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It’s hard for those of us in the golf business to look at the game’s recent good fortunes — 2020 saw the nation’s largest net increase in golfers, 500,000, in 17 years and a 14 percent boost in rounds played, according to the National Golf Foundation — and not be downright giddy. It’s also comforting to know that 2020 was a continuation of a positive trend more than simply a pandemic-induced aberration, marking the third straight year more golfers came into the game than abandoned it.

“There hasn’t been this much optimism and new activity in the golf business since the turn of the century,” NGF president and CEO Joe Beditz said at the start of the year.

But many of those same course owners, operators, superintendents and golf professionals have been around long enough to remember life before the surge, when participation numbers and rounds trended in the opposite direction. They are the ones tempering their enthusiasm with a healthy dose of realism and know that most things business-related move in cycles. They realize we are now in uncharted and uncertain times.

As a species, we’re uncertain when we’re unable to compare current conditions to those we’ve experienced before. Until recently, none of us had lived through a global pandemic, so we’re more limited than normal in our ability to predict the future. We would like to believe that we’ll see core golfers continue to increase their number of rounds played and that women and beginners will continue to flock to golf courses. But we’re just not certain.

The economist Frank Knight famously argued that uncertainty is best understood in contrast with risk. In situations of risk, Knight wrote, we can calculate the probability of specific outcomes, because we have seen similar situations before. This is, of course, the reason life insurance companies make handsome profits. But without actuarial tables and history to rely on, we’re left with only our best judgment, which sometimes amounts to little more than an educated guess.

Time to review risks

Given the uncertainty in our lives and businesses, it seems an opportune time to review the risk profile for your operation. Risks rest in every aspect of golf course care and upkeep. Many superintendents have lived with the risks — not to mention the vagaries of Mother Nature — for so long that they’ve forgotten or become inured to even those risks that rise to dangerous levels.

Assess risk in your operation and for your team by:

  • Executing a risk assessment with the club’s or facility’s insurer and insurance broker. Professionals in risk evaluation can provide unvarnished analytics concerning the risks inherent to most tasks and job descriptions.
  • Asking local emergency responders — fire, police and health professionals — to walk through your operation to identify threats and potential harmful, dangerous and expensive ramifications.
  • Asking team members to discuss the risks that worry them and their families and affect their performance. Minimize and eliminate those risks wherever possible.

Labor also fraught with risks

In its current short supply, labor is also a risky element of our business models. An extremely distressed workforce poses the greatest weakness in golf’s performance profile. Insulate your facility from the most severe impacts of reduced staffs and inexperienced workers by doubling down on training and retraining. The upcoming winter season will be the first chance to dedicate time to focus on performance improvement at the individual-worker level. Actions to consider include:

  • Retelling stories of your course and its history to sow the seeds of belonging while reconfirming your values and culture.
  • Reviewing your agronomic plan to ensure that your care and upkeep standards are well described and unambiguous, especially for new team members.
  • Creating a personal understanding between you and each team member. Make sure that you understand their motives and that they understand your priorities and expectations.
  • Rethinking how essential tasks should be scheduled and performed most efficiently. Start with a clean sheet and consider everything open to discussion and evaluation.

We’re in a period of massive transition in golf and the business of golf. Even the best and brightest, including those with years of experience, cannot predict what lies ahead. In such times, we must rely on our best judgment and take steps to reduce risks wherever possible.

Henry DeLozier is a partner at GGA Partners, trusted advisors and thought leaders. He is currently Chairman of the Board of Directors of Audubon International.