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Tough Golf Superintendents Do!

COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted golf facilities across the country in distinctly different ways. While some golf courses have been forced to shut down, many course operators have found ways to keep the doors open.

This article looks at some of the appropriate and creative strategies golf course superintendents, directors of golf and other course decisionmakers have deployed during this extraordinary time. While we all long to put the past few months in our rearview mirror and never revisit them, it’s important to salute and share some of the clever tactics savvy golf industry professionals have used to help keep the ball rolling toward the hole.

Keeping People Sane and Active

Right now, segments of the golfing population have more time on their hands than ever before. They also have a tremendous need for a healthy mental distraction, physical exercise and a chance to get outside and enjoy sunshine and fresh air. For golf facilities that remain open, operational procedures are atypical at best.
Nevertheless, if your course is even partially operational, know that golfers and communities are benefiting now more than ever from your efforts. Among the strategies that have been put into play at operating golf facilities are

  • Suspending caddy services
  • Golfers keeping their own score cards, not those of their playing partner
  • Closing food service or offering carry-out only
  • Removing rakes from bunkers and encouraging golfers to smooth bunker sand with their feet
  • Either prohibiting golfers from removing flag sticks (stick stays in the hole no matter where the golfer is hitting or putting from) or eliminating flagsticks from the green entirely
  • Changing payment processing by encouraging remote or online payment, even if this method is done by golfers from their phones after they arrive at the course
  • Raising the level of the cup with an insert or adding a “bumper” around the hole to eliminate the need for golfers to reach into the hole to retrieve their balls

Across all categories of business, golf included, new protocols and understandings are emerging. For example, players are seeing their scores improve as they hit to a green with no flagstick. By playing the safer strategy of hitting to the middle of the green, golfers are positioning themselves to hole out in fewer strokes than they would have needed playing riskier shots in their attempt to hit closer to the pin.

Now, doesn’t this observation make you wonder if golfers will recall and apply this insight after flagsticks are returned to the game?

Keeping Facilities Safe and Staffed

While some golf courses are disinfecting golf carts between each use, others have removed carts from the equation entirely. Many facilities have reported that for every cancelled tee time by a golfer disgruntled by playing without a cart, there have been plenty of takers to grab the tee time.

Frequently, video meetings are the new normal for vendors and superintendents and for superintendents and their crew. Sometimes, simply staggering work schedules or enforcing social distancing and personal sanitation guidelines has been sufficient to keep golf course workers on the job and courses maintained.

Overall, superintendents have excelled in educating their staff to sanitation best practices, implementing steps to prevent or limit the spread of the disease in the workplace and monitoring their employees. But there’s been no shortage of new legal and human resources requisites to consider.

Rules governing sick leave, time off, OSHA regulations and other employee and labor practices in the face of COVID-19 differ from guidelines a superintendent typically follows. Both the National Association of Golf Course Owners and the USGA have done an excellent job of compiling on their websites, relevant and timely updates regarding these and other related regulatory changes.

No One Would Call this Business as Usual

From maintenance crews to golf operations to vendors and contractors, everyone in the business has been looking for ways to get the job done, maintain the course and ideally, provide opportunities for play, while adhering to local, state and federal guidelines. Not only has the COVID-19 situation translated to a diversity of operating approaches from one part of the U.S. to the next, it has also required superintendents and other decision makers to demonstrate contortionist-like flexibility with work plans fluidly changing from week to week and, sometimes, day to day.

As the American Society of Golf Course Architects Past President, Dr. Michael Hurdzan pointed out, “A golf course is a living organism that must be continually fed, watered, groomed, treated for pests and nurtured whether there are golfers or not.”

In a Twitter chat involving ASCGA leadership, ASGCA Executive Director, Chad Ritterbusch, responded to the comparison of the present-day situation with the economic crisis of 2008. Ritterbusch observed, “Those (course managers) who used the circumstances twelve years ago to plan ahead tended to do best coming out of the volatility. Travel and other aspects may be affected now, but the best courses (existing and potential) will talk about options with their architects and other team members.”

Although the word “unprecedented” seems to crop up in every newscast or article published about the pandemic, what is, in fact, truly unprecedented is the response by the U.S. government and the American people. Both the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the banking industry have made generous and easy-to-obtain business loans available.
The CARES ACT resulted in direct payouts to individual and families and unemployment insurance has been paid almost without question, in many cases even going to independent contractors and the self-employed. Beyond this first tier of support, golf course operators and superintendents are finding additional dedicated resources to help them get through these difficult times.

Vendors and contractors, in some instances, have given away business referring prospective clients to other sources that may be geographically closer to the golf course and, under present circumstances, a more logical or affordable choice for the superintendent. Industry-wide, companies, organizations and individuals have stepped up generously to help one another in ways that genuinely deserve to be called “unprecedented”.

Four Centuries Later, Maybe Longer

Over the past twenty years, the golf industry has weathered 9-11, the economic downturn of 2008, and so many hurricanes, floods, fires, droughts and blizzards we have all lost count. More importantly, since at least the seventeenth century and perhaps much longer ago than that, the game of golf has survived wars, pestilence, plague and the most dismal events in human history.

Golf is both a business and a passion. Like other businesses, it will be as resilient as the dedicated workers within it. Golf course superintendents already know that their job has always been both a marathon and a sprint. They know that they support one of man’s most treasured passions and that while tough times don’t last, inevitably, tough golf course superintendents do.


Linda Parker has been writing professionally since the 1980s. With clients in finance, sports, technology, change enablement, resorts and nonprofit global initiatives, Linda helps organizations communicate their stories in meaningful ways to the people they most want to reach. She has authored, ghostwritten or contributed to more than a dozen nonfiction books. Linda is a member of the Authors Guild and the Golf Writers Association of America. You can connect with her at linda@glindacreative.com

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