Private golf course superintendents and superintendents at privately owned public courses have a lot of stress to deal with in managing their golf courses, including revolving board members, unrealistic expectations and finicky owners. Municipal golf course superintendents certainly have more than a handful of challenges unique to their operations, as well.
I checked in with a couple of superintendents in my neck of the woods here in western Washington to see what it’s like heading a municipal operation these days — the challenges certainly, but also the joys and satisfactions that can be had producing a product for the masses.
Rocky Tharp is the superintendent at West Seattle Golf Club in the Emerald City. He’s been the superintendent at the municipal course for three years, although he’s been working for Seattle for more than 15 years. He knows the ins and outs of navigating the nuisances of working for a city-owned facility.
West Seattle GC opened in 1940 as part of the Works Progress Administration. It was designed by two-time United States Amateur champion H. Chandler Egan. Like the other municipal courses inside the city, it provides a valuable greenspace of 160 acres.
It is one of 11 municipal courses in the region managed by Premier Golf Center LLC. “Premier Golf runs the pro shop operations,” Tharp says. “But I work directly with the Parks Department for the city of Seattle.”
As far as a city-wide structure for Seattle’s municipal golf courses, West Seattle GC is intertwined with other municipal courses in the city, including Jackson Park Golf Course, Jefferson Park Golf Course and Interbay Golf Center. “Basically,” Tharp says, “we all answer to the director of golf, who reports to the division director, who reports to the parks’ superintendent, who, in turn, essentially reports to the mayor.”
One of the challenges associated with working for a city is a bit of red tape that can be involved for larger purchases, things that come up during a season above and beyond items previously budgeted for.
About a half-hour north of Seattle, in Marysville, lies another Premier-operated municipal course, Cedarcrest Golf Course. Matt Waggenhoffer has been the superintendent at Cedarcrest, which opened in 1927, since summer 2016, and he says buying a piece of equipment mid-season can be one of the biggest challenges for a municipal golf course.
“It’s a process for sure,” Waggenhoffer says. “If we have a mower go down and we need it replaced, first we have to talk to the parks department. Once they OK it, then they have to go to the city council. The city council tends to be all about cost, so they’ll ask for the obligatory three separate bids. It’s frustrating because I’ll know exactly what piece of equipment I want, but we have to go through this three-bid process, which can add another month to the process.”
For Waggenhoffer, going straight to the mayor can be a time-saver, if they can convince the mayor that cutting through the red tape is a smart move for the golf course and thus the city. “We took advantage of this once with a topdresser purchase,” he says. “The mayor himself was playing golf and asking why the course was so wet. We were able to tell him we needed to start a topdressing program on the fairways, and we were able to get it in no time.”
Waggenhoffer, by the way, says the topdressing program is definitely helping dry out the fairways at Cedarcrest. “I’d say the last couple years alone, we’ve put out about 450 tons of sand onto the fairways,” he says. “Although it’s a process that will take time, we are already seeing improvements.”At West Seattle GC, Tharp mentions $5,000 as a threshold for having to jump a few hurdles when it comes to sudden and large purchases for maintenance equipment, although even a simple purchase can present challenges unique to municipal courses. “If we need to buy a new mower,” Tharp says, “you first have to actually receive the mower before the city will cut a check for it. This can make it challenging to say the least.”
I asked both Tharp and Waggenhoffer about the labor and hiring situations at their courses.
“We have to hire through the city human resources department,” Tharp says. “This can be a real cumbersome hiring process. There’s a lot of steps bringing a new hire on. It can actually take anywhere between 60 and 90 days from the beginning of the process to the time you actually see that worker walk through the door. Another problem with that is along those 90 days you can and do lose a lot of qualified applicants.”
Another challenge is keeping newer employees for the long term.
“Our wages for the golf course are kind of at the low end of the scale compared with the rest of the parks department,” Tharp says. “So a lot of people come here to the golf course side, work here for six months or a year or so and then go ahead and take another job somewhere else in the parks department that can pay them a higher wage. This can be a bit challenging as well, to say the least.”
West Seattle GC has a staff of about 10 during the spring, summer and fall, and five in the winter, which includes Tharp and his mechanic.
Up at Cedarcrest, Waggenhoffer mentions one of the labor challenges he faced recently was a big minimum wage increase in the state. Cedarcrest is on a two-year budget cycle, so anticipating things like minimum wage increases can pose its own kind of challenge.
“Back in 2018, we just got the 2019 and 2020 budget approved,” he says, “and then the state passed a big minimum wage increase and we had to go back and try and add about 11 percent more to the budget, which, let me tell you, wasn’t easy to get approved.”
Rounds and golfers
Annually, West Seattle GC receives between 50,000 and 60,000 rounds. This is nearly double the average of what many of the privately-owned public courses support in and around Seattle, and anywhere between double and triple the rounds played on private golf clubs in the city.
“One of our challenges is our rates are so low,” Tharp says, “which increases our rounds but also has an impact on what we can put into the capital budget. Kind of a catch-22.”
Tharp is in the unique situation of working in a city that has multiple municipalities. “One thing is we can sort of operate all four municipal courses in Seattle (West Seattle, Jefferson, Jackson and Interbay) as one entity,” he says. “This can be an advantage in getting golfers out to the right course in the city year-round. For instance, our course is a little wetter in the winter, so a lot of time Premier is directing golf over to Jefferson in the winter as they are a bit drier. We also mix up our aerification schedules amongst the courses so golfers can go to one of the other courses if our course is aerifying greens, or vice versa.”
All in all, the golfers who play West Seattle GC are out to have a good time and seem to enjoy the experience. “We have a pretty solid men’s and women’s club, most of whom have played here a long time,” Tharp says. “They’re all real supportive of course conditions and tend to be really understanding. It makes for a very nice work environment.”
At Cedarcrest, though not as high as inside the city of Seattle, annual rounds have hit the 40,000 mark the last couple years. Golfers who play Cedarcrest tend to be a little less demanding than the private-club situation where Waggenhoffer started out.
“They are definitely more relaxed from what I remember when working the private club situation” says Waggenhoffer, who worked with me at Everett Golf and Country Club, a private club north of Seattle, about 20 years ago. “That can be refreshing. We also have a mostly older group of gentlemen that play in the mornings who are almost always positive and in good spirits. Golfers who smile at you and give you a wave goes a long ways.”
In these uncertain times we’re entering here in early 2020, both Tharp and Waggenhoffer are glad they can provide an escapable and enjoyable distraction to the masses in the Seattle area. Public, affordable golf, maybe now more than ever, is crucial to the community.