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Of the many, many things that got messed up or turned upside down in 2020, one of the more frustrating aspects for golf course superintendents was trying to stay on track with the labor budget. Whether it was a course with nobody on it early in the season or one of the busiest seasons any of us have ever seen from late spring on — or, in many instances, some combination of the two — labor budgets were tossed out the window by early summer. I’m pretty confident nobody could possibly have nailed their 2020 labor budget.

But, because we were given a pass in the crazy year that was 2020, that does not mean we shouldn’t try to accurately predict and stay on a labor budget for 2021. Of course, most of us have already put those numbers into our budgets. Although not easy to determine those labor numbers, that was, relatively speaking, the simple past. The hard part? How do we possibly stay on budget in 2021 with so many unknowns?

Consider some of the 2021 mystery:

  • How will the ultimate vaccination of a majority of the population affect day-to-day life and, therefore, the revenue of things like golf courses?
  • If life returns to some sort of normalcy, will the golf numbers that skyrocketed a year ago dwindle again?
  • If life does not return to normalcy, will golf continue to be a retreat for many who found the game for the first time — or found the game again — last year?
  • Will a continuation of the pandemic finally result in less money being able to be spent on escapes like golf?
  • What kind of labor pool will there be to draw from?

The major difference I see in comparing 2020 to 2021 is that we have advanced knowledge now. We are pandemic savvy. When sitting down to do the 2020 budget in late fall 2019, we obviously had no idea what was in store for us. It was business as usual. That wasn’t the case last fall when we tried to put our best guess on what golf will look like in 2021.

Although 2020 will always be the year we were dealt the incredible, forceful blow of COVID-19, 2021 appears to be every bit the same business animal. So, what have we learned from 2020? How can we use that knowledge to better prepare for sticking to a labor budget in another very uncertain year?

For my own course in western Washington, Avalon Golf Club in Burlington, we were cautiously optimistic on our guess for what we think will be the total rounds played in 2021. The numbers were so high in 2020 that one would be foolish to try and assume the same golf-crazy escapism will hit us again. But one would also be foolish not to expect at least some of the same, because we are by no means out of the woods yet. Golf still offers one of the few fairly safe, outdoor escapes that people are needing during the pandemic. As I write this article in early 2021, we are already seeing numbers up from our traditional slow January play.

I’m still left with some questions. Should we staff up earlier than normal this year? What kind of labor pool will there be during late winter and early spring? How competitive will it be just among golf courses in the same area to find the best people? Finding trained workers ready to jump into the fray of very crowded golf courses is essential. Maintenance crew staff, more than ever before, must know how to hit the ground running. Assistant superintendents are stretched now more than ever. Limiting their time spent on the training of completely untrained personnel is vital.

I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. But I thought it couldn’t hurt to check in with a couple other superintendents to get their feel on what happened in 2020, and how they are prepping labor-wise for 2021.

Doug Larson is superintendent at The Shore Club in Cape May County, New Jersey. Like most superintendents, 2020 was a down and up year for the resort club.

“When we first closed in March, there was so much uncertainty,” Larson told me. “For a few weeks, it was just my equipment manager and myself working. We spent most of our time mowing grass. Once we reopened, I was just hoping someone was going to show up. Much to my surprise, everyone showed up. Our play, like many, was way up for the season.”

Doug said that 2020 rounds played ended up being up almost 20 percent higher than 2019, and this includes zero play for six weeks in the spring. The Shore Club was a favorite course of Arnold Palmer in the early 1950s when he was at the nearby Coast Guard Training Center. Although Doug said his crew size didn’t increase greatly in 2020, they did have a few challenges with a normal-sized crew.

“Staff did have to work extra hours to prepare for some bigger club events,” he says. “Luckily, I had my seasonal staff all ready to return for the year when we did reopen.”

Joey Franco is the director of agronomy at Daniel Island Club in Charleston, South Carolina. I asked Joey to try and summarize 2020 as best he could. Joey first went to the challenges of keeping his staff safe once they brought everyone on last year.

“Daniel Island Club is a multi-faceted golf course with a staff of 65 to 70 people,” he says. “Keeping staff spread apart during meetings was a particular challenge. We met outside as much as possible (and still do) and spread out with masks. Anyone who comes into the breakroom, bathrooms or offices must have a mask on.”

Here at Avalon Golf Club, we have also moved our morning meetings outside — or, when it’s raining, inside our large equipment storage area. One of the challenges for me as superintendent, because I’m normally soft spoken, is raising my voice enough outside to be heard by all. Wearing a mask, naturally talking quietly and having my crew spread out a fair distance around the shop yard is not easy for me. But we adapt.

I also asked Joey about rounds played in 2020.

“We were the busiest we have ever been,” he says. “There was a stretch when we were averaging 300 to 350 rounds per day from March through August. Many of our members from the Northeast go home during the summer season, but not last year. Also, many of our members travel for work, but they were able to work from home and play much more golf.”

Because of the enormous amount of play — rounds at Daniel Island were up 47 percent from 2019 — Joey implemented gap mowing on the two championship courses at Daniel Island, alternating between courses each day during the season. One of the two private clubs at Daniel Island, Beresford Creek, was designed by Tom Fazio. The other, Ralston Creek Course, by Rees Jones.

“We couldn’t keep up with maintenance with the nonstop tee times,” Joey told me. “So, we instituted a program from my previous clubs which consisted of ‘gap mowing.’ This provided us an opportunity to maintain the golf courses with a maintenance gap between tee times. The gap would be from 10:30 a.m. to noon. We take lunch from 10:30 to 11, so once we’re done with lunch, we squeeze between tee times and ride the gap. It improved our efficiency greatly.”

I asked Doug, who works 720 miles up the Atlantic Coast from the course Joey maintains, his strategies for securing labor in 2021. He cited the starting wage as a main way to draw potential new hires.

“Clubs need to decide if they want a want a revolving door of new hires or if they want to spend a little extra to cut down on that potential,” Doug says. “I’ve tapped the part-time market as a gap filler the last few years, and have been quite satisfied with that.”

At Daniel Island, Joey says they didn’t staff up more than normal in 2020, nor do they plan on having to in 2021. He thinks the “gap mowing” contributes to this as well as the unique situation of having two clubs on the property.

“There were times when staff from one course assisted the other and vice/versa,” he says. “Overall, labor did not affect our operation with regards to increased play and we maintained adequate staffing levels. This is why we instituted the ‘gap mowing.’”

At my club in Washington, despite the heavy rounds, we didn’t staff up much more than normal, either. We simply got a little more creative with how we maintained the course around so much play. This included a lot of afternoon/evening mowing, creating much less secondary rough mowing by eliminating a lot of mow areas, and using more wetting agents and plant growth regulators. We also started our day a half-hour earlier in years past. That extra half-hour of working before golf started was — and still is — so vital to managing the course with so much golf.

I have budgeted a similar plan this year. We’re not greatly increasing the labor budget; we’re trying to use labor more creatively.

Although accurately predicting what golf maintenance will look like in 2021 is challenging to say the least, I think it’s possible to keep close to your labor numbers by learning from what we did in 2020 when we had no preparation at all for what was coming. It’s not all about learning from what we did right. We also learn from what we did wrong.

Ron Furlong is the superintendent at Avalon Golf Links in Burlington, Washington, and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.