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In adversity, ingenuity: Golf course hacks during COVID-19

Golf course beauty shot (Photo: ImagineGolf/iStock-Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Photo: ImagineGolf/iStock-Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Over the past four months, the pandemic has changed the way the world operates. Golf has not been excluded.

Goodbye, common touch points — ball washers, bunker rakes and water coolers have mostly been moved off the golf course and to the least-visible corner of the maintenance facility yard. The act of touching the flagstick and reaching into the cup, perhaps the most common facet of the game, has been rethought so players don’t have to touch anything other than their own ball. That means installing anything from a pool noodle in the golf cup or a system like Standard Golf’s Cup Saver Ball Retriever. To make sure golfers aren’t touching flagsticks, some courses are even removing flagsticks off the greens completely.

All of this has had to be done on the fly, as golf courses have been absolutely packed this spring. “As one superintendent said to me, weekdays are now like weekends, and weekends are now like holiday weekends,” reports John Daniels, USGA Green Section central agronomist. “Superintendents by nature are excellent problem-solvers. When faced with a new problem, they come up with a new solution. From pool noodles in the cup to minimizing touch points, it’s good to see creative solutions so quickly.”

Golfdom talked to Daniels as well as superintendents around the country to learn some new processes that have been installed at courses. Some of these might just be here to stay.

Unnatural natural areas and rakes

Daniels published an article titled, “Nine golf course practices I hope don’t come back” on the USGA’s Green Section Record. In his crosshairs were elaborate mowing patterns, painting the hole and ball washers.

Another sticking point with Daniels was what he called “unnatural naturalized areas.”

“Natural areas, or if you want to call them native areas, they vary from manicured consistent monocultures of one plant species to something that is much more native and varies from year to year and looks different from one point in the year to the next point,” Daniels says. “To achieve something that is consistent requires a fair amount of inputs, and there is a disconnect among golfers in understanding what it requires to produce some of these very consistent areas.”

Daniels advocates for superintendents to streamline their operations and focus resources on more important areas of the course.

Golf course beauty shot (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

“I think it’s a very understandable approach that during the coronavirus, golf courses must focus on the areas that matter most.” – John Daniels (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

“Those resources could be better served somewhere else on the course, because frankly, these areas are out of play,” he says. “I think it’s a very understandable approach that during the coronavirus, golf courses must focus on areas that matter most.”

Another element of the game that Daniels singles out, common over the last 60 years at least, are bunker rakes. “I have yet to hear any examples of how the removal of bunker rakes has ruined a golfer’s round,” he wrote in his article at

Superintendents also welcome the removal of these low-lying obstacles, reports Micah Pennybaker, superintendent of the South Course at Carmel CC in Charlotte, N.C.

“From our perspective, it’s easier on the maintenance, especially getting around mowing, spraying bunker faces, any of that,” Pennybaker says. “That’s one of the cooler (changes) that I like: Just let the members move the ball around. We’re not playing USGA rules. Just find a good spot.”

“I think we’ll see a number of courses that won’t utilize bunker rakes the way they did before (the pandemic),” Daniels tells Golfdom. “Whether that means they have a reduced number of bunker rakes or they don’t put them out at all, and they rake daily before golfers go out and expect golfers to brush aside deep footprints. I can tell you that at a lot of courses I play, people don’t know how to use that rake.”

The ease of mowing around bunkers without rakes could significantly reduce labor hours, Daniels says. And, he adds that bunkers should become more challenging, from the professional level down to municipal golf.

Bunker rake (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

The elimination of bunker rakes could help crews move easier and more efficiently around bunkers. (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

Daniels says his list of nine things could have been longer. He could have mentioned decorative flowers, an element he finds completely unnecessary for a course. And there’s one more thing he hopes doesn’t come back to golf, but it’s more of a philosophy: irrational expectations for conditions.

“When golf was allowed in some places and not allowed in others, there was an uncertainty,” Daniels says. “The irrational expectations among some golfers — I didn’t hear them, didn’t see them. Everyone was just enjoying the game. That’s one thing I hope can be reset … the expectations, day to day, of a golf course. Faster greens don’t necessarily make for a more enjoyable experience. It was fun to see everybody just happy to be out there.”

— Seth Jones

Knocking out greens in a snap

As COVID-19 hit the state of Mississippi, Chase Smith, superintendent at Olive Branch (Miss.) Country Club faced maintaining a golf course with a reduced staff. That’s when he remembered something he did from when he worked at Memphis (Tenn.) Country Club.

Smith had to terminate one full-time employee and was unable to hire seasonal staff at Olive Branch CC so he looked for ways to become more efficient. When Smith was at Memphis CC, the course got a triplex mower and superintendent Jason Bradley implemented a different style of mowing. Smith says that technique saved mow time then, so he thought it would work at Olive Branch.

“You knock out a green in five minutes,” he says. “The pattern is easiest described as mowing your cleanup ring first. Going clockwise or counter clockwise to alternate patterns. Say we are going clockwise, you start at 12, go around the cleanup (edge of green). As you get back to 12, you turn the mower to the right and drive straight down to 6. This limits sharp turns. Each turn is the same distance and width from each other.”

Smith says his crew doesn’t have to pick up reels on the triplex mowers, so he’s noticed decreased traffic on the collars.

“We’ve been doing this for about three weeks straight and as of now, I have very minimal damage to any of the surfaces,” he says. “This method is different than typical half-and-half patterns because you never pick up the reels. The mower has one entrance and one exit from the green, therefore limited stress to the collars and approach of the green.”

Smith says if there is a point where some stress shows up on the collars, the crew will just pick one direction to let the collars heal.

“If you’re a course that is fortunate enough to have big tees, I would recommend it there,” he says. “Because then you’re standing some grass up that you normally might not. You’ll get a cleaner cut. I have noticed a cleaner cut on my greens because of that, when you get down to the edge and you turn around and come back, you’re hitting it from a few different directions instead of just one. If you decided to double-cut, you’re just cutting from the opposite direction.”

As part of the COVID-19 precautions, Olive Branch CC removed all touch points on the course, which included flagsticks. And without flagsticks, the course got creative in how to direct golfers to putt.

“We made a pin sheet, (and) we placed one pin behind the green and we based the hole location off of that pin,” he says. “That way, our members would still have something to share to get a yardage on. Then, we tell them how many paces are left to get to the pin.”

Members seemed to respond positively to the touch-free putting. “A lot of our members played better rounds without flagsticks in the hole than with them because they were aiming for the center of the green,” Smith says.

— Christina Herrick

Build it and they will eat

When employees were forced to take lunch in their cars and carts due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, Sean Reehoorn, superintendent at Aldarra GC in Sammamish, Wash., knew something had to give.

Putting up a tent in Aldarra CC’s parking lot allowed employees to better socially distance themselves and eat their lunches outdoors. (Photo: Sean Reehoorn)

Putting up a tent in Aldarra CC’s parking lot allowed employees to better socially distance themselves and eat their lunches outdoors. (Photo: Sean Reehoorn)

His solution: a tent for people to eat lunch in. Reehoorn bought one for $200, and all in all, it took about three people an hour to put it up in the parking lot, weigh it down with cinder blocks and spread out tables and chairs.

“Our maintenance facility is an old barn that was built in the ’40s, so it’s small, long and narrow. It’s pretty confined,” Reehoorn says. “We thought it was necessary to social distance, and we couldn’t do it in the space with the staff we had, but I just don’t think that’s a great representation of us as a club to make people eat in their cars.”

He adds that this way, people are only going into the barn’s break room to use the restroom or wash their hands, significantly limiting traffic in and out of the barn.

Reehoorn says employees like the new addition, so much so that it may become a more permanent fixture than originally intended.

“They think it’s nice to have a place they can still be around each other and chat, joke and laugh and try to be as routine as it would’ve been prior to social distancing,” he says. “Depending on what happens in the fall and winter, on nice days, we might move it to a different location that’s a little more permanent where if people want to sit outside and eat lunch, they can.”

Overall, Reehoorn says he’s tried to create as safe an environment for employees as possible. “It’s letting people know, if you don’t feel safe, now is not the time to be quiet,” he says. “Now is the time to speak up because maybe the idea you have could be better for everyone.”

— Sarah Webb

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