To help Meadowlake GC keep pace in a competitive market, Michael League has taken on a dual role as Director of Operations and Golf Course Superintendent.
When confronted with a challenge, Michael League is not one to back down.
As a young teenager growing up in tiny Medford, Okla., League fell in love with the game of golf. But with high school approaching, he did not have a place to play. Sure, there were a few junior tournaments here and there, but the high school did not sponsor golf teams.
So as an eighth grader, League joined a group of high school girls in petitioning the school board to institute boys and girls golf teams. Teams were added (he was a team of one as a freshman), and as a sophomore, junior and senior, League and the Medford High School boys golf team qualified for the state tournament.
Fast-forward to the days following League’s graduation from Oklahoma State University, with a degree in horticulture. He had been working on the staff of Lakeside Golf Course in Stillwater, Okla., during his undergraduate days and was prepared to enter graduate school. But an opening for an assistant superintendent arose, and League was presented with the opportunity to fill the role. Rather than put graduate school on the shelf, he was able to complete his degree while holding down the assistant position.
Today, League holds the dual position of Director of Operations and Golf Course Superintendent at Meadowlake Golf Course in Enid, Okla. He arrived as the superintendent in 2010, but when the director left for another golf course late last year, city leaders turned to League with the proposal to hold down both spots. True to his character, League embraced the opportunity, and now has the course on a path to success. He recently described for C&RB what he hopes to achieve through his dual role.
C&RB: Describe the Meadowlake course in terms of the market.
League: We are a municipal course that is played primarily by the residents and by some from surrounding communities. Enid [located in north central Oklahoma] is a town of about 50,000, so we have competition with the [local] country club and other public courses. There are some pretty good courses in the area, so I believe it is important that we provide quality playing conditions.
Vance Air Force base is adjacent to us, so we get some play from those who are stationed there or visit the base. We host some junior events, about eight to ten fundraisers, and a few corporate outings. We are also bordered on two sides by a city park, so we’re part of a big area of green space.
C&RB: What is the management structure of the golf facility?
League: I report to the city manager, who reports to the city council. I do have a golf advisory council that I meet with quarterly, to get golfer feedback and communicate issues about the facility.
Our total facility budget is about $700,000—of which $385,000 is for the golf course. We have been subsidized, on average, about $230,000 [annually], and would like to get it down to about $150,000. The biggest expense is labor. Our cost for salaries and benefits in 2003 was $178,000. In 2017, it was $400,000.
C&RB: What are you doing to improve facility finances?
League: After I took over operations, I had suggested we look at turning ownership of the driving range, pro shop and restaurant over to the city. A consultant reached the conclusion that it should be done. That created an increase in revenue for the course, rather than for a contracted operator. We were about to cut two full-time positions as well.
GOLF COURSE PROFILE
I have also moved some of our events off of the weekends. We’d lose weekend play because tournaments would take up the tee times. Of course, we watch our expenses. I do a lot of scouting for disease, and don’t do a great deal of preventative spraying.
C&RB: What have you done to improve course conditions?
League: My focus is on creating consistent conditions. We used to have a weed problem, so my initial focus was on addressing that with a pre-emergent program. We had an irrigation system that was suspect, because some of the wiring and satellites did not work, so we fixed those issues. We instituted a regular aerifying program, started using plant growth regulators, and we lightly topdress greens every two weeks.
The big thing we try to do is keep the course dry. It plays firmer and faster, plus you do not invite disease. We’ve received good feedback.
C&RB: What makes the course fun and challenging to play?
League: It really is a great layout. Tripp Davis did a good job in the redesign by protecting the greens with new bunkering. The fairways are tree-lined, so you have to keep it in the fairway or you could get into trouble.
During the rainy season, our rough can be very difficult. And of course, we are on the Oklahoma plains, so the wind does blow. You have to play the wind.
Our greens are good-sized, and six of them slope from front to back, which is a bit unusual. Our signature hole is our No. 11, a par 3 over two creeks.
C&RB: What are the biggest agronomic challenges?
League: We are right on the border of the transition zone, so there are some challenges with the greens [cool-season bentgrass]. You really have to watch them in the summer months, because you can lose them quickly. I do some preventative spraying and some light syringing. And you have to raise your mowing heights when it gets hot.
There are some hybrid bermudas that I have been looking at, but I am not quite sold on them yet. The common bermudagrass on the tees, roughs and fairways are easy to manage for the most part, but you can come out of the winter with some winterkill. And you really don’t green up until April or early May, so you play the ball up early in the season.
C&RB: How have you juggled your duties of being superintendent and head of operations?
|COURSE & GROUNDS OPERATIONS PROFILE
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $385,000
League: I thought I would spend most of my time on the course, but I find I am spending more time in the office. I try to get out on the course early in the morning. I might even jump on a mower. I’ll then go back to the pro shop and restaurant and check out those areas. I make an occasional run to city hall as well.
The key is having a good staff, which I do. There is no doubt it can be a challenge to hold down both positions. Obviously my education helped. Having good business skills is important for the superintendent.
I think one advantage of holding down both positions is you make better decisions for the golf course. I think sometimes superintendents don’t get enough of a say in the budgeting process. Superintendents know what they need for the course, and where they can cut if need be.
C&RB: Has being a good golfer helped in your job?
League: I think so. I approach things from the customer perspective, so we stress good service and friendliness. As a golfer, I want consistency in conditions and I like it to be firm. My six-year-old son really loves the game, so I will probably get to play a little more.
C&RB: How did you originally become interested in being a golf course superintendent?
League: I spent a great deal of time on the family farm. I loved being outdoors and working in a natural environment. I thought I would work in some type of setting like that.
When I picked up golf, I found that being out on the course was like being out on the farm to a degree. My father suggested being a golf course superintendent. I knew I wasn’t going to be good enough to play as a career, but the thought of being a superintendent interested me. I also think the farm and the work ethic needed to manage a farm translated to being a superintendent, because there are some long hours.
C&RB: You decided to pursue a graduate degree while holding down a full-time assistant superintendent position. Why?
League: Even as an undergraduate, I felt I should have some business education to help me in my career. So I got a finance minor. Then when I graduated, I decided to get a master’s in business, because I thought that would help me in my career.
I was working at Lakeside Golf Course on the staff as an undergraduate when the assistant spot opened. I was offered the position, but I told my boss I was going to graduate school. He said, “What if we made it so you could do both?” So I gave it a try and it worked out. There were some long days, but everyone helped to make it work.