In December and January, we surveyed about 400
golf course superintendents on the state of their
profession, including questions about the state of the
golf economy and their personal challenges. The results can be found at the bottom of this article.
There’s plenty of good news to be taken away from Superintendent magazine’s fourth-annual Super Survey. There’s some bad news, too.
While more golf course superintendents believe the industry is improving economically — 17 percent compared to 11 percent in our previous survey — more superintendents surveyed this year also believe the industry is still down — 34 percent compared to 27 percent last year.
In the middle, 49 percent of superintendents answered, “Maybe, there are signs the industry is improving,” when they were asked, “Do you think the golf industry is improving?” That number is down from 62 percent the previous year.
Anecdotally, we’ve heard much positive news from superintendents whose courses experienced good years in 2014. We haven’t heard as many negative stories.
Bill Kennedy, director of maintenance and the certified golf course superintendent at Chechessee Creek Club, a private 18- hole course in Okatie, South Carolina, says it’s easy to paint a negative picture of the industry, what with golf course closings numbering more than 1,000 in the last eight years compared to roughly 150 openings, not to mention staff layoffs and tightening of maintenance budgets.
“But we’ve endured the worst,” adds Kennedy, president of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association. “We still have some things to figure out, but all in all we’re headed in the right direction. I’m optimistic that we’ll find our way.”
Matthew Seiffert, superintendent of Lake Forest Country Club, an 18-hole private club in Lake St. Louis, Missouri, is among the 17 percent who believes the industry is on the upswing. The surging stock market may have something to do with that, at least at Lake Forest, he says.
Many of Lake Forest’s 200 members are 55 to 70 years old and have money tied up in the stock market.
“As long as the stock market is doing well, I think we’ll do well,” Seiffert states.
The stock market has flirted with record highs the last few months. Still, Seiffert realizes the club needs to update its swimming pool and tennis courts to attract younger members.
At SaddleBrooke One, a retirement complex nestled in the foothills of Tucson, Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains, the marching order is to attract older golfers to play on its three ninehole courses. Mike Roddy, superintendent at SaddleBrooke One, says rounds and revenue were up last year, thanks to more seniors taking up the game.
In fact, SaddleBrooke implemented a Golf Get Ready program, a PGA initiative that focuses on group lessons, to attract more retirees to play.
“You wouldn’t think this would be a demographic where you could increase golfers, but it’s happening here,” Roddy says.
Many superintendents probably wish their courses had it as good economically as Matt Taylor, certified golf course superintendent at Royal Poinciana Golf Club in Naples, Florida, a private 36-hole facility. Royal Poinciana has a waiting list of people to join the club.
“I’m blessed, and I know that,” Taylor says, noting that the club is financially sound. “I realize that every day.”
Royal Poinciana’s fiscal year began in October, and Taylor says that rounds increased by 240 through January when compared to the same time last year, when they were also up.
“We’re tracking another great year,” he adds.
Taylor believes the entire Naples area is a “micro anomaly” of what’s happening in the golf industry. Rounds are up, memberships are healthy, and renovation projects are underway. Could Naples be a potential bellwether for golf growth in other parts of the country?
“Maybe,” Taylor says.
For the record, 70.5 percent of superintendents reported that rounds were up at their golf courses, although 32 percent of those superintendents noted that revenue was down despite the increase in rounds. Nearly 30 percent reported that rounds were down in 2014 when compared to the previous year.
Nationally, rounds were down about 2 percent at golf courses in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation.
In one question, we asked, “What could your golf course use right now?” Surprisingly, or maybe not, 48 percent answered “more golfers/members” over three agronomic choices, including a greens renovation, a new irrigation system and a new fleet of mowers.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, golf courses were going up like Starbucks. Jobs were prevalent, budgets were big, and times were good. It was golf’s glory days.
Times are different now, but we asked superintendents if they thought golf could ever return to the glory days. While 42.5 percent answered no, 45 percent said maybe. And 12 percent of glass-is-half-full supers answered yes.
Roddy voted no and believes the industry just wasn’t sustainable in those days, with too many courses for too few golfers.
“It has to be different from what was,” he adds.
About 82 percent of superintendents reported that their maintenance budgets are the same or up in 2015 compared to 2014, compared to 86 percent from our previous survey. As was the case last year, the year before and the year before that, most superintendents (59 percent this year) said their budgets are the same.
At L.E. Kaufman Golf Course, an 18-hole municipal facility in Wyoming, Michigan, Superintendent Mike Leavitt has the same budget as last year, which is fine with him. The budget has risen slightly in previous years, so Leavitt can pay his seasonal employees a better wage to avoid turnover.
Leavitt has learned to make do at Kaufman, where he and his mechanic are the only full-time staff members. Six years ago, during the Great Recession, Leavitt’s budget took a hit and layoffs ensued, including Leavitt’s assistant, the general manager and the clubhouse manager. So Leavitt has assumed additional duties, such as clubhouse operations.
Leavitt isn’t alone, many superintendents have taken on additional duties — and without complaint. Kennedy has seen his share of them in the Carolinas.
“I’ve seen superintendents with big budgets that went to nothing, and they still get it done. And they’re proud,” says Kennedy.
Speaking of cuts, about 55 percent of superintendents said they first cut “drainage work and other improvement projects” when something has to be trimmed from the budget. Leavitt, however, says a drainage project has helped Kaufman increase its rounds.
Three holes on the course were built in a flood plain when the course was constructed about 50 years ago. As the area populated and more roads were built, there was also more runoff into a nearby creek when it rained, causing the three holes to flood. Needless to say, Kaufman gained a reputation for having three holes that were a muddy mess, which kept some golfers away.
In the last few years, however, Kaufman and his crew have installed drainage and lift pumps to evacuate floodwater faster.
“Now people don’t have to worry about getting their slacks and shoes muddy anymore,” Leavitt says.
Leavitt and other superintendents realize the role they play these days in helping their courses increase revenue, which could help spike their budgets. This brings us to foot golf, which isn’t exactly a phenomenon, but is helping some courses gain extra revenue.
We asked superintendents: Would you allow foot golf at your golf course to increase rounds and revenue? While 45 percent of superintendents answered “no way,” 47 percent said they would consider it if it would help courses increase rounds. About 8 percent said their courses already have foot golf. “I think it’s nutty,” Seiffert says. “But I would be more than happy to have it at our club if it increased revenue.”
Taylor, more of a traditionalist, says he’s all for foot golf if it exposes more people to the game.
“If that’s what the membership wanted to do, I’d have no problem with it,” he says, noting that he would hope that people would try “the real thing” if they liked foot golf.
Roddy says foot golf might be a great way to get another generation involved with the game, even if they aren’t driving the ball with a Big Bertha.
“I would welcome it here if that’s what people wanted,” he adds.
We asked superintendents several personal questions in our survey, including, “Do you think you are fairly compensated?” About 60 percent said their pay was fair, but 36 percent said they don’t make enough money for the time they put in. Four percent answered, “Yes, I never dreamed I’d make this much money.”
The 54-year-old Seiffert says he doesn’t make enough money for the time he puts in — 12-hour days during the season — but he has no gripes.
“I make enough money to the point that it doesn’t matter,” Seiffert adds.
There are no politics at Lake Forest, which is priceless, notes Seiffert.
“I’ve been through eight green chairman, and I’ve never had a problem with one of them,” he adds.
“Finding reliable help” was the most popular answer (31 percent) that superintendents gave when asked, “What is the biggest problem you have managing your golf course?”
The last few years, “Golfer expectations for near-perfect conditions,” topped the list. This year it was the third choice with 19.5 percent.
“There just seems to be a smaller labor pool than there used to be,” Leavitt says.
For Taylor, golfer expectations continue to be his top challenge. Members complain about inconsistent bunkers, among other things.
“We have 65 bunkers, and you want every bunker to play exactly the same?” Taylor asks rhetorically.
Taylor, though, knows he can’t question members’ concerns; they’re the customers, after all.
“You can’t get mad at them; you have to listen to them,” he says. “So you ask them what bunkers they’re talking about, and you tell them that you will check them. They just want to be heard.”
For five years now, we’ve given survey takers a list of pro golfers and celebrities and asked them who they’d like to play with most. Arnold Palmer, the only common name in the list from year to year, won this year for the fourth straight year, topping Bill Murray and others.
Seiffert cited The King as his pick, noting that he broke into the business working at Palmer’s Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Florida. Seiffert would be working on the course and he’d see Palmer jog by on the cart path.
“He’d go out of his way to say hello to me every morning,” Seiffert says. “How cool is that?”
We also asked superintendents what course they thought was the greatest in the country? Augusta National topped the list with a whopping 49 percent of the vote, outpacing its nearest competitor, Pine Valley, by 38 percent. Augusta also overtook Pine Valley as the No. 1 course in Golf Digest’s latest America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses ranking.
Roddy, probably one of a handful of superintendents who has seen it up close, picked Pine Valley. Considering most superintendents have seen Augusta on TV during The Masters, it’s no surprise Augusta won big.
Roddy says, “Most people have probably never even seen a photo of Pine Valley.”
39% of respondants are from private courses, 21.5 percent from public/ daily-fee courses, 16 percent from semi-private, 14.5 percent from municipal, 4 percent from resort, 3.5 percent from “other” and .05 percent from executive courses.
78% of respondants manage 18 holes. Others were split between nine holes, 27 holes and 36 holes.
Do you think the golf industry is improving?
17% – Yes, the industry is getting better.
49% – Maybe, there are signs the industry is improving.
34% – No, the golf industry is still down.
THE SPIN — Take this message the way you want to. Compared to last year’s survey, more superintendents are gaining confidence in the golf economy, but more superintendents also believe the golf economy is still in the dumps. Six percent more superintendents believe the golf economy is on the rebound when compared to last year’s survey (11 percent), and 7 percent more believe the industry is still down when compared to last year (34 percent). The majority of voters — this year and last — believe there are signs the golf industry is improving.
What’s the first thing you cut from your budget?
54% – Drainage work and other improvement pesticides projects
35% – Labor
6% – Fertilizer
4% – Pesticides
THE SPIN — Five years ago, we would’ve bet that labor would be the No. 1 choice. Alas, it’s a good bet that superintendents have already made those cuts and can’t reduce their staffs much more. Now most are cutting improvement projects.
Is your 2015 maintenance budget:
2% – More than 10 percent higher than last year
2% – More than 10 percent lower than last year
3.5% – 10 percent higher than last year
3.5% – 10 percent lower than last year
13% – 5 percent lower than last year
17% – 5 percent higher than last year
59% – About the same as last year
THE SPIN — When we’ve asked this question in the past most superintendents have responded similarly: Their budgets have remained about the same from year to year. Fifty-nine percent of superintendents gave that answer this year. Maybe it’s good news, but maybe it’s not. One thing is for sure: Superintendents need to be more creative during the budget process.
Would you allow foot golf at your golf course to increase rounds and revenue?
8% – Yes, we have foot golf now
47% – I would consider it if it could help increase revenue
45% – No way, it’s not real golf
Do you think the golf industry will ever return to the glory days it experienced 15 to 20 years ago?
42.5% – No chance
12% – Yes
THE SPIN — The golf industry was in its glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with courses going up like Starbucks. Little did we know that the industry was being overbuilt and the chicken would soon come home to roost. It’s no surprise that 42.5 percent of superintendents believe there’s “no chance” of returning to the glory days. But is it a surprise that so many superintendents believe there is a chance?
What is the biggest challenge you have managing your golf course?
9% – My boss, who has no idea what it takes to keep the course in good condition
18% – Golfers who don’t repair ball marks and divots and damage other areas of the course
19% – Golfer expectations for near-perfect conditions
23% – Old maintenance equipment to do the job right
31% – Finding reliable help
THE SPIN — No surprise here. We’ve heard there is a shortage of Mexican/Hispanic laborers because of crackdowns on illegal aliens. Many superintendents tout Mexican/Hispanic laborers as reliable workers. In past surveys, “Golfer expectations for near-perfect conditions, has been No. 1 on the list or a close No. 2. It’s No. 3 this year behind “finding reliable help” and “old equipment to do the job right.” This could be good news for equipment manufacturers.
Do you believe climate change/global warming is affecting golf course maintenance?
17% – I didn’t used to, but I’m leaning that way.
20% – Yes, I see it more and more.
25% – I don’t know.
38% – No, climate change is a crock.
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, according to previous surveys. But the percentage of those superintendents dropped from 50 percent last year to 37 percent this year. A freakishly cold winter in 2014 will do that to a vote.
Do you think you are fairly compensated?
4% – Yes, I never dreamed I’d make this much money.
36% – No, I don’t make enough for the time I put in.
60% – My pay is fair, and I have no complaints.
What could your golf course use right now?
12% – A greens renovation
19% – A new fleet of mowers
21% – A new irrigation system
48% – More golfers/members
THE SPIN — The top answer to this question raises some eyebrows. “More golfers/members” garners more than twice as many votes as its nearest competitor. Shocking that so many supers picked this answer over three choices that directly impact golf course maintenance — or maybe not so shocking. Clearly, superintendents are concerned about the financial state of their courses. Dear golf associations, please do MORE to grow the game. Now!
What are you doing to conserve water at your golf course?
28% – Using more wetting agents
15% – Upgrading key parts of the irrigation system
15% – Not watering the rough
42% – Allowing the course to play firm and fast
THE SPIN — Clearly, superintendents are turning off the water to conserve it — and letting courses play firm and fast. How are golfers reacting, though? No surprise that wetting agents/surfactants are getting plenty of use. The improvements made in these products over the years have garnered the attention of supers.
What’s the greatest golf course in the country?
2% – Sand Hills
3% – Merion (East Course)
4% – Muirfield Village
5% – Oakmont Country Club
7% – Shinnecock
9% – Pebble Beach Golf Links
10% – Cypress Point
11% – Pine Valley
49% – Augusta National
THE SPIN — Considering that so many superintendents have seen the course in person or on TV when it’s in its glory — early spring at The Masters when the ryegrass is popping — it’s no surprise Augusta National won going away.
What were rounds and revenue like at your course in 2014?
30% – Rounds and revenue were down.
32% – Rounds were up, but revenues were flat or down.
38% – Rounds and revenue were up. We had a good year.
THE SPIN — Last year about 27 percent of superintendents reported that rounds and revenue were down in 2013 when compared to 2012. The year before that, only 11 percent of superintendents said rounds and revenue were down in 2012 when compared to 2011. This year, 30 percent of superintendents reported that rounds and revenue were down in 2014. Remember that weather has a huge impact on rounds and revenue. But how much?
What one piece of allied equipment would you like to upgrade this year?
3% – Seeder
5% – Blower
6% – Vacuum
8% – Verticutter
13% – Topdresser
20% – Tractor
21% – Greens Roller
24% – Aerator
THE SPIN — Looks like some superintendents are concerned about compaction on their courses. Also, rolling has taken off the last few years, as study after study has proved it’s an excellent maintenance practice.
What’s the greatest invention the golf course maintenance industry has ever seen?
5% – GPS-guided sprayer
6.5% – Modern fairway mower
23% – Plant growth regulators
65.5% – Irrigation central control
THE SPIN — Irrigation central control rules. No surprise here. Someday GPS-related equipment will collect a ton of votes.
Do you get along with your peers at your course (owner, pro, GM, etc.)?
1% – No, we can’t get on the same page.
30% – Somewhat, but I wish we were a better team.
69% – Yes, we function well as a team.
THE SPIN — Good to report that 69 percent of superintendents get along with their peers. Hopefully the others, who have some work to do, will get there soon. It’s downright brutal to work with people you don’t trust, you don’t like, and you don’t respect.
If you could play golf with one of these people, who would it be?
42% – Arnold Palmer
30% – Bill Murray
12% – Rory McIlroy
7% – Michelle Wie
9% – President Obama
THE SPIN — Not even the President can top The King when it comes to who superintendents would rather play golf with.