Two years of heavy play

Golf courses experienced sudden increases in usage beginning in spring 2020. From divots to tire tracks, we explore the agronomic impact of a surge that arrived with no warning.

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed life in the United States in March 2020, people have been playing a lot of golf.

According to the National Golf Foundation, 529 million rounds of golf were played in the United States last year, the most since 2006. NGF data indicates a net gain of 800,000 golfers over the past two years: 500,000 in 2020 and an additional 300,000 last year.

All this is good news to those tracking the bottom line at daily-fee operations, municipal facilities, private clubs and resorts alike. But some in the industry are concerned that this latest “golf boom” has produced negative agronomic consequences; the higher volume of rounds has increased stress on the turf. They also note that when tee sheets are full, as is the case at many facilities, and combined with the ongoing labor shortages, there is less time for superintendents and their teams to get necessary maintenance done, let alone take on additional projects.

Tim Barrier worked in the daily turf industry for more than 35 years, 30 of them at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, California, about a 40-minute drive north of San Diego. He recently retired and now provides advisory services to turf professionals. Barrier says the issues impacting the industry today have their origins in the financial crisis of 2008-09, as rounds dipped due to the Great Recession.

“Golf (was considered) a luxury sport,” he says. “Budgets were cut and staffs were cut at so many clubs, including my own. We never brought in more staff. We never dramatically increased the budget, we never really dramatically increased the resources. Inflation gradually did it over time.

“What we’ve got now is superintendents that are leaner and meaner and trying to get things done more efficiently, but they’re being asked to jump over this bar that just keeps getting raised. Now we come into this COVID time. … Golf was one of the few thigs that you could go do. We pulled all the flagsticks out, we pulled the holes out, we let the members go out and play, and I couldn’t believe the popularity. I couldn’t believe the surge that was occurring.”

Barrier notes that the increase in rounds, coupled with the fact that most courses mandated that players take individual carts, created enhanced strain on the turf.

“People were actually playing faster because they were going to their individual ball and hitting,” he says. “But what they did was increase the individual cart traffic, so you’ve got four guys in four golf carts. That’s an incredible amount of compaction on those soils and the threadbare nature of the turfgrass itself.”

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Barrier believes golf course operators are reluctant to take the steps necessary to ensure high-turf quality.

“The problem is the cash register is opening at such a frenetic pace that you can’t even get out and do the cultural practices that you need to do,” he says. “The fairway aerations, the verticutting, the sand topdressing. Some of the things that you need to do to make up for all of that compaction and all of that traffic. That’s the main component of it. But you’ve also got tee surfaces full of divots, you’ve got greens with tons of foot traffic. You’re not going to ask the owner of the golf course to shut the golf course down so you can perform these functions because he’s making so much money it doesn’t fit well with his financial model.”

Barrier contends that the increase in play is forcing maintenance teams to spend increasing amounts of time to complete their primary tasks, such as mowing fairways. “It might take one guy all day to mow nine holes, call it 20 acres of fairway,” he says. “Now, he has to get nine holes in and it’s going to take him two days because there is so much play.”

Texas Rangers Golf Club in Arlington, Texas, is popular with both golf devotees and baseball fans who are golfers. It’s situated near the city’s Entertainment District and the stadiums that are home to the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys, as well as Six Flags over Texas.

The present golf course, which was designed by Colligan Golf Design, made its public debut in February 2019. It replaced a course that had previously existed on the site; it is not a renovation but a new design. In addition to daily play, it hosts a Korn Ferry Tour event that returned last April after being canceled in 2020. Superintendent Brick Scott has been tending to the turf on the property for almost 18 years.

Scott notes the public facility attracted an abundance of attention from the moment it opened its tee sheet. “We’re the new course, right?” he says. “So, everybody wanted to play it.”

Or almost everybody. In its abbreviated 2019 season, the club hosted 29,695 rounds. In 2020, the figure increased to 35,327 rounds — and for roughly half the year the facility was mandating the use of single-player carts. Last year, the total was 38,392, an increase of nearly 34 percent in two years.

Those numbers are good for any club’s bottom line, but they put the turf health at risk. Scott has utilized a multi-pronged approach for dealing with stress issues, particularly during his peak periods of April through June and September through November.

“In 2020, we got the course ready for our first PGA event,” Scott says, “and two weeks before the event is pretty much when they cancelled everything for a month or so. But in preparation for that event, we overseeded (in late September 2019) basically about 46 acres of fairways and tees and then five acres of greens.”

For roughly six months, Texas Rangers Golf Club utilized a single-rider cart approach before allowing golfers to double up again. But perhaps his most unique strategy for dealing with turf stress involved limiting cart traffic.

“We have six holes a day that we make cart-path only,” he says. “We’ve been doing it since a little over a year ago and continued it through the growing season. We’ll do 1 through 6, 2 through 7, and so on. And our par threes are cart-path only all the time anyway, so it’s usually four or five holes that are cart-path only every day (that would not be otherwise).”

To guard against golfers who “might” be tempted to ignore the cart path-only policy, the club has a Visage system in place. If golfers take their carts off the paths, they will not run.

It’s essential for Scott’s team to inform the golf staff of the designated holes each day. “We have to really communicate with the pro shop, ‘These are the holes,’” he says. “But it’s worked really well, and it’s made a lot of difference in turf quality.”

Scott adds the cart path-only policy has yielded minimal impact on the volume of play. That doesn’t mean it has been met with universal acceptance. “You might have some folks come in and grumble a little bit about it,” Scott says. “And I get it. When it is August here, it is not fun.”

The volume of play Texas Rangers Golf Club received last year limited the ability of Scott and his 13-worker team to tend to regular maintenance tasks, notably aeration.

“That is one thing last year we did not do, a lot of aeration,” he says. “We did it on greens but not so much on our fairways and that’s where you really see damage (in part from a difficult winter in 2020-21).

“Around the bunker areas where everybody drives close to the bunkers, those are bad areas. We have a lot of saddlebacks on our golf courses, a lot of mounds. A lot of people drive between the mounds to get to the cart paths. Those areas are definitely problematic.”

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Scott is hoping the measures he has in place will prevent or at least minimize the stress on the turf created by the increase in play.

“I think with proper aerification and using your traffic control signs as much as you can, as well as being proactive, (we can do our best) to mitigate the amount of damage the additional rounds and carts will have on the course,” he says. “I’m hoping that that is going to be enough to where we don’t have long-term damage.”

In South Florida, the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course is one of the most celebrated — and busiest — short courses in America. Before the pandemic, it hosted more than 39,000 rounds. Last year, the official count was 52,459, an increase of nearly 25 percent over two years. About half that total is walking rounds.

“We’ll probably do at least that this year,” says longtime superintendent Tim Campbell. “That’s official rounds. Unofficially, I think there were quite a bit more.”

The course is owned by the city of Palm Beach, but Campbell oversees a crew of nine full-timers including himself and one half-timer. He and those to whom he reports are committed to providing and maintaining first-rate conditions. “We want the course to be nice,” Campbell says. “We’re surrounded by all these great private clubs, and we try to live up to those expectations.”

The volume of play creates an assortment of issues for the team. “My cart path edges are destroyed just from cart traffic and then the walk-up areas on the tees,” Campbell says. “And we’re having trouble staying caught up on the divots (because) we’re having so much play here.”

But aeration remains a top priority. Prior to last year, Campbell would aerate twice a year and DryJect once. In 2021, he aerated three times and added a DryJect application as well. Campbell was busy last winter as usual. But there was little, if any, drop-off in play with the arrival of spring.

“Historically, the winter has always been our busy season,” he says. “But we stayed pretty busy through the summer. That’s something that I’ve noticed the last couple years, which makes it harder to get maintenance things done.”

On the plus side, the course was closed a half-dozen days last year to allow Campbell and his team to complete necessary tasks unimpeded. “I usually get one or two days to close a year,” he says. “But we did close for all five days for aerification and the DryJecting, and we did close for one other project. Normally, we don’t do that.”

Management also took the step of providing Campbell with additional funding to cover the increased costs and workload. “Last budget year, they gave me an extra $25,000 because of the increase in play to use however I saw fit,” he says.

It’s tough to determine what lies ahead for superintendents in 2022. But it’s safe to say the industrywide surge in play over the past two years will affect how they prepare for this year and seasons to come.

“The long-term impact is we’re going to have to aerify more,” Campbell says. “We’re probably going to have to spend a little bit more money on sod. We’re probably going to have to fertilize more. Long term, (the increase in rounds) is just going to increase maintenance costs.”

Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.

March 2022
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