What words come to mind when trying to recap the year that was 2020?
Chaotic. Frightening. Challenging. Uncharted. Bizarre. Isolated. Dividing. Uncertain. Successful.
Successful? This one seems out of place, right? I agree. But when considering the year from the viewpoint of golf courses in North America, 2020 was, more often than not, a banner year.
Calling 2020 a successful year at any level seems strange. Seems almost like something you don’t want to draw attention to. Surviving in a year like this, and even thriving — when so many businesses and industries have not — does temper one’s excitement.
For those of in charge of managing golf courses, 2020 was, for so many reasons, as strange a year as you can possibly imagine. The year started out rather normally, then, as we all know, turned upside-down a few months in. For many of us, including the golf course in western Washington where I am the superintendent, this meant a complete shutdown of play and a very uncertain future. It meant managing a golf course with no players — and with no idea when they were coming back.
And then they did come back — and boy did they! I’m writing this on the second-to-last day of 2020 and our golf course is still packed. It has been since we reopened in the spring. Golf experienced a resurgence during a year when very few industries did. But I think it’s OK to view this without guilt. Golf courses have provided a much-needed respite for many. Being on a golf course in 2020 was an escape from the brutal reality of the global pandemic. Golf suddenly became a fairly safe haven, a place to put stress and worries away for at least a few hours.
When looking back on the challenges that I encountered in 2020 as a superintendent, I’d have to start with that period back in early spring when the golf course got completely shut down for a few weeks.
Although always a secret wish of mine to manage a golf course with no golfers, when it actually happened it was strange and surreal, and the novelty of it wore off rather quickly.
There were obvious advantages for many of our typical management practices. We quickly became acutely aware of the limitations that normal play with a crowded golf course puts on the maintenance operation. Mowers cut down their mow time considerably, especially fairway mowers. The sprayer could go out anytime, anywhere, no longer limited to the constraints of tee times and a golf course full of golfers. Reentry times went out the window. Light topdressing of the greens, normally a logistical nightmare, became a breeze.
Managing greens with no play became an interesting endeavor. Although for us the empty golf course lasted only a few weeks, even with that period of time it was tricky not to keep the greens too lean and too healthy. The question of rolling frequency, tied in with mowing heights and mowing frequency became an interesting conundrum. How quick do you need greens when no one is putting on them? Maintaining firmness, in my mind, became critical. If they got too lean and too healthy, no doubt it would be difficult to bring them back to the level we would need them when golf returned. Thus, we ended up managing them similarly to how we normally do. If anything, we were able to keep them even more pristine and playable; topdressing, rolling and spraying whenever we wanted. Although we weren’t quite in our irrigation season yet, watering too would have been a snap to add into the cultural management mix had we needed it.
When golf returned, it returned in full force. At my course, we just missed setting a record for rounds played in a year (the course has been open since 1991 and only the 1998 saw more rounds played). The transition from an empty course to an extraordinarily full one was stressful and demanding. We went from having all the time in the world for our maintenance to having less time than anyone could ever remember.
2020 budgets went out the window. No golf to more golf than ever — how does one allocate money for this? Obviously, labor was the most testing. Laying off most of the crew in March and April and then needing more labor than ever from May through the end of the year was a new challenge for most superintendents.
Because of COVID-19, there was a large labor pool to draw from, so securing seasonal labor was at least one thing that was fairly easy for many golf courses. Training workers who had never worked on a course became a vital component to successful 2020 course maintenance.
Superintendents have perhaps never relied so heavily on their assistants as they did during this most unusual of all years. Having a reliable, trustworthy assistant was vital. Not only with the training, but just having someone to bounce ideas off for situations that , frankly, we’ve never really had to consider before.
So what will 2021 bring? Predicting the future is not something anyone can really do with any sense of certainty. The one thing that is safe to say is that 2020 — and what we all went though — can only make us stronger and better going forward.
Ron Furlong is the superintendent at Avalon Golf Links in Burlington, Washington, and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.