Results of our third-annual Super Survey, including your views on the state of the profession and your favorite golf holes

It was a rotten spring for golf last year in Chaska, Minn., site of Hazeltine National Golf Club. The 18-hole private club opened May 1, two weeks later than normal, because of cold temperatures and unrelenting rain.

And just because the course opened for play didn’t mean that Mother Nature was willing to cooperate.

“The weather in May and June was terrible,” says Chris Tritabaugh, Hazeltine’s golf course superintendent, who estimates that the club’s members missed out on at least 30 days of golf last year, mostly because of the miserable spring weather.

It seemed a lousy golf season was inevitable, but then something happened … the weather improved. Sunny, blue skies returned, as did golfers. By year’s end, Hazeltine experienced an increase in rounds and revenue from the previous year, which is saying something if you consider that the course opened in March in 2012 because of an unseasonably warm spring.

About Our Survey

IN DECEMBER AND JANUARY, we surveyed 250 golf course superintendents about the state of their profession, including questions about the state of the golf economy and their personal challenges.

40% OF RESPONDENTS were from private courses, 16 percent from municipal, 16.5 percent from semi-private, 16 percent from public/daily fee, 7 percent from resort and 3.5 percent from “other.”

68% OF RESPONDENTS manage 18 holes. Others were split between nine holes, 27 holes and 36 holes.

Do you think the golf industry is improving economically?

THE SPIN – Despite a 4 percent drop in rounds in 2013 when compared to 2012, about 73 percent of golf course superintendents believe the golf economy is looking up. Last year, 74 percent of superintendents believed the golf economy was on the rebound, but that was after a year in which rounds rose about 6 percent. Anecdotally, we’re hearing more positive stories about golf courses having good years. Still, 27 percent of superintendents remain bearish about the golf economy, probably because their courses are in trouble. Considering that 150 golf courses are expected to close this year, next year and the year after that, what could become of their courses?

If it had been a normal spring rather than a total wash, Hazeltine, which opened in 1962, could’ve set a record for most rounds ever in 2013, Tritabaugh says.

Tritabaugh, who just finished his first year as Hazeltine’s superintendent, believes it’s a sign the golf industry is improving economically in “certain pockets” throughout the country.

Tritabaugh was among the 61 percent of superintendents who answered, “Maybe, there are signs the industry is improving,” when asked, “Do you think the golf industry is improving economically?” in Superintendent magazine’s third-annual Super Survey. Twelve percent of superintendents answered, “Yes, the industry is definitely on the upswing,” an increase of 5 percent from last year’s survey.

Russ Appel, superintendent at Briggs Woods Golf Course, an 18-hole municipal course in Webster City, Iowa, also believes the industry is improving, noting the substantial 30 percent increase in rounds and revenue at his golf course as evidence. Appel spoke to other superintendents in his area, and they also reported that rounds and revenue were up at their courses.

“Maybe we’re turning the corner. We’re hopeful. It’s the first time in the past few years that we’ve seen any kind of positive numbers coming through the door as far as increased play,” Appel says, noting an 18-hole round at Briggs Woods costs $36 with a golf car on the weekend. “Was this a one-year spike or is this a trend? I’m anxious to see what this year brings.”

Will the golf industry improve economically if a Republican is elected to the White House?

4% – NO

34% – YES

62% – IT DOES NOT MATTER WHO IS IN OFFICE

THE SPIN – It’s evident that most golf course superintendents don’t believe the U.S. president has much impact on the economy. That said, a good number of superintendents believe the golf economy will improve if a Republican is elected to office in 2016. The reason is simple: Republicans are more business friendly (although Democrats will argue that isn’t necessarily true.)

THE SPIN – Maintenance budgets are on the rise. The question is whether or not budgets are on the rise because of equipment/supplies purchases or for other reasons, such as employee pay increases or to help pay utility bills. Nearly 29 percent of superintendents say their budgets increased 5 percent or higher this year, a 9 percent increase from last year. Probably safe to say the increase, no matter what it’s used for, is a good sign for the industry.

About 58 percent said their courses’ budgets are the same in 2014 as they were in 2013. About 13.5 percent said budgets will be down 5 percent or more. Last year, 21 percent of superintendents said their budgets were less than the previous year. In 2012, 33 percent said their budgets were lower than in 2011. It’s clear that budgets are trending upward the past few years.

Forty-two percent of superintendents reported that rounds and revenue were up at their courses in 2013 from 2012. Thirty-one percent said rounds were up, but revenues were flat.

Twenty-seven percent said rounds and revenue were down, a substantial increase from our survey the year before when only 11 percent of superintendents said rounds and revenue were down in 2012 when compared to 2011. But the pleasant weather in 2012 had a positive impact on rounds nationally – an early spring helped golf courses to an overall 6 percent increase in rounds. The weather wasn’t nearly as favorable in 2013, with a wet spring hampering play throughout the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest.

What could your golf course use right now?

THE SPIN – Irrigation systems, bunker liners and iron equipment are getting old on a lot of golf courses. If you’re in the irrigation, bunker and mowing segments, there’s a lot of business out there for you. The key is superintendents finding the money to give you the business.

At the 18-hole Wildhorse Resort & Casino in Pendleton, Ore., rounds and revenue were also up, which Certified Golf Course Superintendent Sean Hoolehan attributes to a new 200-room hotel being built on the property.

“Our resort has continued to grow, even through a difficult economy,” says Hoolehan, a former president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Hoolehan is encouraged by the growth he’s seeing in junior golf, especially among minority children. The industry needs to keep breaking down barriers, such as making the game less intimidating and more inviting, to attract more players, he says.

Ryan Royer, superintendent of Skippack (Pa.) Golf Club, has seen a big increase in his course’s Nike junior golf program the past few years. It’s one of the reasons he’s among the 12 percent of superintendents who feel the industry is on the upswing.

“Marketing to youth is the way to grow the game more than marketing to someone in his 40s who has never played the game,” Royer says.

What were rounds and revenue like at your course in 2013?

THE SPIN – The most alarming number here is that about 27 percent of superintendents reported that rounds and revenue were down in 2013 when compared to 2012. Last year, only 11 percent of superintendents said rounds and revenue were down in 2012 when compared to 2011. But considering the weather, how much should we worry about this? Remember that 2012 was about as good a weather year as it can get for golf on a national scale. Last year, the weather was putrid in many areas.

What is the biggest problem you have managing your golf course?

THE SPIN – In previous surveys the past two years, superintendents voted that “golfer expectations for near-perfect conditions” was their biggest problem. Last year, more than 41 percent had it as their top answer. This year, however, the vote is a little closer, with “finding reliable help” garnering 30 percent of the vote. We’ve heard there might be a shortage of Mexican/ Hispanic laborers because of recent crackdowns on illegal aliens. Many superintendents tout Mexican/ Hispanic laborers as reliable laborers. Obamacare’s impact on hiring could also have something to do with finding reliable help. Regarding golfer expectations for perfect conditions, it may never go away.

Still the same

If there were a song to describe superintendents’ maintenance budgets for 2014, it would be Bob Seger’s “Still the Same.” About 58 percent of superintendents said their 2014 budgets are about the same as 2013, according to our survey.

Despite the increase in rounds and revenue at Hazeltine, Tritabaugh’s maintenance budget didn’t change much.

“But we’re OK,” he says. “[The budget] is at a very reasonable level for our facility. We’ll be able to continue to produce the product we need to produce.”

More superintendents (22 percent) reported at least a 5 percent increase in their budgets for 2014 than did last year (20 percent) for 2013, according to the survey. Only 14 percent of superintendents reported a decrease in budget this year compared to 21 percent in 2013.

While the maintenance budget is up 5 percent at Briggs Woods, Appel says the statistic is somewhat deceiving because it’s to cover cost-of-living increases for full-time staff and utility increases, not new equipment and supplies.

“But if we see another year like we did last year, I’m sure we will probably be given a little more leniency for capital expenditures,” he adds.

Some things never change: Most superintendents (31 percent) answered, “Golfer expectations for near-perfect conditions,” when asked, “What is the biggest problem you have managing your golf course?” Superintendents have provided the same answer in our surveys for three years straight.

As needs go, 26 percent of superintendents answered “a bunker renovation” and 26 percent answered “a new irrigation system” when asked, “What could your golf course use right now?”

Appel voted for a new irrigation system for Briggs Woods, which opened in 1971 as a nine-hole course and added nine more holes in 1991.

Do you believe climate change/global warming is affecting golf course maintenance?

THE SPIN – Is it any surprise that fewer superintendents believe that climate change/global warming is affecting golf course maintenance these days? The number of superintendents believing in the weather trend or at least thinking there was something to it had been on the rise the past few years, according to previous surveys. But the percentage of those superintendents dropped from 55 percent last year to 50 percent this year. A freakishly cold winter will do that to a vote. But climate change isn’t just about global warming. It’s also about dramatic swings in the weather, like the below-zero temperatures a good portion of the country experienced in early January and again at the end of the month. We were all longing for global warming then.

Are you consciously conserving water at your golf course?

THE SPIN – It’s no surprise that 59 percent of superintendents say they think about saving as much water as they can every day. But we did think that number would be higher. However, there are definitely fewer superintendents who are watering away these days to achieve lush, green turf than there were 10 years ago.

“The main lines from 1971 have never been touched,” he says. “I would think they’re going to go [bad] at some point.”

We also asked superintendents: “What is the most important piece of equipment in your maintenance facility?” Answers ranged from “greens mowers” to “rollers” to “staff” to “me.”

Tritabaugh voted for Hazeltine’s mechanic, Ralph Arnt.

“He’s everything you want in an equipment manager,” Tritabaugh says, noting that Arnt is open to new ideas but is not afraid to voice his opinion if he doesn’t like an idea. “He has great knowledge, not only of the equipment and how it operates, but how it affects the golf course.”

“Rollers” was the top answer (garnering about 26 percent of the vote) to the question, “What one piece of allied equipment would you like to upgrade this year?”

We also asked, “What’s the greatest invention the golf course maintenance industry has ever seen?” Most superintendents voted for “irrigation central control” among four choices that included “fungicides,” “plant growth regulators” and “the greens mower.”

Tritabaugh voted for irrigation central control. “I can’t imagine working without it,” he states.

Royer, whose course is located in that hot haven for turf disease – the mid-Atlantic – voted for fungicides.

“They are the cornerstone of our program,” says Royer, who sometimes deals with 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures during the day and 70 degrees at night, not to mention 80 percent humidity. “If you don’t have grass to grow, what’s the point?”

Getting political

Where would a survey be without a few political questions? Let’s start with climate change/global warming.

We asked, “Do you believe climate change is affecting golf course maintenance?” While about 32 percent of respondents answered, “No, climate change is a crock,” 41 percent of superintendents said they either believe climate change is real or they are “leaning that way.”

The 54-year-old Appel was skeptical, but he has seen enough weird weather the past few years to believe there’s something to climate change.

“I’ll be the first to admit that we have short memories, but it just seems like the [weather] extremes are crazy,” he adds.

But the 24-year-old Royer says climate change is hogwash. Although the recent polar vortex had him experiencing the coldest temperatures he can ever remember, he believes weather is cyclical.

“If you look back at history, temperatures have been up and down,” Royer says. “I think climate change is blown way out of proportion.”

Tritabaugh, 36, believes climate change/global warming is real.

“I’m not interested in a political discussion about this, but there’s something different, and there’s a lot of data that shows things are different,” he says.

Interestingly, fewer people are buying into the reality of climate change/global warming this year than in past surveys.

From a political stance, we also asked superintendents, “Will the golf course industry improve economically if a Republican is elected to the White House in 2016?” Sixty-two percent answered, “The golf industry’s economic health isn’t dictated by whoever is president.” But 34 percent of superintendents answered, “Yes, because the economy will improve faster than it has under Democratic leadership.”

Royer is among that 34 percent and says Democrats regulate business too much, which results in businesses having to comply with costly measures.

“Businesses then cut costs, which means they cut people,” Royer says. “And those people stop spending.”

What is the biggest wildlife problem on your golf course?

THE SPIN – Not surprisingly, geese are the biggest wildlife problem on your golf courses. It’s amazing how dominant these flying pests have become on courses in the past 25 years.

What’s the greatest invention the golf course maintenance industry has ever seen?

THE SPIN – Irrigation central control rules. No surprise here. A write-in answer that makes good sense: “Reduced-risk pesticides.”

What one piece of allied equipment would you like to upgrade this year?

THE SPIN – Rolling has taken off (pun intended) the past few years as study after study has proved it’s an excellent maintenance practice.

How concerned are you about future pesticide regulations?

THE SPIN – About 85 percent of superintendents are concerned about future pesticide regulations, which they know could greatly impact the way they manage turf. Something tells us the chemical manufacturers are aware of this and are ahead of the curve in developing safer pesticides. They already have.

If you could do it over again, would you still become a golf course superintendent?

THE SPIN – Nearly 5 percent of superintendents say they regret going into the profession, and 21 percent may have second thoughts about going into it. We wonder how these numbers compare against other professions.

While Appel believes the golf industry’s health isn’t dictated by which party is sitting in the Oval Office, he’s disgusted with the partisan politics in Washington, which he says are hampering the general economy.

“It’ so dysfunctional and so irritating,” he says. “They are screwing with our country, and it’s holding us back. … If we don’t get things figured out soon, I’m worried about the future of our country.”

Politics, as in government regulation, and pesticides often collide. We asked superintendents how concerned they are about future pesticide regulations. The top answer: 48 percent said they were “moderately concerned.” That includes Hoolehan.

“I’m grateful we’ve lost some pesticides,” he says, referring to those that were banned for being too dangerous. “From the stuff I started out with using to the stuff we’re using now … they are so much safer.”

Water, of course, is a hot-button issue in golf, and we asked superintendents if they were consciously conserving water at their courses. Fifty-nine percent answered, “Yes, I think about saving as much water as I can every day.” But 34 percent said it’s not a high priority.

Tritabaugh is in the former category, and he thinks the number of superintendents conserving water is growing, as is the number of golfers who are slowly beginning to understand the benefits of a firmer and faster golf course. The golfers at Hazeltine want a fast course, which has enabled Tritabaugh to turn down the water.

“I don’t envy superintendents who are at facilities where golfers start to yell at them when there’s the first tinge of brown on the course,” Tritabaugh says.

About you

Seventy-four percent of superintendents answered “yes” when asked if they would still become superintendents. That number is up from 70 percent a year ago.

Also, 72 percent of superintendents answered “yes” when asked if they felt respected by their peers (owner, general manager, green chairman) at their golf courses. That number is up from 65 percent a year ago.

Do you feel respected by your peers(owner, general manager, green chairman) at your golf course?

THE SPIN – The respect meter ticked up higher for superintendents in this year’s survey when compared to last year. About 7 percent more of superintendents reported that they feel their peers respect what they do and how they do it.

Hoolehan, who has been a superintendent for 30 years, remains content with his career choice and feels respected by his peers.

“I’m still working for the guy who hired me 17 years ago,” he says.

Hoolehan offers some advice for young superintendents and others coming up in the business.

“There are a lot of really great golf courses out there to work at, but what you really want to find is a great owner and a great employer to work for,” he says. “If you can find both, that’s even better.”

What’s the greatest golf hole in the world?

THE SPIN – It’s not the first time the Road Hole – the 17th at St. Andrews’ Old Course – has won a vote like this, and it won’t be the last.

If you could play golf with one of these people, who would it be?

THE SPIN – Arnold Palmer wins for the third year straight against new competition, including Bill Murray. Who can we pit against The King next year? We’re running out of worthy contestants.

We also asked superintendents, “If you could play golf with one of these people, who would it be?” Choices were Bill Murray, Donald Ross, Michael Jordan, Phil Mickelson and Arnold Palmer. In a close race, Palmer won with 28 percent of the vote. It’s the third year running that The King has ruled in this question, and we’re running out of contestants to run up against him.

Bill Murray, known in golf course maintenance circles for his wacky Carl Spackler character from “Caddyshack,” garnered 21 percent. Hoolehan picked Murray.

“I just enjoy watching him playing golf at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and I think he would be a blast to be around,” Hoolehan says. “He’s out there smiling and having fun.”