For most people, golf courses are a peaceful sanctuary: a warm, sunny place where they can go to unwind, get some exercise and enjoy the outdoors. For the people who own and manage those courses, however, they’re also a serious responsibility. There is a common set of challenges that all multimillion dollar businesses face, but there are many others specific to running a golf course – the use of potentially harmful chemicals and powerful machinery, for example, as well as the threat of extreme weather and the sheer unpredictability of human behavior.
As a result, superintendents need to ensure they’re prepared when disaster strikes.
Do you have an evacuation plan in place, both for people in the clubhouse and those out on the course? If something breaks anywhere on the property, what processes do you have in place to ensure the repairs are handled quickly and efficiently? Are workers properly educated about the plants and wildlife specific to the region so they can minimize the risks they pose?
Even if the answer to each of those questions (and many others) is yes, there’s one last area that needs to be addressed, and the survival of the business might well depend on it: If disaster strikes despite your best efforts and precautions, do you have the right type and amount of insurance coverage to protect the golf course from financial devastation?
Superintendents who aren’t 100-percent certain that their course has addressed every one of those risk areas have some work to do, and it must be priority number one.
1. Know your environment
Every region supplies its own set of unique challenges for golf course professionals. Some places are at risk for extreme drought, while others are prone to flooding. Tornadoes are a menace in the Great Plains, while much of the southern and eastern United States battles heavy winds and flooding from tropical storms.
One company that’s seen the wide variety of threats superintendents face are Doug Malawsky and Doug Cowles, the EVP/COO and President/CEO, respectively, for Horticultural Asset Management Inc. (HMI), based in Cary, North Carolina. The company offers national claims support services to the insurance industry with a 24-hour emergency solution for any tree-related insurance claim, including disaster recovery and golf course claims.
“In the 9 years (and over 1,500 golf courses) that HMI has been working in the golf course industry, the primary threats that we see are wind, flooding, freeze, hail and fire,” Malawsky said. “The risks posed by these threats vary widely by the location, design and physical characteristics of each golf course.”
For example, golf courses located along the southeastern coast will be more concerned with wind risks than freeze. By the same token, a heavily treed course has a much higher risk of wind damage to the trees, and proximate features (greens, bunkers, tee boxes, cart paths, structures) that they can fall on and damage.
“Course design can play a significant role in minimizing some of these risks,” Cowles said. “For example, planting the right type of turf can significantly reduce risk of freeze-related damage. HMI has responded to claims involving freeze damage on many properties where the damage was solely due to the planting of turf that is poorly suited to the local environmental conditions.
“During the polar vortex that dipped into the Midwest in 2015, we were involved in dozens of claims on golf courses that had winter-kill to fairways. The damage was so extensive to some courses that they missed an entire operating season,” he said.
While many courses believed the damage they suffered was due to the weight of ice and snow that remained on the ground for an extended period of time, the damage occurred because the courses planted grass that was not suited to cold northern weather. The result was many millions of dollars in insurance claims to repair fairways – not to mention lost greens fees – which could have been avoided if they’d consulted with an agronomist.
In addition to weather considerations, superintendents would be well served to familiarize themselves with the particular species of plants and animals that live in their area. In March, for example, Tulare Golf Course in Tulare, California, endured a powerful thunderstorm that knocked down dozens of trees. It’s fortunate that the damage wasn’t worse, but it wasn’t just luck. The grounds team deserves some credit for keeping the damage and disruption to a minimum.
The majority of the trees that fell were eucalyptus, which have a root system that makes them vulnerable to toppling when the ground is unusually soft and wet. As a result, the staff kept those trees trimmed extra close to minimize their wind resistance. Although many were ultimately felled by the unyielding power of the storm, the situation would have been much worse if the team hadn’t been aware of the eucalyptus tree’s specific vulnerability and taken steps to mitigate it.
The same applies to potentially dangerous snakes and insects in the region that pose threats to both customers and workers. A little knowledge goes a long way toward ensuring that an afternoon on the links remains a pleasant, relaxing experience for everyone.
2. Take advantage of technology
Cary, North Carolina-based Dude Solutions provides facilities management software to various types of organizations, including country clubs. It includes functionality related to facilities maintenance, asset tracking and building alarm management.
One of the most important functions the software provides to golf courses is the tracking of work orders, according to Mary Beth Ormiston, the company’s manager of program strategy. “A core part of risk management on a golf course is the proper tracking and monitoring of work orders,” she said.
It might not seem like a big deal if a light bulb burns out, for example, but if that bulb is part of a clubhouse’s emergency exit lighting, the facility will no longer be meeting safety codes, introducing risk and liability for the owners.
Some facilities handle that process informally through handwritten notes or email, while others would simply tell a worker to replace the bulb. But there are many ways that informal process can fail, and it provides virtually no traceability or record-keeping.
With the company’s Dude Solutions suite of products, employees use a computer to enter a work order, which the software tracks and monitors until the work is completed.
“Not only does the process help to minimize a facility’s risk, it makes things more efficient along the way,” Ormiston said. “The workflow ensures that tasks are assigned to the right person and get completed as quickly as possible.”
Because golf is an outdoor activity, superintendents must address certain risk factors that many other types of facilities don’t, such as extreme heat and the potential of getting hit by a ball.
“Another one is the use of golf carts,” Ormiston added. “We tend to assume that everyone knows how to drive a golf cart, but the reality is they don’t. Combine unknown driving skills with the potential for lightning strikes, falling trees and the risk of collisions with cars in the parking lot, and it becomes a multifaceted threat that golf courses need to address carefully.”
3. A checkup for superintendents
Although every course faces a unique set of challenges and risks, there are some basic steps that all superintendents should heed, beginning with having the right type of insurance.
If the course is located near waterways or bodies of water, flood insurance is a must. “It is important for the golf course management team to evaluate what is covered and ensure that the perils covered under the policy are sufficient,” HMI’s Malawsky said. “Courses susceptible to freeze damage such as winter kill should ensure that they have freeze coverage, because as many courses have learned, coverage for the ‘weight of snow and ice’ may not apply to winter kill damage.”
Superintendents should also establish reliable resources to assist when disaster strikes. Golf courses are, for the most part, able to deal with the normal environmental threats they face. They have experienced greens keepers and crew who are capable of handling routine damage to the course. But when a catastrophic event occurs, local resources are often unavailable – and even when they are, they might not be capable of providing the necessary assistance.
“We see this most often with tree damage,” Cowles said. “It is likely that a golf course will have established a relationship with a local tree service to assist with the routine needs of a course, such as a dead tree or hanging limb. However, when a disaster strikes and tens, hundreds or thousands of trees are down on a course, it necessitates a major response including qualified and experienced tree crews, arborists and agronomists.”
Not only will it be important that the course have these resources available to help with the cleanup and repair efforts, they can also assist in documenting the damage for the course’s insurance claim.
“It is important for the course to have a good understanding of their coverage and document all damage that applies,” Malawsky said. “For example, many golf course policies provide some cost to replace destroyed trees. In order to establish the appropriate replacement cost value, it’s necessary to understand the specific type (genus/species) and size (trunk diameter at 4.5 feet above ground) of each tree that was destroyed. HMI is often called to collect this information, but many times the golf course has already removed the trees, making it very difficult to get an accurate inventory. This can disadvantage a golf course when they are filing their claim.”