A Lesson Plan For Success

The agronomic side of owning or operating a golf course is as critical as having a dedicated, friendly staff manning the pro shop, carts and starter house. Frankly, if course conditions aren’t top-notch and golfers aren’t receiving the perceived value of playing the course, they won’t return.

Planning ahead and being prepared are key factors in successfully implementing and executing a robust agronomic and maintenance program. Having a network of peers in the industry outside the daily sphere, who can lend a hand when problems arise helps create an organized, well-oiled agronomic machine, with the ability to quickly solve problems.

All golf courses are not the same; while there are standard guidelines, superintendents enjoy autonomy in developing his or her customized roadmap to successful turfgrass management. This philosophy ensures maximum net operating income for the owner, whether a municipality or private entity. In conducting due diligence for new and existing properties, determine the following:

• Does the golf course align with business goals of the asset, and where it’s positioned in the market?

• Does the golf course have developed standards to clearly define expectations for product and presentation?

Setting Standards

Both questions can be answered using an Agronomic Plan and Course Standards Outline designed for each property. These standards clearly define conditions and presentation expectations, and provide guidelines to showcase the course at a desired price-point. The outline gives the course superintendent the ability to prioritize and manage tasks, both in- and out-of season to ensure the course displays top playing conditions.

Before mowers are fired up and holes are cut into the greens, it must first be identified how the course is or should be positioned in its particular market. Is it a high-end daily fee with a high price-point, a mid-range course with corresponding rates or a lower-end property with bargain rates?

Everything from mowing frequency to how fast the greens roll to landscape design trickles down from that determination. Another important factor: is there an opportunity in the market segment for the course to slide into? Can you make a $25 course into a $50 layout simply through wisely budgeting agronomy dollars? Sometimes, that answer is yes.

Once the level of course conditioning is agreed upon, the superintendent has to determine how much it will cost to achieve it. This includes everything from a detailed labor analysis to soil testing to scheduling larger off-season projects (bunker renovation, cart-path work, tree pruning, irrigation expansion, drainage work).

Generally speaking, the outline is based on simple and intuitive--but sometimes overlooked--tenets of turfgrass management.

Beginning with greens, each superintendent develops an objective, goals and procedures to achieve them.

A Case Study

For Rock Manor Golf Club, owned by the City of Wilmington, Del., a major point of distinction for the course is providing the best putting surfaces in the region. In addition to making greens fast, firm and true, another goal is to minimize traffic damage on the back side of holes 1 and 14; therefore, greens are verticut more regularly during the growing season to prevent grass from lying over; maintenance staff must increase ball-mark repair duties as well.

The greens procedures call for the grass to be mowed five to six times weekly throughout the growing season with rolling substituted for mowing during periods of high stress. The mowing height is clearly and precisely defined at a benchmark of .125 inches.

Daily inspections for overall turf health are performed by the head superintendent, assistant superintendent and course set-up personnel. The staff immediately informs supervisors of any irregularities like disease and insect damage, plus quality of cut, moisture, pin placement, stressed areas and vandalism.

Other greens procedures include:

• Ball-mark repairs

• Grooming

• Topdressing

• Core aeration

• Weed control

• Fertilization

• Plant protectants

• Laboratory testing

• Hole locations

• Water management.

This detailed exercise is repeated for the tees, collars, approaches, fairways, rough, bunkers, practice facility, trees and landscape, lakes and other water features. The program also contains contingency plans for weather-related events, such as drought management.

It may seem outwardly labor-intensive, but working to definitively outline the goals and objectives of a golf course saves and, ultimately, makes money. Furthermore, pristine playing surfaces promote loyalty among golfers.

Protect, Preserve

Another top priority for golf course owners and operators is keeping the property environmentally friendly. Protecting ecologically sensitive areas is incredibly important to the continued viability and stewardship of the industry. It has never been easier to blend aesthetics with “doing the right thing” by following guidance from Audubon International.

In attaining certification from that conservation group, golf courses must successfully maintain sound environmental practices in six key areas:

• Environmental planning

• Wildlife and habitat management

• Outreach and education

• Chemical-use reduction and safety

• Water conservation

• Water-quality management.

Following the Audubon International-approved steps for an environmentally friendly golf course reduces waste, promotes efficient operations, and lauds courses for high standards in protecting the environment. An effective program results in a reduction of maintenance costs, including insurance premiums, energy, water, pesticides, fertilizer, equipment wear and labor.

Bryan Bielecki is the vice president of agronomy for Billy Casper Golf, which provides turnkey club management for public-agency and private owners, developers and investors. For more information, call (703) 761-1444, or visit www.billycaspergolf.com.