Turfgrass expert Eamon Kealy describes the ever changing role of the modern golf course superintendent and sets out a number of strategies for how they can innovate around cutbacks. The last six years have been difficult times for the golf course industry in Ireland. Many golf courses have seen membership levels drop. Increased competition has driven down green fee rates and casual green fee numbers have declined. The levels of expectations from existing members remain high and more is expected from every member of the greenkeeping team. Many members have lost their jobs or have dramatically reduced incomes. Put simply, members have found it hard prioritising their golf club membership over other expenditures. Golf course staff have endured pay cuts also which has lowered morale and contributed to a sense of disengagement. In some cases golf courses have been taken over by management companies and change has been enforced upon the golf course operations team.
The profile of the average golf club member is rising. According to the GUI’s and ILGU’s club surveys from 2008, the average age for a male member is 49 and 55 for female members. They reveal a lost generation of 25 to 44 year olds who casually play golf but are not full members of golf clubs. Since the survey in 2008 not much has improved. Clubs like Beech Park in Rathcoole, Dublin have addressed the issue offering young adults reduced membership packages. This can be seen as an attempt to entice younger golfers to stay members after their juvenile membership expires. More clubs need to attract young adults to grow overall membership rates. Giving discounted membership for the short term can only increase the member’s chance of staying with the club in the future.
The current state of the industry is hard to gauge. City courses are still fi nancially viable and attracting new members. Links courses have showed strong green fee numbers throughout the recession with good levels of foreign visitors. Clubs that invested heavily in large club houses during the boom are burdened with debt and have struggled to attract new members and new capital. Overall things are slowly picking up but there is still pressure on superintendents to do more with fewer resources.
THE ROLE OF THE MODERN SUPERINTENDENT
Superintendents are now more than ever required to be more than just the keeper of the greens. Their role is more diverse than ever before; they are now required to engage with committees, be expert human resource managers, communicate with members, manage compliance and deliver cost savings on a daily basis.
Superintendents should be aware of the key skill sets that they have in their existing golf course operations team and look to engage each member of staff in a particular area of interest or knowledge. Greenkeeping staff usually come from varying backgrounds, for example agriculture or engineering. These areas of expertise can and should be capitalised upon to deliver efficiencies in the way the course is maintained. Capitalising on this could be as simple as allowing sta¤ to be more involved in di¤ erent projects on the golf course. For example, allowing staff to accompany the course agronomist during visits, sampling wildlife for surveys, planning course upgrades or putting staff in charge of nutritional programmes or contributing to policy documents. Staff members who are content work harder and the benefits will be seen in all areas of their work. Creating a sense of ownership of the golf course will increase staff morale and deliver cost savings in the long run. The superintendent can set an example and lead the way for other staff to follow. All course managers will agree if income is down, expenditure must drop accordingly. Financial reward for staff members may be restricted in the short term but fostering a sense of learning will reap its rewards.
GETTING YOUR MESSAGE ACROSS
Golf course superintendents and greenkeepers can be guilty of not informing the members of the important work that they perform on the golf course. Most superintendents let the quality of their playing surfaces do the talking for them. This can sometimes be enough but when cutbacks are being proposed or even enforced, more may be required. Communication is key to relaying the work that is being done on an ongoing basis on the golf course.
International superintendents have taken to blogging about their turf practices to keep members and visitors up to date. http://gcmbloggingworld.blogspot.com is an excellent collection of blogs from championship, public and private golf courses around the world. The blogs are updated regularly, contain images of ongoing and completed work and are designed to be read easily by members and turf professionals alike.
The benefits of blogging for the superintendent are numerous. Members follow the course’s progression throughout the season, the Augusta syndrome is prevented (why are our greens not as fast as Augusta’s?), golfers are well warned in advance of any major work (and the reasons for such work) and the potential for conflict can be reduced. The superintendent can use the blog as a type of online turf management diary; year on year the diary is updated and management practices can be altered based on feedback and conditions. Through sharing of knowledge and learning from other superintendent’s blogs, the potential to develop is huge. The blog should be used in conjunction with the golf clubs website. This should not be restricted to a member’s only area and all visiting golfers should have access to view it also. Potentially turfgrass maintenance blogs could attract new younger members who are tech savvy in the future.
The recent storms could be viewed as an example of how blogging could increase the awareness of staff challenges. The flexibility of the staff and diverse skill set could be highlighted to show how essential a good greenkeeping team can be to the successful running of a club. Nature often provides us with the most challenging conditions and superintendents can raise awareness of how these can be overcome.
Every golf course is different; each superintendent has his own ways of doing things. With personnel cutbacks and limited resources, this can bring challenges in how the course is managed and maintained. Greenkeepers are constantly innovating and developing more efficient ways to carry out the routine practices. Spending hours enduring repetitive tasks often concentrates the mind. Many courses have utilised the skills of staff members, especially the golf course mechanic, to speed up routine tasks and thus save time and money.
For example, Barry Drennan is a former greenkeeper and owner of Reeltech Ltd, who supply and rent golf course equipment to courses throughout Leinster. He was inundated with greenkeepers looking for a pedestrian disc seeder but couldn’t find one on the market. His solution was to adapt an old John Deere pedestrian aerator and attach a disc seeder to this. The combination has proved a success with many clubs renting it on a repeat basis. Such innovation should be promoted with the golf course staff , rewarded where possible and highlighted to committee members in reports and during meetings. Another example of utilising staff to their full potential can be seen at The Royal Dublin Golf Club. Paddy Teeling, the golf course superintendent, engaged the golf course mechanic to alter the ride on greens mowers to tow small trailers which can be used to collect the grass clipping from the greens. Paddy added custom towbars to a number of the older machines to save time and increase the speed of completing routine tasks.
The unique layout of the course required an innovative solution to speed up maintenance tasks. Trailers for towing slower machines like HydroJects were also constructed in-house. I would strongly recommend that superintendents promote membership of the International Golf Course Equipment Managers Association (IGCEMA) to their golf course mechanics or staff in charge of machinery maintenance. IGCEMA promotes equipment managers education, training and innovation. Many other time and labour saving innovations are shared through the association. Your golf course might just find something that solves a problem or two.
PUTTING THE PLANS IN PLACE
Superintendents can be more proactive in showcasing the work they do. A bone of contention with members can often be the winter period. As grass growth slows down inevitably members start asking what work is being done on the course if the grass isn’t being cut? The importance of a winter programme cannot be underestimated. The superintendent should produce a proposal and proactively bring it to the committee. It should clearly lay out the planned works for the winter period. Costings for individual works and the potential savings for carrying out the work in-house should be highlighted. Tasks such as adding sprinklers to ladies tees, upgrading pathways, draining bunkers and leveling tee boxes can be suggested. Well-structured and designed maintenance programmes that address known issues on the course have a good chance of being accepted.
Such programmes raise awareness of staff activities throughout the year and will potentially ease any frustrations of hard pressed members. Overall, remember that you are the golf course expert. Don’t be afraid to highlight the work you do. Show where cuts have already been made and propose savings where possible. If you don’t propose cuts, they may be imposed on you. The superintendent is in the best position to make informed decisions regarding cutbacks. Justify your spending, show that the greenkeeping team is good value for money, innovate where possible and involve your staff in decision making. Never presume you know what they require in the future.
TOP SIX CREATIVE ACTIONS
● Involve staff in decision making
● Create an environment that rewards innovation
● Be proactive. Highlight your work and Blog to get your message across
● Share your knowledge with your staff
● Don’t be afraid to propose new ideas to committees
● Prepare a maintenance document that lists all the work you do
EAMON KEALY M.Hort. Sc is a lecturer in horticulture, specialising in sportsturf management at the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown. ITB o¤ ers part-time and full-time courses in Horticulture. For more information see www.itb.ie or email email@example.com.