Why Rhett Evans is right to lead GCSAA's uphill climb

The CEO is an avid mountaineer who is helping navigate the superintendent association through a golf growth spurt that presents his 19,000 members with numerous challenges

Rhett Evans — Golf Industry Show
Rhett Evans joined the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in 2009 as chief operating officer and became CEO in 2011.

Give Rhett Evans a steep hill to climb and he won’t even look up to see how high it is. Evans is a mountaineer in his spare time, not a college mascot, but a real-life scaler of peaks. His goal is to conquer the Seven Summits — the highest mountain in each of the world’s seven continents.

"I get up and down mountains pretty well," Evans says.

He was part of a group who recently attempted to ascend Alaska's Denali, which is more than 20,000 feet. For 11 of 21 days they spent on the mountain, the group was pinned down by storms. Although they didn’t make it to the summit, Evans is not one to give up. "We're going back to try it again," he says.

Reaching the top of the mountain is quite an accomplishment, but Evans leads another group of climbers who could find a way to grow grass on the rocky slopes, if asked. Talk about playing firm and fast.

Evans is the CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), which represents the organization's 19,000 often overlooked members who strive to get your course in the best shape possible, even when conditions — meteorological and economic — make it an uphill battle.

In fact, weather and money will be on the minds of the superintendents just as much during the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show, Feb. 5-10 in San Diego, as those issues have been front and center the previous year. And it's all in the context of the COVID pandemic that drove people outdoors to golf courses in huge numbers over the last two years.

"If you ask superintendents, I think they would say they'd rather deal with too much play than not enough," says Evans, who came to work at the GCSAA in 2009 as chief operating officer and has been CEO since 2011. "There are certainly challenges that come with increased play but you'd certainly rather deal with that than closing your doors.

"With more rounds being played it provides the opportunity to show off the golf course and what superintendents can do. However, the amount of time our members have been given to do their jobs has decreased. When you take 25 million more rounds in 2021 over 2020, that's a lot of cart traffic, foot traffic, divots and ball marks. And there are more outings being scheduled on days that would normally be used for maintenance. [Superintendents] have had to figure out how to make that work."

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With more cash in the till it should mean increased maintenance budgets, which is not necessarily the case, looking closely at the numbers. From 2010 through 2020 superintendents' budgets increased an average of 11 percent across the country. However, inflation during that time totaled 17.6 percent. The average maintenance budget in 2021 was about $810,000, which is a 5.6 percent increase from 2020. But inflation was 6.8 percent.

"The cost of seed, fertilizer, water and equipment has all increased," Evans says. "And in 2022, inflation is expected to hit us harder."

The three most important issues for a GCSAA member are (1) developing well-trained maintenance teams; (2) wise use of natural resources; and (3) constant changing of government regulations. "We are making sure we have the tools we need to do our jobs effectively," Evans says.

Natural resources include water, which has been an issue for the last 15 years or more and it's becoming more of a problem in the western third of the U.S. Evans says that Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River that sits in Nevada and Arizona, is at an historically low level. The same is said for Lake Powell, also part of the Colorado River, in northern Arizona.

Evans says that through best management practices, water usage across the country has been reduced by 22 percent. And there has been a concerted effort, particularly in the west, to use reclaimed water. About 25 percent of the nation's courses are currently irrigating that way.

One of the ways to reduce water usage is to cut back on the amount of turf that is irrigated. Superintendents have reduced managed turf by an average of 4 acres per course across the country, just by taking that acreage back into natural areas that don’t need to be maintained and are out of play on the course. That, in turn, lowers total maintenance costs.

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"Why would superintendents and facility managers want to spend more money," Evans says. "It takes away from their profits and their ability to do other projects. They have every incentive to try to scale back that cost."

But Evans maintains that effort needs to reach all the way to the end users. "There’s a lot more we need to do, including on the golfers' side," he says. "As an industry, we need help educating people on what a good golf course really is. It doesn’t need to be totally green, lush and soft. It can be firm and fast.

"Those kinds of conditions are better for water conservation and they’re actually better playing conditions. There’s a lot of work still to be done but everyone in the game needs to be a part of these water challenges. It has to be a well-rounded, concerted effort."

What’s more, the life cycle of golf courses will necessitate improvements that will be capital projects. During the go-go 1990s, courses were built in the U.S. at an average of one a day. Evans says there's a wave of renovation activity with those courses, which will soon need new irrigation systems, along with rebuilt bunkering. But in the current economy, superintendents don't have much stability to manage those projects with any predictability.

"You get a bid on a price on something and the bid might have a 30-day window, to hedge against a price increase from their suppliers," Evans says. "How do you manage and budget for that?"

Among Evans’ responsibilities is to work with the nation’s other golf stakeholders to make certain that the interests of the game are represented and protected.

"As an association, along with all the allied (golf) associations, we’ve been in front of government officials and community leaders to demonstrate that golf is a sport we need in our society, regardless of the pandemic," he said.

“With the number of rounds played up another 6 percent from 2020 to 2021, we need to implement our best management practices all over the country. It’s really environmental insurance for the health of the game."