Let’s treat ourselves to a little optimism

Good vibes in Wisconsin might foreshadow positive national trends.

October 16, 2014

Monroe Miller

Whenever I think about the changes – some say decline – in golf since I retired in 2008, I’m flushed with gratitude that I worked the 40 years previous.

It was a time of unprecedented growth. Golf clubs were full and had waiting lists. Daily fee and public courses were making money and, for a time, we were determined to build one new golf course each day in America. Our course hired an architect and he designed a significant project for us nearly every year, just like lots of other golf facilities. We hired 25 employees, mowed fairways seven days a week with triplex greensmowers (and collected the clippings), and started mowing greens and tees with walkers. Every year brought something new and exciting.

Then the crash came and with it came downsizing in every imaginable way in golf. There was a lot of misery that has been well-documented, and most of it continues today. It is related to the lousy economy we’ve had the past half-dozen years. I’ve seen it in my travels around Wisconsin, visiting not only golf courses, but sod producers, lawn care and landscape management companies, and sports turf operations. Our literature has been focused on it, the consultants have documented it and those of us in the field know it.

But I think I see signs of an improving economy. These may not be based on statistics, science or research. Sometimes, however, instinct and a well-developed clairvoyance can lead to conclusions that are accurate. Here are a few of the things leading to my optimistic hunch that we have stabilized or are even improving:

  • New books. Cheryl and I were visiting Geoffrey Cornish in his home at Fiddlers’ Green, Mass., a couple of years after I retired. He said the golf book market had completely tanked, a sure sign of the tough days facing golf. Well, some terrific books have recently hit the bookstores. Witness:

1. “A Difficult Par” by James R. Hansen. Hansen, a history professor at Auburn University, is a well-recognized expert on the history of golf architecture, has written a very extensive yet readable biography of Robert Trent Jones. It’s almost 500 pages, and I was up late several nights this summer reading it. It’s a great book; Geoff would have loved it.

2. “Turfgrass History and Literature: Golf, Lawn and Sports” by James B. and Harriet J. Beard. I had the privilege to read the manuscript before it was published, and only one person could have written this magnum opus – Dr. Jim Beard. I would recommend every superintendent’s office have a copy on the bookshelf. It is interesting and invaluable. It was just released from Michigan State University Press.

3. “His Ownself” by Dan Jenkins. Jenkins is one of our best sports writers, and I think his best writing went into golf. This book is pure entertainment. He has written a number of golf novels and I have read all of them also. This is a combo autobiography/memoir, and it is a funny book.

4. “Wide Open Fairways” by Brad Klein. Many of us know the author. Like his previous books, this one is very comfortable reading. I recommend it highly.

5. “Turfgrass: Biology, Use and Management” from the American Society of Agronomy. This monograph is the ASA’s latest on turf. Chapters are written by well-recognized experts/faculty in our profession. It is another “must have” book for your professional bookshelf.

  • Membership levels in our professional organizations seem to have stabilized and even increased in a few.
  • Attendance at our events – monthly meetings, educational conferences and field days – has also stabilized.
  • Golf has found some new and exciting heroes to replace Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler immediately come to mind.
  • Some courses – definitely not all – are experiencing increased membership and more play.
  • Imprelis had huge negatives, but the settlements have come in time to help quite a few courses that were in trouble, more than I would have guessed.
  • In our state, we have even started a new endowment fund at the University of Wisconsin Foundation devoted to turfgrass research. For us, that is a very positive sign.
  • Salesmen report some of the old turf and irrigation equipment is being upgraded and replaced.
  • I have noticed there is a distinct upswing in golf course remodeling projects. Many are modest and inexpensive, but the famed SENTRYWORLD has undergone a major facelift by RTJ Jr.
  • There is considerable excitement in our state centered on some new golf course construction projects. The Kohler Co. is working through the planning and permitting process to build a fifth golf course. This one will be located south of Sheboygan along the Lake Michigan shore on 250 acres Kohler already owns. Up in the central sands region of Wisconsin, on property that was the bottom of old Glacial Lake Wisconsin about 10,000 years ago, construction has already started on 2,000 acres of sand and sand dunes. Golf course developer Mike Keiser (of Bandon Dues fame) hired Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to design the first course. There could be more golf courses there, maybe up to half-dozen 18-holers.
  • The USGA created a lot of interest in golf this year by hosting back-to-back U.S. Opens – men and women – at the famed Pinehurst No. 2. To top it off, the redesigned course showed the public that our fields of play can indeed be challenging even if they have the look of golf courses 75 years ago. Three cheers!
  • We are lucky in our state that we will host the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills and the 2020 Ryder Cup, also at Whistling Straits. That kind of interest can only create optimism in the golf industry, and that includes superintendents.

It is too hard being depressed all the time, worrying about our futures in golf. That is why I proposed superintendents work on a Plan B – to relieve some of that stress.

But it is also important to look on the bright side, finding a half-full glass instead of a half-empty one. I believe that no matter where you work there will always be concerns about rounds played, variable weather and other entertainment opportunities for families.

A closer look, maybe a more objective view, can also expose some good reason for optimism, just like we have found in Wisconsin.


Monroe Miller retired after 36 years as superintendent at Blackhawk CC in Madison, Wis. He is a recipient of the 2004 USGA Green Section Award, the 2009 GCSAA Col. John Morley DSA Award,  and is the only superintendent in the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame. Reach him at groots@charter.net.