-based consultancy mprgroup, suggests envisioning a “curve” of progress and identifying where along that curve you happen to be.
One possibility is to be behind the curve, which is perilous for anyone with management responsibility. Stay in that position for any length of time and your odds of success shrink notably. Right at the curve is a much better spot. It generally positions a manager to absorb what they need to know about current trends, attitudes and best practices.
That leaves a third possibility: out ahead. “I’ve placed a requirement on myself to be ahead of the curve, as much as possible, in my understanding and in my work with clients,” says Rhodes. “When you’re right at the curve, you’re able to respond and react effectively, and that’s fine, but reactive behavior doesn’t reach the level of true leadership.”
Pressing to remain in that out-front position is a little easier if, like Rhodes, one is uncomfortable in what seems to be a comfort zone. Thus if things are going well in your golf operation, the gratitude you feel should be laced with a healthy restlessness that makes you continually ask, “What’s next?” Everything that potentially is coming along next will divide into two lanes — they’re either opportunities or challenges. If not, they’re just little fads and fashions that might distract or amuse us, but won’t change the landscape.
As head of Marriott Golf during the 1980s and ‘90s, Roger Maxwell often would state a mantra that came straight from the corporation’s founders. “We have one way to make our business work: We take care of our employees, so our employees can take care of our customers.”
The bonding seen at Chicopee Woods is an example of employees being taken care of. There needs to be mutual trust between the golf operations and turf maintenance fiefdoms as much as possible. That’s because, at facilities of all kinds, golfer-pleasing happens in two distinct and often very divergent ways. On one side, golfers say give us perfect turfgrass. On the other, they say let us off the tee when there’s frost and let us off the cart paths when the ground is rain-softened. Those desires are at cross-purposes and will naturally lead to conflict. Turf workers get stressed when course conditions deteriorate, whereas operations people get stressed when they have to give unwanted news to golfers in person.
Another interdepartmental conflict that’s common in golf but not so recognized is between golf operations and the instruction team — especially at facilities where the lead instructor is an independent contractor and has a strong following. Insulated from the everyday challenges and hassles occurring in the golf shop, that golf instructor seems to be living a carefree life. Likewise, the income that top-notch teaching can generate exceeds what most pros working on the administrative side get paid.
So there’s a tendency for ill will to develop. It ought to be headed off by the realization that golfers who are taking lessons and lowering their handicaps are among a facility’s best customers. Unfortunately, the data to prove that is gathered only at a small fraction of all golf facilities. Good teaching surely would be more appreciated and less a cause of professional jealousy if these metrics were tracked as a matter of course. Seemingly, to get proactive about this task would fall under the definition of true leadership.
One way to locate yourself ahead of the curve, in Rhodes’s analysis, is to figure out just how Topgolf-like your greengrass golf environment should be. Is fun and frivolity top-priority? Does it coexist with a need to make golf a competitive outlet, one that gets the juices flowing in a meaningful manner? When Al Morrison is asked about that classic scene where an average golfer leaves a three-foot birdie putt six inches short, he doesn’t hesitate with his analysis.
“Is that a painful and embarrassing moment?” Morrison asks. “Yes — and, hey, it should be. It’s a big part of what the game is about. Out on the course, golf still puts us through that range of emotions, including misery. The difference now is that when you come in from 18, the music is playing, we’ve got our barbecue pit going, there’s cold beer and there’s not all these unnecessary rules.”
Even teaching professionals don’t agree on how stress-free to make the golfer-development process. Brendan Post, a Maryland-based instructor, would be happy to see the golf equivalent of bowling-alley gutter guards for the golfer. Post envisions two immense nets rising at the push of a button along the treelines of each hole.
“Obviously it’s not practical, but anything like that is fine in my book,” says Post. “I’m at the liberal end of the spectrum when it comes to making golf easy for newer players — because you can always make it hard again.” When he worked at a course that featured a footgolf routing, Post would have his less-experienced students play to the tub-sized footgolf holes, thus lowering their frustration factor.
His fellow instructor member Karen Noble reaches out to newer players with her own make-it-easy, make-it-fun activities. That said, Noble wonders if something isn’t getting lost in the translation. “I long for the days when more students got their introduction to golf and then got motivated to improve, play in tournaments, get themselves a handicap and shoot a real score,” says Noble, longtime director of instruction at Fairmount Country Club in Chatham, N.J.
People who share her sentiments will appreciate that various “solutions” to the popularity ebb golf endured post-2008 proved excessive, unnecessary and ultimately unsuccessful. The need to face golf’s challenges, not duck them, proved enduring.
The epitome was Flogton, a combination of tricked-up equipment and rules-flouting that actually gave the OK to hand-wedge escapes from sand, among other cartoonish behaviors. The self-correcting Polara golf ball re-emerged during those lean years, but didn’t catch on. And right behind it came the Power2Golf club—piston-powered, so you don’t have to swing, just set it behind the ball and press a button. This product appealed to the same (imaginary) need in the marketplace for golf without adversity or a true skill component.
These days, we seem to be at a point where the golf facility needs a sharply defined culture to attract good employees and it needs good employees in order to create and deepen its unique, golfer-attracting culture. It’s got to be a blend that honors tradition but doesn’t take itself too seriously. A starting point might be the approach found at Chicopee Woods, where a weekend player’s birdie putt is serious business, the annual employee tournament is silly (but important) and the vibe around the clubhouse is relaxed and fun-loving.
Of course, they’re also quite serious about those smoked racks of ribs.
This article was featured in the May/June edition of Golf Business magazine.