The superintendent was going over the litany of work that had to be done over the years to improve the golf course. He pointed out to the visitor that on many holes, approximately 240 yards off the tee in the right rough, a tree had been planted – some of which were uncomfortably close to bunkers. The young hardwoods were offensive already, and they would only get worse over time as their roots spread and their canopy increased in size.
They were the work of a former club president. Those trees appeared during his tenure, and his motivation was to hinder the play of his blood rival, a man whose miss off the tee usually ended in the right rough. No thought was given to how the work would affect the rest of the membership.
The paper shield
Many interesting conclusions can be drawn from that simple story, one of which is that this facility did not have formal maintenance standards in place. If it had, the egomaniacal president would have found it impossible to implement his diabolical plan.
When it comes to protecting a superintendent’s job, nothing is as important as a written document that lays out, in great detail, the exact guidelines and specifications to which the golf course will be maintained. It should cover every possible scenario, from the frequency in which bunkers will be raked, to the timetable for topdressing, to the height of cut for every inch of turf.
Constructed correctly, a maintenance-standards document is a virtually impenetrable force field against overbearing members. At the same time, it is an assurance to members that a superintendent can’t take matters into his own hands and maintain the course to his wishes.
At Whitinsville Golf Club in Massachusetts, Michael Hughes is in his fourth season as superintendent. When he arrived at the private facility – which is among the finest nine-hole courses in the U.S. – maintenance standards were written down and firmly entrenched.
According to Hughes, the maintenance-standards document is a priceless tool when members join various boards and look for ways to change specific areas on the course because they bring them aggravation.
“It’s set in stone and we can fall back on it,” Hughes says. “They come in and say, ‘This is what I want.’ Our go-to response is that these are the maintenance standards that were voted on by the board of governors, and we adhere to them.”
When he’s questioned about why he does what he does, Hughes again uses the document, this time as an explanation: “We do this, and here’s the reason why. We don’t do this, and here’s the reason why.”
A point of serious contention among a good portion of the Whitinsville membership is the fairway height of cut. Because many of the golfers are what Hughes describes as “sweepers,” they prefer longer grass where the ball suits up on the blades – but that goes against the maintenance standards.
“One of the stated goals is to maximize the bentgrass population,” Hughes says. Lower cutting heights for fairways helps to accomplish that, much to the chagrin of the sweepers.
Another way he keeps Poa out is through the timing of his last greens aeration. He avoids late September, when Poa seed heads are germinating. The timing is specifically outlined in the document.
“We can discuss it,” Hughes says, but ultimately the standards win out. “It’s kind of like judge and jury.”
Mike Manthey had no time to relax when he began work at the private Midland Hills Country Club on March 1, 2010. By mid-April, the golf course – located in Roosevelt, Minnesota – was open. There were maintenance standards when Manthey took over, but with the approval of the board and general manager, he created his own.
“I just broke it down and started over,” he says. “I communicated to the GM – and he communicated to the board – that this was going to happen on the fly, and happen very fast.”
There was virtually no resistance.
“I’m lucky that I don’t have any expert agronomists here,” Manthey says.
Although there are rigid guidelines, Manthey can adjust his programs without having to get approval each time. So, for instance, when he dropped his fairway mowing heights and incorporated the use of rollers, it was without anyone else knowing.
Midland’s GM had no problem with the move. As he told Manthey, “Do you think I’m going to tell members I’ve changed the supplier of my steaks?”
Know your role
Manthey also says it is part of his job to get the golf course to the best conditions it can be. He is able to alter his tactics without going through an approval process.
“At some point, you have to make your own determinations because that’s what you are paid to do,” he says.
For Manthey and other superintendents who work with maintenance standards, the document lets them put a price tag on modifications to their routine. So when Midland Hills members wanted to have the inside of the cups painted white during a time when the maintenance budget was tight, Manthey was able to peg the cost of the additional work at $1,600 – $700 for labor and $900 for paint. The project was scuttled.
There is a place for maintenance standards with daily-fee courses, as well. Billy Casper Golf has one for each of its properties.
Bryan Bielecki is VP of agronomy for Casper. He says the process of getting a client and the company to agree on what the guidelines and costs will be is involved.
“The first question we ask is: ‘Where are we positioning the asset in the market?’ That drives the standards and ultimately dictates how much we spend to maintain the golf course. While we do have fixed costs based on the existing infrastructure, there are plenty of discretionary costs that warrant conversation,” Bielecki says. “There are also times where it can work in reverse. An owner may say they can only afford to spend ‘X’ to maintain the golf course. In that case, we’d devise the standards to maximize ‘X’ based on the priorities of all interested parties.”
According to Bielecki, the standards also clarify the potential outcomes if certain costs are cut.
“Sometimes we get asked to spend less on chemicals, and then we have to explain the consequences and subsequent risks,” he says.
Chris Snyder is the superintendent at Stonebridge Golf Club in Rome, Georgia, which is managed by Casper.
The property is owned by the city, and according to Snyder, each year the first step toward creating his maintenance program is to see how much funding the city will provide.
Conversely, the city lets Bielecki and Casper’s regional agronomist know how they would like the course to look and play, and Casper can put a cost to those expectations.
In Snyder’s 10 years at Stonebridge, Rome has never reduced the money it puts toward the course, and has actually increased it a number of times along the way.
“The city has done a good job of funding it,” Snyder says. A quality golf course is the goal. “It’s what they want.”
On a monthly basis, Snyder reviews with the city many of his practices, such as height of cut. If he adds rolling to the daily regiment, the city is informed.
“That’s why my budget is what it is,” he says.
At Whitinsville, Hughes found a surprising benefit of the maintenance standards when the Massachusetts Golf Association came to rate the course after some architectural modifications. The visit occurred after a day of heavy rain, when the layout was soaked and the rough was, in his words, “a jungle.”
Although Hughes explained to the MGA members how he maintained the course – including what his heights of cut were throughout, as well as his irrigation practice – it was the maintenance standards that backed what he told them.
“They wanted to know that there was consistency,” Hughes says.