Depending on your geographical location, winter means different things for most golf course superintendents.
Maybe you’re closed completely for the season — snow covered and frozen.
Maybe you’re open but on a limited basis — a snow-rain transition area.
Maybe you’re open but experience rain on a daily basis, thus play is limited (this would be my part of the world, western Washington).
Or maybe winter is your busiest time of year — sunny and 70.
For this column, let’s assume you’re in one of the middle two categories. Which is, open at some level, but play is extremely limited because of weather.
Take my course here in Washington as an example. Although the course is open 12 months a year, a good 90 percent of rounds come during the eight-month span between mid-March and mid-November.
At some point one must ask: Just how important are those four months when there’s hardly any play? Is keeping the course up and running and in good condition for a relatively small group of diehard members really that important?
Of course, this is more a question for golf course owners than it is for golf course superintendents, but in this day and age it’s a question we as golf course operators and managers must ask ourselves as well.
What do I mean by this day and age? Well, I’m talking economically, mainly. As we all no doubt know, golf course budgets have been cut significantly over the last half dozen years. Stretching the dollar is an art form many of us in charge of golf courses have mastered. So it just goes to reason that at some point we have to ask ourselves how much of that limited budget do we want to continue to direct toward winter upkeep.
It goes without saying that labor budgets shrink drastically in the winter. But maybe it’s time to ask if the money you’re still spending in the winter is really all that crucial.
What can you give up? Part of the problem is perception. With our golf course, the owner has definitely considered the pros and cons of winter play. Do we make enough money to keep the place open in January and February? Probably not. Does taking away the golfers’ perceived benefit that the course is open year-round factor into the decision? Of course it does, which is why we still open our doors 364 days a year (barring the occasional snowstorm every couple of years).
What kind of product do we need to provide in January and February? Does that product have to be what it has traditionally been?
I think this a time to transition into a new kind of winter upkeep for many of us. Golfers are more understanding than we tend to give them credit for. They’re aware of the economic climate. I don’t think we can just come to the generalized conclusion that golfers won’t accept anything less than the best.
Obviously, we’ve never been able to give them the best in the winter anyway. Here in western Washington, the golf course peeks in late May and stays in top shape through early September. Spring and fall conditions are good, but not up to the level of that summer period. Course maintenance has always been challenging for us in winter. Rain, cold (often frozen soil) and a limited staff have always dictated this. Golfers know this, yet some choose to keep playing.
Those same diehards will keep playing even if you cut that winter budget in half. So it’s time to consider the importance of something like winter bunker upkeep in the middle of the rainy season. Are you throwing good money away on this often losing battle? Couldn’t this money be better spent in the spring bringing those bunkers back to their glory?
Like almost every facet of the modern-day superintendent’s budget challenges, winter money allocation is something that needs to be reconsidered.
The future of golf course maintenance is changing. Just as summer conditions are reverting back to the days of the past (think back to this year’s U.S. Open), winter conditions need be altered as well.
It’s evolution, really. Adapting and surviving.