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

The 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 innocent 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 manhour 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 PO’s 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 GM’s 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 $6o. 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.

I’ve watched some GM’s 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.

10 Responses to “There Is A Big White Sandwich-Making Sweater-Folding Elephant In My Truck”

  • Peter McCormick:

    OK, Dave, good stuff. Now we have to find a way to get that posted on the CMAA site.

    Agronomy. Salt Solubility, Compost, Mineral Return. How to really deal with LDS. The absolute best and only way to use growth regulators in a particular zip code. How organic fertilizers will eventually save the planet. Agronomy. Love it.

    You’re about the smartest guy I know in this industry. I hope this ten-page colonic cleanse will open the tubes enough for you to whisper short snippets of your agronomic wisdom so the guys out there doing it half-staff can work their magic smarter, better, faster and cheaper. Just what the sweater-folders and hot-dog grillers want…

  • Wilber:

    10 pages? Colonic cleanse? I love my editor!!!

    However, he’s nothing if not consistent. 🙂

  • Kevin Hicks:

    One question: Why are we, the lowly grass farmers, the only ones that recognize and acknowledge the facts that Dave has laid out here. I’ve made the same points in not so many words to my ownership in budget meeting after budget meeting, with little or no response. And yet they claim to be the smart ones ruling us…

  • Gary Carls:

    Thanks Dave,

    Great points throughout!! Things won’t change as long as there are those who think they know more about how to maintain the course than the highly trained superintendent they have on site. Unfortunately, there are way too many of those out there right now. I did learn last week that we can save a lot of money if we don’t waste time mowing greens on a Holiday when we charge premium rates!!Huh??

  • I have been considering the GM side of the business for this very reason. The making good decisions reason that is. I am fortunate my company doesn’t mess with my “Plant Health” budget lines. But reducing Gas and Oil to pay for Water was not a good idea!

  • Mike:

    He had me until he started talking about vacation time in the summer….. Then I knew he was putting us on.

  • jerry Coldiron:

    Dave, great stuff as always from one of best agronomist and good guys of our business. Couple your take and the blog below, what I walked away on my own terms @ 49 yrs young 🙂 Just a tough business!! Hope all is well and keep it coming! Jerry

    The Cost of Being Super – by Adam Garr, Plum Hollow Country Club, Southfield, MI
    BRIEF DISCLAIMER: This is an attempt to humanize the guy working largely behind the scenes at your golf course. Sometimes vilified, and at other times glorified, he is just a guy doing what he loves each and every day. The following should by no means be taken as an indictment over working conditions, club politics, or course maintenance standards and practices.

    I’m a golf course superintendent. I wake up before the birds. I am fueled on caffeine, sugar, and adrenaline. I have the worst farmer’s tan you’ve ever seen. I grind my teeth when I see a cart parked too close to a green. I don’t punch a clock so I never know when my day will end. I bite my tongue when I am regularly assaulted about green speed. Most people think all I do is drive around all day on a cart. I know the golf course better than the most-tenured member. I am a motivator, a scientist, a counselor, a disciplinarian, a politician, and a psychologist—sometimes all at the same time. I race the setting sun on my way home. And I wake up and do it again the next day.

    I’m a superintendent and I love my job. But there’s a hidden cost to this business, and it’s not something you learn in turf school. It’s something you learn once you get out here and realize this isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. You must be committed to what you’re doing, and you must believe in yourself and get your staff to believe in you. You must be the hardest working guy on staff, and lead by example. You have to love the course like it’s your own property—but it’s NOT your property, it belongs to the members and you must never forget that.

    At Michigan State University, I learned all about soil profiles, turfgrass physiology, pesticide applications, and just about every aspect of golf course management with the exception of one glaring omission: balancing one’s life with “the job.”

    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.

    But this level of commitment to the job comes with a high cost. I have missed birthday celebrations, weekend trips up north, weddings, barbecues, and sporting events because the course called to me louder than my family. Other times I came home so tired, I was virtually useless around the house. This loss of balance catches up to you over time, wears on you, wears harder on those around you, and eventually it forces you to take notice that somethings missing.

    A couple weeks ago, a phrase popped into my head and has stuck with me ever since: “Don’t blame the job for your own personal shortcomings. It all comes down to personal choices and making time for the things that really matter.”

    Do I really need to be here 15 hours a day, essentially watching the grass grow at times? I have two young daughters at home, and they need their father more than the golf course at 6PM on a Sunday. There is only so much I can do out here, anyway. I am not Superman. I have limitations, both physical and mental. I am no good to anyone worn down, tired, and mentally fatigued.

    If dad won’t leave the golf course, then sometimes the kids come to dad.
    My advice, if you find yourself nodding your head at this point, is to find a way to balance your life. Make it work. Find the time, and make the time. Commit to a life outside of the golf course. Find a hobby, and one that both you and your family can all enjoy. The course will still be there tomorrow, and young kids grow like weeds. Blink and you’ll find yourself scratching your head wondering where all that time went.

    I’m certainly not advocating for you to abandon your responsibilities at work, rather to encourage you to examine how you choose to budget your time. They don’t teach you this stuff in school. It’s all right to have lofty goals, and to continue that endless pursuit of perfection, but every man must know his limits.

    Are you willing to pay that high of a price?

    Sometimes there is a cost for trying to be too super.
    Sent via BlackBerry® device.

  • Keith Pegg:

    Thank you,
    I have been lucky in my 40 years in Golf, I have had only one Ass a Golf professional some years ago. He was one that did not like being my equal in the management team of three. The Club house manager had the same problem with him. I now work for a DOGolf and he is very good. The team is so important and any one of the team can mess it up for the others very fast.

    Keith

  • Tom Doak:

    David:

    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.

  • Great blog post I will share via the MiGCSA Facebook and Twitter feeds.


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