Maybe time does heal all wounds. Maybe the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) is getting its legs back after being staggered with a nasty right hook by the big, bad, brutal economy.
Four years ago, when interviewed for a story on the state of the GCSAA, Ron Dahlin 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, including former CEO Mark Woodward, and the association’s revenues were off 25 percent from previous years because of a shrinking Golf Industry Show.
Dahlin, the certified golf course superintendent for the Meadows Golf Club at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, 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 may be now.
“I think we’re in a better spot than we were four years ago,” Dahlin said recently. “And I think if we didn’t have the intestinal fortitude, we’d be in a much worse spot than we are now.”
Todd Voss, chief operating officer and golf course superintendent of the Double Eagle Club in Galena, Ohio, was interviewed for that same story four years ago. At the time, Voss said he believed the association would endure the rough stretch, but that it needed to do a better job of serving its members for the sake of its future.
“I was pretty down on my association for a number of years,” Voss said recently.
Now Voss, who once questioned whether the GCSAA was “here to serve the members or here to create a profit,” says the association is more focused. “[The GCSAA] has gotten better at serving its members,” he adds.
When Dahlin and Voss were interviewed for the story, “Tough Going,” which appeared in Superintendent magazine in February 2011, Rhett Evans hadn’t yet been named CEO of the GCSAA. He was appointed to the position shortly before the Golf Industry Show in Orlando that month.
“I’m glad they recognize that,” Evans said when told of Dahlin’s and Voss’ recent comments about the association. “I think that we’ve figured out, just like they have, that you can work smarter and harder and do more with less.”
About six years ago the GCSAA had 122 staff members in Lawrence, Kansas. That number has dwindled to 82. Those people are trying to provide many of the same services but with 40 less employees, Evans notes. In essence, the GCSAA has reinvented itself, not unlike a veteran rock band looking to regain its glory days.
“We have less money to spend and less staff to serve the members, but all in all we’re doing a pretty decent job of making things work,” he adds.
The association has also added employees, mostly to its $1 million field staff initiative, initially a pilot program designed to help chapters utilize GCSAA programs and services to a fuller extent.
Two years ago, then-GCSAA President Sandy Queen said the association was counting on the field staff to grow membership. “If we can decrease or stop the decline in membership, that will have a significant financial impact on the association,” Queen stated.
While it’s difficult to grow membership when about 150 golf courses have closed each year for the last eight years, Evans says the GCSAA has been able to sustain its membership the last two years because of the field staff. For a few years earlier this decade, the association was losing 4.5 percent of its membership a year. The tide turned two years ago, and now the membership is stable, he says. While he doesn’t attribute it entirely to the field staff, noting that an improving economy has also helped, Evans says the field staff’s efforts can’t be denied.
To Voss’ point about better serving members, Evans says the association has also ramped up its advocacy efforts the last few years. The industry is still “under attack,” so it’s vital that the golf industry’s allied associations – the GCSAA, the United States Golf Association, the Club Managers Association of America, the National Golf Course Owners Association, the PGA of America and the PGA TOUR – have joined together to educate government officials about the economic and environmental benefits associated with golf courses, Evans explains.
“We have very large organizations buying in to what we need to accomplish,” he adds.
Dahlin is impressed with the job that Evans has done, noting that he has been good for superintendents. He credits the GCSAA for thinking differently, singling out the development of the field staff.
“We get pretty comfortable sometimes where we’re at, and it’s hard to get out of our box and change,” Dahlin says. “But I think [the GCSAA did]. It had to.”
Voss previously questioned the GCSAA for its spending habits, saying it needed to resemble an association, not a corporation. However, recently, Voss commented that the GCSAA had “restructured itself excellently.”
“Some of us in the trenches were saying, ‘Really, that’s what you’re going to spend our money on?’ But I think [Evans and his staff addressed this] very well,” Voss says.
Four years ago, Dahlin remarked that the association needed to show financial restraint.
Now, he says, “They’ve done a really good job of trying to keep spending in control.”
If the GCSAA spends money on a program that’s useful to its members, Voss says he’s all for it. He just doesn’t want programs forced on him, like the Professional Development Initiative was pushed on superintendents several years ago.
In 2011, Dahlin said he hoped the GCSAA had learned from some of its mistakes, which were made apparent by the economy. Evans says that has happened.
“I’m not saying they were all easy lessons to learn,” Evans adds. “But we’ve learned to be a better organization that’s relevant to the times we’re in.”
The key is to keep changing with the times.
“Things are changing much faster now than they used to,” Evans says. “If we’re not nimble on our feet, it will be pretty easy to hurt ourselves.”
The association had a solid year financially in 2014 and exceeded its revenue goals, Evans reports.
“A lot of that has to do with the fact that we didn’t go backwards with membership dues,” he adds.
Some industry sponsors also upped their contributions, along with supporters of the Environmental Institute for Golf.
Next month, the GCSAA takes its act on the road with the Golf Industry Show, which makes its debut in San Antonio. The GCSAA held its conference and show in San Antonio about 20 years ago, but this is a first for the GIS.
“We’ve wondered what the reaction would be,” Evans says, noting that so far it has been positive.
In mid-December he reported that 98 percent of the show floor space in San Antonio had been sold out. He also said the number of registered attendees was trending higher when compared to the same time last year.
“Congratulations to the GCSAA for mixing it up a bit,” Voss says of the show’s site. “I’m looking forward to San Antonio.”
So is Dahlin, who hasn’t been to the GIS in three years because of his club’s financial constraints.
“I’m excited to go,” he adds.
Things are looking up for the GCSAA, but don’t think for a minute that Evans doesn’t have his hands full.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he says.