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From The Archives: The Cost of Savings

Dave Wilber


I'm going to do this a little bit backwards. First a comment on a blog post from 2012...and then the actual post for your rereading and rethinking pleasure. Why? Because over the last month, this is what people have been talking to me about. This very subject. Not getting better. Maybe getting worse.


The comment below is from Tom Doak. I met Tom briefly in Denver in the late 80's when no one knew who he was. Then a friend dropped a manuscript copy of something called The Confidential Guide to Golf that Mr. Doak had written. It was nothing short of a masterpiece and I became a fan. Later, I was afforded the opportunity to work with Doak and members of his team and it certainly forever changed my outlook and understanding of Architecture and The Game itself. I consider Tom a friend and I'm totally in fear of his brain power. And my hope is that he will write the forward to my planned book. At any rate...read this. Read it carefully. Not because Tom or I have the market cornered on words... but because we both have perspective and passion for our world.


Tom Doak:


A great post and I hope it will draw a bit more attention to this topic, though I suspect that, on TurfNet, you are just preaching to the choir. This topic needs to go to the Golf Industry Show.

I've been recognizing for years that the numbers in the golf business didn't add up, and I've been as guilty as anyone at suggesting that superintendents are partly to blame. It's only been in the past couple of years that I've started analyzing the operating budgets at my own courses and realized just how much money is being spent OFF the course. It's staggering; I've been in the business for thirty years and I just had no idea. It's no wonder that so few facilities can make any money in golf.

Yes, the pro shop is spending a chunk of that money, but the people inside the clubhouse are spending even more -- which shouldn't be surprising, when you think about who approves the overall budget for the club. That's where the game is being lost.

Still, I would disagree with you on a couple of things, and the piece by Adam Garr as quoted in Jerry Coldiron's post highlights them well. Here's the paragraph that said it for me:

"At times I feel like my standards are higher than the expectations of my membership, and most certainly my budget. It's tough to reconcile the difference sometimes. If I want something done outside my budgetary constraints, I end up doing it myself on my own time. It's a curse to pursue this level of perfectionism, but it drives me almost as certainly as it does for many of my peers. I love hard work, getting dirty, and going home with the scars to prove it. I love seeing the finished product. I like being proactive, not reactive. It becomes an addiction over time."

You've made tremendous progress in the turf management business over the past thirty years, but it all comes at a cost. Yet GOLF IS NO MORE FUN TO PLAY than it was thirty years ago, so how can one justify the added costs if the top line doesn't keep pace? Lots of superintendents blame the members for expecting perfection, but Mr. Garr admits the truth... the expectations come from within. If more in the profession could find a better balance in their lives, golf would benefit, too.

Don't take this the wrong way. Everyone in the golf business needs to do better -- architects, too. We all need to see the big picture. And as Adam Garr reminded us, the big picture isn't only about golf.

In a way, what Tom is saying here is that we Turfheads often expect too much of ourselves. And I get that. And because I have seen Tom in some pretty tough board and committee meetings, I know he understands the ideas of the members who also want a lot. But maybe what didn't come through here and what Tom has less exposure to is that when the passionless and uninitiated are controlling the purse strings, it makes the cutting of budgets less about the presentation of product and more about the preservation of the line item and the bottom line.


And now the original post. It's longer than most. But I keep getting told it is worth the read.


There Is A Big White Sandwich-Making Sweater-Folding Elephant In My Truck

June 4th, 2012


golfing-elephant-300x230.jpgThe largely unrealized goal this year was to write more blog posts. Inside of that goal has been my deep-seated desire to make Maestro Peter happy. He?d be hog slop happy with more agronomy writing from me. "Agronomy, Wilber" is often the two word email that I get from Peter.


It's fine. I think he, like a lot of people think that every day, all day, I think about growing grass and that every conversation I have with everyone I see has to do with large bore topics like how to really deal with your LDS and the absolute best and only way to use growth regulators in a particular zip code and how organic fertilizers will eventually save the planet.


My problem is that there's this big ass elephant that has taken up residence in my truck and in my brain.  And because he's there, hot agronomy topics like Salt Solubility, Compost, Mineral Return and stuff like that are backed up behind the thing that really everyone is talking about. And so, I've had enough. Time to honestly recognize the thing taking up all the bandwidth and then we can get on to other things. As long as this is blocking my head, there really isn't any getting around it. (I'm gonna protect a few innocents by not giving all the details, but I hope the guilty get it right smack between their ears.)


The norm, you see, has been to come back to superintendents and look for just a little extra savings. That thinking stinks...

Over the last couple of months I've seen some of the most outrageous things ever to get blood out of Superintendent Turnips. For most of us, in one way or another, the economic downturn has meant a tightening of the belt. And granted, for some operations, a little weight loss looked pretty good. But over the last two seasons something has changed. The norm, you see, has been to come back to superintendents and look for just a little extra savings. That thinking stinks. "If our Super can do this good a job with just a few cutbacks, imagine how hard he'll work if we cut him back some more?". That quote, by the way, came straight from the mouth of a Director of Golf.  And so we have maintenance operations grown anorexic. Way beyond getting to bikini shape,


So I began to look around. Really look around and ask some specific questions. The answers were pretty startling and at the same time no such a surprise. What I came to understand is that in most situations, the golf course superintendent had been involved in some kind of budget process wherein no matter which way and in what terms had the super put together budgets and man-hour studies and business plans and that sort of thing the end result was some kind of cut. Often deep, often multiples.


One super put it perfectly, "We backed way off for a couple of years because the club was in some cashflow trouble and they promised me that we'd eventually return to investing in the property. I can see by the last $100K that they told me to go find, that the idea of righting the ship just isn't in the cards." That's right. If they told you you'd eventually get it back, its probably not gonna happen.



One more than one occasion in more than one way, recent discussions with turfheads about budgets usually turn to talking about the golf pro or the DoG or the pro turned GM. And the thing that I hear most often is that while supers are busting their butts to balance facility operations, not much has changed across the pro shop counter and that an equal effort isn't really being put forward.


Supers who are now completely hands-on due to lack of staff size are shaking their heads at Merchandizing Consultants, patty-cake playing outside service people and failed efforts to generate revenue by thinking outside the box.


Never have I seen the rift between Turfhead and Sweaterfolder get bigger. And it's a tough relationship to begin with. Now before any ballpolishers get offended at me, please know, everyone isn't failing and if you care enough to read this blog, I'm probably not talking about you anyway. But the golf shop staff members who haven't seen their way to much enlightened understanding should stop and consider this... if you keep helping the powers that be drain your turf management department's budget pretty soon there won?t be any reason for anyone to come and take up the game.


Never have I seen the rift between Turfhead and Sweaterfolder get bigger. And it's a tough relationship to begin with.

Lets face it, Turfheads aren't the best salesmen. And a lot of Turfheads have had to do whatever it takes to keep their jobs and to keep the shop doors open. One super was telling me about the weekly battle he has with his accounting dept over keeping key vendors paid. One quote, "It's impossible to really make the controller understand that 48 hours waiting for a check to get cut for a part I need because we are on COD with that vendor is pretty much death". And that same super also talked about the dance he now has to do between vendors, like using two credit cards until they are both full and then paying them with a third. Yup, even someone with a turf degree can see the financial Fail coming with that method.


"There's this notion with my GM that I'm way overpaid", said one of my confidants. "He comes from the hotel industry and he just keeps talking about "mowing lawns" and "how expensive stuff is" for the things that POs must get signed for", the story goes, "It's like he is saying to me that someone like me is an elitist and that there must be cheaper ways and cheaper people to get the job done".


And some of these GMs, be they golf people or not, have been talking behind our backs. Shame. It seems that a lot of them think that trained, educated superintendents actually spend more money because they always have to have the cool stuff. A club in my area who recently got rid of a talented super and his assistant has made a big point out of, "hiring the guy who does all the work". That's right, the crew foreman, with no turfgrass education, minimal computer skills, zero written communication ability is the super. They are paying him 1/3 of what the other guy was making and he's afraid to spend money, so he doesn't. Similar situations are commonplace. And they say things about being happy because the new guy doesn't blog all the time, go to endless superintendents' meetings or anything like that. Nope, he just works.


They are paying him 1/3 of what the other guy was making and he's afraid to spend money, so he doesn't.

It's time to get wise to the insanity of all of this:

  • Supers need to do everything they can to communicate when they see the suits about to run the course off the rails. Speak up. Do the man hour study, refuse the 7pm meeting because you are now working every day at 5am and need your sleep. Explain in clear detail how fixing the old fairway mower almost every time it leaves the shop is costing more than a payment on a new one. You get the picture.
  • The product is Golf and there is no product without a Golf Course. You (and I'm talking to the non-turfheads here) may think that your once upon a time Country Club for a Day, built because the NGF said you should, designed by a pretty good architect, is enough if 'they will just come'. But the truth is you've got your super on such a tightrope budget that there's no room for making things just a little bit right much less better. Best just keep paying off the weather gods because no one is going to pay to play your place unless it has some kind of conditioning on a somewhat regular basis and from what I see this kind of method leaves a lot to chance.
  • Rounds are Up, Rounds are Up!! Gee. Good for you Mr. Golf Pro. You've managed to discount so low that finally they all came to play. And the 130 rounds you are doing at $25 just feels so much better than the 75 you were doing at $60. Plus they get a sleeve of balls and a couple hot dogs and free coffee. Profit? Nah. We just want rounds. Business 101 FAIL.


...when you keep drawing away from non-revenue generating maintenance activities eventually the product and the process fail so badly that in most businesses it means either failure, closure or both."

  • "Our Superintendent Just Wants Too Much" That's right.  Most supers get up every day and they dream of a life filled with mowers and sprayers and a zillion staff members that they can think of as their very own. Unbelievable. When the superintendent that is dubbed the person you entrust your facility to comes to you, and expresses a need perhaps the thing to do is to listen. I don't get how many times I've heard a GM or a DoG or a Committee/Board member tell me how they have enriched the life of the super at their club by finally giving into the pressure that they felt to 'give him some new mowers'. Hello? last time I checked, I don't see many maintenance shops at the homes of supers. The poor super is trying to help you help yourselves and you make it about him needing "stuff". Please.
  • It's Time To Stop Asking. An economic type that I know with no ties to golf or turf but strong knowledge on the concept of physical plant management told me that when you keep drawing away from non-revenue generating maintenance activities eventually the product and the process fail so badly that in most businesses it means either failure, closure or both. So, sure, Mr. GM, balance that budget on the back of the poor super. It's, after all, only 2 less people he will have to run with than last year. Oh, and make sure to tell him you need this just before summer, so that vacations for him or anyone else are not to be.

340x_huge_robot1-200x300.jpgI've watched some GMs operate from a pretty high horse lately. They know that there are lots of resumes waiting in the wings, so asking their super for the unnatural is perhaps part of the process of getting someone in the job for less money and more willing to do as told.


And when the super gets canned and they get 150 resumes within 3-4 days of the job announcement, it's pretty hard to argue against doing what it takes to keep your job. But that can't go on for long. It just can't. Plenty of turnips and no blood means...yup. No blood.


Honestly, I am sick to death of hearing how "golf is back" and how "golf is on the move". It"s not. People aren"t taking up and keeping up with the sport in the way they used to. And let"s say that they are a little bit right and that there is a bit of an upward trend in rounds, from what I see, you offer enough for free, finally people will come take it, like leaving an old grill out with a free sign on it. Another man's treasure.


In my eyes golf will be back when all of my turfhead friends are back to working with budgets that will let them perform the task expected. Until that time, it's just a big shell game and that can't be good for any of us.

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