Asking for additional funding in the budget to pay for outsourced services can be a tricky situation for superintendents. While knowledgeable golf course owners will see the value in having outside experts handle certain responsibilities, the stingy ones will wonder, “Isn’t that the kind of thing I’m paying you and your team to do?”
For that reason, supers should put some thought and effort into how they will make the pitch for more money. If they are going to request that an outside contractor be called in, there’s legwork that can be done in advance to build a stronger case and make course management see the value in outsourcing.
In many cases, the specialized expertise that contractors bring to the table can provide such good results and expediency that it actually offers a net-positive return on the investment – as it frequently does when it comes to aerification. The fact that it relieves supers from having to perform the task themselves is a nice bonus, too.
A dreaded but necessary evil
Owners don’t like aerification because it can result in lost revenue. Players don’t like it because it temporarily degrades the playing surface. Clubhouse managers don’t like it because they have to deal with all of the dirt and sand players leave behind on their floors.
“It was early in my career at the Findlay [Ohio] Country Club as the golf course superintendent when I started to get a sense of how disruptive the aeration process can be on a club and its members – not just on the turf,” says Randy Shaver, president of Strategic Turf Systems Inc., Ontario, Ohio.
While it might have an effect on everyone, no one hates aerifying more than supers. For most of them, it’s like listening to fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard – and that torture can be stretched out over the course of weeks, depending on factors such as staff size, equipment, experience and weather.
For the most part, all supers can do is grit their teeth and get the work done as efficiently as possible. “The common goal is to get aeration done in a timely fashion, while providing the least impact to the golfer, reducing the time the course is either out of play or disrupted, and still getting the final result you are looking for,” says Adam Mis, superintendent at Brookfield Country Club in Clarence, New York.
For the better part of a century, Brookfield aerated different parts of the course on certain days throughout the year, adjusting as needed due to things like inclement weather or scheduled tournaments. It was especially painful to set time aside because courses in colder, northern climates already have a limited playing season.
“Because we’re located in western New York, we want to have as little impact on the golf season as possible,” Mis says. “As a result, many times we would aerate at not exactly the optimal time for maximum impact and recovery.”
Brookfield aerated its fairways early or late in the season – a process that took a couple of weeks, if the weather cooperated. That’s a long time to be affecting play on different areas of the course, and if the weather didn’t cooperate, they would have to delay the process until later in the year – or even push it off to the following season.
Happily, there is an alternative: one-day aerification, three words that are music to a super’s ears. The idea of having a team of professionals descend on a course and aerify all of the fairways in a single day almost sounds to good to be true. But sometimes “too good to be true” is just plain old “true,” says Jim Baldwin, turf consultant and salesman with Andre & Son, a commercial turf sales and service company based in Montrose, Pennsylvania.
Aerification involves the same set of tasks regardless of how long it takes to get the job done. When it’s outsourced, however, the contractor will bring in as much firepower as needed to get the job done in hours rather than days or weeks.
Most supers feel a connection with their courses, so watching an army of strange men and machines descend onto their precious turf can be a little unnerving, says David Webner, superintendent at Westwood Country Club, Rocky River, Ohio.
“You’re not scared, but you’re definitely a little apprehensive that first time,” he says. “Like most other scenarios, you envision things in your head about the way you expect things to work out, but you just don’t know until it happens. There’s also a little concern about the weather. If it’s a nice, sunny day, the dirt will dry faster so you can grind it up, but if it’s cloudy and misty that day, it throws a little bit of a kink into the plan.”
No one can make assurances about the weather, but supers can take comfort in the competence of the men poking holes into their turf. Generally speaking, the workers are experienced and efficient, their equipment is well-maintained and perfectly suited to the task, and the entire process runs like clockwork. The workers show up with their equipment, get the job done quickly and efficiently, and then go home.
“The contractor [Andre & Son] brought five tractors and aerators,” Mis says. “They started at 7 a.m. and finished up around 11:30 a.m. All the fairways healed up at the same time and the golfers were happy about the consistent playing conditions during recovery. I was impressed with the process and results.”
The bottom line
Even when skeptical supers come to accept that one-day aerification is possible, they assume that it isn’t affordable. But while outsourcing might seem to be costly at first glance, many courses that do a cost comparison often find their own expenses – labor rates, fuel, lost profitability, and wear and tear on the equipment – make it a feasible call.
Shaver says the decision should always about costs, but doesn’t necessarily mean money. There’s also the opportunity costs, because if the entire maintenance crew is tied up for a week to do aerification, that means all of the other normal tasks they perform get put on hold. That time is hard to make up.
Even if it is all about the money, there’s a decision to be weighed. “One year when I was a super, I was preparing my annual capital budget and started looking the purchase of an additional aerifier,” Shaver explains. “I started thinking to myself, ‘We are going to spend $30,000 to $80,000 on an aerifier/tractor and essentially use it one time a year … or I could spend that money on a mower that I could use every day. The latter seemed to make more sense to me.”
Ultimately, the cost to have a company come in to aerify depends on a variety of factors. “Pricing is based upon total square feet and what services are provided,” Baldwin says. “There are different set prices based on services of aerification, core removal, topdressing, et cetera. It’s important to understand what the course needs, while also understanding what the course can afford. Some courses can provide assistance that can lower cost in certain circumstances.”
Strategic Turf Systems remains flexible in its pricing, although the amount of turf is usually the primary factor.
“We charge based on either square footage or on a per-acre basis,” President Randy Shaver says. “However, there are certain situations where we charge by the hour. The major variance from course to course is in the total square footage, or total acreage, versus other courses. It’s pretty common to find that older courses have less area on their greens, tees or fairways versus newer courses that were built in the last 35 years.
“For example, the cost of services on older golf courses for deep tine of greens usually runs between $1,800 to $2,300, whereas newer courses generally run $2,500 to $3,500. Fairway aerification usually runs $3,000 to $3,500 on older courses, while newer ones cost between $5,000 and $6,500. Core processing, meanwhile, ranges from $1,250 to $1,600 versus newer courses, which run $2,250 to $3,000.”
Getting the boss to say yes
Once a super has researched the advantages of one-day aerification and gotten an estimate on the cost, there’s one last hurdle to overcome: convincing the course owner the open up his wallet.
Brookfield’s Adam Mis followed the playbook, discussing the things he wanted done with the contractor, Andre & Son, who provided Mis with an estimate based on the square footage to be aerated. Being able to clearly articulate the tasks that the contractor will perform – as well as what other tasks the maintenance team will be freed up to do themselves, since they won’t have to spend time aerating – is a critical step in getting the project approved.
“This way, you have your answers when you meet with the greens committee and board of directors for approval,” Mis explains. “Many times, we do the aeration work after or around other daily maintenance items, and that disrupts the golfer for a much longer interval than it does if a contractor does it.”
Supers who are making this request for the first time should carefully write out all of the costs associated with in-house aerification: labor, fuel, wear-and-tear on equipment, and of course, the extended amount of time golfers will be unhappy about the course conditions. When added up, it can build a clear and compelling case to call in outside help.
“I think it’s important to ask the owner or board of directors how important and beneficial do they think doing the aeration process in a day – versus possibly a month – would be,” Shaver says. “When the owner or board thinks about the loss of revenue from general play or outings, and the disruption to the golfer, it really does become an easy sell.”
It also helps to talk to several potential contractors to ensure you’re getting a fair price. “We looked at a couple of companies and they were similar in cost,” Webner says. “But before I went to propose the service, I priced everything out from different contractors, and I talked to some different superintendents who had used them to see what they thought. You should have all of that information at your fingertips before you say, ‘Here’s what I think we should do.'”
And, because supers don’t want to have to go through this budgeting tug-of-war all over again the following year, they should encourage course management to be present on the day when the contractors arrive so they can see the process for themselves. Once they do, it often becomes a permanent line item on the course’s annual budget, according to Mis.
“My general manager at the time came in to see the process, and we rode a cart down the fairway together,” he says. “After watching the process, he turned to me and said, ‘This is a no-brainer.’ After that, it was easy to have that money put into the budget for future years.”