Why golf’s toughest job is growing harder

GCSAA — Superintendents

A golf course superintendent’s job is never easy — and has been made even more difficult by the pandemic — but, as 'The First Call' columnist Bradley S. Klein writes, a better understanding of the role might temper what can sometimes be unrealistic expectations

This has been an especially hard year to be a course superintendent. Actually, they all are, given the expectations heaped upon greenkeepers by golfers, few of whom have the slightest idea what is actually involved in keeping golf course turfgrass in playable condition.

And it’s not just monthly fee-paying members who have unrealistic expectations. I can still remember as clear as day the time the town councilman (who was an occasional golfer) asked the greenkeeper of our new local municipal tract why he couldn’t make do with “the lawn mowers” already on hand from the Parks and Rec. Department.

Golfer demands aside, this year has been one from hell -- or at least from nearby. That’s because of the convergence of three distinct external factors that go far beyond the golf course and thus beyond the ability of any superintendent to control.

COVID-19 has been hell, and just when it looked like we were on our way to a modicum of normalcy the Delta variant reared its head and threw everything for a loop. The oddity, of course, is that the pandemic has been a (perverse) blessing for golf, and while no one would wish such a public health crisis on anyone it turns out that the golf industry has flourished. That’s because golf is the safest outdoor form of recreation you could indulge in and because private golf clubs have done a fabulous job of creating a safe environment for their clients and employees.

While gyms, public swimming pools, summer camps and restaurants were basically shut down last year, a well-managed club that looked after its staff and members through social distancing, regular testing and mask mandates was the safest place for the family to spend time playing. Small wonder that at every club I know of, public or private, play has been up; memberships are booming and the bottom line has been a net positive.

But at what cost to superintendents? They had to scramble to retain labor. In many cases, they strove to rehire them after initial cutbacks led to staff reductions and their (former) crew members left for other work or to rely upon the expanded unemployment benefits. The flow of the daily routine, once focused on getting the golf course ready, shifted entirely to the safety precautions needed to reduce the likelihood of virus transmission in the maintenance area and between laborers and the golfers. That meant solo vehicle and equipment deployment, distancing of workers rather than close proximity in task sharing, and extensive time simply scrubbing down before and after.

It helped the pace of daily set up that the local- or state-mandated regionally conditions of course opening entailed touchless golf. That meant no bunker rakes, no water coolers, fixed pins and/or foam rubber collars in cups. Golfers generally accepted the slacker conditions since they were simply grateful to be doing something outdoors. It also meant solo rider carts, a development that eventually took its toll on fairway conditioning.

What’s under-appreciated about the role superintendents played last year is the physical and emotional toll it exacted. A job that normally entails few if any days off during peak season became a very long, exhausting grind. What we in the Northeast call our mid-season “100 days of hell” extended to about 150.

This year has been better, or at least less worse, as normal work conditions have more or less returned and the daily grind does not entail the meticulous sanitizing and social distancing of 2020. Shared cart riding is back as well. But the labor force has been turned upside down, and the shortage of qualified crew members at most courses that I visit has been the largest issue facing superintendents in 2021. Nobody has enough staff, nor the kind of quality staffing they really need.

Retention of labor at a golf course has always been an issue. It is perennially difficult to find folks who are willing and able to show up at 5:30 a.m. on weekends. Most crews are now on flexed schedules allowing alternate weekends or weekend days off, for example. But the telltale signs of inexperience are there. I recall, for example, one example of a superintendent who has to scout the greens each morning and repair damaged cups from sloppy cup cutting.

Courses have all had to increase their wage rates to retain labor in the face of stringent challenges from ancillary job sectors like landscape, building construction and home repair. And at the skilled level, the shortage is evident in the difficulty superintendents have had in recruiting qualified technicians and assistants. The ranks of the country’s university level golf agronomy programs are depleted. Golf is a great game but, increasingly, it is not being perceived as a great career.

All of this unfolds in a world that is seeing more environmental stress placed on golf courses. Climate change is real in terms of hotter working environments, more intense rain events interspersed with more severe drought, and a two-sided pinch that involves the need for more storm water management capacity and increased drainage needs while seeking out water efficiencies and alternative sources of irrigatable water.

That leaves superintendents in the middle, handling a lot. Much of it comes from outside their formal training. Yet this is the fate they are handed and what they need to negotiate to be successful. It’s asking a lot. So far, the veterans and the well-trained folks coming up the pipeline have responded with professionalism and creativity. That’s what makes the job so interesting. Of course it would help if more golfers understood what goes into maintaining a golf course. Perhaps then they’d be less critical and more appreciative.