The A Word

Columns - Outside the Ropes

June 5, 2019

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In our business there’s sure to come a time when an upgrade to the golf course, maintenance facility or something else on your watch becomes necessary. Which means you’ll soon be hearing the “A-word” — assessment. The dreaded A-word causes hackles to rise and chatter to run rampant. And it puts you in the crosshairs as members wonder why you’re putting your hand into their pockets.

Face it: You are. But if your club has come to realize that work is necessary (and, consequently, money needs to be found to pay for it), your job is about to change. Understand that early and get out in front of the project or else your job won’t only change, it could disappear.

Here’s how to turn a pain-in-the-assessment situation into an asset.

First and foremost, remember that you are the expert. You manage the property, you know it best, you are the person most concerned with making sure it’s in tip-top condition. The members get to play the course — expecting it to always be in great shape — but they have no idea how that happens. You do and, without being arrogant, you need to make sure they remember that.

Always know exactly what needs to be done, why, what it should cost, how long it should take, and be able to articulate this information to members whenever they ask. And trust me, they’ll ask.

Their first questions will be about two things — money and ego, which are really the same things: What if we don’t do this? What if we do? Will the grass grow back? What’s in it for me? Can we wait a few more years? Will this make our club better than the one down the street? You get the drift.

While it might seem logical that residents/members should know that an assessment is a responsibility of living in a golf community or belonging to a club, it never ceases to amaze me how much resistance arises whenever there are questions regarding the care, maintenance and improvement of the very amenity that brings them the most enjoyment.

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Mention assessment and older members become even more money-sensitive (“Hey, I’m on a fixed income!”) so it’s harder to make the case to secure the club’s future for the next generation. Younger members will tell you how expensive it is to send Junior to college, or the price of a new Lexus.

I strongly advise not getting into financial discussions with these people. Let other members, especially those on the committees that put the proposal in front of their peers, deal with that. If someone complains to you about the costs, gently suggest they talk to the committees. Remind them your job is to make sure they have the best course possible.

Sad truth? Many members would happily go as long as they can without fixing the problem. They’d rather wait for the roof to cave, the kitchen to catch fire or the irrigation system to flood the property. They think that if they wait long enough, someone else will pay for it.

Again, you don’t want to be in those discussions. So, develop some stock, yet nice, polite, tactful responses. And suggest they talk to someone else.

Depending on the work that needs to be done, anticipate another problem: Members are less annoyed if the assessment is going to something they can see, like the clubhouse, landscaping or bunker sand. Unfortunately for us, it’s the things that members neither see nor fully understand that are often the most expensive and hardest to fix.

Infrastructure isn’t sexy, but irrigation and pumping systems, drainage, cart paths, maintenance facilities and so on are vital to the well-being of the golf course. A clubhouse renovation? That’s a different story, something you can brag about. But even though the sub-surface profile of a green or a new bunker-liner method can really improve their playing experience, it’s going to take them a while to get it. No “artist’s renderings” are going to help. And unless you can honestly say that it’s what they did at Augusta National, don’t say anything.

Also be prepared for the fish-eye from the chef, tennis pro and dining-room manager, all of whom can think of much more important ways to spend the assessment — and for a lot less money, too. What you can say, to anyone who will listen, is that this is what the golf course needs and why. My suggestions:

  • Don’t be arrogant. Do not have the attitude, “This stuff is for me so I can do my job better.”
  • Do be a good advocate for your course. Don’t get into fights but be ready to stand up and explain the why, how, when, where and how much. Your job is to keep their course current, attractive, safe, fun, challenging, and create a reason current members want to stay and new members want to join. The course is a financial asset to them: Make sure they understand its value.
  • Have key information at your fingertips. Do the research and share it.
  • Know the numbers — estimates, budgets, best- and worst-case scenarios. If possible, cite examples from at least two comparable clubs that have done similar projects.
  • Don’t dumb down the project. That could cost you your job. Find the middle ground between too much science and pandering. But if someone wants agronomic details, tell them.
  • Listen for members trying to take shortcuts. Explain that while it will cost X to do the job right, it will cost a lot more to do it over.
  • Be creative. If reconstruction of the greens means six months of closure, piggyback other projects to minimize the disruption.
  • Consider bringing in an outside consultant for an objective view of your situation and to lend support to a master plan.
  • Speaking of a master plan, having one can be a very effective way to identify, justify and itemize the needs of the course. However, it can be harder to convince people to buy into an agronomic master plan because, frankly, it’s boring.
  • Prioritize the course’s needs — and be willing to put off some projects until later. Compromise will help convince committees, members and fellow staff that you understand their concerns.
  • Make your ideas become THEIR ideas so they will spend.
  • You don’t have to win every battle to win the war. Know when to put your ego aside. Consider and recognize other people’s ideas. It’s not just about the golf course, it’s about your job.
  • Capital projects, in particular, should NOT come out of your course operations budget. Big project monies need to be set aside and planned for.

There’s one more important point to remember: It’s not your course, not your community. If, in the end, the members vote against the assessment or it gets so whittled down that you can’t make real improvements, you might need to stop and think. Even though voting thumbs-down on your plan probably isn’t about you, it may be an indication that you can’t work at a place that doesn’t view the course the way you do. I’m not suggesting you go all “pass the assessment or I quit,” but if you’re not going to be happy slapping Band-Aids on water pipes for a few years, it might be time to re-assess.

Since I don’t want to end on a down note, the following should give you some laughs. I asked a few superintendents what members requested to help them feel better while course-improvement projects were underway. If you’ve heard more, please send them along.

  • Suspend club dues for the duration of the renovation.
  • Free car washes to remove the dust and grime caused by the construction work.
  • Rather than pay for everything, bill members “specifically” only for the amenities they use.
  • Just fix the irrigation on the front nine. We’ll think about the back nine!
  • At a 36-hole facility, close nine holes and turn them into horse trails. Seems one member read a newspaper article that said rounds were down.

I’ve sat through many emotional meetings where members debated whether to spend on making their golf course better. Sometimes, the only way I kept myself from banging my head on the table was to remember one of my favorite lines from “Caddyshack.” “Hey Moose, Rocco, help the Judge find his wallet.”

Tim Moraghan, principal, ASPIRE Golf ( Follow Tim’s blog, Golf Course Confidential at or on Twitter @TimMoraghan