Today’s golf irrigation market is explosive, probably more so than the renovation market. Many golf courses are expanding, revitalizing or restoring their irrigation systems. Even more courses are planning for renovation or replacement in the next two to three years. This is both good and bad news. It’s good news for golf irrigation manufacturers and suppliers, both good and bad news for irrigation contractors, and bad news for golf courses.
Manufacturers and suppliers are thrilled with the irrigation work out there. They have not seen this level of sales since the 1990s, but their margins are not quite as good because the manufacturers are so competitive with each other. Depending on the course, there is not a lot of money being made on the manufacturer/supplier side on the hard goods (Hunter, Rain Bird and Toro). Ironically, the courses that can afford the new irrigation system the most pay the least and the small “ma and pa” course pays the most as the manufacturer wants the reference.
Even though I am a designer, I am a firm believer that golf course irrigation systems are all about the installation contractor. The design matters and so does the equipment, but if the system is poorly installed, then it doesn’t matter how good the design was or how great the equipment is. If the installation contractor does a poor job, you will end up dealing with the consequences for 20 to 40 years. So, what’s the problem? There are only a limited (small) number of good golf irrigation contractors in the United States. Most specialize in golf irrigation only and have a limited number of crews. Given the amount of current and pending work out there, there are not enough good, qualified irrigation contractors available.
In a good economy like this with lots of golf work, some commercial irrigation contractors will decide to expand into golf irrigation. Some golf course renovation contractors will decide to add irrigation installation services, as well. We have seen this story play out before. The problem with the commercial contractor is they do not understand golf. There is a big difference in installing 12-inch pipe versus 2-inch pipe. Golf requires different equipment: large trenches, tractors with hauling trailers, wire racks, rock saws, excavators, storage containers and utility vehicles. It also requires larger crews. Most of today’s systems are installed on existing turf, not dirt. Therefore, renovation skills are extremely important. Materials are much more expensive and cash flow is nowhere as good as with smaller commercial and residential projects. Upfront costs are significant.
Lastly, the paper work is much more detailed as it is a more formal process when compared to other types of irrigation. Commercial crews are also not used to dealing with golf course players, members and staff. Builders are used to dealing with golf courses, but they may not have the specialty equipment needed or the installation experience. All this work is good for the established contractor, but also bad as they have new competition that usually, at least to start with, has lower pricing as they do not realize all the costs involved in installing golf irrigation systems. Be careful not to jump on an inexperienced contractor because their price is low. Likewise, try not to let the board or owner do so either. The good contractors price where they do for a reason. The best way to keep an experienced contractor from bidding is to not let them bid in the first place.
All this work is bad for the golf course because a good contractor can be selective about the projects they take on. They will take on the higher profit projects, the closer projects, the easier projects or, ideally, the project that is a combination of all three. There will not be any deals to be had out there in this market and if the contractor chooses to not do your course, they just can pick another. Much different than five years ago.
So, what do you do? First, plan and plan early. It is not uncommon these days to start planning/designing for a new irrigation system three to four years before it is going to be installed. This gives time to cover all the required design and permitting bases and collect necessary information. Because today’s golf irrigation systems are so expensive, it also gives, the owner, board or corporation time to determine how the new or renovated system will be paid for. Lastly, it allows the course to bid early – as much as a year ahead of time –to get one of those good, qualified irrigation contractors, which is the key to a successful project.