Stay or go?

Features - Agronomics

The events of 2020 forced numerous tactical changes. Superintendents discuss the prospects of altered practices extending into 2021.

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November 3, 2020

Golfers are doing a lot of things differently in 2020. So are golf course superintendents. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the creation of new policies and protocols in an effort to do what’s necessary to protect the turf while also keeping golfers and employees safe.

Early on, golfers in many locales became adjusted to being denied access to the clubhouse or golf shop, and having to bring their own supplies, including water, Gatorade and, perhaps, scorecards and pencils. On the course, they became adept at social distancing and accustomed to leaving flagsticks in the cup.

Turf professionals are adjusting to new realties as well, including often finding themselves with smaller crews available to perform necessary maintenance in fewer labor hours while trying to stretch their resources as far as possible in response to a surge in play.

The point to ponder: Will some of today’s new protocols turn out to be anything more than a passing fancy? Or will they be fixtures going forward, particularly if the threat of COVID-19 remains?

Golf Course Industry contacted superintendents for their thoughts on an assortment of turf-related issues and protocols We asked whether these trends would endure going forward; whether they would Stay or Go?

Smaller crews

Some facilities were closed for play this spring because of the pandemic but were permitted to perform routine maintenance tasks, albeit with smaller crews working fewer hours. Will smaller crews be the wave of the future as well as the present?

Bob Farren, the vice president of golf course maintenance at the renowned Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina, believes the do-more-with-less model will be standard operating procedure, at least for now.

“I think it goes without question that labor resources have been reduced at most clubs even though rounds have increased,” he says. “The simple fact is that labor resources are a direct reflection of revenues and it is safe to say revenues compared to prior year will be down at most clubs.”

Charlie Miller is the superintendent at The Springhaven Club in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. The idea of working with a smaller staff over the long term gives him pause.

“I hope smaller crews will not be the standard going forward.” he says. “During shutdown, I had a crew of six total, including me. I currently have 13 total, three of which are part-time. It is not enough. We are solid ‘down the middle’ but struggling to keep up with the outskirt areas.”

Andrew Dooley, who takes care of the turf at Berkshire Country Club in Reading, Pennsylvania, is of the same mindset. “We were down to three staff including me for about three weeks,” he says. “We slowly grew our crew back to normal staffing week by week. With membership demand to play the course and their expectations for the course to be maintained the same as in previous years, we need normal staffing to achieve these expectations.”

Reduced mowing

In recent years, some superintendents have limited mowing in roughs and other out-of-play areas. That practice became more common in the wake of the pandemic. Will it remain going forward?

“While the concept of reduced acreage has been popular for a number of years, I am sure many clubs were faced with reducing the frequency of mowing and trimming out-of-play and cosmetic areas at least for a certain period of time this season,” Farren says. “I would expect to see the return of maintaining these areas for ‘housekeeping’ reasons once expense budgets return to some sense of normalcy.”

Dave Groelle, the superintendent at Royal Melbourne Country Club, a private facility in Long Grove, Illinois, about 35 miles northwest of Chicago, altered his mowing regimen only briefly.

“The only area that was reduced in mowing was the amount of times that we were able to completely mow the rough,” he says. “Due to the high volume of play, we were only able to get around the course about once per week. Prior to COVID-19, we could easily mow all rough twice per week.”

Tyler Bloom, of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, provides consulting services to golf facilities on employment issues and had a successful career as a superintendent. He believes that clubs may well reduce their mowing frequency on a long-term basis. “Golf courses will continue to find ways to cut back, whether that is increased natural areas or limiting the amount of mowings by altering management practices such as fertility, water management, increasing PGRs or general reduction in frequency,” he says.

Chad Taylor has been the superintendent at Cherokee Valley Golf Club, a private facility in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, for 21 years and has worked in the golf industry for 35 years. He adjusted his mowing schedule based on the volume of play the club received.

“In the spring, when the coronavirus started, there were so many people that showed up to play golf,” he says. “Normally, at that time, I would only be mowing my (Bermuda) greens three, maybe four days a week. But there was so much foot traffic. I pretty much started mowing my greens every day just so the mower could help roll down all the foot traffic.”

More time between chemical applications 

With some courses having to reduce staffing and labor hours during the pandemic, some tasks remain undone, or not done as often as is preferable. Which raises the question: Will superintendents increase the intervals between chemical applications?

Jim Nedrow, the director of agronomy at The Club at Indian Creek, a 27-hole upscale public facility in suburban Omaha, Nebraska, says that isn’t an attractive option in his situation.

“We’re a pretty high-volume event course, so our spray intervals are based on a few things, disease pressures, weather forecasts and event schedules,” he says. “We don’t have the ability to make those decisions on anything other than that. We try and stick to our 14- to 17- to 21-day intervals based on what we sprayed and what rates we sprayed and we also have to take into account if the course is busy tomorrow we’re spraying today or vice versa, so I would say we were almost 100 percent unaffected by what was going on.”

Jennifer Torres, the superintendent at Westlake Country Club in Jackson Township, New Jersey, doesn’t see the pandemic affecting her application schedule. “This is weather-based, in my opinion,” she says, “and Mother Nature is not cooperating.”

Dooley has the same sentiments. “We have high standards and expectations, so our plant protectant program remained the same in 2020,” he says. “The only application I wish we had more time for would have been spot spraying for weeds in rough areas.”

Farren notes the necessity of remaining alert to possible disease issues despite the pandemic. “It is important to remain vigilant on disease and weed control to maintain plant health and density,” he says. “One can reduce labor costs for short periods of time without too many long-term consequences. This doesn’t hold true for disease prevention and nutrition programs.”

Removal of on-course accessories

Some facilities have removed items such as water coolers, ball washers and trash cans from their courses. The response from the turf professionals we heard from was generally positive.

“Removal of course accessories has been a valuable time saver,” Miller says. “We currently have no ball washers, only two bottled water stations, no bunker rakes, no divot mix boxes and no benches. Trash cans, unfortunately, are a must-have. The amount of time saved by simply not having to move or remove bunker rakes for mowing, spraying, etc. has been a bigger factor than I could have imagined.”

With his members’ support, Dooley removed virtually all the on-course accessories at Berkshire Country Club. “We obtained committee buy-in on removing and selling mostly all course accessories,” he says. “We have eliminated all benches on par 3s, all 26 ball washers and reduced trash cans from 25 to six. It’s been our best improvement since COVID began. We are still using coolers with bottled water. For the month of May, coolers were not on the course, but that changed once temperatures warmed up and membership requested water to drink on course.”

When the pandemic hit in March, Nedrow and the team at The Club at Indian Creek removed everything from ball washers and bunker rakes to benches and most of the trash cans. “We wanted to remove all touch points,” he says.

But with the approach of summer and the club preparing to host a Korn Ferry Tour event and a major amateur event, Nedrow had to vary his approach. “As we started to get into July and (the Korn Ferry Tour event) and our amateur event, we knew we were going to have to provide a tournament-ready facility, so we started implementing rakes one per bunker and we started rolling out a few other things,” he says. “We still don’t have ball washers on the golf course.”

Farren says when ball washers were removed at Pinehurst there was little, if any, reaction. “We once had ball washers on every tee,” he says, “and seldom did I see anyone use them. We have had very few comments regarding when they might return. I feel all facilities will be re-prioritizing amenities and will use resources to install benches and water/hydration stations in response to the increase in walkers.”

Limited bunker maintenance (including no bunker rakes on the course)

Over the course of the season, golfers have become accustomed to doing without bunker rakes and smoothing the sand with their feet. Groelle says that trend has been popular with his members.

“Players enjoy the benefit that this change has created for the overall pace of play,” he adds, “and they enjoy the local rule of a free drop in the bunker. More importantly, there are no rakes obstructing the team’s daily maintenance routines.”

Nedrow doesn’t believe the condition of The Club at Indian Creek’s bunkers have suffered due to an absence of rakes. “I don’t know that the bunkers are maintained any better with rakes than they were without rakes, to be honest, apart from a tournament setting,” he says. “From a daily-fee standpoint, bunker rakes will probably not be missed.”

Farren had concerns when bunker rakes were removed at Pinehurst, but the impact has been less detrimental than he anticipated. “We still have not put the rakes back out, though we are likely spending close to the same number of labor hours maintaining bunkers,” he says. “We’ve had very few, if any, complaints.” Farren believes complaints have been minimal in part because serious golfers understand the circumstances.

Circumstances vary, of course, from one facility to another. “We have done less bunker maintenance recently due to renovation,” says Westlake Country Club’s Torres. “Unlike many courses in New Jersey, we have not returned rakes to our bunkers as it is a 55-and-up community and our golfers see (rakes) as a risk.”

Taylor removed rakes from bunkers at Cherokee Valley for about six months earlier this year before he was asked to return them in early October. Taylor would have been content to do without the rakes, but he says members are doing their part to maintain quality conditions. “My members are really good about maintaining the bunkers, raking the bunkers and providing a good condition for the person behind them,” he adds.