When I had my knee replaced a few years ago, I didn’t say as I was being rolled into surgery, “Well, Doc, I’ve had this knee my whole life, here’s what you need to do.”
So why do so many golfers — amateurs both playing the course and thinking about how it’s maintained — feel qualified to tell us how to do our jobs?
Like the club finance chairman who looked at the $2 million line item for a new irrigation system and said, “It’s just plastic pipe. Why do we have to spend so much money?”
Or the 32-handicap green chairman who complained that the greens at the club aren’t fast enough. Or his counterpart at another club who whined about “his” bunkers not being perfectly raked liked the ones he sees on TV. Or anyone who pisses and moans about the rough, trees, collection areas or any other course feature that they can only evaluate based on the limitations of their own games.
Dealing with NARPs (non-agronomic real people) has always been part of the job. I’ve spent a good part of my career trying to educate them about the realities of course maintenance and the complexities of the job they hired us to do. Some of them listen, many of them don’t.
I’ve also long advocated that golf course superintendents speak up, be visible, call attention to their expertise, and showcase skills so everyone from your club pro to committee member to the average golfer knows that you are the professional who knows what is best for their golf course.
But I’m not sure we’ve ever experienced a harder time to do our jobs as right now.
Covid. Labor shortages. Rising wages. Supply chain issues. The panic of the last year — including furloughs and layoffs — made our job tougher than usual, and that was magnified because those we work for had no idea what was going to happen or when. None of us did.
Now combine all of the above with a surge in golf interest — a record numbers of rounds played, hundreds of thousands of new golfers, courses filled from morning to night — and the superintendent’s job has become even tougher.
Where you’re most likely to see the impact is in your budget. Early in the pandemic, when courses were closed and the future the most uncertain, some club managers asked, “How many people do we need to keep our facility viable and operational?”
From what I hear, many courses let valuable members of the maintenance crew go, and while you might still have a job, you’re having to do it with a lot less help. While that might save some money in the short term, you know that any lapses in maintenance today will mean two or three times the effort — and expense — to get the course back to its base level tomorrow.
If you’re going to succeed, you must learn how to do more with less. Less money, fewer workers, fewer supplies. But that probably won’t satisfy those golfers I mentioned earlier who were already expecting you to work miracles. A smaller budget will mean more complaints.
It falls on you to explain everything you can to them. Be prepared to defend every expenditure, every hire and every lapse in maintenance. If you want to keep things running and keep your job, follow this rule: Know your numbers, know your job.
Be able to justify and explain every line item. Know where the cutbacks will have the biggest effect and make sure the club is aware of what they’re going to get. Rely on your expertise and science to back up your every statement. Don’t try to wing it!
Consider these numbers: Your maintenance staff loses four people. That’s eight hours per day, 32 total hours of work not getting done each day. Over five days a week that’s 160 hours — 640 hours a month in missing labor.
You think golfers complained about your bunkers before?
First things first. Protect your staff, particularly the good employees, those who know your golf course and are loyal.
Fight for those staff members who keep operations well-oiled, know you and what you expect, and know the golf course: the mechanic or equipment tech, the irrigation tech, your first lieutenant, the spray tech and the foreman. These people are crucial to the maintenance of your course and your success. You’ve invested in them, their training and advancement. Let them know you’re more dependent on them than ever.
Watch your competition. If the club down the street raises its hourly wages by $2, can you match it? What will happen if you can’t? The labor market is already tight: Can you fight in a bidding war? What happens if one good employee leaves? Two? Four?
Sit down with the general manager and the finance chairman. Run the numbers, making sure everyone understands the impact if people leave. Imagine the worst-case scenarios, write them down, and put them in front of those who control the purse strings.
Analyze the practices being conducted to keep the course healthy. Which tasks are the most important? Time consuming? Expensive? Labor intensive?
This isn’t guesswork. You’re going to be called on to provide accurate, concrete data. Know the tasks, know their timing. Know their cost.
- If someone must get on equipment and drive 1.5 miles to start a task, calculate how much time is being consumed traversing the property at $15 per hour.
- Know how long it takes your best and not-so-best workers to accomplish their tasks.
- Know your acreage, travel times and distances.
- Know how much of your staff’s work includes secondary tasks, like blowing roadways and cart paths, practice tee setup and range cleanup.
- Know how much time course cleanup takes after different amounts of rain, snow, even frost delays.
- Know how much it costs, per square foot, to maintain putting greens and penalty areas. Can you cut back on bunkers? How much can you save? Where else can you cut back with only minimal effect on play? (You probably want to involve your golf pro in these discussions and let him suggest where maintenance is most and least important.)
- Be prepared to suggest where cuts can be made with the smallest effect on the course and golfers.
While NARPs might not easily grasp science, they’re good with numbers. Luckily, most of them will do just about anything to preserve their golf course. Give them precise numbers: You never want to say that something will cost “about this much.”
Remember, our industry offers countless resources. Ask questions, read the reports and learn from the experiences of other supers. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
If you’re not comfortable on the financial side of what we do, you’re going to be in trouble. You must be able to speak the language of those who have the power to cut your budget.
Finally, get creative. From maintenance practices to keeping your labor force intact, look for new sources, new ideas.
Welcome to the new normal.