Wendell Nealon has been in the golf course maintenance business a while. He has worked for private clubs and resorts, and for more than a decade he has been in charge of two municipal courses, all told a 32-year-career, and counting.
He has seen ups and downs. He knows the ins and outs.
When it comes to stretching a dollar in pursuit of great conditions at the 27 holes owned and run by Clarksville, Tennessee, Nealon is a wizard.
This is a guy who pulls up to local building sites looking for material to make water cooler stations.
“We just stop in and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for scrap lumber,’ ” Nealon says.
When an old barn was torn down, Nealon found use for some of that wood, as well.
“We have birdhouses that are 200 years old,” he notes.
Nealon has to do what he can to save money. His operating budget, which is about $850,000, is 10 percent lower than last year.
Nealon is in charge of maintenance for the 18-hole Swan Lake Golf Course and the nine-hole Mason Rudolph Golf Course. The Mason Rudolph layout, named after the former PGA Tour golfer who hailed from Clarksville, also has a large practice facility and is home to the First Tee of Clarksville.
The economy is righting itself, the stock market is booming, but golf is lagging. So even though many industries are growing, a significant number of golf course superintendents are seeing their annual budgets remain stagnant or decrease in comparison to last year, while a lucky few have seen an increase. All the while, the cost of every aspect of turf maintenance, from fuel to iron to fertilizer, continues to rise.
According to a Superintendent magazine reader survey, about 57 percent of maintenance budgets are the same this year as they were for 2013, with a little more than 22 percent seeing a 5-percent increase. Just shy of 11 percent of responders said their budgets were down 5 percent.
Only 1.5 percent of responders saw their budgets increase or decrease by at least 10 percent.
Nealon is one of those who took the largest cuts, the direct result of golf rounds being down. Where once 32,000 people played the Clarksville layouts, the most recent numbers were 24,000. On weekends, green fees are $30, including a cart.
In the ongoing efforts to save money, a few years ago the greens at Swan Lake were converted from bentgrass to ultradwarf bermudagrass. As Nealon tells it, that freed up a staffer to weed wack, use a push mower or mow fairways, rather than syringing greens all day.
Swan Lake is also a member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program, and as a result has taken 17 acres — 11 this year — out of play.
“We enjoy being good stewards of the land, and it equates to being good stewards of the money,” Nealon states.
He’s also not opposed to a little deal making to save money, or finding a bargain on a piece of used equipment. In one case that meant driving 80 miles round-trip to purchase fertilizer, saving the club $800.
“I enjoy the challenge of doing more with less,” Nealon says.
Brandon Haddick is the superintendent at Glen Eagle Golf Course in Syracuse, Utah. He devised a plan to get a 5-percent budget increase over last year at the privately owned public facility.
“I [complained] like hell,” he says.
Haddick has also figured out a way to get guys to work for free. No, he did not threaten them — it’s being done legally.
His weekend crew is made up of retired guys who trade golf for work. To stay within the confines of the law, Haddick can’t set their hours, so they call every week to let him know they’ll be in on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Some also work on weekdays. Thanks to the plan, overtime is eliminated.
The volunteers mow greens, cut cups and fill divots.
“They’re easy to train,” Haddick notes.
His paid summer staff is six and a half positions, with he and his equipment manager the only full-timers. During the winter the equipment manager is usually laid off for about two months.
Last year he was able to get his seasonal staff a slight bump in pay.
To save money, Haddick says he cuts back a little on fairway maintenance and more so with the rough.
“I can let things go on the edges,” he explains, adding that beautification efforts “get slashed.”
Skipping one fairway pesticide application at the end of the season can save between $6,000 and $8,000.
Greens and tees, though, see no reduction in maintenance.
Haddick says the course is lucky when it comes to water, which arrives via a ditch system. Because Glen Eagle was built on an old farm, the older ditch lease came with it, and water costs are only about $17,000 a year, well below other courses in the area.
A problem all privately owned daily-fee courses face in Utah is going head-to-head with municipally owned layouts. According to Haddick, 75 percent of his competition is municipal. Haddick says the playing field isn’t level since those facilities don’t pay property or sales taxes and can get in on state bids for equipment. That combination results in lower green fees and lower annual costs.
In an effort to increase revenue, Glen Eagle embraced a new sport.
“We have foot golf to help out, to make a little money this year,” Haddick explains.
The course at Glen Eagle is 18 holes of foot golf inside of nine holes of a standard golf course. Players use the gold tees and play to a hole that is 2 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep in a green that is mowed out in the rough. Fees are $13 for 18 holes.
At the Potowomut Golf Club in Warwick, Rhode Island, there’s no foot golf, no tennis, no paddle tennis, no bowling, no pool, just golf. For Superintendent Patrick Gertner, that’s an issue. Golf membership is the club’s only source of income. That means there can be sizable fluctuations from year to year.
“Our budget is predicated on the number of members,” Gertner explains.
In 2014, the club refinanced its debt. As a result, Gertner’s budget was increased about 10 percent for 2014.
Gertner is aware that this was a one-time scenario. Most of the increase was spent on seasonal labor.
“It’s going to go back down next year,” he adds.
When 2015 arrives, Gertner will not be the one who decides where to trim.
“Where do you want me to cut?” will be his question to members.
The club has a Standards Document that defines how the course is to be maintained. The guidelines, however, are not etched in granite.
“We set it up to be a moving document,” Gertner says.
As a result, if areas of maintenance decline in a given year because of a budget reduction, Gertner isn’t blamed.
“There’s not blowback from the members,” he says. “It’s a good way to be able to communicate with the old and new members.”
This year, the course was in wonderful condition after two tough years, but Gertner isn’t taking all the credit, nor is he giving credit to the bump in his budget.
“We’re better this year because of the weather,” he explains.
Next year, even if the weather isn’t great, Potowomut will be in as good condition as can be expected, and Gertner gives credit to his staff.
“I think we give them a better golf course than the budget because my crew works so hard,” Gertner says, adding that when the money he needs isn’t there, he performs a little magic. “Sometimes I pull rabbits out of the hat to get things done.”
Retirees can be “hired” in exchange for free golf, which can help a superintendent save money on his budget.
State of the Budget
Earlier this year we asked about 250 golf course superintendents if their maintenance budgets would be higher in 2014 than 2013. Here’s what they had to say:
- More than 10 percent higher than last year 3%
- 10 percent higher than last year 3%
- 5 percent higher than last year 22%
- About the same as last year 58%
- 5 percent lower than last year 8.5%
- 10 percent lower than last year 3%
- More than 10 percent lower than last year 3%
How to Stretch Your Dollars
- Reduce maintenance by taking more acres out of play.
- Look for the best deals on fertilizer and other products, even if it means driving 80 miles to purchase them.
- “Hire” retirees to mow in exchange for free golf.
- Find ways to increase revenue. Foot golf anyone?
- Build birdhouses and cooler stations from scrap wood.
- More native areas can help reduce maintenance and cost.