Russia-Ukraine conflict crimping golf in U.S.

The cost of keeping up a golf course — from fertilizer for turf to gas for maintenance equipment — is rising, but The First Call’s Bradley S. Klein believes it’s a small price as part of a broader picture

Like any veteran greenkeeper, certified superintendent John Carlone of Meadow Brook Club on Long Island, New York, likes to think ahead. Late last summer, when he was planning for his first fertilizer program of the 2022 season, he got word that it would pay to stock up on supplies because the price of fertilizer — like the cost of everything else in golf — was going to increase. So, Carlone bought seven pallets of fertilizer for $4,500.

Good thing he has the storage space — a commodity that many courses don’t have — along with a capital budget that allows for up-front payment of long-term needs. Today that same supply of fertilizer would cost $9,000. By the time you read this the cost will be even higher.

Course Maintenance

As if COVID, labor shortages, supply-chain issues and increased demand for golf were not enough to create a compound of inflationary pressures in golf, the latest outbreak of worldwide conflict is adding to the spiral.

RELATED: The cost of everything just went up ... if you can get it at all

Russia’s brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine has been a humanitarian disaster for the country. It has also further complicated European security by threatening to escalate in unpredictable ways. In the process, seemingly remote, everyday activities here at home have been drawn into the maelstrom — and not just through the price of fuel at the gas pump.

Golf, too, is feeling the effects of the war. The cost and availability of fertilizer are only the most conspicuous of impacts from the invasion of Ukraine. Between the diversion of material production in Russia, the destruction of Ukrainian manufacturing and the trade and banking embargo with Russia, global supply chains have been disrupted, influencing both supply and price.

That is because Ukraine and Russia combine to supply 20 percent of the world’s store of urea, a vital material in the production of the nitrogen and potassium-bearing materials that superintendents rely upon in maintaining golf courses. Major Russian-based fertilizer producers Eurochem, Uralkali, Uralchem and PhosAgro have all faced sanction-related shutdowns.

The production turndown has been compounded by a growing U.S.-sanctioned ban on trade with Russia. The European Union has selectively joined in an effort to squeeze the Russian economy and influence the behavior of oligarchic businessmen with strong ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The precise impact of supply reductions on the raw materials side will take weeks, if not months to work through the global system.

More immediate is the financial impact of rising fuel prices due to marginally reduced supply and disproportionately aggressive pricing by major oil manufactures. The price of crude oil, which averaged $68.17 in 2021, reached $130 last week before falling back down to just below $100 this week. Pump station prices have climbed steeply of late. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average price of fuel rose from $3.28 the first week of Jan. 2022 to $4.31 the second week of March.

The price push has been exaggerated by the steady demand in the golf market, with play up 20 percent the last two years through 2021, according to the National Golf Foundation.

The simple consequence of the Ukraine war is rising costs of maintenance — everything from fertilizer and equipment fuel to anything that needs to be delivered. Jim Moon, director of procurement and compliance for Harrell’s, a major supplier of golf course products and manufacturer of fertilizer, estimates that a ton of urea needed for production cost $350 to $400 a year ago and now costs between $800 and $900. The urea that arrives in New Orleans ports in barges carrying 1,500 to 1,600 tons each time has to be transported by rail and then truck to the manufacturing plant in Sylacagua, Alabama. Each step of the handling process entails fuel costs for transportation.

What that means for your golf course depends markedly thanks to variation in the chemical composition of the nutrients in each formula, as well as the area under fertilization and the standards of maintenance. There is no meaningful average for the golf industry, only a range of practices or examples drawn from courses with grounds budgets that vary from $350,000 for simple mom-and-pop outfits to $2.8 million for 18 holes at a club regularly holding a national championship.  

What that translates to can be variously expressed. That pallet of fertilizer comprising 50-pound bags that a year ago ran $35 to $40 per sack will now cost $75 to $80 per bag. A representative golf course with a maintenance budget of $1 million that would normally have allocated $50,000 each for fertilizer and gasoline will find itself spending more this year — or using less. Given the sustained demand for golf shown almost across the board in the U.S., some tough decisions lie ahead. If golf courses are a little less green or the round costs a little more money, that’s the price to pay for supporting those under siege elsewhere.

All in all a modest price to pay to support the cause of a free democratic people undergoing daily bombardment. For all the complaints golfers might have in 2022, the increased burdens imposed on course maintenance seem minor indeed compared to larger issues of security and the well-being of whole countries.

After all, they won’t be playing golf this year on any of Ukraine’s six courses. Perhaps, however, next year.

> Pete Dye’s Ryder Cup legacy animates Whistling Straits
> How to make the course superintendent’s job easier
> Why golf’s toughest job is growing harder
> Golf Course 101: A user’s guide