A Texan by birth and upstate New Yorker by more than two decades of residency, Dave Hicks becomes antsy when the calendar flips to March.
Hicks wants to be outdoors with his loyal team preparing the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course at Cornell University for the Finger Lakes golf season, a charming sprint between abundant frost and foliage. The way Hicks sees it, the course represents a vital part of university life, offering alumni, students, faculty and friends escapism from the Ivy League hustle. “To the golfers,” Hicks says, “it’s a gem. They treasure it.”
One of three superintendents in the course’s 79-year history, Hicks also understands the bosses of his bosses might not be as transfixed by the game. Golf experienced a hiatus at Cornell earlier this year and a campus-wide shutdown because of COVID-19 required Hicks to spend part of late March at home instead of layering up and monitoring how turf responds to the unforgiving Ithaca winter.“That was not a happy time for my wife, who had to listen to me bellyaching,” Hicks says. “The other tough thing about the timing is that up here you’re already kind of quarantined by the snow for three or four months.”
Hicks works at an office designed for easy social distancing and the asset he oversees quickly deteriorates without routine maintenance. Fortunately for his mental state and the condition of a course possessing the name of a Cornell and golf icon, the unexpected stay at home lasted just a week. Hicks returned to work before turf started actively growing. Cornell reopened the RTJ course on Memorial Day, though Hicks has led a smaller and less seasoned team than during previous years.
Campuswide conundrums as colleges endure major procedural and budgetary challenges related to the pandemic are testing superintendents at courses owned by universities and prep schools. The abrupt end of the spring semester, questions surrounding the fall and long-term financial obstacles all lowered golf’s place on the administrative priority list. Instead of operating as standalone small businesses, campus courses — which total 131, according to the National Golf Foundation — represent small slices of the big and increasingly fragile business of higher education.
“When you hit a really crunch time and when a thing hits us like this pandemic, what’s your natural reaction? You go to your core and what you’re there for,” Hicks says. “Whether we like it or not, the golf course is not the center of the universe for the university. We didn’t open until Memorial Day because the top people at the university were trying to make so many huge decisions to even bother themselves with making a decision, one way or the other, about the golf course. We just stayed closed until they got to it.”
As life stalls within the academic and athletic facilities surrounding campus golf courses, even the savviest trustees, presidents, chancellors, deans and athletic directors can’t prevent turf from growing. Superintendents are not only keeping turf alive and protecting assets designed by golf treasures such as Robert Trent Jones Sr. (and his sons), Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and other. They are helping provide needed social and recreational outlets in communities suddenly altered by the pandemic.
State College, Pennsylvania, bustles with activity in March, as more than 45,000 Penn State students scurry between academic buildings and businesses, adding vibrancy and commerce to a community with slightly more than 42,000 residents. The cancelation of in-person classes in mid-March produced scenes Penn State Golf Courses superintendent Rick Pagett had never witnessed.
“It was weird being in this town,” says Pagett, a Penn State alum and State College resident for the last 20 years. “There were no cars on the street. My wife and I would go for a walk on a Sunday morning and there were no cars on College Avenue, no people out. It was an eerie, weird feeling. It was bizarre.”
The oddities extended to the 36-hole Penn State Golf Courses. Unseasonably warm weather, Pagett says, resulted in more play than usual to begin March. The play ended abruptly when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf closed business not deemed life-sustaining in mid-March. Wolf, though, considered asset protection essential, allowing golf course maintenance to continue. With Pennsylvania courses closed until May 1, the only early spring activity on Penn State’s 36 holes and expansive men’s and women’s golf team practice facilities originated from Pagett, assistants Scott Martell and Gabe Menna, four full-time employees, and six seasonal workers capped at 20 hours per week.
“That was another eerie feeling,” Pagett says. “I remember being on the back of the driving range going from the Blue Course to the White Course and I just stopped my cart and all you could hear were birds. There were no golf carts, no swing of the golf clubs, no smack of the ball. … It was so strange to be the only ones on the golf course for six weeks.”
Notre Dame Golf Courses superintendent Matt Cielen enjoyed an expected silence during a weeklong trip to Aruba in early March. That silence ended when he checked his phone upon landing in South Bend, Indiana, where he has lived since accepting the top Notre Dame turf job in 2004. “I turned on my phone,” he says, “and couldn’t believe everything had changed.”
Cielen oversees the maintenance of 27 holes, including the Warren Couse. Just last spring his team was preparing the Coore/Crenshaw design for the U.S. Senior Open. The Warren Course was scheduled to host a 2020 NCAA Division I Regional, an event Cielen was using to help diminish the letdown that turf teams encounter following a major championship.
“Then we get the call and find out the regional is canceled,” Cielen says. “That kind of changed our whole world here. We share a parking lot with the men’s and women’s varsity golf teams. I’m looking out my window at their building and it’s been vacant since basically the week after everybody had to have all their stuff out of the building.”
Notre Dame closed the Warren Course until June 2 despite Indiana being one of the first Midwest states to permit golf. The first month without golf at Notre Dame included a team of Cielen and four others trying to maintain an intricate design poised for a big revenue year following the attention it received in 2019. They were also responsible for constructing a new practice putting green. The school kept its 9-hole course closed through July. “Everything was day-to-day for us,” Cielen says.
Duke University closed its championship course even longer than Notre Dame.
General manager and PGA director of golf Ed Ibarguen collaborated with his Duke University Golf Club team and fellow industry professionals before submitting to university officials what appeared to be thorough reopening protocols involving single-rider carts, wearing masks, eliminating touchpoints, longer intervals between tee times, and limits on the number of people inside the pro shop and restrooms. But the Robert Trent Jones Sr.- and Rees Jones-designed course remained closed as nearby Atlantic Coast Conference rivals NC State and the University of North Carolina hosted thousands of golf rounds.
Duke officials implemented a four-phase reopening plan, with members returning to the course June 8. The course reopened to the public four weeks later.
“It took a while to sink in what the impact was going to be,” Ibarguen says. “Initially, it was we were going to close down until we could come up with some very specific protocols on safety and procedures with how we are going to operate. We did that pretty quickly and submitted those to campus. But Duke University was not going to mess around.”
The Duke staff, which includes superintendent Brendan McNulty, aerified playing surfaces, repaired bridges and improved driving range drainage during the closure. Ibarguen estimates 250,000 pinecones were cleared from the course during the closure and pro shop merchandise was counted and disinfected multiple times.
“I talked to the university immediately about what would happen if we stopped maintaining the course,” Ibarguen says. “The amount of time that it would take to recoup the condition to offer it again to members and public would have actually cost far more and done more damage. As a result, the golf course is in fantastic condition right now, because we did maintain it.”
Full-time employees remained employed throughout the closure. Seasonal workers are being called back to work in “a very slow manner,” Ibarguen adds.
Hicks has experienced a similar delay in procuring seasonal workers at Cornell. The early spring crew consisted of just three golf course maintenance employees, including Hicks, who crafted a plan to keep the Jones creation intact for the return of golf. Hicks opted to bypass irrigating Poa annua fairways this year to trim water, fertilizer and chemical costs, raised mowing heights on greens, and prioritized rough mowing based on proximity to fairways.
Cornell officials initially targeted mid-July for the reopening. Like many things in 2020, the plan changed. The university wanted to reopen on Memorial Day and Hicks and his small team responded by quickly offering a presentable course to golfers.
Less mowing and irrigating turned the course into an agronomy lab to study less intense maintenance practices. Increasing mowing heights to .170 on greens allowed Hicks to experiment with green contours and shapes that could be part of a potential renovation led by alum Gil Hanse.
“My personal motto has been, ‘Where’s the win?’” Hicks said. “My first thing was depression, but then it was, ‘There’s got to be some way we can be better coming out of this.”
While some college golf courses have shuttered for the spring and summer — and, in at least one unfortunate situation, for good — there have been wins. So many superintendents have learned how to work leaner than ever. So many courses have been filled with golfers.
University Ridge Golf Course at the University of Wisconsin at Madison is one of them.
“We’ve had full tee sheets, doing 160, 170 rounds a day,” says superintendent Phil Davidson, noting that works out to somewhere between 80 and 95 percent of what normal spring and summer days draw. “We’re definitely busy as far as rounds go. If the weather’s good, they’re here. What that equates to revenue, I haven’t really paid attention.”
Georgia Southern University Golf Course, too.
“A full golf course might be 180, 200 rounds in the spring,” superintendent Patrick Reinhardt says. “We have 100, 110, but we don’t have an open tee time all day. Numbers-wise, we’re actually higher than last year, I think, because normally when it gets hot in the summertime, we might hit 40 or 60 players a day, and we’re still running 70 or 80.” Most July afternoons have approached triple-digit temperatures, and “we still run 60-some — and we didn’t even have any tee times from 11 to 1 because it was so hot. It’s good, we’re generating revenue. We’re a public course, so we rely on revenue.”
Despite working in different climates and different time zones, Davidson and Reinhardt have worked through many of the same struggles this season and are in similar situations today.
Thawing out of the Wisconsin winter, Davidson and his crew maintained a closed course until April 17. Reinhardt endured 10 weeks of being closed to the public, finally opening again on May 22. Davidson has worked with “a skeleton crew” alongside six other full-timers, though he has had help a day or two each week from the head and assistant pros, and he was finally able to hire “a couple seasonal guys” in June and two students in July. Reinhardt has a non-student crew of four that includes an assistant superintendent, a mechanic and a grounds worker, but watched 10 of his standard 25 student employees opt to head home for the summer during the early days of the pandemic.
“Everything has changed,” Reinhardt says. “Interactions with our staff, interactions with our customers. Golf course training is one-on-one and we’re working with a lot of students who have never worked on a golf course before. How do you train somebody how to operate a fairway mower while still keeping your distance?”
The differences are in how their respective courses are managed and operated under the university umbrella. University Ridge, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design, is a part of the Badgers athletic department and while its operations are relatively independent, some capital projects are tied to athletics revenue. “That’s where we would see a difference,” Davidson says. “But as long as we have rounds coming through, we’re self-sustaining.” GSU Golf Course, meanwhile, is a part of the school’s Campus Recreation & Intramurals department, which allows for more autonomy and less reliance on outside factors.
At least Reinhardt and Davidson both have golfers on their courses. In another corner of Georgia, the UGA Golf Course at the University of Georgia in Athens has been closed for the last four months. In the Northeast, the famed Yale Golf Course never reopened in the spring, has been without a superintendent since March and was being maintained by a two-person crew working four hours per day into early July. Even worse, Dartmouth University cut both its men’s and women’s golf teams and permanently closed its 121-year-old Hanover Country Club last month.
“Everybody is in a unique situation, especially colleges,” Reinhardt says. “You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at universities. I’m just happy we’re able to open and serve the local crowd. The nearest public course is another 30-ish minutes away. It’s good to be open. It’s nice that the university lets us be open.
“We’re just glad we’re working. We’re happy we have jobs. There are a lot of other people out there suffering. We’re fortunate we’re in our own little golf course world here and we can do our jobs.”
Play never stopped and full tee sheets are the 2020 norm at Keith Hills Golf Club, a 27-hole facility owned by 6,400-student Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Unlike his college course colleagues, superintendent Damon Dean hasn’t been forced to significantly curtail labor hours from a staff budgeted to include 10 full-time and 10 part-time employees.
The Campbell University golf teams use Keith Hills as their home course. But the facility is not operated by the athletics department. Instead, the course is affiliated with the business school and PGA Golf Management program. Keith Hills is averaging close to 250 rounds per day this summer and midway through July it had nearly matched the revenue total for the entire month last year, according to Dean.
“We’re supposed to be self-sufficient in the university’s mind,” says Dean, who’s in his 12th year as superintendent. “We’re non-profit, but we pretty much hold our own. Golf has been booming. We are breaking records every weekend as far as the amount of revenue that we are bringing in.”
Keith Hills sits just 55 miles from a course in a contrasting situation as the fall semester approaches.
“Everybody imagines a school like Duke having an unlimited budget,” Ibarguen says. “That’s just not the case. (COVID-19) has had a devastating financial impact to every aspect of the university.”
The impact on Duke University Golf Club is already quantifiable. Ibarguen’s bosses asked him to restructure the 2020-21 budget and the club started the fiscal year beginning July 1 with an operational budget $400,000 below original projections. From pro shop merchandise to maintenance equipment leases, Duke reworked deals with numerous partners.
The course is considered part of the athletics department. The salary of Ibarguen and McNulty’s most celebrated colleague, men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, has been cut twice since the onset of the pandemic. A Ryder Cup-style tournament as part of Krzyzewski’s fantasy basketball camp represents one of many golf outings either postponed or canceled this year. More than 100 university courses, including the Duke University Golf Club, operate under a model offering discounts to golfers with university affiliations supplemented by fees from public play.
“You’re trying to make up the difference on your public play to the point where you’re hoping to break even,” Ibarguen says. “For the average golf course out there, managers are asking, ‘What kind of operation can we have that maintains the golf course in a reasonable to good condition to warrant the fees that we are asking?’ And that’s under the understanding that with most university golf courses it’s paper thin between losses and break even because of the discounts you’re giving to the students.”
The short-term financial challenges facing courses operating under this model are immense, especially considering the questions surrounding the ability of athletic departments to generate close to projected football and men’s basketball revenue. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Ibarguen says, “but I’m optimistic with us having the ability to operate effectively come next spring.”
The golf course operations budget at Notre Dame had been cut 20 percent compared to 2019 levels as of mid-July, according to Cielen. The university instituted a hiring freeze in mid-March and the course has received labor help from other departments that aren’t fully functioning because of pandemic-related closures. On busy days, Cielen is leading a crew of 10 workers, which is nearly half of 2019 staffing levels.
The labor reductions could result in a 40 to 50 percent budget reduction for the fiscal year, Cielen adds. But optimism permeates because the Warren Course nearly established a revenue record in June despite a closed clubhouse and merchandise sales limited to online purchases. The practice range set a monthly revenue record in June.
“The thing that keeps us in a good position right now is the fact that we are a public facility,” Cielen says. “Our demand is so high because it’s an accessible golf course that hosted a major championship and is affordable. I tend to believe as long as COVID has a hold on the country and people have to make adjustments, golf is going to continue to be something that’s successful. As long as it is, we’ll be OK.”
With many entertainment options shuttered since late winter, Pagett has observed renewed golf enthusiasm in central Pennsylvania. The Penn State Golf Courses reopened with tee-time intervals of 20 minutes. The interval has dropped to 10 minutes on both courses. “We are slammed with play,” Pagett says. “We’re the only thing in town that people can do and they’re out here playing.”
Count Pagett, Martell and Menna among professionals finding more time to play golf in 2020. The turf managers are using evenings to play or practice with their children assuming they can find an open tee time or practice area space. “It’s hard to get out there,” Pagett says. “The driving range is packed, the putting greens are packed, the golf course is packed. It’s been very, very well-received and the people that are playing are just excited and happy to be here and out of the house.”