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 that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.
There was a time in golf’s early history, back in the 15th century, when the condition of the course was dependent on how well local Scottish farmers took care of their pastures on which the game was played. Amenities for the course—driving ranges, restaurants, swimming pools, or event venues—were non-existent.
In the mid-1400s the Scottish Parliament banned the game because it interfered with archery practice, which was deemed more important to protect its borders from invaders. Needless to say, golf has changed considerably since those days; it is no longer considered an element in national defense, and amenities are now arguably as important as the condition of the course itself.
Attention To Detail
And every one of those amenities required maintenance of one sort or another. But in the modern public golf environment, when it comes to maintenance resources, where should the emphasis be—on the course or on the amenities?
“Both are equally important,” remarks Don Ebarb, golf course superintendent for Skylinks, a scenic 18-hole course owned by the city of Long Beach and managed by American Golf.
Attractions at Skylinks go beyond the 6,909-yard, par-72 championship course, designed by leading golf-course architect Cal Olson, and built in 2004. The course is also a wedding venue with an outdoor 3,000-square-foot Bermuda-turf wedding lawn, a water feature, and surrounding landscaping. This venue doubles as a party site. There’s also a clubhouse with a restaurant, a corporate meeting space, and a practice facility.
Ebarb’s 12-man maintenance crew—two irrigation techs, equipment operators, and general maintenance staff members—is responsible for maintaining the entire site. “It’s all about first impressions, whether it’s the condition of the course or the wedding lawn,” says Ebarb, an American Golf employee. “So we try to treat everything the same, whether it’s the front of the clubhouse or the first tee. When clients walk through our facility, we want them to be impressed.”
The wedding site is especially important. “People like the look and feel of the real turf, but it has to be perfect,” notes Ebarb.
The city staff conducts a monthly inspection and provides American Golf with a report that includes comments and suggestions. “We also get great feedback from customers with suggestions and compliments. We want to hear from them. If we’re doing something right, it’s good to hear that, and if there’s a problem, we want to know so we can address it.”
One prominent issue is irrigation. “Watering is always a challenge in California,” notes Ebarb. After four years of varying drought conditions, about two-thirds of the state remains in extreme drought. Reclaimed water is being used, but there is some uncertainty of what new restrictions might be. “We are doing some turf reduction this fall, and we’ll add drought-tolerant plants,” says Ebarb. “It’s always a challenge to keep the pristine conditions here.”
Golfing With Gators
On the opposite coast, Cody Carter can identify with Ebarb’s challenge of maintaining high standards. As the assistant golf professional at The Legends public golf course on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., high standards are the norm.
Parris Island is the fabled eastern training center where about 20,000 recruits become Marines each year. The base is maintained at the highest standards, and the golf course is a model facility, ranked in the top 100 U.S. courses in LINKS golf magazine, and in the top 10 military courses worldwide by Travel + Leisure magazine.
The Legends website promotes the amenities, rhetorically asking why the course gets such rave reviews and then answering the question by stating that it’s all about “The Experience.”
“This is one of very few courses in the country that doesn’t have a single house on the course,” Carter explains. “So it’s just you, golf, and nature. Yes, we do have a few gators on the course—some big ones.”
In addition to the wildlife adventure, being on a training base adds a totally new element to the game. “Where else can you golf and hear nearby rifle-range training?” he asks. “On the 12th hole, golfers will see recruits running through their training.”
The Legends golf course isn’t too far from one of the foremost golf meccas of the world—Hilton Head Island.
“We do have to compete with other courses in the area,” Carter says. “As a public course, we have to leverage our amenities to get people to either travel here from other places, or stay here to play. We want to attract them here and keep them here as repeat customers.”
Amenities Support The Experience
He notes that the course is immaculate, but the amenities strongly support the experience.
There is a well-stocked pro shop and an award-winning club-fitting service. In fact, Ping voted its club-fitting shop in the top 100 in the nation, and Carter is a regionally awarded club-fitting expert.
Club fitting is a unique service that can significantly improve a player’s game. Carter’s shop has all of the specialized equipment and materials to perfectly fit clubs for each individual. His fitting cart includes calibrated equipment, computerized apps, and 40 or more model shafts and golf heads. A separate shop has all of the equipment for club repairs. The equipment requires constant updating and periodic maintenance.
Carter explains that much of the equipment is already calibrated, but he has to update software and make sure the iPad he uses has the latest apps. Each year, he has to update the club heads and shafts on his fitting cart to ensure he uses the most current equipment.
Another course feature that Carter considers an amenity is the driving range, “Which many courses don’t have,” he says. He applauds the six-man maintenance staff and the superintendent for ensuring the range is well-maintained. “Just like any other part of the course, if it is not a well-kept area, it can be a detractor rather than a course benefit.”
Adapting To Climate
John Shimpach is general manager of the Highlands National Golf Course in St. Paul, Minn. The 18-hole course is owned and operated by the city, while two other city courses in the area are in the second year being operated by a contractor.
Renovated in 2005, Highlands is a traditional club in more of an urban setting than the others that serve more of a regional scope. Shimpach notes that repeat customers are a large part of their business.
“We have loyal customers who take pride in the course and want to provide their input,” he says. “We take their comments very seriously and feel that we need to work with them to provide the service they expect.”
Among amenities, such as a venerable clubhouse with a new covered patio and a driving range, there is also a very active junior “First Tee” program, with up to 700 children enrolled. To help facilitate the program, a 30- x 75-foot heated and air-conditioned building is available where classes can be held in inclement weather.
“It is carpeted with artificial turf and has an awning and garage doors that roll open so people can actually hit balls, even if there’s light rain,” he says. This is a very useful amenity in St. Paul, where it was snowing on the April morning I spoke with him. The weather was 50 degrees and sunny by the afternoon.
Shimpach explains that because the other two city courses are in more open areas, they include extras such as walking paths, lakes and a beach, paddleboats, and a lakeside pavilion. But they don’t have driving ranges and other features like at the Highlands, so the staff members focus on what their clients look for.
“We concentrate on keeping the greens looking great, keeping ball marks to a minimum—we even give out nice ball markers to customers as part of their greens fees,” says Shimpach.
The tee areas are another focal point. “Tees are the first thing a player sees, and it makes an impression—good or bad,” he says. “So we rotate tee areas during weekly play and try to have them in great condition Friday through Sunday, which is our big play time.”
These are only a handful of examples in which public courses are leveraging maintenance and upkeep on the amenities in order to support the central game of golf. While fiscal reality may ultimately dictate resource allocation, in the modern golf environment the cost of not maintaining amenities may be greater in the long run than with a short-term savings.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.