"Fore" Effective Golf Course Maintenance

By Randy Gaddo
Photo Courtesy of Brevard County Parks and Recreation Department

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

The modern game of golf evolved from what 15th-century Scots knew as “gowf,” when it was played on the rolling, sandy terrain common on Scotland’s eastern coast, called “links land.” This reference eventually led to the modern phrase “hitting the links.”


The game that began on a few isolated cow pastures using sticks to hit rudimentary balls has evolved to hi-tech manufactured clubs, balls with pressurized cores, and carefully manicured courses. For parks and rec departments or other groups responsible for public golf courses, this means performing a level of maintenance beyond routine care of sports fields.

There are about 15,500 golf facilities in the U.S. today and close to 75 percent of them are public, so this represents a significant investment in a popular public-recreation amenity.

The primary challenges facing public courses today are in three areas—finances, water, and politics—according to Scott Hollister, Director of Publications and Interim Communications Director for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America ( www.gcsaa.org ).

“Golf courses are valuable public green-space amenities and course superintendents are doing what they can to meet the financial challenges,” says Hollister, noting that patron participation numbers have stagnated over the past several years. “Municipalities tasked with the cost of owning and maintaining golf courses with the current level of participation is a balancing act that I know a lot of cities are struggling with.”

Routing Water
For any golf course, public or private, the condition of the course is of primary importance to most patrons. The greens fees are the primary revenue source as most public courses attempt to be self-supporting. “The cost of maintenance is an issue specific to superintendents,” says Hollister, adding that the cost of water and water quality are critical elements.

“Many golf courses are attempting to use non-potable, or reclaimed, water,” he explains. “It’s good for a lot of reasons. Municipalities who are generating waste water need a place for that water to go, and with proper processing it can be a very good source of irrigation water for golf courses.”

Though using reclaimed water can be less costly and does conserve drinking water, there are issues that golf course maintenance crews need to understand.

Reclaimed water is waste water that is treated via various methods to remove solids and impurities, but it can promote algae growth that can clog irrigation heads and pipes.

“The treatment process is really crucial to ensure you don’t face those type of problems,” notes Hollister, advising close consultation with waste-water treatment experts early in the decision-making process. “Another element to consider is how to get that water from its source to the golf course. For a municipality, this might become a public-works issue of laying pipe to direct the water,” he explains.

Difficult Decisions
While water availability is a top concern, Hollister maintains that there are other equally important issues.

“The cost of fertilizers, pesticides, seed, and other turf-care products are increasing,” he remarks. “There’s also the issue of how superintendents hire and retain skilled workers to maintain the course. The immigration reform issue is one that the association and the entire industry are paying close attention to because golf courses have been regular users of the H-2B visa program as a great source of good employees.”

The H-2B program allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs.

“There’s a chance that could be greatly limited in the future depending on what direction immigration reform moves,” Hollister notes.

When circumstances direct it, superintendents must sometimes make hard decisions about where to direct resources.  Hollister cites an example in Lawrence, Kan.

“Last summer’s historic drought conditions here led superintendents to make some tough choices on what to irrigate,” he relates. “What brings most golfers to a course typically is the condition of the greens, so some courses didn’t irrigate their roughs and in some cases the fairways. I know it cost some public course superintendents a few sleepless nights.”

A Case Study
Every golf course is different according to the location, climate, terrain and other environmental factors. But one common theme is that the condition of the course is central to maintaining steady patronage. While there are standard maintenance functions common to all courses, each requires unique care.

A good example of this would be the three public golf courses run by Brevard County, located on the Space Coast in the golf capital of the U.S.—Florida. According to the National Golf Foundation, Florida has the most courses with 1,055, with California a distant second with 928.

There are total 27 golf courses in Brevard County, some private, some public-private and some public, according to the County’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Jack Masson. His three public courses must compete.

“In the past three to four years, we’ve experienced a severe reduction in our labor force, from 600 down to 400 staff,” he notes, referring to the total department staff. For that reason, several years ago they outsourced maintenance of the three distinct courses.

The Savannahs course, as its name implies, is an elongated course riddled with grass gardens and water hazards; the Spessard Holland course has an irregular wedge shape weaving through 800 sabal palms; the Habitat is ironically shaped like the state of Florida, has wetlands, pine forests and rolling terrain and golfers share the course with sandhill cranes, gopher tortoises, scrub-jays and other wildlife.

This is an awesome variety for golfers, but can present an awful headache for those tasked with maintenance.

“The condition of the course is everything in golf,” Masson emphasizes. “We are very pleased with the job the maintenance company has done with that aspect of our golf operation,” he says, asserting that the condition of the course can also attract tourists.

Masson notes that the economy is a factor in how many golfers come to the course. “The key is retaining who you have playing now and the acquisition of new players, and course condition plays a big role in that,” he suggests, also noting that developing programs to attract younger players is important.

Florida is a place where golf can be played 12 months a year in two seasons that present two different sets of clientele—mid-November to March when people known as “snow birds” come from colder northern states for the winter; and April through October when they leave and courses are looking to fill the void.

Special Challenges
Caring for the Brevard County courses during these seasons in what essentially amounts to three separate ecosystems presents special challenges. However, having the contractor handle the variations frees up Masson and his staff for the equally important job of marketing the courses and keeping customers happy.

“The fertilization, herbicide, and insecticide applications all vary,” he explains. “Some areas have sandy, loamy soil, and some have wetter soil in another area, so the maintenance functions are contingent upon what we’re trying to maintain.” This is where he relies on the contractor to advise him and help keep everything in balance.

Masson mentions that he has looked at contracting in other areas as well. “For example, we’ve brought in a company to mow outlying parks, but we still do our own specialty turf because we’ve got a good experienced crew who does a good job of that,” he says, noting that the contracting has helped save on ancillary costs but emphasizing that no one has lost their job due to outsourcing.

Masson emphasizes that following best-management practices—such as those promoted by the United States Golf Association ( www.usga.org) —will help any parks and rec department with golf course maintenance.

For instance, Masson says his department has had great success using sterile carp to control aquatic weeds in their considerable water resources, saving money. They have also implemented an integrated pest-management program to minimize use of chemicals in water and on land. They replaced the irrigation system at one of the Savannahs course with a state-of-the-art computer-controlled system that saves water and improves system efficiency and plan to do the same at the other courses.

An unusual problem in Brevard County is a high population of feral hogs, which can destroy a golf course overnight if left unchecked. “We have had to control or eliminate food sources and have contracted with a company in a fairly aggressive live trapping process to protect the assets,” he says.

Though 15th century Scots no doubt had problems on their courses—stepping in the occasional cow paddy or losing a ball off a steep cliff—they pale compared to issues faced by today’s public golf course superintendents. But then, the Scots didn’t have helpful PRB readers like you to weigh in with experienced suggestions about golf course maintenance, which you can share right here by contacting me or the editor.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net .


For More Information
The Golf Industry Show features on-site education, classes featuring industry experts and university researchers who can provide a well-rounded education in courses such as agronomics, business management, communications, golf course design and architecture. There is a related trade show that typically has 500 to 600 exhibitors in 175,000 square feet of trade show space.

The association just completed its annual show in February in coordination with the National Golf Course Owners Association conference. This year it was held in Orlando; in 2015 it will be in San Antonio. Visit www.golfindustryshow.com .

Additional links:

Golf Course Superintendents Association of America: www.gcsaa.org/default.aspx . Some sections are for members only.

For non-member access: www.gcsaa.org/course/Default.aspx .

Golf Course Management magazine: www2.gcsaa.org/GCM/ . Non-member access is allowed for the digital version.