Methodology and Demographics

The Superintendent State of the Profession Survey was broadcast to our email subscribers and promoted on Twitter for 14 days in January. No incentive was given. The 546 respondents give the survey a ±4.12 percent margin of error at 95 percent confidence. Fifty-four percent of respondents are from a private or semi-private facility, and 46 percent are from a public, municipal or resort facility. Just 22 percent of respondents manage more than 18 holes. About one-third of respondents have budgets of more than $750,000, and 17 percent have budgets below $250,000.

Signs of golf’s rebound from the doldrums of the last decade continue to show themselves. Rounds, revenues and new players are showing decent year-over-year growth, and many analysts expect the industry to continue to expand in 2018.

Our annual Superintendent State of the Profession Survey has tracked the sentiments of the golf course maintenance profession over the years, and superintendents are seeing the signs of a slow and overdue recovery.

Half of superintendents say revenues rose in 2017 along with rounds and/or memberships at their clubs. This is the most positive sentiment in the past five years (Chart 1, p. 16), and just as encouraging, less than a quarter of superintendents say both revenue and participation dropped at their courses in 2017. Another quarter say participation at their courses is up, but revenues were about flat.

The rebound has its advantages when it comes to the budget. Just 15 percent of superintendents will have a lower maintenance budget this year, and 36 percent will see an increase (Chart 2, p. 16). Half of superintendents expect to have a repeat performance of their 2017 budgets. Comparatively in 2016, just 26 percent of superintendents experienced budget increases.

Labor followed a similar trend line in 2017; 64 percent of superintendents hired about the same number of full-time crew members for the golfing season, and 11 percent actually found the budget and the manpower to expand their crew. One-quarter of superintendents hired fewer workers in 2017, not that it would be easy to find and retain them if they could.

More than half of superintendents (57 percent) say finding good and reliable help is still the No. 1 challenge they face in their job, and labor dynamics won’t change any time soon. A strong U.S. economy with 2.3 percent GDP growth in 2017, unemployment statistics hovering around the “fully employed” range, and tightening immigration will continue to create fierce competition for workers.

Other top challenges include aging features/systems on the golf course and aging maintenance equipment. Interestingly, 57 percent of superintendents say that aging features on the golf course is a top-3 challenge to executing their job, reinforcing some of the challenges that come with a building boom followed by a demand bust.

Renovation boom

Aging infrastructure might be a challenge now, but clubs have been updating and restoring features for the past few years, and that trend is expected to continue as revenues return to a new normal. The bust cycle of the past 10 years has postponed many renovation projects or lifecycle investments, and architects have been pointing to a pent-up demand for years. Now, facilities are becoming more aware of the value of master planning and incremental improvements to keep the golf course updated to lower annual maintenance costs and to keep the components of a major renovation isolated to lifecycle needs.

Almost 60 percent of superintendents say a bunker renovation is either much needed or somewhat needed at their facility; almost half say they need a new irrigation system or an upgrade in their central controls, and 46 percent say they need tee box renovations (Chart 3). More than half say they need some help with tree removal, and more than 30 percent need some help with aquatic management. Many others cite drainage as a major need throughout the golf course.

Facilities will take a hard look at capital budgets during the next couple of years as they reinvest in the golf course and the infrastructure needed to care for it; 44 percent of respondents say they need new equipment to do the job right, and one-third say they need a new pump station.

Of the equipment that is most needed, half of superintendents say they need a new utility vehicle; 36 percent need a new spray rig; 31 percent need a utility tractor and 28 percent need each a new greens roller and aerator (Chart 4).

Growing the game

The basic barometers of rounds and revenues reflect the solvency of golf clubs and how different generations are engaging with the sport. Many worry that the aging baby boomers will drop out of their regular rounds at a greater rate than their replacement generation, in this case the millennials. But simulator golf (see our story on Topgolf, p. 12) and on-course programs for juniors, families and beginners are starting to gain traction with the non-golfing generation next.

Superintendents are doing their part. When golf first started talking about growing the game a dozen or so years ago, it wasn’t something that superintendents worried about. It was the job of the golf pro and flagship bodies that represented the sport. But the lag in organizational efficacy forced many superintendents to engage with the movement early. The easy-money period of the 1990s stifled innovation in a sport where innovation isn’t encouraged or welcomed. We Are Golf wasn’t established until 2009, and the PGA didn’t launch its Growth of Game task force until 2014. We are still in new territory.

But superintendents were forced to take on the mantra as the industry began to bleed in the mid-2000s. Course professionals and superintendents collaborated on family outing concepts, new teeing areas, and generally figured out a way to make a golfing experience that was notably different from the traditional penalty- based links cherished by die-hard golf enthusiasts.

One of those strategies has been the construction of forward tees. ASGCA’s Longleaf Initiative helped set guidelines for up to eight teeing areas that create easier angles of play and shorten the golf course for different experience levels.

Superintendents have been adapting the golf course for varying skill levels for some time before the official bodies organized. Call it guerilla development; 40 percent of superintendents have created additional teeing areas for juniors, families and new players. Additionally, 36 percent of respondents offer programs and outings for families and new player development.

Additional growth strategies include nontraditional and shorter rounds, upgraded practice facilities with social components, simulators, replay specials, better conditioning, and discounts for new players and niche groups, such as veterans.

Quality of life, job satisfaction

Superintendents are generally satisfied in their profession and enjoy the job despite its challenges. But pay and hours worked continue to be pain points. Almost one-third of respondents say they are not adequately compensated for the work they do; 52 percent are neutral or only somewhat agree. Just 15 percent say they strongly agree that they are adequately compensated.

Many assistant superintendents cite difficulty in landing a head superintendent job in their area, which forces those who work in this profession to look for opportunities outside their zip code. Add the mystique of top-100 courses and the perception of conditions at classic courses or big-architect courses, and the recipe is ripe for a guy who likes to wander.

Almost 40 percent of respondents say they are at least somewhat willing to relocate for a new job opportunity in the profession. Almost a quarter are neutral, and interestingly, 37 percent say they at least somewhat disagree that they would relocate; 23 percent strongly disagree, meaning that almost a quarter of the profession has no interest in relocating.

Just 14 percent strongly agree that climate change affects the way they manage their golf course, and 27 percent say they are worried about water regulations and usage for recreation.

Less than 10 percent of superintendents say they have a poor relationship with their management team, and more than half say that having a president that is an avid golfer is good for golf.