In December and January, we surveyed about 530 golf course superintendents on the state of their profession, including questions about the state of the golf economy and their personal challenges.
41 percent of respondents are from private courses, 23 percent are from public/daily fee, 16 percent are from semi-private, 13 percent are from municipal, 4 percent are from resort and 3 percent are from “other.”
74 percent of respondents manage 18 holes, 10 percent manage nine holes, and the rest were split between 27 and 36 holes.
In his part of the golf course world, at Rainier Golf & Country Club near Seattle, Sam Sprague is still cheering what was a solid year in 2015 in terms of rounds and revenue at the 96-year-old course.
“My club had an incredible year last year — one of the best we’ve had in quite a while,” says Sprague, the club’s golf course superintendent.
In the heart of the Midwest, at Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha, Nebraska, Golf Course Superintendent Mary Boyle is also optimistic about play at her 18-hole private club, noting that business has been consistently strong the past few years with membership hovering around 450.
“I think the dust has settled from 2008,” Boyle says, referring to the Great Recession and its adverse economic impact on the golf industry.
At the Verandah Club, a 36-hole private club in Fort Meyers, Florida, Director of Agronomy Jake Wentz is also very upbeat about golf at his two 18-hole courses.
“We had the busiest October and November that we have ever had,” Wentz says. “There was quite a buzz when we ended the season last year. Everything clicked for us last year.”
Sprague, Boyle and Wentz believe there are signs the business of golf is improving nationwide, according to Superintendent Magazine’s fifth-annual Super Survey. The survey, based on 530 responses, measures superintendents’ views on everything from the golf economy to the biggest problems they face managing their golf courses.
In Florida, Wentz believes the golf industry is benefitting from a housing resurgence. According to Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, Florida is positioned to become one of the hottest housing markets in the country, which could bode well for golf.
“In our area, golf is based on real estate, and real estate is picking up,” Wentz says. “They are building houses out of the wazoo.”
At Rainier, where Sprague has been the superintendent for 15 years, the club benefitted from a discounted membership drive, which sold out.
“We hadn’t done anything like that in quite a while,” Sprague says. “It really hit the mark. We also had incredible weather, so usage at the club was up from the swimming pool to the restaurant to rounds of golf.”
Ah, the weather. As every superintendent knows, Mother Nature has a tremendous impact on rounds of golf, not to mention other incidental business at golf courses. Our survey included several questions about the weather, including if superintendents believe that climate change is affecting their work on the course.
Boyle doesn’t believe that climate change, including global warming, is impacting maintenance at Shadow Ridge.
“I don’t think the climate has changed much,” says Boyle, who is in her 20th year as superintendent at the course.
But Boyle acknowledges that the climate is different every year, which she considers normal, and that superintendents have to adapt.
“Superintendents are at the mercy of Mother Nature as to what is going to be handed to us week to week,” she says. “It’s just erratic weather, not climate change.”
Sprague, however, is one of the 26.5 superintendents who answered, “Yes, there is no doubt,” when asked if climate change is affecting golf course maintenance.
“We’re seeing more extremes,” he says, also noting that various weather records have been broken the past few years. July 2015 was Seattle’s hottest month on record.
Sprague is part of the 15 percent of superintendents who answered, “The erratic weather,” when asked, “What is the biggest challenge you have managing your golf course?” Sprague is also in the 23.5 percent of superintendents who believe human beings are partly to blame for climate change.
“I listen to the science, not the emotion [related to the issue],” he says. “The scientists are saying that humans are a reason the climate is changing. I don’t know why people don’t want to believe them.”
Read more: Looking back on 2015
Back to the business of the game and growing it. Superintendents were also asked what they would do to attract new players to the game to increase rounds and revenue. Of the four choices given to them, Sprague, Boyle and Wentz all were among the 38 percent to answer, “Reduce the cost of a round.” Forty-three percent of superintendents responded, “Make golf courses shorter and easier,” to increase rounds and revenue.
The sticker shock at some golf courses has scared people off from trying the game, not to mention the startup costs associated with buying new clubs, balls, shoes and whatever else, Sprague says.
“It costs so much money to get started,” he adds. “Some sports are in trouble for those reasons.”
In Florida, Wentz says too many public courses charge too much money for a round. What’s a lot of money? Wentz responds: “Ninety-five bucks. You play some of these courses, and you just don’t feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.”
In the maintenance facility, superintendents face an array of challenges, including finding dependable labor. A whopping 42 percent of superintendents answered, “Good and reliable help,” when asked, “What is the biggest challenge you have managing your golf course?” The answer greatly outdistanced, “Golfer expectations for near perfect conditions,” a serious and perennial problem for superintendents which garnered 16.5 percent of the vote.
At Rainier, Sprague says it has become more difficult to hire quality workers because of the tight job market and a higher- than-standard minimum wage introduced in nearby Seattle. Rainier is located in nearby Burien, Washington, which pays a $9 minimum wage. Seattle pays $13 and will soon pay $15.
Sprague didn’t purposely reduce labor on his crew in 2015, although it grew smaller by attrition. In the survey, when superintendents were asked if they had to reduce labor in 2015, most (41 percent) responded, “No, because we can’t cut anymore.”
From an equipment standpoint, given the choice of about eight items, most superintendents selected greens rollers as one piece of allied equipment that they would like to upgrade this year. Clearly, rolling greens is no longer a trend – it has become a legitimate cultural practice.
In the survey, superintendents were also asked a few personal questions, such as if they feel they are fairly compensated. Fifty-seven percent of superintendents said they were paid fairly and had no complaints. Count Boyle among that group.
“Who wouldn’t say, ‘Well, I’d like to be making a little more money,'” Boyle says. “But my owner has told me that he wants me to retire here. That’s job security. I’m not taking anything for granted, but it’s a good feeling to know that someone wants you here.”
Superintendents were also asked, “What one thing would you change about your job?”
Sprague answered, “Move the tee times back, so I can sleep in.”
Boyle answered, “Nothing.”
Wentz answered, “I would have an administrative assistant.”
With a $2.5 million budget, 36 holes and a 45-person crew to deal with, Wentz has plenty of paperwork come across his desk. He would much rather be on the course than stuck in his office.
“I could really use an administrative assistant,” he says.
Finally, superintendents were asked, “If you could play golf with one of these actors from famous golf movies, who would it be?” Their choices were Adam Sandler, Kevin Costner, Chevy Chase, Matt Damon and Bill Murray.
The winner? Murray, who put golf course maintenance on the map in his role as Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack” 36 years ago, with 54 percent of the vote.
Continue reading the infographics below to review the full results of our 5th annual Super Survey.