Golf Course 101: A user’s guide

The First Call's Bradley Klein offers golfers a few basic tips on how to take care of their course before complaining about course conditions to the superintendent

The West of Ireland Open Championship — Divot Bags
The simple process of repairing a divot can go a long way to improving the course you play.

Golfers, take note. Superintendents have a tough job, especially these days with labor shortages, supply-chain backups and increased demand — as evident in jam-packed tee sheets. There’s a lot you can do to help them and enhance your experience of the round.

A while ago, this column explored how superintendents could male their work marginally less stressful.

This time we flip things around and put the onus on the golfer.

If you think of the golf course as a playing field that requires tender loving care to fully express itself, it turns out that it’s not just the superintendent who is responsible for its upkeep. Golfers, too, can play an active role. Think of this as a user’s guide. Here are five items to keep in mind:

1. A Big Lab
The golf course you are playing on is the product of intensive labor, construction and mechanical manipulation. It comes with miles of irrigation pipe, a spider-like network of electrical wires and extensive drainage channels,. There’s also a vast agricultural and hydrological array of soil and water chemistry, plus microbial biological activity and gas exchange. Ninety-five percent of what it takes to produce a decent playing surface is hidden underground, invisible to the untrained eye and yet subject to the meteorological whims of a rapidly changing climate. All of this is beyond the knowledge and awareness of all but the most highly trained agronomist. In other words, most golfers have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to producing a properly maintained golf course. Keep that in mind the next time you are tempted to complain. 

2. Basic Civility
There are some simple rules to follow. Consider them matters of golf etiquette.

— Repair your divots, whether through turf replacement in a cool season region or by sanding the ground in a warm season region.
— Keep motorized carts to designated paths and don’t cut across marked-off areas.
— Fix ball marks on greens.
— Keep carts away from bunkers and putting surfaces.
— Rake the sand when you're done.
— Keep off of steep, turfed, greenside bunker slopes.
— Don't hit into the crew; give them room to do their work.

This is such basic stuff that you don’t get extra credit for following the rules. This is just the bare minimum. But it’s a start.

3. Proceed with Respect
Your superintendent is a trained professional — usually with a two- or four-year college degree, invariably with ongoing technical training — who keeps up with the latest scientific and product-related research through readings, seminars and industry shows. Treat him or her with the respect accorded any career professional. If you have concerns, express them as questions, not as complaints couched with self-certainty. Don't send cranky emails at 5 a.m. Don’t assume they suddenly got stupid or lazy. Go through proper channels at your club or golf facility rather than confronting the superintendent out on the course or by barging into the office. Don’t assume that 12 minutes of Googling qualifies you as a turf expert. The superintendent is not your lawn boy or personal assistant. And by the way, they also have a life away from work, including a family, which entitles them to leave the office (your golf course) at 4 p.m. after nine hours on the job — or to take the occasional day off in the middle of the golf season.

4. Pitch In
There’s a lot you can do personally. Like rake more of the bunker than your own path in and out. Or repair two ball marks on every green instead of just your own. Pick up trash along the way. Or better yet, offer your services on a volunteer basis to the superintendent a few hours each week or month and see if they can find a task for you to do. You’ll quickly find out that the golf course is a great place to enjoy the early morning. You’ll also find out how much physical work is involved. And when you get to see what the maintenance facility looks like at 6 a.m. you’ll get a whole new feel for the work that’s actually involved.

5. Organize Volunteers
There are many modest-budget courses or community-owned ones where the membership or a group of regular golfers form volunteer crews and take ownership of a particular hole throughout the year. Or where the golfers supplement the crew en masse by taking on jobs like divot repair, leaf removal or simple recovery of debris after a storm.

Convert your enthusiasm as a golfer into the kind of appreciation for the golf course that will help educate others and that will enhance the relationship between players and staff. At too many clubs that relationship is adversarial, which benefits no one. An informed golfer is a more appreciative golfer, and that contributes to a better work and play environment for everyone.

Turns out that a few small steps and some initiative by golfers could make for a whole lot more interesting round of golf.  Who knows? With more of an emotional investment in how the course looks, you just might have more fun out there — and play better as well.