Golf begins 2022 in a stupendous position. But are the people responsible for maintaining the physical assets that are driving the surge themselves in a better spot?

Participation has reached a global-record 66.6 million, according to research released last month by The R&A and Sports Marketing Surveys. In the United States, when Golf Datatech and the National Golf Foundation unveil final 2021 numbers this month, we should learn that between 20 and 25 million more rounds were played in 2021 than 2020.

For back-of-the-napkin-math purposes, we’ll use 22.5 million additional rounds for discussion. The National Golf Foundation distributed an infographic last year indicating the average 18-hole green fee is $38. With those numbers, $855 million of new money entered the industry on green fees alone in 2021. Sure, the numbers aren’t airtight, especially because private-club rounds have dues structures. But we know enough to conclude more money — much more money — has circulated into the industry since 2019.

Moreover, our annual survey (which starts on page 15) reports 89 percent of facilities produced a profit or broke even in 2021, easily the highest total in our 11 years of collecting industrywide data. Seventy-seven percent of facilities were profitable in 2021. By comparison, just 62 percent were profitable or broke even in 2018.

The past two years proved what practical minds already understood: the 100-plus acres of greenspace must be treated as the epicenter of a golf facility. Let’s face it, the surge started because golf was permitted to play on during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Golf played on — and then became more profitable — because determined, loyal and savvy employees executed jobs they had been performing for years while continuing, in many cases, to receive below-market-value wages. The industry faced a precarious labor situation before the pandemic. Industrywide retention and hiring challenges expanded as the economy reopened.

The average tenure of a golf maintenance employee is 9.6 years, according to our survey. Nearly every facility has a group of “core” workers leading its crew. That number typically ranges from two to 10 employees depending on budget and scope of operation. In simple terms, the “core” knows how to get the job done regardless of the obstacles. The “core” finds the work fulfilling and enjoys being outdoors and around longtime co-workers. The “core” is reliable.

The “core” is also severely undervalued at many facilities and holds unprecedented leverage. The average hourly wage of a fulltime golf maintenance employee is $16.96 per hour, according to our survey. Think of all the employers in your area offering a higher starting wage for comparable work or less demanding work. Think of what happens to your facility’s greatest asset if half of the “core” quickly shifts jobs.

Good owners and operators will use what they unexpectedly earned in 2020 and 2021 to enhance or preserve the product they offer customers. Capital improvements are nice. Investing in people is the better short- and long-term play.

Instead of refurbishing patios, dining rooms, grills, bars, locker rooms and pools, it’s time for owners and operators to get serious about boosting compensation of employees maintaining the asset that provides the highest ROI. Housing, groceries and gas cost significantly more than they did at the start of 2021. Workers across all industries, including golf, are wondering where $16.96 per hour will take them in 2022. The conversations and decisions are never easy. Obtaining a better-paying job means giving up relationships and connections. The “Great Reset” could become the “Great Regret” for millions. Or the only regret might be that they didn’t hit reset earlier.

Will golf facilities reluctant to reset employee compensation ultimately regret how they handled the windfall generated by the surge? The days of loyal employees accepting compensation discounts are fading. So are the days where golf can’t be a profitable business. Pair the two thoughts and the “core” will be in the spot they deserve.

Guy Cipriano Editor-in-Chief gcipriano@gie.net