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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Golf's challenges from 2020 continue to loom as 2022 draws near

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Allentown Municipal Golf Course in Pennsylvania. Photo by Chris Reverie

If a song title were used to define the work schedule of golf course superintendent for the past 19 months, a Beatles classic like Eight Days a Week, or Hard Day's Night, might be appropriate.

"My job was always 24-7 before Covid," said Anthony Williams, CGCS at the TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas. "Now, it seems like it's 25-8."

From record play, Covid and quarantines, unparalleled labor challenges, inflation, supply chain issues and golfer demands that conflict with all of the above had made the past year-and-a-half a series of hurdles worthy of an Olympic performance.

Supply chain issues have plagued many industries (drive past a new-car lot sometime), and golf is not immune. A shortage of parts, components and microprocessors, not to mention increased cost of fuel have made getting resources from A to B harder for just about everything and everyone. That includes grass seed, which is famously in short supply.

When Chris Reverie, superintendent at municipal Allentown Golf Course in Pennsylvania, looked into buying seed this year, he figured it would be more expensive than the $1 per pound or so he was accustomed to paying in the past. What he was not ready for was a price that was up exponentially, from a final cost of about $2,000 to $7,000.

My job was always 24-7 before Covid. Now, it seems like it's 25-8.

"I thought 'Holy cow! That's not possible,' " Reverie said. 

"The shortage of seed is affecting everyone."

Difficulty in acquiring parts and components is just as difficult.

Reverie still is awaiting delivery on a new utility vehicle.

"We ordered it in November," he said. "And it's still not here."

All around the country the stories are similar, only the names have changed.

"Equipment manufacturers are dependent on the supply chain even when it is working perfectly," said Steve Agin, superintendent at Ruby Hill Golf Club in Pleasanton, California. "Now, when you don't have two or three components, they can't finish manufacturing something. Some equipment we ordered in the third quarter won't be here until May."

It is not all bad news. Many golf courses are seeing record amounts of play, including Ruby Hill, located about 40 miles east of Oakland.

Agin found unexpected help throughout the summer when he hired high school students who balked at an eight-hour schedule, but were able to work five hours a day doing detail work that would otherwise go unfinished.

"Five years ago, you'd stomp your feet, and that's for you; but now I need you, so I have to make it fit," Agin said.

"We're all in the same boat. You have to be flexible. Those who are not are going to have a hard time."

Arcis, the company that manages Ruby Hill, is reinvesting in many of the better-performing properties in its portfolio.

"We had a good year for golf, and now weddings are back up and running. We've had good growth in membership, as well," Agin said.

"Their approach, in properties where it makes sense, is to invest to make the golf course better."

In the Dallas area, where play is at a fever pitch at the Four Seasons, Williams is feeling the pressure to make sure conditions match demand at the property's resort and member courses, even if he does not always have the help he needs.

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Ruby Hill Golf Club in Pleasanton, California.

"The labor issue is as crazy as I've ever seen it," said Williams, who has been a superintendent for more than 30 years. "The labor pool that was already small is almost dried up. There are a lot of people in the (Dallas-Fort Worth) Metroplex, but not a lot of them want to come to work at 4:30 in the morning. You have to pay $16 to $18 for entry folks, or you're not going to have any entry folks. And then, you have to raise up your experienced workers.

"We're doing budgets now for next year. The price of everything is going up. You can't find parts, so when a mower goes down and you need a specific part, you can place an order, but they can't give you a guarantee when you'll get it."

When ordering fertilizer, Williams said some sales reps can only guarantee bids up to 14 days out, because of fluctuations in price.

"Before, you just tried to get the best deal. Now, you're trying to forecast," Williams said. "In six months, who knows what the cost and availability will be like. It's unprecedented."

Golfers are not much interested in labor shortages, or problems associated with availability of parts. They want a great golf course.

Williams recently achieved the title of master greenkeeper through the British and International Golf Greenkeeping Association, in part to satisfy his quest to make himself the go-to expert at the Four Seasons. 

"Business is good. We're doing a zillion rounds, but how do you keep the course in excellent condition with all this play?" Williams asked. "There is more work than ever, and way less labor available, but the expectations are the same.

"You have to present yourself as the expert, and qualify yourself as the voice for whatever is necessary. Just when you think you've seen it all, something new comes along that you never envisioned would happen."

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TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas in Irving, Texas.

He also established an organic garden near the clubhouse that has been a hit with members. He even has gone so far as to organize a garden party for members.

"We are golf people working for a hotel," he said. "You have to show expertise and criticality. Where guys get into trouble is when they think too small. Never compromise the vision. Adjust, but show progress - even in crazy times. If you do that, you're going to stand out. You have to get off the mower and preach this story every way you can."

As a consultant at his own Aspire Golf, Tim Moraghan visits a lot of golf courses. He also meets with many members and green committees. He works to educate those from the administrative side of the operation just how challenging course maintenance is in times of record play and record labor shortages, including why three people on a maintenance team cannot maintain by hand more than a dozen acres of bunkers each day.

He suggests superintendents use hard numbers, not vague terminology, during the budgeting process.

"Everyone needs more money for staff, but clubs don't want to pay for that," Moraghan said. "If you're not going to pay for it, then what do you want, and what can you give up.

Five years ago, you'd stomp your feet, and that's for you; but now I need you, so I have to make it fit. . . . We're all in the same boat. You have to be flexible. Those who are not are going to have a hard time.

"One thing I learned from the best guys in the business was to know your numbers. Know how long something takes, know the cost per ounce, the cost per gallon, how much everything costs, because they understand numbers."

When the pandemic struck it exposed the cracks and imperfections in every industry, not just golf. For example, some suggest the semiconductor industry, which has brought many associated markets to their knees, is not expected to ramp back up to pre-covid production levels until 2023. Many in golf believed that 2021 would be the year to rebound out of Covid. The reality is no one know when issues affecting golf, such as labor, supply chain will, if ever, rebound.

"Everybody is battle weary," Williams said. "We thought 2021 would be the rebound year, but it was really just an extension of 2020. Now it looks like 2022 is going to be the crucible, where all this stuff is going to come home to roost, where the stress is going to max out, and where the financial piece is going to start dropping. We thought we were in a marathon, but now it looks like we are in an ultra marathon."

And what about that 25-8 schedule?

"We have to be better than ever," Williams said. "As an agronomist, I'm excited for the challenge. As someone with a wife and a family, I'm not sure how I'm going to make that work."

First in a multi-part series

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