With the increase in rounds at golf courses across the country last year, superintendents have had to adjust maintenance practices to accommodate the added stress on the turf and properly prepare for (hopefully) more of the same.
The global coronavirus pandemic made a world of difference in the golf industry in 2020. While golf, like everything else, seemingly came to a screeching halt in the early days of the pandemic, more people ultimately made their way to the sport as the year played out. Courtesy of its ability to provide outdoor entertainment in a socially distanced way, the game drew golfers to the links in record numbers.
The National Golf Foundation showed a 14% year-over-year increase in 2020 rounds from 2019, despite nationwide coronavirus-related course shutdowns in March and April that led to a loss of 20 million spring rounds. In a classic case of cause and effect, however, the onslaught of increased rounds in a more condensed period, coupled with more wear and tear on turf from the use of single-rider carts that was mandated or strongly encouraged at many properties, left its mark on golf course maintenance and caused superintendents to quickly adapt their practices to the new realities.
Figuring It Out
At first, uncertainty clouded maintenance operations at some properties as the 2020 season began. “We had a two-week period of not knowing what we could do,” says Joe Berggren, Golf Course Superintendent at The Wilds Golf Club, an 18-hole public course in Prior Lake, Minn. “Luckily, it was early in the season. The grass hadn’t started to grow yet. The turf was in dormancy. Not knowing was the hardest part.”
The Wilds, which averages 24,000 rounds annually, ended up with close to a record number of rounds in 2020, with more than 31,000 played in the seven months from April until November—even though golf outings were canceled. “We went from one outing per week to none, which in reality, increased our rounds,” Berggren says. “We got a lot of new golfers. It was great to see and great for golf.”
North Hempstead Country Club, an 18-hole private property that was established in 1916 in Port Washington, N.Y., had just under 28,000 rounds in 2020. The property normally averages 17,000 to 18,000 rounds per year, and Golf Course Superintendent Tom Kaplun says the number of rounds climbed even though North Hempstead, which has an active membership, lost 90% of its social events.
While play in the fall usually “tails off to nice days and weekends,” Kaplun adds, “from mid-October to early November, the play never really stopped.”
It helped that North Hempstead members started using an app to reserve tee times, which allowed Kaplun to see in advance how many golfers would be on the course, so he could manage his staff and work flow accordingly. Many new golfers came to the course to try the game for the first time, adding a need to educate them about golf course etiquette practices, such as repairing divots, fixing ball marks, and where to drive golf cars.
At Evansville (Ind.) Country Club, 2020 rounds were up by about 22 percent from 2019. Golf outings at Evansville CC declined from about 10 per year to two or three last year, however, resulting in about 700 fewer outing rounds.
“The golf course held up pretty well, all things considered,” says Jeff Sexton, CGCS. “Golf increased because travel sports were shut down, and families were home.” Many families golfed together, and Evansville CC also attracted new golfers. The club gained about 25 new members during the pandemic as well.
Silver Spring Country Club in Ridgefield, Conn., remained open throughout the pandemic, and its golf rounds increased by about 6,000 in 2020, jumping from an average of 18,000 to 24,000 rounds.
“The golf course was busier than usual, so finding time to get second jobs done on the course was always difficult,” says Golf Course Superintendent Bill Cygan.
While golf outings at Silver Spring were able to move forward, “A lot of our tournaments got shifted to later in the season, so the season dragged out longer,” Cygan adds. “We opened a month earlier than usual and closed later in the season because of the mild winter.”
Normally, the Silver Spring course opens in early April and closes around Thanksgiving. In 2020, though, the golf course operated from mid-March until mid-December. “We saw a lot of members golfing with their college-age kids and their kids in their 20s or 30s who had moved back home,” Cygan notes. “More people and more rounds led to more wear and tear.”
Back to the Basics
To try to alleviate the stress on turf and stay ahead of all the play, golf courses across the country had to adjust their maintenance inputs and practices accordingly.
At The Wilds, the maintenance staff eliminated detail work to concentrate on basic inputs. “We had to get the golf course ready and get out of the way,” says Berggren. While the increased number of rounds led to more fairway divots and more ball marks, the staff was able to spend less time on bunker maintenance.
“The bunkers were a pleasure,” Berggren says. “We didn’t have to take the extra time to put rakes in or take them out. Hopefully that trend will continue.”
The Wilds staff also was unable to do much topdressing because of the number of golfers, but the golf course closed in early October to perform its normal fall aerification.
To handle the effects of increased play at North Hempstead, the maintenance staff managed the golf course from the inside out, concentrating on the greens, tees, and fairways out to the perimeter areas.
“We had to quickly acclimate ourselves to the increased rounds in the spring,” says Kaplun. “We had to be more efficient in how we made applications on the golf course and how we structured our crew. Having to work with reduced manpower required a lot of organization and a lot of communication with the membership. We had to let some of the periphery things go.”
More play at North Hempstead led to more maintenance on the fairway landing areas, repair of ball marks on greens, and filling in divots.
“We do a lot of hand work around the greens, tees, and fairway bunkers,” reports Kaplun. “The golf course is 100-plus years old, and a lot of the features still require a lot of hand work. We have to get to those places in the mornings.”
With no Monday outings in 2020, Kaplun says the property was able to close the golf course completely on those days, so the maintenance staff could work without interruption.
The North Hempstead crew also relied more on its irrigation system. Instead of a 60% – 40% ratio of irrigation to hand-watering, Kaplun says the crew irrigated the turf 80% of the time and hand-watered 20% of the time.
The staff members raked bunkers two or three days a week instead of the customary five days a week, and adjusted their mowing practices.
“With single-rider carts and increased play, we raised the mowing heights in some areas to better withstand the traffic,” says Kaplun. “We did a lot more ride-mowing than usual. We used ride mowers almost exclusively on the greens. We used ride mowers 70% of the time in past years and 90% of the time on the greens [in 2020], because we had so many more rounds.”
Kaplun bumped up fertility applications by 25% last year, and his staff fertilized in the fall to accelerate recovery from the summer. In addition, the grounds crew backed off the use of growth regulators to allow for accelerated recovery of the turf.
“I was asked in March to prepare a bare-bones budget for the season, assuming the worst,” Kaplun notes. However, as the season progressed, he added inputs back in as needed, such as for seeding in the rough, landing areas and high-traffic areas. “The increased play allowed us to be much more efficient and do other things we might have done during downtime on the golf course,” he notes.
In spite of the adjustments North Hempstead had to make in 2020, the ultimate goal never changed from previous years. “I’m just trying to create a turf that’s healthy and can withstand whatever comes its way,” says Kaplun.
At Evansville CC, divots on the tees were the main issue that resulted from increased play, Sexton reports. The par-3 holes were “especially beat up,” and just before winter arrived, the Evansville staff applied heavy topdressing sand to fill in divots.
In addition, the grounds crew decreased mowing by 20% last year. “We mowed a little bit less and rolled a little bit more,” states Sexton.
Fortunately, the Evansville grounds crew was still able to tend to projects such as irrigation installation and cart-path resurfacing. Staff members were able to maintain detail work as well. “The members wanted to continue capital investment work into the course,” Sexton says.
Later in the season, Evansville crew members also started placing hand-sanitizing bottles at each water-cooler space.
At Silver Spring CC, the grounds crew prepared the golf course ahead of play as usual, and then performed secondary jobs such as mowing the rough, filling in divots, and string-trimming along the tree lines.
“We didn’t have bunker rakes on the course for basically the whole season,” says Cygan, “and we did less bunker maintenance and filled in divots instead. A lot of labor is spent on the bunkers, but by doing less maintenance in them, we could focus on other areas that were getting more worn out.” Crew members also spent a lot of time fixing ball marks on the greens, he adds.
In addition, he says, Silver Spring is getting a new maintenance facility, and the grounds crew has been able to continue to relocate power cords in association with that project, which began in December 2019. That job fell behind a month or two because of COVID, notes Cygan, but it never stopped.
Knowing the Ropes
With more rounds, single-use golf car policies implemented at courses affected turf conditions as well.
At The Wilds, the additional carts created more traffic patterns. “The locations where people drove on and off the cart paths got really beat up. We had to aerify those areas more than usual to alleviate compaction,” notes Berggren. “We had every rope and every stake that we own out to try to manage traffic. We had to maintain, trim, and move ropes and vary paths almost daily to reduce wear and tear.”
While Evansville CC’s course never closed, golfers were not allowed to use carts for a month. When Sexton learned that golfers would have to ride in the carts as singles once they could use them again, he realized that four times the normal amount of cart traffic would go to certain areas. But instead of golfers parking their carts in the same places, they spread them out.
“We used to move ropes on a weekly basis, but I saw [the carts] disperse visually,” Sexton says. “That was a monumental moment, because it’s a lot of work to move the ropes.”
As a result, the Evansville maintenance staff did not put out ropes to guide golf carts. “We probably will never put them out again,” Sexton says. “The carts scattered at their own will, and it improved turf conditions.”
Although the use of single-rider carts at Silver Spring CC created more wear and tear on the turf, the maintenance staff followed its normal practices when erecting signs and ropes to direct cart traffic. “We had to be more diligent with it,” Cygan says. “We move them around to scatter traffic patterns daily, but we’re always assessing the situation.”
Keeping the electric golf cars, which typically can go around the course twice before their batteries need to be recharged, was a challenge for the pro shop as well. “The clubhouse attendants and golf pro shuffled them around to give them a quick charge and get them back out the door,” Berggren says.
North Hempstead was shut down for 10 to 12 days in late March and early April, and golf cars initially were not allowed when the course reopened. Before the pandemic, Kaplun says about 85% of the players rode golf carts. Now, he says, about 60% ride and 40% walk.
“In the spring and fall when the weather is cooler, we saw more people walking the golf course for exercise,” he adds. “We also allowed pull carts for the first time this year.”
In recent years, the property had made an effort to remove “clutter” from the golf course. Last year, however, North Hempstead, which saw a lot of play from new golfers, put out signs, stakes, and ropes. “Longtime members understood and came to me with the need for additional signage for new members,” Kaplun notes.
To alleviate the effect of cart traffic on the turf in the future, Kaplun hopes the club will be able to get golf cars with GPS technology, so perimeter areas can be created to shut them down when approaching no-go zones.
While properties still needed to keep up course conditions in an altered environment last year, many golf course maintenance crews had fewer people on staff as well.
The Wilds, which typically has about 25 people on its maintenance staff, only had 18 crew members last year because Berggren was unable to hire as many people as usual in the spring. “We’ve all learned to be flexible,” he says.
The grounds crew was small enough for each person to have his own utility vehicle, but staff members did not have assigned UVs. They developed a daily routine for disinfecting and cleaning equipment at the wash station each day.
“Every person was responsible for disinfecting their own piece of equipment,” says Berggren.
They also disinfected the lunchroom and the flagsticks daily, and masks, gloves, and temperature checks were provided for everyone. Berggren held brief morning staff meetings for younger crew members, but his seasoned personnel went straight to work.
“We simplified everything. We didn’t have extensive projects we needed to discuss,” Berggren says. “There was no major construction, but there’s always a project to be done.”
He expects to hit the ground running this season. “We’re going to have to hire excessively this spring to catch up,” Berggren says.
Whether or not the spring hires remain on staff this season, however, remains to be seen.
Berggren says the staff will also have extra time in the afternoons this year for more thorough training on equipment use and safety.
Kaplun usually has 17 to 19 people on his maintenance staff, but last year he had 13 or 14, including himself. “The most challenging part of the pandemic is that it reduced the work force. Ninety percent of my work force was not born in the United States. They go home to Central America in the winter, and they couldn’t come back because of travel restrictions,” he reports.
Staffing also has been affected by the mandatory minimum-wage increase that has been increasing steadily to $15 an hour in the last few years.
Like other properties, North Hempstead adopted new sanitation and safety practices for staff members. Grounds crew members cleaned their utility vehicles at the end of each day with a bleach-like solution, and Kaplun says the extra cleaning took about 30 minutes a day. They were not assigned their own carts, but masks and gloves were available for use at their discretion.
The shop is large enough for social distancing, Kaplun says, and in the spring he encouraged staff members to take their lunch breaks outside. “We went over safety protocols a number of times,” he adds.
At Evansville CC, the size of the maintenance staff was the same as it had been in years past. However, crew members wore masks inside the maintenance building, and Sexton encouraged them to eat lunch outside.
Each maintenance staff employee had a designated vehicle to use for several months last year, and from March until June, one crew member was assigned the task of sanitizing and cleaning the vehicles and tools. He would come off the course about 30 minutes before the end of each day to sanitize equipment, door handles, steering wheels, and the time clock. However, as more information about virus transmission became available, Sexton halted these practices.
He also discontinued his normal morning staff meetings. Instead, Sexton gathered the crew members outside behind the shop. By the end of the year, however, he started having regular staff meetings again. Sexton also says reminders extended beyond maintenance tasks.
“I spent a lot of time trying to coach my guys about what to do out of the workplace to protect the workplace,” he says. “I wanted to remind them and motivate them that our members needed us.”
The staff at Silver Spring, which reaches about 25 employees at the height of the summer, remained at full capacity.
The grounds crew had split shifts, with groups of people reporting for work at 15-minute intervals. The staggered starts gave one group enough time to get dressed, get their jobs for the day, gather their equipment, and get out on the golf course before the next group arrived. The crew members also ate lunch with their groups.
“That was a challenge in the mornings when we were trying to stay ahead of golf groups,” says Cygan.
Silver Spring supplied masks for staff and performed daily temperature checks and wellness statements, and each staff member had his own cart last year.
“It gets tricky because we run out of vehicles,” Cygan says. “But in some ways, it’s nice to have that organization of knowing who’s on what cart every day. They all had their basic set of tools assigned to them, and they sanitized them every day.”
One maintenance staff member worked overtime each day to perform a thorough cleaning of the office and breakroom, and that practice has continued.
“I’m thankful to have a staff that was willing to take the necessary measures to keep operating and to keep everyone safe,” Cygan says.
Preparing for Déjà Vu
For the time being, superintendents expect more of the same as the 2021 golf season shifts into high gear.
“We feel that this spring is going to continue on how last fall ended,” Berggren says. “We will continue with the ‘new normal,’ but we hope that the ‘old normal’ kicks back in later in the year.”
Kaplun believes questions about regulations will remain for the 2021 golf season. “Will we leave the pins in? Will we put the bunker rakes back out? Will we have single-rider carts? I’m assuming these things will still be in effect, so I’m planning aacordingly, ” he says.
North Hempstead’s grounds crew will take care of details such as bunker work earlier this spring to get ready for play. “[In 2020] we had to prioritize the areas of importance,” Kaplun explains. “We didn’t plant flowers for cost-saving purposes. We had to allocate labor to the important things on the golf course. The golf course really was the lifeline of the club last year.”
This year at Evansville CC, Sexton expects to increase fertility applications on the greens where the golfers walked on and off the putting surfaces. “They got thin with the increased foot traffic,” he says. He also plans to increase aerifications this summer from once a month to twice monthly. However, with a 2% increase in his budget this year, he doesn’t expect the additional applications to create any issues.
“I hope that after the first quarter, things will go back to where they used to be,” says Sexton. “It will be business as usual, we hope, but we’ll take a wait-and-see attitude.”
He also expects his crew will be able to continue projects such as stone wall work, tee reconstruction, and more irrigation installation. And he will continue a new practice from last year: “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to coach my guys about what to do out of the workplace to protect the workplace. I want to remind them and motivate them that our members need us.”
At Silver Spring, the normal golf calendar is on the schedule for 2021. “As of right now, the club is planning to continue as we did in the fall,” says Cygan. “We seemed to find our groove of keeping things safe. We were super-conservative and paranoid in the beginning, but by the end of July, we had a better grasp on how to keep safe and move forward.”
Summing It Up
> An increased number of rounds coupled with single-use golf car policies during 2020 prompted golf course superintendents to revisit daily maintenance practices to alleviate additional wear and tear, such as divots and ball marks, on the turf.
> With smaller work forces and additional cleaning and sanitation needs, golf course superintendents have had to make adjustments to manage their time and personnel.
> Golf course superintendents expect the 2021 golf season to begin much as the 2020 season ended.