With a round-by-round return to a semblance of national normalcy, the turn of the scorecard to 2021 is finding the golf world readying for an influx of on-course events.
Coupled with the rapid rise of playing popularity for golfers both nascent and returning, the fresh calendar looks to bring a sweet slew of championship and charity tournaments to golf properties in many pockets of the country.
After nearly a year of lost events, a refresh of course setup details overt and nuanced alike dots the tee sheet, along with a checklist of reminders for knowing one’s audience for the day.
“Planning, scheduling and knowing your clientele is all so important,” says Billy Lewis, superintendent at the Dormie Club in West End, North Carolina. “And communication with the golf staff about expectations is also a big factor.”
For charity events, the tenets of a fun, fast and fondly recalled day need to be on the leaderboard for both the golf staff and the agronomy team.
“Hosting charity events, it sounds like obvious stuff, but it all needs to be taken into account,” says Todd Jenkins, PGA, vice president of Tennessee-based Better Billy Bunker and the former head pro at Old Hickory Country Club in suburban Nashville. “Simplified hole locations, center of the green and shorter rough cuts; and while there are a lot of courses which pride themselves on ‘tournament speed’ greens, the charity day is time to slow them down just a bit. Utilizing different tees and moving them forward a little also helps create more enjoyment for the participants.”
Ensuring a swift pace equates to a pleasing day.
“A lot of times you’ll have a full field, so you need to get people around the golf course in a timely way,” Jenkins says. “So tucking every hole location or having 5-inch primary rough — that doesn’t equate to getting people around quickly, and really isn’t all that much fun for those players.”
Whether event hosts are public, semi-private or on the high end of the club spectrum, preparation proves near uniform for charity event setup.
“We won’t roll as much, and target a good, medium green speed,” Lewis says. “We want guests to be challenged, sure, but we really want them to enjoy the property; things like making pins more puttable and setting up some fun pins as we’ve got a couple places where players can spin a ball off a mound and hit a ‘television shot.’ And we also want a good visual event and presentation, even something like putting some flowers up on a couple tees for a ladies’ event.”
For superintendents who have ample experience on both sides of the ropes, empathy translates to an onus on enjoyment.
“I go for playability and don’t try to go too crazy,” says Steve Gilley, superintendent at Panorama Golf Club in The Woodlands, Texas and a veteran of 13 years in pro golf, including 15 Korn Ferry Tour events. “We want to present the course as well as we can, so I’ll move up some tees, maybe not roll the greens that day and have pins set in the center.
“Golf is a hard game. People struggle with it enough. As both a super and somebody who has played at a high level, I don’t personally mind a difficult setup, but I also recognize that the average player just wants to have some fun, enjoy some camaraderie and meet some good people.”
Course operators and superintendents also need to pay heed to the axiom that first impressions often prove the most memorable.
“As a semi-private course, we might have people out here who have never played our course before,” says Gilley, winner of the 2019 GCSAA championship. “Golf is so much about word of mouth. We want people to come back. I want them to walk away thinking, ‘Hey, that was a really nice place. Maybe I’ll think about joining.’ The more people we can have out here playing, the better it is for our business.”
Jenkins concurs: “It’s so key to remember that, for the visiting group, it may be their most important day of the year. You have to provide them with a high-quality product, and that goes for both the golf and agronomy side. If you’re a private club, a charity outing may be the only time that some people ever get to play your facility. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.”
Segueing to competitive events — whether it be a club championship, PGA section tournament, USGA qualifier or professional contest — invites a graduated mindset for setup, along with ample advance prep.
“For PGA section events, for example, those entities will come out beforehand, and they’re certainly looking to present a challenge and want the greens really rolling,” Lewis says. “So we’ll start topdressing, rolling and grooming a week or so out, we’ll drop the groomers down, cut off some of the vertical leaves and potentially target a growth regulator application. And we need the pin sheets a little bit ahead of time, a week or 10 days prior, so we limit where we put the previous cups.”
Communication from pro shop to maintenance staff to an organizing tournament body all represent best practices for championships.
“Lead-up is really important, and we’ll start prepping in advance a week or two out, dialing in from an agronomic standpoint, and the setup is also in conjunction with who is running the tournament,” Gilley says. “That could be adjusting some tee placements, lowering the height of cut on fairways and also letting the rough grow a bit more. I don’t change rough lines, as I don’t have the resources for that, but we can grow the rough up a bit more. And then getting greens as fast as we can without getting ridiculous to the point where it’s unfair, especially because we already have quite a bit of slope in our greens.”
A balanced setup mindset often leads to a worthy winner.
“You want your champion to be deserving, to win a tough test,” Jenkins says. “At the same time, you can’t let it go to the extreme, especially with questionable hole locations or green speeds which get out of hand. ‘Tough but fair’ is a good philosophy for those events. You don’t want to lose the course.”
For Gilley, an appreciation for the backdrop of stellar setup came via his days with club in hand.
“Back when I was playing, I took (course setup) all for granted, and I think most guys do,” he says. “Some know all that goes into putting on a tournament, but many are pretty naïve to all that and are very focused on playing.”
There’s no substitute for putting oneself in another man’s spikes for a day.
“But toward the end of my career, I started to think about what I wanted to do next and I started taking notice of these things, and that those observations would serve me well, be beneficial for what I do now,” Gilley says. “And that’s been invaluable. I know what tournament conditions should look like, though whether I can always get ’em there is another thing, as that does take resources, manpower —and weather is also a factor.”
Amid golf’s uptick in participation and national rise in rounds, a slew of new events both fun and fervent brings a coalescence of opportunity and pressure.
“It’s a bit of both,” Lewis says. “Any time you’re taking care of a property and given all the resources to do it, the expectation is to provide that enhanced experience which members and guests are expecting. You certainly have to have a plan. The fertilization program needs to be stronger, your draining has to be better. It’s all the details.”
From daily-fee courses to private clubs, 2021 may well prove to be an historic “meet the moment” year for courses across the golf spectrum. Ensuring success via proper setups will require a true mind-meld for those who handle the grass to those they call the brass.
“In fact, we just had a meeting about this: Talking with the staff about what the members are paying and what they’re paying for,” Lewis says. “A lot of times, your staff may not know exactly what a round costs at a high-end club, so they need to understand why expectations are high. And everybody needs to buy into that.”