2020 State of the Industry: A year when weekdays were weekends, weekends were holidays

families get out to play what’s been deemed a safe and socially distant activity. (Photo: Jeffrey Whitmire)

Golf courses such as Williamsburg GC (above) have seen huge upticks in rounds as more people work from home and more families get out to play what’s been deemed a safe and socially distant activity. (Photo: Jeffrey Whitmire)

2020 will be a year everyone will remember.

The season was off to a strong start, even in places like Minnesota, which experienced an early spring. And then, something called COVID-19 stole the spotlight and temporarily closed courses across the country, forcing them to reevaluate their safety protocols and ask, “are we essential?”

Thankfully, courses would soon re-open with basic elements of the game changed or removed. Water coolers and bunker rakes were suddenly a thing of the past. Touching the flagstick was verboten. So was the simple premise of two workers to a cart or a lunch break taken together with the crew.

For our 2020 State of the Industry report, sponsored by Nufarm, we once again spoke to Golf Course Superintendents Association of America chapter presidents and representatives across the country to see what the “new normal” was in each region. This report features interviews from 12 states.

Headshot: Tom Fisher

Headshot: Tom Fisher

Tom Fisher

President, Greater Pittsburgh GCSA
Superintendent, Wildwood GC, Hampton, Pa.

Generally speaking, how was the 2020 golf season in your region?

This summer, the weather was just about perfect in our region. It was really dry, hot and just busy all summer.

This summer, the way I described it, we had a captive audience because right from the get-go people weren’t allowed to do much of anything except go outside. Golf was really strong in that regard once it was allowed here in Pennsylvania.

Rounds for us were up 20 percent over last year, and that was even without April and May. Even on a 10-month calendar, we beat last year’s 12-month calendar by 20 percent. I feel like that number is mirrored in a lot of courses around the area. It seemed like every day was a weekend and every weekend was a holiday.

What was labor like?

Early on, March, April and May, we were cautious in our hiring. We have a handful of retired guys on our staff, and members of our staff care for elderly parents, so we had to be cautious. But, we quickly realized that we could do our job well and stay distant from each other.

We also picked up a few professionals who had their normal day job careers scaled back or they had been furloughed. They just wanted to come on board and do something new, fill some time and get a paycheck. It was an interesting crop of good employees we brought on, these adult professionals.

What did you hear from local chapter members about how COVID-19 impacted their year?

It seems like pretty early on, everyone figured out how to operate under the mandates and suggestions from above. Everybody had an air of optimism about being able to get out and work. I do know that at times, if somebody had exposure or tested positive, there were entire operations that went down to skeleton crews right in the middle of golf season, while they sorted everything out with contact tracing. That was a challenge — one day you have a full staff, the next day you only have two or three guys in taking care of everything.

Any success stories from your chapter?

Back in March, members of our local chapter got together and made conference calls with other chapters in our state so we could get all of our ducks in a row. We got signatures on letters to state representatives to outline who we are, why we’re here and why we need to work. It wasn’t like we were fighting for our right to work; to be honest, I’m not sure that was ever in question.

What are your expectations for 2021?

Just talking to professionals outside our industry, the 9-to-5 people who report to offices … it sounds like a lot of the offices in the area, no one is hurrying to get back. I think that plays to golf’s favor. I have a feeling the captive audience will remain.

— S.J.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, some courses such as Hillcrest CC (above) added more single-rider carts, which, in turn, could lead to more cart damage along the course. (Photo: Hillcrest CC)

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, some courses such as Hillcrest CC (above) added more single-rider carts, which, in turn, could lead to more cart damage along the course. (Photo: Hillcrest CC)

Tim Davis

President, Rocky Mountain GCSA
Superintendent, Legacy Ridge GC, Westminster, Colo.

Headshot: Tim Davis

Headshot: Tim Davis

Generally speaking, how was the golf season in your region?

Definitely some uncertainty at the beginning, but generally most golf courses had a very strong season out here in Colorado. Most municipal golf courses were shut down the longest. We were shut down for two months. Ever since we’ve opened, we’ve had record-breaking months. Those courses that were
privately owned that were able to stay open are absolutely smashing it this year.

How was the weather for your area this year?

Difficult drought conditions for growing turf, but they allowed for many days of great golfing weather. And, the drought was so bad. Some courses rely on mountain runoff, and they just depleted their water storage
systems faster than normal because the rain fills up their ponds and reservoirs.

The wildfires we experienced were crazy and unlike anything Coloradans have ever seen. It didn’t affect this course all that much. It was very smoky and hazy. There were a couple of golf courses that were in the path of the fire, and one did get consumed by the fire.

How was your experience with labor this year?

What I’ve heard from other superintendents is that their crews were really strong this year. There was just a lot of very good qualified people looking for jobs. And, with school being basically canceled last spring, they were able to bring people in more in the shoulder seasons and keep people longer in Colorado.

Here at the city of Westminster, we reappropriated rec staff instead of furloughing employees. So, we had librarians, lifeguards, rec staff, weight room attendants … it was a lot of training, but (we had) really high-quality individuals working for us.

One of the librarians, she’s one of the best employees I’ve ever had. We could put her on any piece of equipment, and it just clicked. She’s picked up some hours here permanently, so she’s doing both (working at the library and the golf course).

What were some things that you heard from chapter members about how COVID-19 impacted their year?

I don’t know of a lot of operations that were affected by COVID specifically. Certainly, we had to take precautions, like putting pool noodles or putting some sort of contraption in the cup, pulling bunker rakes. But other than that, I don’t know of anybody that’s had it go through their operation and mess it up.

Were there notable success stories from your area/chapter this year?

I think our leadership did a great job getting clear direction on how we can proceed with golf in the state of Colorado and how to do it safely, between our governor and our health departments. We made tough decisions early on to cancel our annual turfgrass conference, networking events and golf tournaments. I think our chapter did a great job of just limiting financial impact to the association.

What are your expectations for 2021?

I see more of the same in terms of the amount of golf and the amount of revenue golf courses are making right now. Even if there is a full shutdown, I think golf is one of the things that you can do safely, be outside and do it right.

— A.H.

Headshot: John Temme

Headshot: John Temme

John Temme

Former President, Iowa GCSA
Superintendent, Wakonda Club, Des Moines, Iowa

Generally speaking, how was the golf season in your region?

We’re up 20 percent from last year, and last year was a record-breaking year. Being an 18-hole private club, we’re not extremely busy during the week. But, this year, sunup to sundown, it seems like every tee time was full. It seemed like right there everybody was either working from home or had flex schedules, and a place to social distance was the golf course. And, they were definitely taking advantage of it.

How was your experience with labor this year?

We usually open the golf course around spring break, but with COVID-19 and the restaurant being shut down, I wasn’t given the opportunity to hire anybody except for my full-time staff. So, we were at six full-time staff instead of 23 for March, April and May. And then, I was able to bring on some staff June 1. We just did bare bones on the golf course with six of us. I’ve never Triplexed greens before, but we did it this year because I didn’t have the labor to walk mow them. I had to borrow some cutting heads from a neighboring superintendent who had Triplex heads I could use. That took us up through June. And then, when I was able to hire staff, the U.S./Mexico border was still closed at that point, so guys that have six-month visas with me didn’t come up from Mexico this year, so I was short about three guys there. Then, a lot of my senior citizens, my old retired staff that mow fairways for me, with COVID, they didn’t want to be around other people. So, all said and done, I think I got up to about 15 people instead of 23. I was eight people short through the heart of the summer. I’m really proud of the way the golf course held in there with limited staff. The expectations were lower this year, obviously, from my membership. They were very understanding in what we were going through. And actually, a lot of them volunteered to come out and help.

Were there notable success stories from your area/chapter this year?

I think the derecho on Aug. 10 really brought out the good in everybody. If we had extra equipment that we weren’t using, we were dragging it over to a fellow golf course. Central Iowa, all the way over to Cedar Rapids, was where it was the hardest effected with this derecho. My colleagues from out of town, they were definitely here to help me.

What are your expectations for 2021?

Oh, it’s got to be a lot better than this year. I just hope to get back to normal. I hope to have a full crew, have all positions filled on my staff. You don’t realize how important your staff is until they’re gone and you don’t have them.

— S.W.

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About the Author: Sarah Webb

Sarah Webb is Golfdom's former managing editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at Golfdom, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 25-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.

About the Author: Christina Herrick

Christina Herrick is the former editor of Golfdom magazine.

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