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Going Dormant

After several years working in the golf course maintenance industry in the Pacific Northwest, I took the position as superintendent at We-Ko-Pa. Ten years ago we opened the first course, skillfully designed by Scott Miller, at the We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, located about 20 miles northeast of Phoenix on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. The course is unique in this region because it is far from housing developments and has stunning mountain views. The course was a tremendous success; after the opening in December of 2001, We-Ko-Pa was increasingly profitable year after year. The Yavapai Tribal Nation had always planned to build a second golf course. Due to the overwhelming success of the first course it was a relatively easy decision to proceed with the plans to build another one. Five years later we opened the second golf course magnificently designed by Coore & Crenshaw.
As was hoped, the second course added to the financial success of We-Ko-Pa. Everything was going great until we entered the all-too-familiar
economic downturn. As the fall of 2008 approached, the entire management team at We-Ko-Pa had a sense that change was upon us. Business levels had begun to drop and there seemed to be a feeling of uneasiness among the general public with regard to the economy. As managers, we had to take a hard look at how we were doing things and try to determine whether or not we could eliminate or modify any of our practices in order to decrease operational expenses. I’m fairly certain that most golf courses (in fact, probably most businesses) throughout the country went through the same process around that time. Our goal was to reduce operational costs without sacrificing the quality of our product.
Since course maintenance normally accounts for the
majority of the expenses, it was my responsibility to find
a way to significantly cut our operating costs. Labor
accounted for 62 percent of our budget, so it seemed
obvious that we needed to find a way to run our operation with fewer people. If we were going to try to produce the same level of quality with fewer people, we needed to figure out a way to decrease the workload and/or get more production out of our laborers. This was a challenge. I was wondering what we were going to be able to do differently. The one idea that emerged was to look at our overseeding practices. Up until that point we had always overseeded both of our golf courses wall-to-wall. The only areas we left dormant were the slopes surrounding the bunkers.
I am from the Northwest and I remember flipping through trade journals with pictures of golf courses from the Southeast with overseeded, dark green fairways and
dormant, golden-brown rough. I have always thought the contrast between the emerald green and brown was a great look. However, in the previous 15-20 years leading up to 2008, it was very uncommon for a high-end public golf facility to leave any turf areas dormant other than bunker slopes in the Phoenix-Scottsdale market.
Fortunately, I was able to convince my bosses and fellow managers that we could realize significant savings by simply eliminating 20 acres of overseed between the two golf courses in “out-of-play” areas. We proceeded with that plan and we were able to reduce spending by over $200,000. The savings were largely due to labor, fertilizer, seed, and equipment expenses associated with not having to maintain ryegrass on those 20 acres through the winter.
Our decision to make significant budget cuts was definitely warranted. As it turned out, the number of rounds and collected revenue for the 2008-09 golf season had dropped off more than we had anticipated. Consequently, as we approached our 2009 overseed it was apparent that we needed to cut operational costs considerably more in order to move our net revenue in the right direction. As a facility, we then decided to eliminate virtually all overseeded rough. With the exception of one of our par 3’s and some rough around the practice facility, we left all of our rough dormant. While I realize that many courses in our market have taken this route, it was not common at the time. I’m sharing our experience as a way to remain sustainable in economic down times. That decision proved to be a key factor in realizing a substantial increase in net revenue for the 2009-10 fiscal year. We went from leaving 20 acres dormant to nearly 70 acres of dormant rough and the maintenance department reduced costs by more than $450,000 from the last budget year (2007-08) that we had overseeded wall-to-wall. There was some concern on our part as to how the dormant rough would be perceived by our customers. However, the comments from our customers were actually quite positive. Complaints were few and far between. Many of our golfers commented on the aesthetically pleasing contrast between the rough and the fairways. Our goal had been accomplished. We improved our bottom line, improved the health of our bermudagrass rough, and most importantly maintained the same quality golf experience.

It was very important to us as a facility to continue to produce the same high-quality playing surfaces that our customers had enjoyed in previous years. We just knew we had to achieve that result with significantly less expense. By overseeding 80 acres instead of 150 acres we were able to keep our seed rates the same in the fairways while nearly cutting seed costs in half. Because our overseeded rough had always received the same fertilizer and amendment treatments as the fairways, we were also able to cut nearly 50 percent of our fertilizer and chemical/amendment expense through the winter months. Other than slightly higher mow heights, the overseeded rough had always been managed just like the fairways. We applied fertilizer and amendments to both fairways and rough at the same time and frequency.

Savings were also significant in fuel and equipment. We were able to go four to five months without mowing rough. In our unique microclimate at We-Ko-Pa, we experience overnight lows much lower than the metropolitan Phoenix area even though we’re only 20 miles away. Because of this our bermudagrass reaches dormancy early and greens up later in the year, extending our period of no-maintenance in the rough. For this reason, we’re able to put far less hours on our aging rough mowers and extend their replacement time by a couple of years.

As previously mentioned, finding a way to significantly reduce our labor needs was paramount to substantially decreasing expenses. By eliminating mowing and clipping removal in the rough for nearly half of the year, we were able to maintain the golf courses with a much smaller staff. In addition to that, the process of prepping for overseed and seeding the courses has been accomplished in a shorter time frame even with far less people. Four years ago, our maintenance staff consisted of 53-55 people and now we are operating with 38-40 people. Fortunately we were able to achieve this number without having to implement layoffs. We simply did not rehire when employees voluntarily left. Currently with the smaller staff, we have the ability to stay on top of the detail work (edging, pruning, weed control, etc.) throughout our peak golf season when rates and golfer expectations are higher. It has become more challenging, however, in the summer months to perform all of our job tasks at the same frequency we were accustomed to with a larger crew. Fortunately this time period coincides with lower green fees and less demand for golf. Approximately 85 percent of our revenue is generated when our staff numbers are sufficient to maintain a very high-quality product. Although the detail work may be less frequent from June-August, we do experience some relief by not having to transition the bermudagrass in the rough from overseeded ryegrass. We used to dedicate a tremendous amount of effort to transitioning our bermudagrass rough from overseeded ryegrass. This process entailed chemical removal of the ryegrass followed by heavy irrigation and frequent fertilizer applications. In addition to that, we always had weak areas that required sodding to achieve acceptable conditions. Our current program requires that we apply a pre-emergent herbicide in the rough before overseed. As long as that application is properly executed, the rough is essentially maintenance-free for the next several months. Furthermore, we eliminate the need for chemically removing ryegrass and about 75 percent of our fertilizer applications to the rough throughout the rest of the year. Consequently, we save money in the summer months also by having a very healthy stand of bermudagrass rough that demands greatly reduced inputs.

Along with going dormant in our rough, we curtailed our spending by modifying other practices, as well. We have stretched out our granular fertilizer applications, relying more on spraying iron to maintain color. We have also incorporated the use of growth regulators in the fairways in order to control growth and allow for less frequent mowing. By using growth regulators and reducing nitrogen inputs on our greens to control the rate of growth we’ve been able to topdress less frequently without any negative effects. This has created a savings in both topdressing sand and reel grinding/replacing expenses. We’ve also combined morning job tasks and occasionally incorporated triplex mowing to get more done with less people.

The decision to stop overseeding the rough at We-Ko-Pa, one that seemed risky, but necessary at the time, has been extraordinarily beneficial for us both financially and agronomically. Since making the decision to go dormant in the rough, our expenses have dropped dramatically and our net revenue has been steadily increasing over the past few years. I feel fortunate to be part of a management team that is progressive and not afraid to take a calculated risk in the face of adversity. Ryan is the Superintendent at the We-Ko-Pa Golf Club in Arizona www.wekopa.com

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