The golf course industry can occasionally be a tough place to be. At times it may seem like you are in the UFC Octagon, championship boxing ring or perhaps an elementary school playground, especially if you are a golf course superintendent trying to provide cutting edge playing conditions with limited resources.
This razors edge within the golf course management world is known to all but seldom talked about. So how do you know when or even how to defend your ground when it comes to complaints about course conditions, staff, projects, budgets, frost delays, rain, ball marks or divots? You know the story and you can feel the storm rising when a golfer or staff member approaches you. Here it comes, but wait: Is the complaint valid? Who is on your side? How many sides are there? What is at stake? Who is keeping score?
There are a lot of questions, but there are also some great answers as well. Let’s take a look at three of the most common areas that generate complaints that might force you to defend your ground and review some strategies for success with minimum stress. The three issues in no specific order are aeration, overseeding and the last but certainly not the least, green speeds.
Since the very first green aeration was scheduled, canceled for an event, rescheduled, then contractually forbidden forcing someone to aerate one green per week at night during the off-season, we as golf course superintendents have endured the 15-round heavyweight fight that can be aeration. Aeration is a critical part of a sound agronomic program, especially for putting greens. There have been hundreds of articles written on the benefits and informative signs posted all over the golf shop, yet each season the fear of aeration strikes. “Why are you aerating? The greens are perfect and my Dad is coming here to play next week and now it’s going to be unplayable.” Sound familiar. Here is the three-step program to defend your ground and have a successful aeration while minimizing complaints.
- Schedule your aerations as far in advance as possible and gain the 100 percent support of the entire golf operation (signed documents have been used in some cases). Make sure everyone is speaking the same message whether they are managers or hourly associates. This applies to all social media as well.
- Overcommunicate in person (tweets, texts and email are considered extra credit but will not be a substitute for face-to-face conversation) to all the stakeholders the processes that will take place (tine type and size, amendments to be applied, topdressing, vibratory rolling, etc.) and then be realistic about the time it will take for greens to recover. Earn their trust each day and face any complaints head on, personally with empathy and information. Be seen and heard often.
- No matter how well you do steps one and two there will be very little carry over from one season/aeration to the next. Assume that no one knows (or remembers) anything about the aeration process and repeat steps one and two with enthusiasm for every aeration.
The fear of aeration is very real to the golfer; they want you to never interfere with “their” game so it is important they understand and ultimately share “your” commitment to high-quality turf through a steadfast commitment to sound agronomic and cultural practices. Remember, it is all for the good of “our” game. Defend your ground!
To overseed or not to overseed? That is the question. The whole process is ripe for complaints. Play during the overseeding establishment is full of complaints and if the base turf goes dormant without overseeding, then that is the issue. I know of a course that overseeded their Bermudagrass tees and fairways for 20 straight years and then decided not to overseed for one year to complete an irrigation renovation. In the dead of winter, the superintendent got a call to come to the general manager’s office where a golfer was waiting with a major complaint. The golfer had a brochure advertising the club in his hand with a cover photo of the signature hole taken in mid-July. “The course I saw today is all wrong. It’s not the one in the brochure. The grass is all brown. You should fire the superintendent immediately,” the golfer said. Everyone has an opinion about the need for overseeding – whether it is greens only or tees and fairways – but they may not have all the facts. It seems that many superintendents get caught in this cycle of educating the stakeholders on which grass is looking good and when and will there be a financial return on investment, or will the agronomics of the competing grasses have a negative impact next year. On and on the debate goes. But wait, we could use paints or pigments. More choices to divide the faithful. The golfer wants green grass all year; the property needs to find a miracle.
This fight plays out differently every year because weather, seed prices and a dozen other factors can make a good program turn bad and then the complaints roll. What is a successful superintendent to do? Do your homework, and keep your hands up every year. Gather the latest information of all of the options that you and the property management feel are viable. Include all costs and perhaps give a few options on type of seed, seeding rates, etc. And because paints and pigments have improved a lot in recent years, do some due diligence on that as well. Call around and talk to other superintendents in the area (attend a conference or webinar) and get a feel for what is happening within the market and when you are convinced that there is one most logical option present it to the owner/general manager and defend your ground!
One last piece of advice in this area … the pros and cons of overseeding and painting are numerous and complex and tend to divide people faster than a college football rivalry. If you are not the owner or highest authority and the owner/higher authority wants you to do the opposite of your recommendation after you have given all the appropriate data to support your recommendation (for example, they decide to overseed and you would rather paint), then march on and defend the common ground while keeping good records for next year’s due diligence. It will demonstrate a spirit of compromise and teamwork. Remember, when it comes to defending your ground, knowing where you stand is important. Defend your ground with genuine love for the property, but do not risk your job over a difference of opinion. Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” said it best, “Do not engage if you cannot win.”
How fast are the greens today? Now think about it for a minute before you answer. You know they were double cut and rolled yesterday for the big 144-player events at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. And today you just rolled greens to give them a break, knowing that the bentgrass will be facing a 100-plus degree heat index today. Now it is 3 p.m. and the first discounted tee time is on the tee.
…the pros and cons of overseeding and painting are numerous and complex and tend to divide people faster than a college football rivalry.”
He wants you to say 12’ on the Stimpmeter as of 2:55 p.m., but you know he is a 26-handicap and can barely handle 9’. You think they are rolling around 10’, but have not stimped them today. Then you realize he has a Stimpmeter (that he bought online) in his golf bag. Conundrum. And he has not even complained yet, but should he not putt well during his round expect the old adage of better slow greens than no greens to disappear like a golf ball in the rough at the U.S. Open and your name to be used as fertilizer in reference to green speeds.
Seriously, why all the bother about a number that reflects green speed? It is likely because the average golfer does not understand the fertility, water, grooming, brushing, verticutting, topdressing or rolling that results in how smooth and fast a ball rolls on a green. But they know 12’ on the Stimpmeter because they hear it while watching the weekly golf event on TV.
When I started in the golf business, the question was how are the greens, not how fast are the greens? And as long as they were healthy, consistent and smooth, all was well at Camelot GC. Today is another story. With cell phones, social media and greater competition for golfers, the fight about green speeds as a number is in the superintendent’s face daily.
How do you handle the pressure and defend your ground?
If you have members that are constantly complaining about green speed, invite them to come with you, stimp a few greens and talk about the process including personal and club expectations.”
First, if you are going to post a green speed number, make sure that it is accurate and that it will hold up under scrutiny. Find ways to connect a message of green consistency and health as factors in managing speed and/or ball roll whenever you can. Do you have a blog or newsletter? If you have members that are constantly complaining about green speed, invite them to come with you, stimp a few greens and talk about the process including personal and club expectations. Make sure that your course set-up staff are preparing with green speeds in mind and be sure to read any comments from surveys or social media and react accordingly. Pushing for faster green speeds is natural for competitive golfers and superintendents to say that our club is at another level. But be prepared to defend your ground be it 9’ or 13’. Match your programs to the needs and expectations of the club.
Well, we made it through the fight and handled all of the complaints. Thanks for sticking with me and I hope you found a few strategies to help you in your ongoing fight for success. The modern golf course superintendent faces challenges and criticism every day, but it is his love for the game and his role in it that keeps him sharp and capable. It is more important than ever for a superintendent to be savvy in many areas and interests so that he may defend his ground while taking the criticism of others as a constructive means to validate his decisions and grow. In closing, I am reminded of the words that legendary golf course superintendent Palmer Maples Jr. once told me, “If you have not lost a little grass, then you are not trying hard enough. You need to know how far is too far and what tolerances exist within intense conditioning and what steps to take under certain situations. Solving problems that improve and protect the course and the golfers’ experience should be our highest calling.” Words to live by.