Typically, the golf industry chokes whenever the economy hiccups. That has not been the case this year as a global pandemic has crushed business, devastated the economy and sent record numbers of people to the unemployment line. In fact, during the past six months of doom and gloom, golf has been one of the feel-good stories emerging from the pandemic.
Golf courses everywhere have been busy, really busy, and they have looked a little more rustic since superintendents removed many of the accessories in an effort to minimize touch points and the potential to spread the virus between players and employees.
Not only does the removal of accessories eliminate dozens of places where funk can transmit from one person to another, some superintendents say it gives a golf course an unspoiled appeal and makes daily maintenance easier in the face of all this extra play.
And while golf courses are really, really busy this year, anything that can make the crew's job easier is probably a good thing, at least for now, but how long will they disappear. Superintendents say that golfers can develop an odd attachment to inanimate objects like ballwashers and memorial benches, so don't expect accessories to disappear forever.
"Course accessories are a huge maintenance headache," said Fred Gehrisch, CGCS at Highlands Falls Country Club in Highlands, North Carolina. "We have to sand and stain our wood signs every winter. All the wood posts that our ball washers and trash receptacles are attached to have to be painted every year. Just like the bunker rakes, most accessories have to be moved to weed or mow around and that costs time and efficiency. I've always accepted that as part of our job, but boy, do the hours add up just moving things. All in all though, the extras just take away from the beauty of the course."
Since Covid started, we've had to remove all touch points. We've also had a transition from perfectly maintained bunkers to just declaring them hazards again. If golfers aren't going to use rakes, why have them out on the course? Inevitably, someone is going to have to move them - the bunker raker if they're in the bunker, or the mower if they're out of the bunker. No rakes? No problem - for anybody.
This movement of less is more has not fallen on deaf ears.
"Accessories have been an easy target for a while," said Matt Pauli, director of marketing for Standard Golf, which manufactures and distributes a line of golf course accessories.
"Covid has been an excuse to take them off."
The complaint many superintendents have is accessories get in the way, they are a drain on the staff and the budget, and they detract from the course's aesthetic appeal.
"In my opinion, golf for many years went the other way. Every where you looked you saw accessories that were not needed," said Rick Tegtmeier, CGCS at Des Moines Golf and Country Club in Iowa. "Many little golf courses used these as vehicles for advertising and for memorials. "
Accessories companies quickly responded to the pandemic and the challenges facing golf course superintendents with no-touch products to make things easier for golfers and employees to minimize chances to spread the virus. No-touch options like ball risers and foam inserts for cups mean golfers don't have to pull flagsticks to retrieve their golf ball. Portable, no-touch grips allow golfers to safely use bunker rakes without actually touching the handle.
"This isn't just about selling products," said Dan Brown, sales and marketing manager for Par Aide. "Golf is very popular right now. It's outdoors. It's easy to distance from others. We understand that (Covid) is real, and we truly want to help make the game as safe as possible."
Gehrisch appreciates how removing accessories helps streamline workflow. Aesthetically, he also believes in addition by subtraction.
"I'm a minimalist when it comes to accessories," he said. "The least amount of accessories on the course the better."
"All in all, the extras just take away from the beauty of the golf course."
The low-hanging fruit for many superintendents appears to be bunker rakes.
Superintendents say they get in the way and golfers don't use them correctly - if at all.
"As far as bunker rakes, we all hate them," Tegtmeier said. "The USGA could never tell anyone 'should they be in or should be left out of the bunker?' We hate to mow around them and the golfer hates to hit them. So, not having them this year has made both parties happy. I do think you will see them again."
Like most golf courses, Kanawha Club in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia removed as many touch points as possible. In that time, there has been a sea change at the club in how bunkers are viewed. Superintendents must dedicate a disproportionate amount of resources to maintaining bunkers. Rededicating those resources elsewhere during the pandemic is a trend that has caught on at Kanawha.
"Since Covid started, we've had to remove all touch points," said Paul Van Buren, the club's golf course manager. "We've also had a transition from perfectly maintained bunkers to just declaring them hazards again. If golfers aren't going to use rakes, why have them out on the course? Inevitably, someone is going to have to move them - the bunker raker if they're in the bunker, or the mower if they're out of the bunker. No rakes? No problem - for anybody."
Par Aide's Brown also is a very good golfer. I've played golf with him at the Great Waters Course at Reynolds at Lake Oconee (formerly Reynolds Plantation) in Georgia, and he is a bomber with a lot of game. The marketing side of him wants to see accessories back on golf courses. The golfer side of him believes at least some of them are necessary.
Accessories have been an easy target for a while. . . . Covid has been an excuse to take them off.
"Whether it is a $5 Nassau or the club championship, consistency is a key, and nobody wants to make the determination on what to do with a poor lie in an unraked bunker," Brown said.
"I can come up with a lot of ways that the game has evolved. And bunker maintenance is one of them. For 99 percent of us, an unraked bunker makes an already-hard game more difficult."
Whether bunkers should be unkempt and viewed as true hazards or maintained to the point that PGA Tour players use them as a bailout option around slippery greens is a hotly contested debate. What accessories - including rakes - return to the golf course and when is, obviously going to occur on a course-by-course basis and likely will be determined by those with a paygrade much higher than the superintendent.
"We have not put out a bunker rake or a ball washer. I do not think you will see either of those go out this year," Tegtmeier said. "Next year, I am going to budget for underground trash cans and try not to have anything vertical on the tee set up. We do have benches out for the walking golfer but do not sanitize them."
Regardless of one's feelings about accessories. It's hard to imagine a future without ballwashers and some of the other things that until March have been commonplace on golf courses.
But bunker rakes; what about bunker rakes?
"I think bunker rakes will go back out," Tegtmeier said.
"I do think you will see them again."