It’s the same old, tired cliché we hear every year at this time: “I can’t believe the year is almost over.” But it’s also a time of reflection, as 2016 is almost upon us. So we invite you to reflect with us as we look back at our selection of cover stories in 2015.

January: Out of the Bunker

In our annual preview of the Golf Industry Show (GIS), we considered the once-battered Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. We reported that the GCSAA was getting its legs back after being staggered with a nasty right hook by the big, bad, brutal economy.

More than four years ago, when interviewed for a story on the state of the GCSAA, Ron Dahlin (pictured, left) remarked of his hard-hit-by-the-economy association, “We’ll come to a point when we look back and say, ‘Whew, we made it through this.’ “

It was January 2011, and the GCSAA was coming off one of its worst years ever because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Longtime and well-known staff members had been fired the previous year, and the association’s revenues were off 25 percent from previous years because of a shrinking GIS.

Dahlin, the certified golf course superintendent for the Meadows Golf Club at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, was asked what he thought of the mess. Instead of citing doom and gloom, Dahlin was more affirmative in his response, although he admitted he had no idea when the “whew” moment would occur.

That moment might have been last year around this time, as we reported in our January issue.

“I think we’re in a better spot than we were four years ago,” Dahlin said then. “And I think if we didn’t have the intestinal fortitude, we’d be in a much worse spot than we are now.”

PHOTO: ROYAL POINCIANA GOLF CLUB

February: Portrait of the Industry

There was plenty of good news to be taken away from Superintendent’s fourth-annual Super Survey. But there was some bad news, too.

While more superintendents believed the industry is improving economically – 17 percent compared to 11 percent the previous year – more superintendents surveyed also believed the industry is still down – 34 percent compared to 27 percent last year.

In the middle, 49 percent of superintendents answered, “Maybe, there are signs the industry is improving,” when they were asked, “Do you think the golf industry is improving?” That number was down from 62 percent the previous year.

Anecdotally, we heard much positive news from superintendents whose courses had experienced some good times.

Bill Kennedy, director of maintenance and the certified golf course superintendent at Chechessee Creek Club, a private 18-hole course in Bluffton, South Carolina, said it’s easy to paint a negative picture of the industry, with golf course closings numbering more than a 1,000 in the last eight years compared to roughly 100 openings, not to mention staff layoffs and tightening of maintenance budgets.

“But we’ve endured the worst,” Kennedy added. “We still have some things to figure out, but all in all we’re headed in the right direction. I’m optimistic that we’ll find our way.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, golf courses were going up like Starbucks franchises. Jobs were prevalent, budgets were big and times were good – it was golf’s glory days.

Times are different now, but we asked superintendents if they thought golf could ever return to those glory days. While 42.5 percent answered “no,” 45 percent said “maybe.” And 12 percent of glass-is-half-full supers answered “yes.”

March: Affinity for Augusta

In our preview of the 2015 Masters, we asked superintendents why they love Augusta National Golf Club so much and why they feel it’s the greatest golf facility around.

Glen Junkin (pictured, left) compared going to Augusta for the first time to watch the Masters with going to Disney World for the first time and seeing Mickey Mouse. Junkin, the director of golf maintenance at Turtle Point Yacht and Country Club in Florence, Alabama, says he was excited, delighted and beaming like the morning sun when visiting both destinations.

Junkin, who attended his first Masters in 2005 and has been to Augusta several times, uses a litany of superlatives to describe the place, including “stunning,” “immaculate” and “jaw-dropping.”

“Every time I go there, there’s nothing out of place,” he said.

Junkin isn’t alone among golf course superintendents in their affinity for Augusta. Superintendent surveyed about 400 superintendents and asked them, “What’s the greatest golf course in the country?” There were nine big-name courses to choose from. Augusta received a whopping 49 percent of the votes as the “greatest.”

 

PHOTO: EPIC CREATIVE

April: Keep ’em in the Fold

Ron Furlong, Superintendent’s contributing editor and columnist who’s the superintendent at Avalon Golf Club in Burlington, Washington, listed several ways for superintendents to keep quality seasonal workers on their staffs for more than a year. Here are a few:

Mix it up and keep rotating jobs: Often this means more training for you and your assistants, but it’s a win-win situation. It gives you, as the employer, more flexible seasonal workers who can do more jobs, and for the employees it keeps the job fresh.

Be flexible: If seasonal workers ask for a weekend off, or even a week here or there to go on a planned hike or a camping trip, usually give it to them. Summers can be short, and if you go to school for nine months a year, you don’t exactly want to spend every day of the other three months working – put yourself in their place.

May: Fundamentally Fescue

The word “fescue” was on the lips of players, fans, golf writers and announcers when the U.S. Open came to Chambers Bay last June. It was also on the tees, fairways, greens and in the rough of the municipal golf course located about 10 miles southwest of Tacoma, Washington, and overlooking Puget Sound. The 2015 U.S. Open marked the first time a men’s or women’s major outside the British Isles was played on a course where fescue is a dominant turf type.

There was much controversy surrounding the event, mainly focusing on the fescue. Let’s just say the greens didn’t go over so well.

 

PHOTO: LAWRENCE AYLWARD

June: Modifying Maintenance

Furlong, Superintendent’s go-to guy for how-to advice, was at it again, suggesting 10 possible modern-day maintenance practices that superintendents might be able to stop doing. But Furlong advises superintendents not to do all 10 right away. Here are a few:

Mowing deep secondary rough: What we’re talking about here is that rough beyond not only the primary cut, but out past the secondary cut as well. Think of rough in three stages: primary, secondary and deep secondary.

Pond and lakeside edge maintenance: There are two ways to handle the edge of a water feature. Manicured and detailed, short grass right to the edge, or wild and natural, long grass up to the cat-tailed water’s edge. In this day and age, you’d better be leaning toward the latter. Not only for the sake of saving on labor and maintenance, but if for no other reason than to keep that buffer between chemically treated turf and open water.

PHOTO: ANTHONY WILLIAMS

July: Takin’ the Heat

We turned up the heat in our summer report about how not all superintendents in warm-weather areas have switched their course’s greens from bentgrass to bermudagrass.

Wade Thomas, superintendent at Idle Hour Country Club in Macon, Georgia is among a group of superintendents who have bucked the trend, sticking with bentgrass on putting greens – “simply because bentgrass is the best putting surface,” he says.

When the ultradwarf bermudagrass strains arrived on the market and proved themselves in the real world, the United States Golf Association Green Section touted the conversion from bentgrass to bermuda. But Thomas says that if managed correctly, even in the middle of the hottest months, bent provides a fantastic playing surface that can hold up to daily stress. He points to the fact that Idle Hour has hosted three Georgia State Golf Association events during his tenure, all in July.

Thomas and several other superintendents told us they have no regrets about sticking with bentgrass greens and wondered why so many other facilities were so eager to make the change.

PHOTO: DAVE FEARIS

August: Still Smiling

Longtime industry figure Dave Fearis (pictured, left, with wife Lynn) shared his story regarding his battle with Alzheimer’s disease with Jeff Bollig, a Superintendent writer and columnist.

Fearis started working on a golf course at the age of 14 and, today, at 68, is still tending to a golf course in his “unofficial” retirement. He’s a member of Tom Baier’s maintenance staff at Grand Summit Golf & Country Club in suburban Kansas City, Missouri. In the more than 50 years between those jobs, he was a dean’s-list student at Purdue University, president of the GCSAA and host of PGA Tour Hall of Fame golfer Tom Watson’s charity event for numerous years.

To look at Fearis, one sees a picture of good health (other than a back that occasionally tightens up). He maintains a trim build and plays an occasional game of golf. But underneath the surface he’s dealing with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

“My mother had Alzheimer’s,” Fearis said. “So, there is some explanation for my situation – heredity. That was a long time ago (early 1980s). We know so much more about it today. Early diagnosis is important. Not only for the person, but for the family. This disease affects the family because they are caregivers.”

Despite his diagnosis, Fearis said he is enjoying life as much as he can.

“I have led a great life,” he said. “I am blessed with a great wife and son, and great friends. I have travelled all over the world and met many wonderful people. I could feel sorry for myself, but what would that do? I am going to enjoy life as much as I can.”

PHOTO: SUSAN CHIANG/SIGNATURE/ISTOCK

September: Golf’s Dilemma

Senior Writer Anthony Pioppi examined the issue of declining play and how to grow the game. Here’s a slice of his take:

You know the scenario. Golf is in a state of decline. More courses are closing than opening. Play is down. The rate of newcomers to the game has fallen off. You’ve heard the reasons – price and time being the supposed chief culprits.

You’ve heard the solutions. Make the cups bigger. Push for nine-hole rounds instead of 18. Lower the cost. In other words, make golf quicker, easier and cheaper.

Oh yeah, and start paying attention to historically ignored segments of the population – women and minorities.

Throughout this downturn, the golf industry has been myopic when looking for answers on ending the decline. The conversations seem to happen in an echo chamber and, not surprisingly, the same conclusions are reached.

The contraction of the game is viewed solely through lenses focused on golf, when a more expansive view is needed if the exodus is to be stopped. The fact is, golf isn’t the only game where participation is dwindling.

PHOTO: LAWRENCE AYLWARD

October: Under the Weather

We covered the hot topic (no pun intended) of global warming in this cover story. We determined that whether superintendents believe it’s caused by humans or not, climate change is forcing superintendents to deal with its effects

Scott Brickley (pictured, left) the golf course superintendent at Bunker Hill Golf Course in Medina, Ohio, says he has seen the weather patterns change drastically at his course in northeast Ohio the last several years.

“There is no moderation in the weather anymore,” Brickley said. “It’s one extreme or the other.”

Incidentally, in September the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the summer of 2015 was the Earth’s hottest on record since records began in 1880. The highs occurred on the surface of both land and sea.

Count Rick Slattery, golf course superintendent of Locust Hill Country Club near Rochester, New York, as one who believes in climate change.

“As far as I’m concerned, the weather is getting more extreme,” he says. “You can label it as climate change, or you can label it as something else.”

November: Health Check

We revisited the concept of plant health, which seems to mean different things to superintendents. So we asked several superintendents from around the country: What does plant health mean to you? Here’s what John Zimmers (pictured, right) superintendent of Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, had to say:

“When golfers look at the turfgrass on a course, they see its color, its height, its texture, its consistency. If those sorts of factors meet their approval, that’s enough for them. Superintendents, though, know that it’s the underlying health of the turfgrass that will determine whether they can sustainably provide the playing conditions that golfers are looking for. In that sense, plant health – while it may never make its way on to a job performance review checklist – is at the heart of the profession. And plant health is more than one single scientific definition; it’s a philosophy that will shape how a course is maintained.”