Think being a golf course superintendent in 2016 is tough? Wait until you hear what 2026 could bring.
Golf Course Industry conducted its debut technology conference April 12, and anybody looking for hints the future will be easier than the present left Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, N.C., disappointed. The next decade could be unlike any period experienced in the golf industry as more uncontrollable factors creep into the business.
The six GCI tech presenters – Global Golf Advisors principal Henry DeLozier, Aspire Golf principal Tim Moraghan, Toro veteran Dana Lonn, Syngenta technical representative Dr. Lane Tredway, retired Atlanta Athletic Club superintendent Ken Mangum and The Club at Mediterra director of agronomy Tim Hiers – used more than combined 240 combined years in the business to provide frank assessments of what awaits. Everything from customer demands and demographics to the water dispersed on turf will suggest being a superintendent, or anybody else invested in the industry, in 2026 isn’t for the meek. “It’s a tough business for all of us,” Moraghan says.
And it’s a changing business. What works for your facility in 2016 might be obsolete, or perhaps even regulated, by 2026. So, on top of maintaining turf, managing people, crafting budgets and communicating with customers, superintendents wishing to remain in the industry must also be multitasking prognosticators willing to adapt on short notice.
“America is changing and you’re living in the midst of it, and if you don’t change, you are going to get left behind,” DeLozier says. “We in the golf business have done a poor job of changing, except when it comes to hitting a golf ball further and coming out with a solution to help us make a putt every now and then. We have to change at a more rapid pace because change is engulfing us.”
Below are five themes emerging from the conference and how superintendents can position themselves to handle what awaits.
The global communications firm Fleishman-Hillard Inc. released a study in 2012 estimating women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the U.S. by 2022. Similar studies suggest golf operators and investors must begin catering to mothers and grandmothers instead of fathers and grandfathers.
Women present a gigantic opportunity. Females account for only 23.9 percent of the nearly 24.1 million golfers in the U.S., according to the National Golf Foundation. “No one quality will cause golf to grow more dramatically than our capability of including more women,” DeLozier says.
Enduring qualities such as safety, comfort and camaraderie make golf an appealing option for females. DeLozier, though, warns females set higher expectations for family and social experiences – and it has little to do with course conditions. They want a tidy place where they feel welcomed.
Introducing more women to golf’s benefits seems like a heady task. But little things such as ensuring comfort stations are stocked with paper products, pleasant exchanges when encountering female customers, establishing wildlife friendly natural areas and providing regular course conditions that aren’t overly difficult can boost a facility’s standing with females. “If I can make the women on my golf course happy, that’s where I’m going first,” Hiers says.
Don’t wait for more water
The water situation doesn’t appear as dire as it did in 2015, especially considering California will place water conservation goals in the hands of local agencies. But irrigating your course like it’s 2016 could lead to major problems in 2026.
Water is becoming a more scrutinized resource, and competition for usable supplies will be fierce as the world population swells past 8 billion in the next decade. “Water, no doubt in my mind, is the top issue,” Lonn says. “It’s something we have to deal with it. It’s the resource of the century. We can’t drill a hole and find more water. It’s not there.”
Judicious usage and measuring every gallon dispersed are tactical ways to prepare for the water rush. Lonn compares irrigating a golf course to refueling a gas tank, and superintendents must determine the lowest amount of water turfgrass can receive to remain healthy. Soil moisture sensors, Lonn says, are critical in determining this amount. “I would rather have one soil moisture sensor than a weather station, because I can do a way better job of irrigating with one soil moisture sensor,” he says. “Weather information doesn’t help you decide how full that tank is.”
Perception will also separate winners and losers in water tussles. Instead of becoming enraged when an outsider questions your water usage, view the interrogation as an opportunity to provide science- and economic-based reasons to explain irrigation practices. Hiers views himself as a “watershed manager” responsible for knowing the ending point of everything placed on property he maintains. The approach has allowed him to successfully represent golf in potentially hostile water-related discussions.
“If you don’t know a subject, how are you going to vote on it?” Hiers says. “You are going to vote no. This isn’t a story we tell one time. It’s a story we live and show and show and show. Like new green committee members, there are new people in the public coming in. And if we don’t work with them, we are not going to get our fair shake.”
Keep robotics on your mind
It’s near the top of FIQs (Frequent Industry Questions): When will robots be mowing greens, fairways and tees?
Nobody is setting a firm date for widespread robotic mower usage. Soaring labor costs – California and New York solidified legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 – and increased autonomous research by megacompanies could expedite the move to robotics in many industries, including golf, DeLozier says. “I believe you will find yourself much sooner than you may think relying on a non-human workforce,” he adds.
Lonn calls automation a “hot topic” for Toro. Current finances don’t look appealing for facilities exploring robotic mowers. RTK, GPS and other technology needed to produce a robotic mower double the price of the unit, according to Lonn.
“Can you make the economics work if you double the price?” he says. “What’s the process of you making the decision and selling to your greens committee that it’s going to cost twice as much? What do you have to prove to feel comfortable with that?”
Still, what’s unaffordable now could be within your budget in a decade. Personal computers, after all, were once an item enjoyed exclusively by the ultra-wealthy. When encountering an emerging technology with the potential to improve a golf course, superintendents can benefit from learning more about it, no matter how distant widespread implementation seems. Plus, understanding technology yields club cred.
“Think about technology,” Moraghan says. “Organize your thoughts around technology, and you will come up with something that will lead your business and your career.”
Speak their language
Forget anonymously riding a cart or mower around the course, sending calls straight to voicemail and ignoring emails. A timeless quality – the ability to connect with others – will continue shaping the careers of thousands of superintendents.
Communication has become more splintered since 2006, and it’s poised to splinter even further by 2026. Know the forms your owners, board chairs, members and customers prefer. Speak their language – Moraghan says finances are a good starting point – instead of making them learn your jargon.
Mangum enjoyed a 27-year run at the Atlanta Athletic Club by relating to three groups – those above, equal and below him. Failing to reach one group will likely cause problems with the other two. Mangum enjoyed strong relationships with AAC’s other department heads, and turnover in leadership positions remained low because of a common goal. Realizing the club’s needs trump all departmental needs is a route to maintaining your current job in 2026.
“We learned to cover each other’s back and always do what’s best for the club,” Mangum says. “It’s easy to protect your turf, but in the end you have to do what’s best for the club.”
Promote synergy or Witness the unexplainable
More regulation, unpredictable approval processes, volatile global agriculture markets. And that’s not even the biggest challenge facing companies trying to help superintendents maintain healthy turf.
Even the industry’s top scientific minds don’t have the “complete” understanding of turfgrass pathogens and pests needed to make precise applications, Tredway says. “The research isn’t being done at a rate that equals the rate at which the turf industry evolves,” he adds. “We are always figuring out our diseases after the fact.”
Proper diagnosis is required for precise applications, but Tredway succinctly says “the turfgrass industry doesn’t value diagnosis.” The devaluation of diagnosis has created a shortage of talented pathologists. Superintendents can help the industry move toward making precise applications by supporting the remaining reliable pathologists.
Collaboration represents a major post-GCI Tech theme. Superintendents seeking solutions to complex issues such as participation rates, labor, water and turfgrass diseases must be open with suppliers, distributors, researchers and colleagues.
Now consider your own place in the industry. Unless you possess herculean qualities, you needed the help of others to enter the business. A daunting decade awaits, yet think of where being archaic, guarded and complacent might land you in 2026.