Hey, the turf looks great

Features - agronomy

Course closures, determined workers and, yes, the weather all contributed to a surprisingly strong year for playing conditions.

February 2, 2021

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A strange thing happened out on so many golf courses last year. As rounds increased month after month after month, as golfers new and lapsed and forever dedicated flocked for tee times — and as all those golfers zoomed around on more carts than ever before — the star of the show looked incredible.

More golfers and more carts should have sparked more problems for golf course superintendents, but respondents to our annual State of the Industry survey indicated the opposite. Chalk it up as another surprise during an historic year filled with them.

Among the 318 turf professionals who completed our survey, 49 percent said their course conditions were better in 2020 than in 2019, and another 36 percent said conditions were the same. And there was little variation from one region or course classification to another: From the Golden State to the Green Mountain State, from the Goober State out to the Gateway to the West, the turf was healthier than it has been in years — and maybe decades.

According to the results of our survey — for which we partnered with Signet Research, an independent research company, and which has a confidence level of 95 percent —52 percent of superintendents at private facilities and 46 percent at non-private facilities cited improved conditions. So did 54 percent of superintendents in the Central, 53 percent in the Southeast and 46 percent in the West. The only region that seemed to struggle was the Northeast, where 33 percent said course conditions improved in 2020. Only 16 percent of respondents said course conditions were worse during what sure seemed like the longest year.

Reasons range from course to course, but trends emerged in both scientific survey results and more anecdotal conversations with superintendents.

Course closures, either full or partial, certainly helped, though even courses that remained open throughout the pandemic said their conditions improved last year. Crew members riding alone and almost always working in bubbles helped, too. And then there’s the weather, the ultimate wild card and a fickle forecaster for professional failure or success.

Consider Big Canoe, a 27-hole course in Jasper, Georgia, about an hour north of Atlanta. The larger Mountain Course is divided into a trio of 9-hole loops — the Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek — with every hole typically open for play every day. That changed during the spring.

“Because of cart restrictions, we don’t have the fleet to operate those 27 holes as we normally do,” superintendent Lydell Mack says. “So, we restricted it to an 18-hole course every day.” Each nine was closed for a week at a time, on a roughly three-week rotation. That allowed Mack and the crew to focus on maintenance of nine holes at a time, every day, with an emphasis on “detail and conditioning, because we don’t normally have the time do that.”

By the end of the year, more rounds had been played on 18 holes than had been predicted at the start of the year on 27. Customer satisfaction increased, too, as members and crew seldom crossed paths during the day. No loud mowers for golfers to endure. No slow play for crew to wait out.

John P. Larkin Country Club is a public 9-holer in Windsor, Vermont — almost within sight of the New Hampshire border and the country’s longest covered bridge — and incredibly different from Big Canoe. But a delayed start there helped superintendent Bob Hingston and his teenage crew just as much as a partial closure helped Mack and the Big Canoe crew.

“Because our ground clears really quickly, we have a lot of people clamoring to come to our place because other courses that are wetter don’t open as early,” says Hingston, a retired high school athletic director in his second year in charge of the course. “Many times, we’re open around April 1. Of course, the turf hasn’t warmed up then, but people are hankering to get out there and the turf can take a beating, and our board always wants to get those early green fees to fill the coffers. We’re a small 9-hole course and we really rely on greens fees to get our cash flow going.”

Those early weeks of the pandemic, when more courses across the country were closed than opened, helped preserve the turf for the rest of the season.

“We were really lucky that we had that time for the ground to heal,” Hingston says. “Not opening for five weeks, the tees weren’t getting banged and banged — because a 9-hole course, guys come and play 18, they go around twice, and some of our tees are kind of small.”

Out west, Redlands Country Club in Redlands, California, closed for five weeks, too. Superintendent Mike Gracie, who arrived at the club in late 2019 after seven years at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona, had been on the ground for only four months when the shutdown started but never panicked about what to do. “We focus on details,” he says, “trying to take care of the little things, and overall your property looks better when you focus on details.”

Free rein over the course allowed his crew — which has increased from eight when Gracie started to 13 today and might increase again to 15 or 16 later this year — to spend more time on work that really allows the course to shine.

It also allowed Gracie an opportunity to better learn the course and its land.

“The biggest struggle we have at Redlands is really poor soils,” says Gracie, who worked closely with his assistant, Audifaz Rivera, who has been at the club for decades and started as a dishwasher, as well as general manager Ken Halligan and head professional Paul Dietsche. “We have no drainage on the golf course. There’s a lot of movement on the course, the land moves a lot, a lot of water surface drains really well but it surface drains to the bottoms of all the fairways, and we’re always wet in the fairways. We inherently have those issues where we can’t get rid of water. It’s high-clay soil. It’s called Redlands for a reason.”

Mel Waldron, CGCS, of Horton Smith Golf Course in Springfield, Missouri, also focused on crew members throughout the year. Waldron was able to hire both a designated assistant for the first time in years and a new mechanic in February, just before the start of the pandemic. A municipal hiring freeze starting the next month pushed back any planned projects but also afforded Waldron and the rest of his four-person crew time to really dive into cultural practices like venting and topdressing.

“Missouri was one of those states where the governor pushed all the decisions to local leaders,” Waldron says. A mask mandate went into effect fairly early, but a full shutdown never followed, just guidelines. “The GCSAA got involved, the PGA (of America) Sections got involved, the Missouri Golf Association really helped, and by getting all this information together and getting it out, we could promote safe distancing. We never really did close.”

Unique among the superintendents interviewed for this story — all of whom cited “better” or “significantly better” course conditions in their survey responses — Waldron and Horton Smith remained completely open all year.

There was change, though. That new assistant, Josh Wells, left in January to run a tree farm for the local Public Works Department, but “hopefully, we get that position filled pretty quickly now that they’ve seen the benefit of having that position,” Waldron says. “It was a great help having him.” The mechanic, Brian Lesmeister, is still around and provides help on and off the course. Because he still has good relations with the private club where he worked through last year, he was able to procure equipment and parts for “pennies on the dollar” for Horton Smith, including vibratory rollers that “played a part in keeping things smooth,” Waldron says. “We didn’t have to mow every day.”

The weather provided more help than harm, too. Waldron described the Missouri summer as being “on the dry side” and not particularly brutal (which is sort of like saying the last few miles of a marathon are not particularly brutal). Gracie said the Southern California sun provided only five weeks all year ideal for growing Bermudagrass, which sparked trying to hold on to ryegrass. Those five weeks without golfers early on left the course far drier than normal for Hingston. And Mack described the Georgia weather as “the best I’ve been associated with” during his more than two decades in the industry.

Everybody mentioned the importance of their crew and other course or club employees.

“Something we all know but something that really pushed hard on me over this last year is showing the staff how much you care for them and really trying to do the little things to take care of them,” Gracie says. “At the end of the day, no matter how good or bad we are as superintendents, we can’t do anything without them, and making sure they know we’re there for them, trying to build that sense of a team, has made us more successful than anything else we’ve done on the golf course.

“We’re going to keep good people by showing them that we care for them.”

All things considered, a pretty good year.

“Other than the obvious COVID issues, I think 2020 will be a banner year for us, both from an agronomic standpoint and a revenue standpoint,” Mack says. “It was a great year for golf.

“We’re fortunate that we’re one of the industries that, in some weird way, benefitted from all the chaos.”