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Is Evolution a Thing in Turfgrass?

Dave Wilber

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I'm speaking next week at a CMAA meeting in Denver. I did a CMAA meeting once a few years ago and they did wine tasting, so I figured it might pay to go to this one. I prefer Single Malt. We will see what happens.

In truth, the program is pretty cool. The Mile High CMAA Chapter is looking to get perspective on the evolution of Golf and has invited some notables from the Club Pro, Turfgrass and Colorado Golf in general. So cool. Had to say yes. If you have been reading my Blog or listening to my Podcast for any amount of time, you probably know that I'm neurotic for preparation. In this case, I cant just stand up, pull a club out of the bag and hit a one-iron. I have to work for this one a bit and do some research and the like.

So the evolution of golf and golf turf is well rooted in the brilliance and testicular thought fortitude of those growing the grass.

The Evolution of Golf. Certainly, Golf hasn't been immune to evolution. One must only look at the Golf Ball or the Golf Club to see that. And certainly, there has been plenty of change as it comes to the world of architecture. Even if that change is simply to erase the poorly evolved. Then we come to the 2007-2008 crash. Or "adjustment" as the optimists call it. And from that point on, it's been a crazy world of trying to figure out what golf is and who we all are. 

To me, we can't escape a list of facts that is here to stay:

  • 50% of everyone now picking up a club is 55 years of age or older.  
  • 77.5% of all golfers are male.
  • 74% of players play less than 10 times per year.
  • 68% of all golfers are married.
  • $2,800 is the average amount that the average player spends per year.

Great Dave. So you are gonna get up in front of a bunch of club management types and tell them what they either already know, can read in NGF stats or are experiencing while they try to figure out how to get this all to change.  And guess what? It's not gonna change. It's not. No matter how much Foot Golf or Jump Houses or 13th Hole Concerts or Bluetooth Speakers or GPS Disney Carts come along... The Golf is The Golf. 

But the Agronomy? Just like the equipment and the courses themselves, is dynamic. Here's what I see as the coming trends and the things that we are talking about. Will these things change the numbers above? Again, not likely in my mind. But there is an evolution.

  1. Bunkers. Despite the PGA Tour now calling them Penalty Areas, bunkers now represent at least 50% of the conversations that I have as an agronomic advisor. Be it construction, reconstruction, restoration, daily maintenance or tourney prep, they are a grand topic. And a damn expensive one. The expectations are high and the understanding of what "natural" really takes to maintain is low. At least half the golfers at most clubs don't like the sand or the way the sand is prepped. They are money pits. In a recent agronomy report for a client, I talked about the "gift" a traditionalist architect had given the club in the form of "natural bunkers", proving to double the labor dollars required to deal with them. Here's the quote: "the only way not to spend so much money on these bunkers, is not to have these bunkers". One less architect X-mas card will come to me this year.

  2. Robotic Mowing. Like it or not, robots are coming. In form of Turfgrass Roombas or some such. I don't see them as play-toys and I keep saying this. Those that are using the first generation of the things are seeing what the win will be. Sure, they will require a different kind of maintenance, schedule and some human supervision, but there is no question they will be part of the internal landscape.

  3. Precision Applications. Along the same lines, we will certainly see more and more GPS oriented technology for anything that gets applied. And for sure, this will mean the evolution of sensor technology to make sure that only the overpowering invader gets the treatment and the zones doing great do not. I can foresee an IR scanning drone overflying an area, downloading info to a sprayer and that sprayer applying 10% or less of what used to be applied. Same will go for irrigation. Real time data will be commonplace at tremendous savings.

  4. Large Area Mowers. Gone are the days of multiple heights of cut and a bevy of labor to produce them. 3 heights of cut. And the one that is the largest area will be once again mowed with larger mowers. Will item number 2 play a part. In some way, yes. And if the happens, the equipment may be smaller as an accommodation. The corollary to this simply mowing less grass to begin with.

    And guess what? It's not gonna change. It's not. No matter how much Foot Golf or Jump Houses or 13th Hole Concerts or Bluetooth Speakers or GPS Disney Carts come along... The Golf is The Golf. 

  5. Short Courses, Par 3's and Whisky Loops. Time is something we can't print more of. So without a doubt, the conversation about shorter, easier, more fun and quicker places to play is going to continue. You wanna go hang out at the 7600 yard battlezone? Be my guest. I like the 5300 yard opportunity not to hate myself.

  6. Great Grasses. In my opinion we are entering into another golden age of plant breeding and turf types will be more unique, site specific and use specific than ever before. With reams of data now at our fingertips about climate and the ability to model the potential growth based on the smallest details, breeders can meet needs. In really cool ways. One only has to look at the amazing Bents and Ultras that we are using on greens now to see there is real movement in this area.

  7. Lowering of Expectations. How hard is it really, for golfers, members and management to get that when they want lower prices they are going to get less. I actually think that superintendents are doing a much better job of talking about this from a less defensive posture. Is this because the "Country Club for a Day" sales pitch is going away? I'd like to think so. And to be fair, Supers are starting to realize they have been their own worst enemies as it comes to inventing stuff to do to make things reach that "next level". The extra 10% can cost another 30%. That's not ROI. Thats just stupid. I'm quick to point this out when anyone says "Next Level" or some version of it to me. Here's the truth. We all want to drive McLarens. And few can afford it. Enjoy your Toyota. Love it.

  8. Chemicals. I talk about this all the time. One day, there won't be any or there will be very little. And so we will have to rely on point number 6 above. What's driving it. Sadly it's not the environmental factor as much as it is the litigation and liability factor. And quite frankly as a recent student of risk management, I don't blame the insurance folks for backing away from the agri-chem coverage. It's a controllable risk.

And quite frankly as a recent student of risk management, I don't blame the insurance folks for backing away from the agri-chem coverage. It's a controllable risk.

9. Virtual Golf. I met a gentleman on a plane recently who was wearing a high end resort logo. He told me his story of logo achievement because I was dumb enough to ask. But his answer was facinating. He plays all his golf at Top Golf and at his friend's basement simulator. And once a year, he and his buddies head for the coast, play as many holes a day as the daylight and their sore feel will allow. Eat and Drink to excess. Tell lies. And head home to the Simulators. Now maybe this does say that golf is changing, but then again, no. It just says that once a year, the dudes have dude times with their el dudarino buddies and that's all they get. Actually, sounds pretty good to me.

10. Brilliance. Buh? It's simple. Turfheads are some of the most resourceful people on the planet. And if you ask most of them to sort out something, make something happen, deal with adversity, they will. Over and over again. So the evolution of golf and golf turf is well rooted in the brilliance and testicular thought fortitude of those growing the grass. I know damn good and well that sitting here today, I can not predict the things that will go on in 33 years, just as I couldn't have predicted this blog 33 years ago when I hit the biz.

So, I have parts of my talk for next week. And I can spend the next six nights torturing myself over getting the visuals right and the roadmap right for a decent presentation and wondering why I say yes to these things. I can focus on not sounding like just another Brad Kline or Pat Jones talk. I can actually be me and say it as I see it. In this moment. It's all one can really do, right?

 

(PostScript....If you would like to weigh in on the evolutionary path of golf as related to Agronomy, I and many others would love to hear it. Comment below. And remember, no idea is too off the wall)

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Brilliant stuff, Dave.  Especially points 1 and 7.  And "The Golf is The Golf.

I think Point 7 could really have a positive effect, on every demographic, just by making the cost to play twice a week actually affordable--and not on a sim.  (I hit balls on a sim yesterday.  I feel tainted.)

Again, excellent column.  You are killing it.

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59 minutes ago, Randy Wilson said:

Brilliant stuff, Dave.  Especially points 1 and 7.  And "The Golf is The Golf.

I think Point 7 could really have a positive effect, on every demographic, just by making the cost to play twice a week actually affordable--and not on a sim.  (I hit balls on a sim yesterday.  I feel tainted.)

Again, excellent column.  You are killing it.

I like the sim thing. The beer cart comes when I want it to. And I don't need a rain suit or a ball picker.

Thanks Randy, I don't deserve the compliment. But I will take it.

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Love the talk about lowering expectations. One glaring omission I see is that of climate change and it’s effects on golf courses. It’s going to change the game in a huge way very shortly whether we like it or not. And it has the potential to be extremely expensive. 

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Dave

The pace of play today has become out of hand. Five hour and plus rounds are driving people away.The cause in my opinion is the height of the rough. Public and resort it should be no more than 1-1/2 in. or better yet one inch.  Pin placements should be in level areas. Again my comments are on public play. Ninety percent of my career was on private and the course is set up the way members want it. As I remember Augusta National had no rough or at least none over an inch until they decided to Tigerize it.

 

This week we played on Monday. 5 hr. ten min. Tuesday was three hours ten minutes due to predicted rain that did not come.

 

 

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I like it Dave.

Is there room for a point on the state of the industriy as it relates to careers?

two points actually 

the first being the lack of college educated kids entering the industry for any reason we can think of.

The second is the changing dynamic of the seasonal worker.  There once was a large group of seasonal workers that wanted to work for 8 months here and then go back to their homes to cultivate a life that they would retire to.  The current worker seems to want more from their life and to provide more for their family that includes a year round, full time job, with their families in the USA and benefitting from a more formal education.  

Who is going to take care of the golf courses?  Even those with lower expectations and robots that mow grass that doesn't require pesticides.

Dave Schlagetter

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29 minutes ago, Paul MacCormack said:

Love the talk about lowering expectations. One glaring omission I see is that of climate change and it’s effects on golf courses. It’s going to change the game in a huge way very shortly whether we like it or not. And it has the potential to be extremely expensive. 

Paul...I agree. I had thought to include that in the chemical section, but I think it needs its own point...and really it's own complete write up.

Thanks. Great input.

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27 minutes ago, Corey Eastwood, CGCS said:

Dave

The pace of play today has become out of hand. Five hour and plus rounds are driving people away.The cause in my opinion is the height of the rough. Public and resort it should be no more than 1-1/2 in. or better yet one inch.  Pin placements should be in level areas. Again my comments are on public play. Ninety percent of my career was on private and the course is set up the way members want it. As I remember Augusta National had no rough or at least none over an inch until they decided to Tigerize it.

 

This week we played on Monday. 5 hr. ten min. Tuesday was three hours ten minutes due to predicted rain that did not come.

 

 

Corey...

I agree and will add some words to the part about Whisky Loops, etc. But I agree for sure that with lower budgets, less labor that mowing has suffered badly.

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6 minutes ago, Dave Schlagetter said:

I like it Dave.

Is there room for a point on the state of the industriy as it relates to careers?

two points actually 

the first being the lack of college educated kids entering the industry for any reason we can think of.

The second is the changing dynamic of the seasonal worker.  There once was a large group of seasonal workers that wanted to work for 8 months here and then go back to their homes to cultivate a life that they would retire to.  The current worker seems to want more from their life and to provide more for their family that includes a year round, full time job, with their families in the USA and benefitting from a more formal education.  

Who is going to take care of the golf courses?  Even those with lower expectations and robots that mow grass that doesn't require pesticides.

Dave Schlagetter

Dave...Bravo. I started down the path of what "career" means and didn't finish it in my notes. However, I do intend to include some figures on open jobs (assistants, etc...), but will certainly talk about the changing world of migrant labor. Excellent.

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I think the lower amount of exposure the young people have to the game now has had a profound impact on the game. No more caddies, no more summer workers etc. I am always amazed at how many people over 55-75 say they either caddied or worked on a course. Every year that decline has an effect on the game and not a positive  one.

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25 minutes ago, Matt Crowther, CGCS said:

I think the lower amount of exposure the young people have to the game now has had a profound impact on the game. No more caddies, no more summer workers etc. I am always amazed at how many people over 55-75 say they either caddied or worked on a course. Every year that decline has an effect on the game and not a positive  one.

Agree. But golf has done that to itself by making carts part of the financial equation. 

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Agree with all said above, but I would add one big one, and that is labor. The lack of labor, raising min wage, and little to no young people entering the industry is scary. I am in CA on a course with 34 employees and a healthy budget. However, with min wage increasing every single year over the last 5 years, and it will continue up a $1/hr from the current $12 to $15 is killing us. Each $1/hr increase is costing our club $150-160K more per year. My budget has stayed flat the last 4 years, but labor has increased, which means the expenses have decreased, but still the same demands. This is going to be a breaking point of many clubs. Also, I cannot get a qualified applicant for my assistant, which pays $60,000 a year in central CA which is economical for CA housing pricing. Who is going to take over for those of us getting closer to retirement?

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Your points are all good, Dave, but one that really stuck out to me was Robotic Mowers.  Personally, I hate to see this coming, but practically it is unavoidable.  There simply are not enough good worker candidates out there anymore to even keep up with the reduced inventory of golf courses.  If one person can do the job of three, it will be very hard to not take advantage of the technology.  Jay Ervine is spot on, and so are you.

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5 hours ago, Jay Ervine said:

Agree with all said above, but I would add one big one, and that is labor. The lack of labor, raising min wage, and little to no young people entering the industry is scary. I am in CA on a course with 34 employees and a healthy budget. However, with min wage increasing every single year over the last 5 years, and it will continue up a $1/hr from the current $12 to $15 is killing us. Each $1/hr increase is costing our club $150-160K more per year. My budget has stayed flat the last 4 years, but labor has increased, which means the expenses have decreased, but still the same demands. This is going to be a breaking point of many clubs. Also, I cannot get a qualified applicant for my assistant, which pays $60,000 a year in central CA which is economical for CA housing pricing. Who is going to take over for those of us getting closer to retirement?

Jay....you are spot on. And I guess I avoided the labor issue for all the wrong reasons. I wrote about 500 words on it last night and that was woefully inadequate. 

However, with this as esentially an increased hard cost, I'd like to see the revenue side of the business not hide its head in the sand and generate income with increase in mind. Without a doubt, the talk I am giving and some future writings are going to challenge the lazy, same as always revenue generation ideas that are stale at best.

Good points. And I'd like to be your assistant!!

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37 minutes ago, Jonathon Scott said:

Your points are all good, Dave, but one that really stuck out to me was Robotic Mowers.  Personally, I hate to see this coming, but practically it is unavoidable.  There simply are not enough good worker candidates out there anymore to even keep up with the reduced inventory of golf courses.  If one person can do the job of three, it will be very hard to not take advantage of the technology.  Jay Ervine is spot on, and so are you.

Jon...I resisted. And then I watched a facility using them as daily drivers and my mind had to be changed.

Appreciate you reading. Means the world.

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2 hours ago, Jonathon Scott said:

Your points are all good, Dave, but one that really stuck out to me was Robotic Mowers.  Personally, I hate to see this coming, but practically it is unavoidable.  There simply are not enough good worker candidates out there anymore to even keep up with the reduced inventory of golf courses.  If one person can do the job of three, it will be very hard to not take advantage of the technology.  Jay Ervine is spot on, and so are you.

I felt the same way until I got robotic mowers and saw the power they leverage to increase efficiency and get a more limited crew size to details that were once always pushed aside to maintain bunkers.  Now bunkers get raked while robot mows.  Everyone keeps their job and things get done that there was never ample labor to do before.  These robots are powerful tools at mid level and public courses where the labor crunch is at its worst.

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19 hours ago, Matt Crowther, CGCS said:

I think the lower amount of exposure the young people have to the game now has had a profound impact on the game. No more caddies, no more summer workers etc. I am always amazed at how many people over 55-75 say they either caddied or worked on a course. Every year that decline has an effect on the game and not a positive  one.

I think its a larger societal problem that I could really hijack Dave's post on.  I caddied a bit as a 12 year old.  I got a job at 15 or 16 washing dishes in a bakery.  Then my brother got me entangled in this superintendent life madness at 16.  I made money after high school, bought a car and learned the value of work and the pain of paying taxes ( I still remember that first income tax and the madness of writing Uncle Sam a check at 16).  Those were formative years.  And I spent the majority of them on a golf course.  I doubt if anyone under 18 can even get a job anymore?  I'm sure they're out there, but not like they were back then.  Lawyers, lawsuits, finger pointing, blah blah...yeechh.

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#7 speaks loudly to me.  Playing as a kid with my Dad and brothers I recall scraping a path through the unremoved plugs on the green so we could putt; I don't ever recall anyone complaining.  Clutter on the golf course also comes in here:  ropes, stakes, signs, ball washers, divot boxes on par 3 tees...for me, it is all completely unnecessary, but a greens committee somewhere decided all this "stuff" was necessary.  Where do you want to wash your golf ball?  Before you putt or before you tee off?  I want a clean golf ball when I putt so IMHO  the ball washer ought to be located next to the green or it shouldn't be there.  I've not seen ropes, stakes or signs prevent someone from driving their cart wherever they please so why battle this on a daily basis; it seems a waste of time.  The "adjustment" will continue and a balance will be found, but courses will continue to close.  I was in Gulf Shores AL a month ago and found the course we played in the State Park 3 years ago is now closed. 

You've seen most everything Dave; I say "say it as you see it".  It's time the powers of the game start to realize change is good.

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On 4/5/2019 at 2:05 PM, Brian Nettz, CGCS said:

I think its a larger societal problem that I could really hijack Dave's post on.  I caddied a bit as a 12 year old.  I got a job at 15 or 16 washing dishes in a bakery.  Then my brother got me entangled in this superintendent life madness at 16.  I made money after high school, bought a car and learned the value of work and the pain of paying taxes ( I still remember that first income tax and the madness of writing Uncle Sam a check at 16).  Those were formative years.  And I spent the majority of them on a golf course.  I doubt if anyone under 18 can even get a job anymore?  I'm sure they're out there, but not like they were back then.  Lawyers, lawsuits, finger pointing, blah blah...yeechh.

You are more than right.

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