Many lessons have been learned since the 2008 crash, and now we’re back on the road as the effects of COVID-19 have canceled trips and other sources of income. The superintendents have again demonstrated their leadership skills by preparing various operating budgets for maintenance and creating scenarios of conditioning standards that their employers should consider. Without a plan of its own, everything is reminiscent of the Fram oil filter TV commercial: “You can pay me now or later” mentality of cutting operating budgets now and catching up later.
The weekly electronic communication via email blasts and social media taking into account golf course conditions and golf expectations is being carried out successfully. Adjusting the balance between “looking good and playing well” is discussed as well as “delayed maintenance” and its short and long term goals, objectives and consequences.
Much more golf courses will be used this summer. The members’ game is over, more families are playing together and a new generation of golfers is emerging. But lost revenue from fewer guest fees at the private club level and canceled events at facilities at all levels are cause for concern. The workforce in maintenance has been reduced, the future H2B programs are on shaky ground, salaries are being cut, the replacement of maintenance equipment or the purchase of new equipment are being reviewed, the inventories and purchases of chemicals and fertilizers are being analyzed further and strategies for improving course prices are being analyzed will be considered for further follow-up.
After the COVID-19 outbreak widened and the consequences for lost revenue developed, course officials sometimes stepped in and reduced the maintenance budget without consulting or allowing the superintendents to state their claims. Enthusiastic superintendents, however, were ahead of the curve by being fully prepared for this year and beyond.
“Superintendents have to think differently than ever before,” says Armen Suny, a search and advisory manager at Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace. “Progressive superintendents got out before the pandemic and prepared three different operating budget options and presented them to course officials – bare bones, keeping the budget roughly the same and somewhere in between. The superintendents also explained the agronomy and conditioning expectations of the course to steer the course in the right direction so golfers knew exactly what they were getting.
“A fourth maintenance budget was also put in place to get things going again, combined with increasing revenues later when things settle down. Fortunately, the superintendents have well-documented operating budget statements and other backup data from past years to create realistic, presentable budgets.
“This year is not as bad as it was during the 2008 crash,” Suny added. “Course officials must fully accept agreed operating budgets and course conditioning expectations. Popular are zero-based operating budgets, where the superintendent starts from zero and builds on the exact operating costs required based on the established maintenance conditioning standards. As soon as properly budgeted prices are back on the “new normal” economically, they will not be too far behind to be on the right track. “
Three-, four-, and five-year equipment leases that fully replace frequently operated maintenance equipment will be reviewed to potentially extend / renegotiate the term by one year prior to replacement. Golf cart partitions, in which a transparent shower curtain or plexiglass partition is placed between golfers on a two-person cart, are used to reduce the much heavier golf cart traffic on the lawn by single drivers. This idea is also used quite successfully in lawn vehicles. Increased control of golf cart traffic using ropes, stakes, or barriers will help increase the stress on the turf. Larger, wider rough mowers are purchased / operated for faster production while the roughs are still being mowed.
Chemicals and fertilizers
Whenever possible, superintendents distribute chemical application intervals in order to get “bigger return for the money”. Negotiating and paying for chemicals and fertilizers during a shorter period of time during the golf season, when there is sufficient cash flow and there is no need to pay in the off-season, is becoming increasingly popular. Another option is to add up the annual costs and then make 12 equal monthly payments to improve cash flow in the warm season or in the climates of the transition zone.
Unlike maintenance equipment, which must be obtained from local distributors, chemicals and fertilizers can be obtained from non-government suppliers. Canned shipping can and does result in cost savings and equally good customer service when you are looking for the best deal. Due to the pandemic and short-term cash flow concerns, some superintendents hold products for two to three months to prepare for weather and other uncertainties. PGRs are used and fertilization is reduced as needed to shorten mowing intervals and reduce rough mowing.
About 50 to 70 percent of the maintenance operations budget is typically spent on labor, payroll taxes, and benefits. In some institutions, vacation days, layoffs and cuts, as well as wage and salary cuts have been implemented. Staggered work schedules provide adequate social distancing for better production outside of golfers’ peak hours.
Using existing labor more efficiently by temporarily using triplex green mowers instead of hand mowing, solidifying with fixed tines instead of core ventilation, increasing mowing heights, raking bunkers less often, and using mowing instructions that get the fastest results are common 2020 practices. Slightly higher mowing heights, less frequent mowing, slightly slower greens and bunkers without golf rakes are temporarily the norm.
New work solutions and pipelines are being developed. Tyler Bloom, an employee and leadership consultant at TBloom, LLC, is becoming increasingly popular in establishing self-sustaining employee recruitment by converting his golf course brands to attract and retain good candidates by enhancing workplace culture and other team building strategies. Bloom has done an excellent job as superintendent in recruiting and training interns for short and long term success.
Utah has a prison that trains maintenance workers in golf course release programs. The prison will bus the employees every morning and bring them back at the end of each working day. These first-time offenders are fortunate to have a layoff program that will benefit their return to society and it will allow the golf courses to be supplied with seasonal staff. This unique idea can and should be taken into account in other states.
Weather permitting, Suny mentioned that some proactive superintendents notify their employers of an operating budget surplus that can be submitted and used by other departments. Conversely, if there is a bad weather year and the superintendent is over budget, employers will remember their management skills and goodwill gestures and approve the additional funds.
The U.S. Small Business Administration’s paycheck protection program has also helped courses deal with lost earnings by keeping employees on the job.
Renovations and restorations have been very popular since the 2008 economic crash. Architects, superintendents and agronomists have worked together to assess and improve the life expectancy of the course infrastructure. This work can and should be continued in order for the courses to be fully prepared for the post-pandemic market.
Terry Buchen CGCS, MG, is a leading industry consultant and technical writer for the golf course industry.