Superintendent Magazine - December, 2012


Cover Story: Looking Back

From a healthy increase in rounds to an upbeat trade show to another challenging weather year, 2012 left its mark on the golf industry.
By Larry Aylward and Anthony Pioppi

It's almost time to say farewell to 2012. Like most years, it had its share of good and bad news.

Let's start with the good news, specifically with the considerable increase in golf rounds, which nobody saw coming. Well, maybe that's not true. Maybe Ralph Kepple was on to something.

In January, Kepple, the certified golf course superintendent at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, said he was bullish on his club and believed the golf economy in general would improve in 2012. He was right. Through September 2012, golf rounds were up a considerable 7.4 percent compared to the same time in 2011.

Kepple said a key to golf's growth is a spike in corporate outings, which East Lake is experiencing. Corporate golf was shunned nationwide after the financial meltdown on Wall Street and the subsequent Great Recession.

"[The spike] is encouraging, and tells me that corporations feel like they can finally spend some of that marketing money again," Kepple said.

Members of the Olympic Club's maintenance crew grew mustaches for the event to to show their comraderie.

At an industry event in October, Greg Nathan, senior vice president for the National Golf Foundation (NGF), provided even more proof that Kepple should consider a side career in business forecasting. Nathan said the golf industry is in the midst of a modest recovery, citing the "huge" increase in rounds this year and noted that it came on the heels of a 2.5 percent decrease in rounds played in 2011.

Many golf course owners and operators throughout the country were thankful for the winter that wasn't in 2012, and the sunny and dry weather that occurred throughout the year (i.e., it was in the 70s and 80s in Pittsburgh from March 13 through March 23) and attribute the increase in rounds to the favorable weather. But Nathan said it's more than warm sunshine that has spurred rounds this year.

The NGF has been measuring golfer confidence in the golf economy since the first quarter of 2008, and Nathan noted that golfer confidence has increased in the past four quarters.

"[The increase in rounds] is very much related to people feeling more secure in their jobs and having more comfort in their financial situations," Nathan said. "It's a lot more than just the weather."

But some of those in the golf industry say that increased play doesn't account for the discounting of green fees and memberships, sometimes to a ludicrous degree. For instance, Tim Kreger, the executive director of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association, said facilities in the Myrtle Beach area that once charged between $60 and $80 a round are now asking $30 to $50 a round.

Pat Finlen, director of golf maintenance operations at the Olympic Club, stands next to one of the coolest trees on the Lake Course, which hosted the U.S. Open.

Even though there will be a healthy increase in rounds played in 2012, that doesn't mean that all golf courses are raking in the revenue. In fact, the number of course closures in 18-hole equivalents will again outweigh the number of course openings, about 15, in 2012. This is the eighth consecutive year this has occurred.

"The closings represent a very slow market correction that must happen for the golf industry as whole to be healthy," Nathan says.

The show: A much better mood A successful 2012 Golf Industry Show in Las Vegas provided another sign that the golf course industry is on the mend.

While there were concerns that Sin City's bustling casinos might sidetrack attendees, it was evident that little, if anything, seemed to deter superintendents from attending the two-day trade show, which was packed. And many superintendents were in the mood to buy. Some vendors said it was the busiest their booths had been in several years.

Brian Laurent, associate director of the Ohio Turfgrass Foundation, played (walked) 108 holes as part of the Hundred Hole Hike and raised several thousand dollars for the Wee One Foundation.

"I haven't heard superintendents talk about buying equipment in about four years," said Paul Hollis, executive vice president of St. Louis-based Redexim North America, shortly after the show. "In the past few years they would come by the booth and say, 'I'd really like to have one of these machines, but it's not in my budget.' But they were in a completely different mood this year. Hopefully, this is the light at the end of the tunnel."

There was also an enthusiasm at the show that had been lacking the past few years. As one vendor put it, this year's show didn't resemble a wake service.

"Everybody just wanted to share their miseries; everybody felt beat up," said Bob Goglia, Syngenta's market manager. "But I think things are turning around. There's more optimism at this show than there has been in a while."

Another factor may have been playing in suppliers' favor, especially equipment manufacturers. Many superintendents need to replace old mowers and aerifiers.

The drought left a lasting impression on many golf courses.

Mark Ford, strategic marketing manager for John Deere Golf, said many courses had been just trying to stay open during the tough economic times without investing any money. With the worst of the economic demise behind them, those courses are now thinking about what they can do long term to stand out from the rest.

"They're investing in the franchise," Ford said.

The weather: Sunny but challenging

Early in the year, a lot of people were saying the golf industry needed a good weather year to get back on track. That's because courses were hammered across the country with lousy and sometimes nasty weather in 2011.

"I'm one of those people who hates to blame the weather for anything," Nathan said, "but 2011 was a particularly bad year. Most of the time when there's bad weather that hurts rounds played in parts of the country, there's better weather in other parts that balance it out. 2011 wasn't like that."

Then along came 2012, which kicked off with one of the mildest winters in many years. According to the Rutgers University Global Snow Lab, it was the third least snowy winter nationally in 46 years of snow records. Syracuse had 51 inches of snow and 179 in 2011; Boston had 9 inches, way down from the 81 in 2011; Minneapolis had 22 inches in 2012 compared to 87 in 2011.

The fourth warmest U.S. winter, including the warmest March on record, brought out more than a herd of early weeds - it also brought out a horde of early golfers.

Bill Murray signs an autograph at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro- Am.

At Cranberry Highlands Golf Course near Pittsburgh, first quarter rounds were up 1,500 when compared to 2011. The course usually gets a few hundred rounds for the first three months of the year.

"People were just excited to get out and play. They didn't care how fast the greens were or anything," said Dave Barber, Cranberry's golf course superintendent.

Dennis Kitzelman, superintendent of Fremont (Neb.) Golf Club, said the private club had a record-shattering 400 rounds in January. The club usually gets about 40 rounds that month.

The early warm weather also brought potential agronomic challenges. Barber, who wondered if the weather would have an adverse agronomic impact on the turf, watched it as closely as he could, literally, by studying the putting greens under a high-powered mini microscope.

Barber said he hadn't seen weather that atypical in his 30 years in the industry. His crew began mowing three week early.

Superintendent Dave Barber studies his course's putting greens through a microscope.

Meteorologists said the warm winter was caused by a superstrong jet stream that stopped cold arctic air from drifting south into the U.S. Some attributed it to sunspots, and others said it was global warming. No matter the cause, superintendents throughout the country were astonished by the weather.

"As far as I'm concerned, there was no winter," said Patrick Daly, certified golf course superintendent at Framingham (Mass.) Country Club, which opened March 15.

"We're lucky to be open most years by the middle of April," Daly noted.

The weather was even warmer than usual in Florida. Tom Alex, director of golf course maintenance at Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, said in April that the course's greens looked like they do in mid-June - the unseasonably warm weather had the bermudagrass pushing the overseeded Poa trivialis out ahead of schedule.

Many weeds were already running rampant at Cranberry Highlands in late March, some a foot high. Barber wondered if superintendents who sprayed herbicides early would have to spray them again after spring temperatures turned more seasonable and the herbicides lost their efficacy. Barber and other superintendents also couldn't believe that Poa annua went into seedhead production in mid-March.

The warm weather turned hot and dry in June. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than half the country (about 56 percent) was in at least moderate short-term drought for the first time since 1956, when 58 percent of the country suffered moderate to extreme drought.

June 2012 ranked as the third driest month nationally since 1950 and the 10th driest on record.

Pat Shaw, who has been a superintendent for nearly 30 years, said he'll remember 2012 as one of the most challenging he has ever had in golf course management.

"It's one of the top three worst years I've ever seen," said Shaw, superintendent of The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. "It was a long struggle."

David Miskus, a meteorologist for the Climate Prediction Center, described what the country was experiencing as a "flash drought." February and March were normal as far as precipitation, but then May was extremely dry, he explained. Miskus said the dry winter only added to the problem.

Remarkably, some areas that are dealing with drought are better off than they were in the sweltering summer of 2011, including golf courses.

At Old American Golf Club in Frisco, Texas, Director of Agronomy Russell Birkhimer endured two and a half months without rain before a drenching rain hit in mid-August. But the lack of rain combined with 30 straight days of temperatures above 100 degrees didn't put Birkhimer in a negative frame of mind.

"Shoot, it could be worse," Birkhimer said, pointing out that the summer of 2011 was hotter.

Birkhimer predicts more trying times ahead. For the first time, the North Texas Groundwater Conservation District is monitoring usage. He said the club currently pumps what it wants, but he foresees historical use permits being implemented.

Compounding the problem of the drought is the fact that the area is in the midst of a population boom, which means there's a dramatic increase in water use.

"It's every flush, every shower; it's every yard," Birkhimer said. "I'm extremely concerned about what our future is."

Last blast

It was a pleasant autumn in many parts of the country until Superstorm Sandy slammed New Jersey and surrounding areas in late October.

As would be expected, layouts with low-lying areas near the ocean were the worst hit, although winds from the category 1 hurricane also wreaked havoc.

Photographs from the Fishers Island (N.Y.) Club, located about 7 miles off the coast of New London, Conn., gave testament to the storm's strength. After assessing the damage, Superintendent Donnie Beck estimated that in spots as much as 30 feet of shoreline was lost to the tidal surge.

Some courses avoided the flooding but didn't escape wind damage. At Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., 50 trees came down, including a notable one. According to Superintendent Chris Carson, an 150-year-old red oak next to the 18th green crashed onto the putting surface. The tree, which had long been cabled up, was in the twilight of its life, according to Carson.

"It went out in a blaze of glory," he said.

Through drought, floods and all types of weather, one thing remained the same: golfers expected near-perfect conditions, no matter the elements.

"I don't think that will go away," said Kevin DeRoo, the golf course superintendent at Bartlett Hills Golf Club, an 18-hole municipal facility in Bartlett, Ill.

According to a Superintendent magazine survey in 2012, "golfer expectations for near-perfect conditions" is one of the top challenges superintendents face. And there's a compounding facet to the golfer expectation problem - golf course maintenance budgets, which have remained stagnant or decreased over the past several years.

While golfers are clamoring for near-perfect conditions, they're responsible for one of the biggest complaints DeRoo hears about regarding conditioning: ball marks.

"I find it quite ironic that golfers complain about the one aspect of golf course maintenance that is 100 percent under their control," DeRoo said. "If everybody fixed all the ball marks that they say they fixed, then our course's greens wouldn't have any."

Speaking of fixing things that need fixing, superintendents sounded off on the nation's political system shortly before the November election.

Like many Americans, superintendents are fed up with the political poppycock going on in Washington, D.C., specifically the gridlock displayed by Republicans and Democrats in Congress when it comes to making important decisions.

What happens in Congress will have a tremendous impact on the economy in 2013. And what happens with the economy will carry over to the golf economy.

One of the parties needs to wake up and reach across lines to prove to Americans that there can be compromise, said Jim Husting, the certified golf course superintendent at Woodbridge (Calif.) Golf and Country Club.

"I don't know who it's going to be, but somebody needs to say, 'Let's get to a common ground,' " Husting says. "Somebody has to eat some crow, both Republicans and Democrats, for the good of the country."

All that's left to say is Happy New Year.

Authors of this story can be reached at or 330-723-2136.