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Facility Growth and Success: Communication and Teamwork

History

Oquirrh Hills Golf Course is a municipal course located in Tooele, UT (about 30 mi. west of Salt Lake City). The golf course is set against the Oquirrh Mountains, at an elevation of 5200 ft. The first golf course in Tooele was built in the 1920’s, and was an old course created in a pasture-field area on the edge of town. The layout was simple, with mowed pasture grass, and had pure sand greens that were hand-raked and lightly oiled.

The front nine of the current Oquirrh Hills golf course opened in 1949. The back nine was built in 2005-2006, opening in the spring of 2007. The course is not long, 6630 from the back tees, but makes up for its length with narrow fairways and small, push-up style greens (greens average approx. 3200 sq ft). The property that the front nine is on was donated by a local family, and the construction work was done by various groups from around the city. Each group was in charge of a specific hole, and worked the hole from design through construction. The local Volunteer Fire Department and the Lions Club were the lead groups involved in the design and construction of the course. There have been various improvements to the course through the years, including several irrigation upgrades and multiple tree planting programs.

Soon after the original course was completed, and through the years since, there were always ongoing discussions about adding an additional nine holes to the course, but these plans never got further than discussion. The local golfers had been promised the back nine would be built so often, that when plans and financing were finally in place in the summer of 2005, very few believed it. When construction equipment arrived on-site that fall, everyone wanted to know what was going on. “The back nine is really going to be built?” People didn’t believe it until the heavy equipment began moving dirt. The new back nine opened for play in the spring of 2007.

Oquirrh Hills Golf Course has hosted numerous local and state tournaments, including one of the oldest ongoing tournaments in the state, The Western Amateur. The course also hosted the Utah Women’s State Am in 1960. Oquirrh Hills is scheduled to host the State Senior Women’s Am. in 2010.

Communication and Improvements

I came to Oquirrh Hills Golf Course in the fall of 2001. There were many areas on the course and around the facility that needed attention and improvements. Much of the golf course was in rough shape, and the players were not happy with course conditions. Funding had not been adequate for several years, and it was obvious that the maintenance and upgrading of equipment, maintenance facility, and the irrigation system had been neglected. When requests were made for various tools, equipment purchases and irrigation upgrades, the response was “we didn’t know you needed that”. The lines of communication had broken down. The golf maintenance staff didn’t have the tools that were needed to maintain the course, and the city administration was not aware of what the golf course needed to be successful. Communication between the course, staff, and administration had to be re-established. Open communication and sharing of information would be crucial to making the improvements that were needed on the course, and ultimately, to bring to pass a long awaited expansion.

Improvements

During the interview process, several visits were made to the golf course, and discussions about course issues took place with the Parks and Recreation Director. The biggest concern was the condition of the irrigation system, but plans were being put in place to upgrade the old system. The old system was a hydraulic system, installed in the early 1970’s, and other than a few head replacements, was mostly original. The hydraulic tubing was exposed throughout the course, control of the system was very poor, and almost every valve and clock leaked. It took a substantial amount of time and resources making the necessary repairs just to keep the system operating.
In the spring notification came that the funding was not available to upgrade or replace the irrigation system, (due to 9/11), and that we would have to make due with what we had. The condition of the system was actually far worse than appeared during the initial inspection, and the area was in the middle of a four year drought. The summer of 2002 was spent visiting the Parks Directors’ and Mayors’ offices, talking to City Councilmen, writing reports and communicating with players at the course. The drought conditions actually helped in getting the seriousness of the problem communicated. In the summer of 2002, due to the drought conditions, there was no watering allowed at all during the day, and after a few weeks it showed. All areas of the course were affected with poor quality and dying turf. In discussions with the Mayor, city council, etc, they were shown that with a new irrigation system, the course could be kept in great condition, and actually use less water than what was currently being used (There ended up being about a 35-40 % reduction). Through hard work with the finance department, and a loan from the Redevelopment Agency, in the fall of 2002 we installed a new irrigation system.

The city had already started building a new clubhouse facility (2000), and it was in the final stages of construction. The old building had been condemned, and the course had been operating out of a trailer for several years. The new clubhouse opened in the spring of 2002 and was a big upgrade from the older building, and the rustic log-cabin fits in well with the course scenery and the nearby mountains.

The City of Tooele had already pursued and secured funding to construct irrigation holding ponds and a pump station for the golf course. The city owned shares in an irrigation company, but had been unable to use them. The ponds and pumphouse were completed in 2003, and the golf course was able to switch over from the culinary water system and use its’ shares of irrigation water for the golf course.
Maintenance for the course was run out of an old school building. It was just a small building with several inter-connecting rooms. The roof was leaky, and did not have nearly the room that was needed. Equipment was stored outside, and there was not room for working on the equipment, much less storage for supplies or inventory. Again, discussions were held with the Parks Director and the Administration about the poor conditions and lack of space. In late 2002, the city negotiated the sale of 3 acres of property with the old maintenance building, and with those funds, a new 10,000 sq/ft Parks/Recreation and Golf Course maintenance facility was constructed.

The original front nine was a par 35. There were 2-3 acres available in the course property that was able to be developed and used, and plans were made to get the course to a par 36. Holes’ two and three were both par three holes, and so the tees were extended back on the third hole 125 yards, to create a par four. As part of the project, a new green had to be built for the second hole. The new design included creating a new pond and water feature for the second hole, and reconstruction of the tee area. This work was all done in-house, and play opened on the new holes in the fall of 2004.

Discussions about the back nine, along with an impact study, were completed in 2000. A new Clubhouse, irrigation holding ponds, and a new pumphouse were all part of the study. The clubhouse, ponds and pumphouse were all funded (through loans or grants) and completed by 2003. Funding for the back nine, however, stalled. In the spring of 2005, a new recreation tax source was found that would be able to cover a majority of the cost of construction. A financial feasibility study was initiated look at development of the back nine. By mid-summer the study was complete and supported the proposed construction. Permission to proceed was given by the City Council, with approval to hire an architect and put the project out to bid. The timing and scope of the project worked out for the final selection of Andy Johnson as architect, and Wadsworth Golf to be the construction contractor. Ground was broken in September of 2005, with construction finished in August of 2006. The back nine and new driving range opened for play in May of 2007.

Even before the opening of the new back nine, there were concerns with the playability of three greens, 14, 16, and 17. The push-up style of the greens on the back nine was copied from the front nine, but on these three holes, the slopes and mounding were severe. The greens are small, only 3200-3400 sq/ft. and so the slopes’ of 5-6 percent on these greens was not working. In the fall of 2007, a reconstruction project for 14 green began. It re-opened for play in May of 2008. In the fall of 2009, 16 green was rebuilt. The same process was followed as 14 green: removing materials, re-grading sub-grade and surface, then replacing soil and sod. The process went smoother this time, and plans are to re-open the green when the course opens in the spring of 2010. The plans for 17 green have been completed, and the budget is being evaluated, along with schedule, to determine when this green can be reconstructed.

Communication

An important and crucial part of being able to make these improvements on the golf course came down to communication. Working with all team members at the course, city officials (Parks Director, Mayor, City Council), and players; the experience, condition, financial status, and overall success of our facility have all been improved. Through ongoing communications like memos, reports, and e-mails and meetings, the Parks Director and City Administration always know what is going on at the course. Even if there was not an immediate solution due to budget, schedule, man power, etc., they are kept informed and up-to-date of what is happening at Oquirrh Hills, and so are not caught off-guard by requests and issues. Good communication helps a facility to run smoothly and with increased efficiency, regardless of whether you are at a municipal facility, resort, or private club.

Communication is critical for the success of a golf facility, whether it is the between superintendent/golf professional, superintendent /professional/director, or the superintendent /professional/players at your course. The new irrigation system upgrade that was completed in 2002 came about specifically due to communication. The problems, issues, and solutions were communicated in detail to the people who make the decisions: the Parks Director, City Council and the Mayor. It was not just one short conversation, or complaints and criticism. It came down to helping them to understand the problems and issues that we were facing, and then giving them the information and knowledge they needed to make an informed decision. It took a summer of knocking on office doors and writing memos and reports, but in the end, they saw the value of what was being requested, and found a way to make it work.

Many of the projects that have been done on the course are a result of communication with those playing our course. Whether it is bunker improvements, tee work, or rebuilding of the greens, there needs to be a communication channel for players/golfer to comment and express their opinions. We anticipated that there were going to be issues with some of the new back nine greens, because of the slope and size of three of the greens. When the design of the course began to affect revenue and rounds, changes needed to be made. There were discussions with the Parks Director and Mayor extensively about the issue and solutions, but it all came down to funding and budgets. In the down economy and decreased revenues, funding was not available to hire an outside contractor to come in and do the work. Also, it was important to do the project right. We didn’t want to just make the greens better. If we were going to rebuild the greens, we wanted to take them from the worst greens/holes, to being the best on the course. Ultimately, it was determined that the project could be done in-house. It has been a lot of work, and there is still one green to go, but the response has been very enthusiastic.
Another example of teamwork facilitating the success of the golf course operation is the growth of league play, junior participation, and new player rounds at Oquirrh Hills. The team at the golf course met and had discussions regarding the vision and mission for the course. Making a decision about what kind of course to be was important in formulating a plan for marketing and promoting Oquirrh Hills. It was decided that local play, emphasizing leagues, and promoting, family, junior, and new players was our niche in the market. Through focused efforts and marketing, league and tournament play has grown substantially in the last 3-5 years. Leagues are running everyday Monday-Thursday, with some weekend events, including a successful Jr. League starting its third year. Last year Oquirrh Hills was designated a PGA Family Course, the first one so designated in the state. The PGA Family Course requires multiple sets of forward tees, which establishes a short course within an existing facility. It provides a transition as a players ability increases, and encourages parents and kids to play together. Pro shop staff and the maintenance crew, working together, had to go out on the course and locate areas suitable for forward tees, then include these areas in our tee mowing and maintenance program. All these tournaments and leagues require constant communication with the clubhouse and pro shop staff in order to run smoothly. They need to be able to let us know about course issues and any set-up concerns, and we can communicate daily about issues that need to be addressed with golfers.

At this time every golf facility is being affected by the current economy, decreasing revenues, and budgets. In the feasibility study that was done for the back-nine expansion, the forecast was for the golf course to be self-supporting by 2017-2018. The revenues for Oquirrh Hills have increased each year since 2005, with a 75 percent increase from 2006 to 2007, the first year with 18 holes. Revenue was up five percent in 2008, and a surprising eight percent for 2009. Working as a team, with efforts from all areas of the facility, the 2008 season numbers showed only a 10 percent deficit (revenue to budget). When the final numbers come in, the expectation is for 2009 to be even better. Through communication and working as a team we are close to achieving the goal of becoming a self supporting operation. Success comes from understanding the goals of the facility, keeping the lines of communication open, and working together as a team.

The state of the golf industry, nationally, and in our own local areas’ is, for the most part, struggling. Active participation in growing the game is important and will be crucial in the growth of golf in general, and in making our respective facilities successful. In order to do this, there must be effective teamwork taking place at our facilities. The G.M./Director of Golf/Parks Director, the Golf Professional, and the Golf Course Superintendent all need to be committed to working together for the success of the golf course facility. As superintendents, we all have our maintenance vs. proshop stories and experiences, some good, others maybe not so much; but I believe that the better we can work together, the more success we can have as a facility, and thus individually and professionally. Better daily and weekly communication is needed. Learn and understand more about what the Golf Professional and shop staff do. Become familiar with, and try to relate to their position. Share with and teach them what we do and why we do it. I have heard superintendents say “why would I want to share information with them”, or “it is none of his business how I schedule mowing.” In many instances it is an “us” vs. “them” mentality. That is the opposite of what should be happening. Let the pro shop staff know as much as you can about what you are doing. If the shop staff is aware of issues on the course, they can communicate to the players as they go out. Complaints will be fewer if the golfers are aware of course conditions. The more the pro staff knows about what is happening out on the course, the better off we will be, both as individuals, and as a facility.

Use staff training time to talk to your crew about the pro-shop staff and what they do. Discourage criticism and disparaging remarks about the pro-shop staff. Be an example of teamwork, support the golf professional and staff. Discard the “me” and “them” mentality, and become “us” and “we”. Work to develop better relationships with the golf professionals and managers at our courses. This will create an improved working environment and greater facility success, whether that comes in rounds, increased revenues, or in course conditions. What better advocate could the Golf Course Superintendent have than a well-informed Golf Professional, who knows and talks to the golfers at your facility everyday, and hears their comments and complaints? Have the Golf Professional and shop staff as your team-mates, knowing they ‘have your back’, and are not “stabbing you” in it.

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