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2020 Vision: State of the Industry recap

By and |  January 27, 2020 0 Comments
2020 vision (Photo: marigold_88/Essentials Collection/Getty Images)

Photo: marigold_88/Essentials Collection/Getty Images

The beginning of a new decade sparks nostalgia for some, while at Golfdom, we’re eager to look to the future.

In December 2019, we surveyed our readers on various topics, from their expectations for 2020 to their opinions on robot mowers and social media use. We learned that labor is still the No. 1 concern for readers and that only 15 percent of respondents saw rounds decline at their facilities. We also got a wildly diverse response to our question regarding President Donald Trump’s performance (see chart below), but most readers believe overall, he’s shot par or better over the last three years.

The Carolinas GCSA chapter returned the most surveys this year — we look forward to visiting an event in the Carolinas in 2020 and thanking chapter members for the support. And congratulations to Michael Ponsler at Jaycee’s Public Golf Club in Zanesville, Ohio, and Chris Tierney at The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., for being our two randomly drawn winners of $100 gift cards.

2020 expectations (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Click on chart to enlarge. (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Correcting course

Optimism is high but so are expectations for course conditions

When it comes to optimism, the respondents to our survey have a lot of it. When asked for their view on the golf economy in 2020, 70 percent (21 percent “very optimistic” and 49 percent “slightly optimistic”) were positive about golf’s outlook headed into 2020.

“I think we’re going to see continued correction,” says Alex J. Stuedemann, CGCS, director of golf course maintenance operations at TPC Deere Run in East Moline, Ill. “I think we’re going to still see golf courses close, but I also see other golf courses doing renovations, improving their product, improving their customer service offerings.”

Matt Cavanaugh, assistant superintendent at Rush Creek Golf Club in Maple Grove, Minn., expects that 2020 will be a good year for golf in his home state. He says he doesn’t have a bleak outlook on the economy, and despite some course closures in his area, people are still looking to play the game. His facility, a high-end public resort, is packed with golfers when the weather is nice, despite a lofty price tag ($119 green fees on weekends).

“Closures are never good, but not every club can be viable,” he says. “Some needed to go away, and I think it’s been good for the industry.”

Now, he says, the struggle is to manage golfer expectations when the courses are getting so much play.

Difficulty of retaining a full crew (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Click on chart to enlarge. (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Many expect the golf industry to hold steady in the coming year, neither predicting wild success nor disappointing failure. 2019 Herb Graffis Businessperson of the Year Award winner Alan FitzGerald, superintendent at LedgeRock Golf Club in Mohnton, Pa., says he expects the industry to keep doing what it’s doing. “In the long term,” he says, “I think that golf is just settling into what it needs to be, and once it reaches that point, it’ll be successful.”

Some expressed concern that not enough young people are getting into golf because of public course closures.

“I hope that between the PGA, GCSAA and the USGA, we get back to leaning on the municipalities and the county golf courses,” says Tim Johnson, superintendent at Spring Hill Golf Club in Wayzata, Minn., who expresses concerns that courses are still too expensive for young people.

Michael Heustis is hopeful that courses will continue to do more to attract golfers of any age and skill level. He is optimistic that it will drive the economy of golf in the right direction.

Weather — always the unknown factor — could determine how 2020 shapes up, and superintendents are aware of it. Mother Nature was a beast in 2019, and some superintendents expressed concern that 2020 could have more unpredictable weather in store.

Steve Cohoon, CGCS at Raspberry Golf Management, a golf course consulting firm based in Leesburg, Va., says he hopes this year will be better, because the weather was all over the place in 2019. “Weather changes, and the climate changes,” he says. “We’ve had more rain followed by more drought, which impacts play.”

Despite concerns about the weather, Cohoon is another one of the optimists in the industry. He says that if Mother Nature cooperates in 2020, courses will attract even more play.

Trump performance (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Click on chart to enlarge. (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Mother of all challenges

Superintendents continue to face the revolving door of labor

We asked in our survey the open-ended question, “What is your biggest concern going into 2020?” The responses were varied, from weather to aging equipment and memberships, but the most common answer by far was keeping a full crew.

“Labor, labor, labor,” wrote one survey taker, who also said, “We managed to survive last year and had a successful year by working the crew more hours to make up for a lack of employees, but that is not going to fly again this year. We know we burned out our guys this year, and we apologized to them many times. We are going to need to figure out how to increase our staff levels, because a lesser-conditioned course is not an option.”

Jason Hollen, superintendent at Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va., says that keeping a full staff is the “mother of all challenges” at his facility.

“It’s the No. 1 thing that makes it tough for the job that we want to do,” he says. “I have gone to the point as far as splitting a 40-hour position with two folks who will both do 20 hours. I’m always looking for something new to get more people in there so I can fill these positions.”

Mike Valiant, CGCS, and his crew at Glenwild Golf Club & Spa in Park City, Utah, maintain a Tom Fazio course that Golf Digest recognized as the “Best in Utah.” While the club is well known in Utah, behind the scenes, keeping the crew at full staff has been a nightmare based on its location in a resort community.

“We have to retrain a new staff every year. I feel like if I can get three years out of a guy, I’m doing pretty good,” Valiant says. “You have to be very flexible and treat your crew with kid gloves, because, ‘Hey, I need tomorrow off.’ Well, we have a tournament, but OK — try coming back the next day. A lot of guys go on to other jobs. It’s tough; it’s a tough market.”

Robotic mower interest (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Click on chart to enlarge. (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Duane Sander, CGCS at Shoal Creek GC in Kansas City, Mo., agrees that the shelf life of a good crew member is only a few years before that person leaves for a better-paying job.

“I’ve groomed kids up from high school, they’ll stay with me four or five years, and the next thing you know, they get poached,” he says. “You have a good guy, but someone else needs an assistant or a second assistant … but it’s OK, we network and try to help each other out. I just wish I could pay them more to get more qualified experience.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent, a 50-year low. Indeed, the only superintendent we talked to who didn’t bemoan the current effort it takes to keep a full crew is based outside America’s borders.

Chip Caswell, superintendent at Santa Maria Golf Club in Panama City, Panama, has worked as a superintendent in both the United States and Latin America. He says the labor problem in the golf industry is unique to America. “It’s hard to find people (to work) in the U.S. In Latin America, it’s not,” he says. “I have no issues with labor.”

Mowers crawling out like crabs

Superintendents show an interest in robotics

Just above 50 percent of superintendents who responded to the survey are curious to try robotic mowers at some point, while 20 percent never want to turn to our robotic overlords, and 28 percent want to try it now.

Tim Davis, superintendent at Legacy Ridge Golf Course in Westminster, Colo., is one such superintendent.

“I love what these companies are doing right now,” he says. “I wish I could jump in right now, but I’ll wait a couple more years. It’s coming, for sure. I think it’ll happen in my lifetime when I sit at my desk, kick my feet up, hit a button, the doors go up and the mowers crawl out like crabs.”

Cavanaugh, on the other hand, would be happy to welcome robots to his course as soon as today. He believes robotic mowers would give him the opportunity to maintain Rush Creek’s par-3 course without having to take workers away from other parts of the facility that may need more urgent attention.

“We have a par-3 course that is really hard for us to maintain,” he explains. “The championship course always gets precedent, and we always seem to run out of time to get to the short course.”

Not everyone shares Davis’ and Cavanaugh’s opinions about the future of robotic technology on the golf course, however. Though interested, some superintendents show apprehension about their ability to reduce labor, as well as what they could do for the future of certain golf courses.

Maintenance budget (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Click on chart to enlarge. (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

“I’m interested to see where it goes,” Hollen says. “I think we’re headed that way, definitely. Will it be the final answer? I think it’ll be a combination. You still have to have people who can operate the robots at this time.”

Charles Aubry, superintendent at East Lake Country Club in Atlanta, host course of the Tour Championship, echoes that sentiment. He worries that courses will end up spending more money on labor when they have to hire a mechanic who can work on the machines. He also expresses some concerns about what the machinery could do to the industry as a whole.

“I think robotics are going to separate the industry a little bit more,” he says. “The people who can afford them are going to use them … you’re almost going to see a larger separation in middle- and lower-level clubs from the upper-level clubs.”

Atlanta Athletic Club Equipment Manager John Patterson agrees, saying that they might serve to separate the haves from the have-nots.

Into the Twitterverse

Readers rely on social media as a “global roundtable”

A handful of superintendents who took the survey — 26 percent — aren’t using any form of social media, and while some are on Facebook (43 percent) or just have a blog (16 percent), Twitter reigns supreme as the social media channel of choice.

Fifty-one percent of respondents to the survey are on Twitter. And while some are active users, not everyone is tweeting all the time.

“I use Twitter for work. I don’t tweet too much, but I gather information and pick up ideas from other folks,” says Drew Barnett, superintendent at Knollwood Club in Lake Forest, Ill.

Twitter usage (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

Click on chart to enlarge. (Chart: Golfdom Staff)

Using Twitter not to tweet but rather to keep an eye on what other superintendents and industry professionals are doing seems to be a common theme.

Chris Cook, superintendent at Bailey Ranch Golf Club in Owasso, Okla., refers to Twitter as a giant global coffee roundtable where industry professionals can talk shop. “I learn something every day I get on there,” he says. He encourages his assistants and the rest of his staff to get on Twitter to learn what other turf professionals are up to.

Even superintendents who avoid Twitter to make sure they don’t say something they can’t take back turn to the social media channel for valuable information.

Both Matt Schuldt, superintendent at Seattle Golf Club, and Kevin Banks, superintendent of Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., try not to use social media for work too much (“Just so I don’t get myself in trouble,” Banks says), but like to use Twitter to see what others are up to at their courses.

“I love Twitter to learn what other people in my industry are doing,” Banks says. “Whether its following Frank Rossi at Cornell, magazines like Golfdom, other superintendents and even sports turf managers or (agriculture) guys, where I can relate what they do to what we do. So, it’s more of a learning hub than anything else for me.”

Cook also blogs for his members, something Steven Friedell of North Hills Country Club in Glenside, Pa., Steve Sarro of Pinehurst Country Club in Denver, Colo., and roughly 25 percent of superintendents who responded to the Golfdom survey are doing.

“The blog is more for in-house customers,” Cook says. “It’s more long form, so if I’m describing a project or something like that, I really enjoy the format.”



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