The numbers don’t lie. The silver lining to this darn worldwide pandemic — which is closing in on its two-year anniversary — at least as far as the game of golf is concerned, has been the historic boost of play most courses have experienced. Play has been up, revenue has been up, and the game of golf is thriving.
But what has this boom meant for superintendents — and specifically the ability to maintain their golf courses with so much play?
At the golf course I work at in western Washington, Avalon Golf Links, 2020 was one of the more profitable years the 27-hole daily fee course has ever had. And how has 2021 fared? Even better. Perhaps when it’s all said and done, the best year ever.
However, record rounds played don’t come without a price. Obviously, I know some of the problems so much play has meant for me personally, but I thought I’d reach out to a few other superintendents, to see if they are experiencing some of the same issues, or even maybe some different ones of their own.
One person I reached out to was a past assistant of mine, Mike Votipka, who is now the superintendent at Lake Padden Golf Course in Bellingham, Washington. The biggest thing Mike has noticed as far as detrimental effects from the pandemic has been the timing of maintenance. It’s the new challenge of getting things done with so many golfers out there. “Our staff has had to start at least 90 minutes ahead of the first tee time each day to get more done than in the past,” he says.
This is something I’ve had to do at Avalon as well: start earlier (usually in the dark) and try to get as much done as possible ahead of play. Although this has always been the maintenance philosophy of golf courses, it’s never been more important than it is now with so much play. Staffing up with more crew members in the early hours has been crucial.
Mike mentioned that evening maintenance was also something he had to do at times this past summer. “On several occasions, staff members came in after the last tee time for maintenance behind play — especially something we would do before next day tournaments,” he says.
Andy Jorgensen is the CGCS director of golf maintenance operations at On Top of the World Communities and Related Entities in Ocala, Florida. Traffic-related issues are the biggest problem stemming from increased play Andy has noticed. “The winter of 2020-21 was really hard for us,” he says. “We got hit with a triple threat: single-rider golf carts, increased rounds and colder than normal temperatures. Traffic really became an issue in several spots.
“Due to product shortages, we resorted to making our own rope stakes. These issues highlighted the need for cart path installation and increased aerification. To recover, additional fertility was applied and aerification ramped up.”
Even in North Dakota, which has seen few restrictions during the pandemic, Chris Strange has noted a significant uptick in play at Minot Country Club, where he is the superintendent.
“We have definitely been busier since the pandemic,” he says, “and our membership has grown significantly. As well, the tournament schedule in 2021 was much fuller than 2020, as charities and organizations came back to the course. Par 3 traffic for divots and ball marks has significantly increased, and my short gap wedge par 3 requires extra fertilizer to keep up with the beating it has been taking.”
I agree with Chris about divots on par-3 tees, especially tees that are perhaps slightly underbuilt on shorter par 3s. Keeping grass on small tees with excessive play has become one of the great challenges for us at Avalon. One thing we’ve found that helps is putting different colored markers together at the same distance on the par-3 tees a few days each week, so less area on the tee is destroyed daily. Moving markers off their regular tees occasionally to give those tees some time to come back has been beneficial.
Chris has also noticed the now-common problem among many superintendents that finding the time to perform daily maintenance duties, specifically mowing, has become a greater challenge.
“With the new members, the course is generally busier at all times of the day,” Chris says. “Where we used to have some slow midweek mornings when we could mow the entire course, we have had to adjust to mowing less acreage per day.”
Chris has noticed the same traffic problem many others are encountering as well. “Cart traffic combined with design that funnels that traffic to small areas has been a challenge,” he says. “We’ve had to sacrifice areas and resod at the end of the season.”
Chris also brought up an interesting point I hadn’t considered much, but one that I think deserves some thought. “I’m not sure if it’s because of the pandemic, but we now have a large number of golfers that prefer to play alone,” he says. “The singles that like to rip around the course in two hours are always keeping us on our toes. And after you let a few of those golfers play through your morning maintenance, it really impacts the amount of work you can get done before normal play catches you.”
Tim Kennelly is the superintendent at Baltimore Country Club in Maryland. He has also seen a huge spike in play since the onset of COVID-19. He also points to cart traffic as the single biggest issue for him related to increased play.
“This was especially true in 2020 with single-rider mandates,” Tim says. “Last summer, in our location in the Transition Zone, we were hot and wet, and this meant cart restrictions numerous days a week — not so much due to excessive soil moisture, but high-traffic volume.”
Like other superintendents, Tim has found the small tee design at the 36-hole Baltimore Country Club to be rather problematic.
“With players playing it forward more and more, our tees are simply too small for the traffic we have seen during the pandemic,” he says. “Our solution, on our West Course, we have begun re-grassing with improved varieties of Bermudagrass, and this has been well-received. And on our East Course, a plan has been developed by golf architect Keith Foster to enlarge, expand and in some cases reposition tees to meet the short- and long-term needs of the membership. Forward tees have also been built in a few select locations.”
Generally, the most common problems with increased play seem to be cart traffic, tee wear, and mowing and maintenance gaps. I think one thing many of us have noticed in managing our courses through this high-volume period has been how some design flaws have been exposed or are becoming outdated.
Small tees, poorly routed traffic areas, and even poorly spaced irrigation have been an issue for many with increased compaction and traffic. Record rounds have made many superintendents launch renovation projects, or at least to consider renovation for certain areas or aspects on their course.
Although superintendents may be frustrated at times with so many people on the golf course, we should all be embracing this boom, no matter the cause. Tim puts it best: “Golf has certainly been enjoyed by all, especially those entering the game.”
Perhaps the best thing superintendents and their crews can do to welcome (and retain) these new players to the game is to find solutions to these new complications and issues that have cropped up due to heavy play and keep providing the best courses we possibly can.