2018, the Year in Review

By |  January 11, 2019 0 Comments
The Talking Greenkeeper (Photo: Joe Gulotti)

The Talking Greenkeeper (Photo: Joe Gulotti)

While I love writing my column, “The Walking Greenkeeper,” for Golfdom, I wanted a forum where I could go more in depth. So, I recently entered the world of podcasting.

I call it “The Talking Greenkeeper,” and on the show I have long-form discussions with interesting people in golf. My guests so far have been guys like Micah Woods of the Asian Turfgrass Center, Edwin Roald, a golf course architect based in Iceland and Rich Buckley, director of the Plant Diagnostic Lab at Rutgers University.

I invite you to check it out. It’s available wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for “The Talking Greenkeeper” and it’ll pop up.

For my eighth episode, I wrangled Golfdom Editor-In-Chief Seth Jones together with fellow Golfdom columnist Matt Neff for a conversation on the brutal year that was 2018. We talked weather, labor, robotic mowing, the majors and golfer expectations. The full episode is more than two hours long, but for the magazine, I’ve boiled it down to a few of the highlights.

Without further ado, here’s Seth and Matt.

Seth Jones and Cal Ripken, Jr. (Photo: Adam Slick)

Photographic evidence that Seth Jones has spent time with baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. …and that he hasn’t always had gray hair. (Photo: Adam Slick)

Joe: Gentlemen, thanks for being on episode eight of my podcast. To get started, I used to play this game where we would go around, and you would have to name an athlete who wore a certain number… this is episode eight, so who is an athlete that wore No. 8? Seth, go!

Seth: Kobe, the Mamba! I’m a Kobe fan, sorry.

Matt: Cal Ripken Jr.

Joe: Oh, that’s a great one.

Seth: Can I brag? I had lunch with Cal Ripken Jr. once.

Matt: Tom Watson and Cal Ripken Jr.? Jeez…

Seth: It was at Quail Hollow, he was super cool.

Joe: I’ve heard he’s played golf 3,456 days in a row now.

Seth: Just another reason to like Iron Man.

Loss of a friend

Joe: Seth, Steve Wright just passed away… I didn’t know Steve but I followed him on Twitter, and he was a columnist for Golfdom… you had a pretty good relationship with Steve, I’m sorry for your loss.

Matt Neff (Photo: John Tipping)

Assistant Superintendent Matt Neff says that 2018 was one of the worst years for labor he’s seen. (Photo: John Tipping)

Seth: Thanks, Joe. It was a real shock. Definitely a loss for the Golfdom family. He was a guy who just looked out for me, we became friends and he always invited me to Palm Beach GCSA meetings. He was a guy who knew everybody, and he wanted to make sure everybody else also knew everybody. I was able to get down to his service, and the gut-punch moment for me was when one of his daughters read one of his Golfdom columns during the service.

Joe: I didn’t know Steve personally, but it seemed that people genuinely liked him. Matt, did you know Steve?

Matt: I never had the fortune to meet him personally, but I enjoyed following him on Twitter. He shot me an email once about a column I had written, which was really cool of him. The No. 1 thing I took from his Twitter presence, he seemed to have a good grasp on the work/life balance. That’s something that can get lost in this business. He took time to do stuff with his wife and kids, I was always impressed by that.

Seth: Cheers to Steve.

Joe: Cheers.

Bellerive CC (Photo: Seth Jones)

Fortunately for places like Bellerive CC, labor isn’t such an issue. (Photo: Seth Jones)

Loss of labor

Joe: Guys, let’s talk about labor, and how dire the labor situation is in golf right now. Matt, what is the situation at Wedgewood G&CC?

Matt: It’s like everybody else, it’s pretty rough. This year was especially challenging. The last few years we’ve had decent success with hiring seasonal staff, we’ve had some good guys. But this year was really rough, I had a hard time finding guys to begin with. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had so many people just up and quit with no notice. I had two guys leave for lunch and never come back this year. It was brutal. You’d set up interviews and they wouldn’t show up, or you’d hire someone, and they wouldn’t show up for their first day. I’ll never understand that.

Joe: I had a guy show up in a Budweiser T-shirt, he had golf course experience, and I was going to give him a shot until he started dropping F-bombs and complaining about his previous employer. But I can only offer about $12 an hour tops. Are you similar to that, Matt?

Matt: Yes, we’re right around there. You can’t compete with what landscaping companies can offer; you can’t compete financially or with their schedule. It reinforces building the core group and keeping your good guys around. We wouldn’t have gotten through this year without our core guys.

Grounds team at 2018 Masters (Photo: Seth Jones)

The team at Augusta National applies colored sand to ball marks on the No. 9 green, keeping it camera-ready during the 2018 Masters. (Photo: Seth Jones)

Joe: What were some tactics you did to compensate the loss of labor?

Matt: There’s X amount of work that has to get done, regardless of who is there. Sometimes it turned into more hours for everybody else. And we had to make sure we were prioritizing and efficiently using what we had available to us on a given day.

Joe: Seth, you’re out there traveling around the country, what are you seeing?

Seth: I see it everywhere, I think it’s universal. I think it’s cultural now. You guys were golf nuts and you were honored to be out (on the golf course). Not to pick on a generation, but a generation that is so stuck on their cell phone and got shipped to any baseball game they wanted to play in, they’re just different. In Golfdom, we’re asking people, what are your ideas to survive? The cool methods, the products… we’re focused on saying, “Hey, the labor drama is around for the foreseeable future… what are you doing?” Is it letting areas go native? PGRs? Would you consider a robotic mower?

Joe: Given the labor shortage, do you think there will be a shift in expectations?

Mike Davis at 2018 U.S. Open (Photo: Seth Jones)

Executive Director Mike Davis (right) discusses course conditions with Charl Schwartzel at the 2018 U.S. Open. (Photo: Seth Jones)

Matt: There’s going to have to be. People talk about brown is beautiful… it’s got nothing to do with water restrictions, or pesticide regulations… if there aren’t people to do the job, it’s going to look different. It’s that simple. People can work harder to try to make up for the lack of staff. At the end of the day, things just aren’t going to get done with the frequency that it used to get done. People are going to have to live with it.

Seth: Members know that the days of throwing people at a problem are gone. Hopefully, they realize that it doesn’t do any good to complain. If you don’t have people, what are you supposed to do? The 75-year-old guy can complain with his group of good old boys, but he’s not going to be around much longer anyway.

Woeful weather

Joe: So, the story of the year had to be the weather, right? She crushed everyone all year, wouldn’t you say?

Matt: Without a doubt.

Seth: Brutal. I’m glad I have a desk job, fellas. I would not want to deal with what you guys dealt with this year. Just not a fun season here.

Shinnecock Hills fairway (Photo: Seth Jones)

A Shinnecock Hills fairway gets some pre-tournament TLC. (Photo: Seth Jones)

Matt: We started off with the coldest April on record, and we also had the most measurable snows of .10 inches or more in April. From that to the second-hottest May on record… and then we were off to the races from there, basically a five-month summer. Hot, humid, wet, everything you don’t want. We had 80-some straight days when the temperature never dropped below 65 degrees, with humidity on top of it all the time.

Joe: It was the same in Delaware. Cold in April, hot in May. A dry spell, then the rains came in the middle of July and it did not stop.

Matt: You saw where you needed drainage this year.

Seth: I think a lot of guys are going to be happy to see 2018 in the rearview. Hopefully, 2019 gives us something to work with. A lot of superintendents deserve a break.

Joe: We had 3 inches of snow today. I hate snow.

Seth: I remember grilling in the snow on Easter Sunday. And just two weeks ago in early November, I found myself grilling in the snow again.

Joe: Mother Nature, you won. You are undefeated.

Seth: And still, heavyweight champion.

The 2018 Majors

Joe: Let’s talk about the majors… Seth, you went to all three American majors, right?

Seth: It was a good year, yeah!

Joe: How was the Masters?

Seth: It’s always great. But Patrick Reed was not real popular with the Augusta patrons. What did you guys think?

Matt: He doesn’t seem like the nicest guy in the world. I would have liked to have seen someone else put on the green jacket.

Joe: It was all cool until I heard he gets pumped up listening to Imagine Dragons, then I decided he’s a kook. Do you guys think the “Augusta effect” is real?

Matt: The only thing I think is real up north is that it fires up golfers to get going when they see the course.

Joe: But what about conditions-wise?

Matt: No, I don’t believe in it. I think members realize we don’t have the budget of an Augusta National, they’re smart enough to understand.

Joe: Let’s talk about the U.S. Open at Shinnecock this year. That was the controversial tournament.

Seth: Before play starts, course conditions steal headlines. I’ve gotten to the point that I enjoy it… I like seeing what mainstream media says, and watch the knee-jerk reactions ensue. They were talking conditions on Saturday, it got windy… someone still won, but it got a little salty on Saturday. You want the course to get a good champion and (Brooks) Koepka proved it, he was great all year.

Joe: Matt, do you get caught up in the course conditions of the U.S. Open?

Matt: I tune out the U.S. Open conditions. To an extent I get it, but everybody has to play the same course. Why does it matter?

Seth: I think it’s cool because everyone — newspapers, sports talk radio, mainstream magazines — are talking about golf course conditions. I like it that, for a week, the mainstream media plays in my sandbox.

Matt: It would be nice if they put a superintendent in the booth so the Johnny Millers and Brandel Chamblees of the world can’t give misinformation to everyone.

Joe: I would love that job. I would be perfect for that job.

Seth: Remember me when you get that job. I just want you to namedrop Golfdom on network TV. It’s coming guys. I’ll kick myself when it happens. They do mess it up every year. Eventually they’ll get an eloquent superintendent to sit on the broadcast team.

Joe: They’ll get Latshaw or Zimmers or one of those dudes.

Seth: Someone mentioned it to Rich Lerner when we had him at the Golfdom Summit. And Rich was like, “In! Give me a call.” I should be nagging him about it.

Joe: How was the PGA Championship?

Seth: It was hot, but it was great. That was another one of those tournaments where there were some crazy headlines in the beginning of the week… about the greens being burnt out. I was stunned, the course looked so good. There was one green with a perimeter area that was a little thin… for a mainstream golf publication to throw them under the bus with a clickbait headline was a shock. By the time people saw it on TV, they knew the course was phenomenal.

Joe: It was dialed in and that headline was all over Twitter. I kept looking, it looked fine to me, it looked good!

Seth: “The truth will set you free!” And it did.

Maintenance Team at Bellerive CC (Photo: Seth Jones)

The 2018 PGA Championship maintenance team at Bellerive CC smiles after a job well done. (Photo: Seth Jones)

The future of greenkeeping

Joe: Seth, are there a lot of robotic equipment companies looking into getting into Golfdom?

Seth: Yeah, we’ve got some robotic equipment companies. We were in Orlando yesterday, and on the highway, we saw a guy operating a Spider, mowing a steep hill. At the 2018 Golfdom Summit, Cub Cadet is going to bring a robotic greens mower, and it sounds like they’ve got something cool for us. As the technology gets better and better, I can see it being a big deal. It’s fun for us, we want to be the guys who can pass along this information to you.

Joe: Matt, have you guys discussed bringing in robotic mowers or these GPS technology sprayers?

Matt: My boss mentioned it in passing, but it’s never been seriously pursued. We still work the old-fashioned way.

Joe: What would you think, would you go for it, or balk at it?

Matt: I think there’s definitely a lot of promise and possibility. I saw on social media where the guy sets up the mower, and while the mower is mowing, he’s raking the bunkers, cutting the cup. The productivity could be amazing with that kind of technology.

Joe: I have a vision of golf courses in the future, and it’s utopian in a sense. A drone goes out, scouts the course. A fleet of robotic mowers goes out. There are sensors in the soil telling the irrigation system if it needs to put out water. It’s in the next 10 years, is my prediction. It’s a world where robots are doing all the jobs, and I just get to play golf.

Matt: The future superintendent goes from the outdoorsy, athletic, active guy to the pasty dude who lives in his mom’s basement, just sitting at the keyboard all day watching his robots.

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