The following article was written by Nathan Crace, ASGCA Assoc., at the request of the Mississippi Turfgrass Association for the May 2016 edition of MTA Magazine. Visitors and subscribers to this blog can read it here before the magazine is published in May.
Hard to believe, but 2015 is officially in the rearview mirror. As we pass the off ramp to New Year’s and the College Bowl Season, the exit to The Masters is only a mile away; and with the superhighway to 2016 squarely ahead of us, more news outlets are reporting that the economy is turning around and things are getting better every day. Depending on your choice of twenty-four hour cable news coverage (and the point in the news cycle when you choose to check-in), America’s economy is either roaring back and poised to be the driving force behind a global recovery or we are hopelessly lost in a death spiral of joblessness, natural disasters, unsustainable national debt, and a staggering increase in the number of reality shows on television. So which is it? Are we continuing to dive headlong into the Mariana Trench of a deepening global economic abyss or have we rebounded and are now headed back toward the surface, poised to breach stronger than ever and sail on happily toward the future? Like most stories in life, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.
There is another option that I keep hearing muttered about on the nightly news: maybe we have found a “new normal” where malaise and stagnant wages are fine for the majority of people, so long as they can still hammer a check every two weeks. Call me optimistic, but I think the fall stopped a while back and we are starting to rebound, ever so slightly—and not as quickly as those in Washington might want us to believe. But a steady improvement is better than a slingshot rebound. Of course, it might just be the new-found optimism that we see every election cycle, but things feel to have bottomed-out and are now poised to come roaring back. Don’t misunderstand: the rocket has not left the launch pad yet, but maybe we’re almost done fueling it and the engines are warming up. From a personal perspective, phone calls and emails to our office are ticking up with inquiries about renovations, practice facilities, and—dare I say it—new course design. Most encouragingly, these calls are not only from existing clients who tabled their projects years ago when the economy ground to a standstill, but also new clients looking toward the future.
It’s no surprise to anyone in the golf industry that things have been slow for the past eight years. The term “slow” might be too nice when one looks into the golf course construction industry since 2006. According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), 2013 marked the eighth straight year that more courses in the United States closed than opened—by a long margin. In 2013, the NGF reports that only 14 new courses opened for play (actually up from 13.5 in 2012), but the total number that closed was 157.5. We’ll be generous and call it a market correction of the glut of courses built in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but that is still a large disparity. Before you panic and start filling up the prepper pantry in your bomb shelter, there is good news. Golfdom Magazine’s recently released annual “Golfdom Report” (January 2016) of industry insiders, golf course managers, and superintendents reveals some cautiously optimistic findings. This is important because these are the players on the inside of the industry—not just golfers, professional economists, and the news networks’ talking heads.
Of those surveyed about their expectations for the golf economy for 2016, 65% were either very optimistic or cautiously optimistic, while 23% were neutral, and 11% were slightly pessimistic. Only 1% of respondents reported being very pessimistic about the state of the industry for 2016. Digging deeper into the statistics, there were some reassuring stories from across the country regarding rounds of play increasing in 2015 over 2014 with expectations for that increase to continue into 2016. Then again, the giant gorilla standing quietly in the dark corner of the room is the new Waters Of The United State (WOTUS) overreach by the EPA…but I digress. WOTUS is a story for another time when I’m not limited to three or four pages. That being said, the “Golfdom Report” found that WOTUS may be part of the cause for some of the pessimism in the industry as it rambles its way through the court system with the final outcome as yet unknown. The 2016 election was also on most course managers’ minds, but respondents were evenly split on how it would impact the golf industry.
Taken as a whole (and forgetting about WOTUS for the time being), the good news is that optimism is up and pessimism is down. What does that mean for you and your club or course? As my college economics professor was fond of saying, “It depends.” What it does mean, however, is that maybe it’s finally time to pull those projects you metaphorically shelved years ago from the back of the bottom drawer and dust them off. It means it’s time to start planning for the future again and not simply maintaining the status quo. Optimism is afoot and you don’t want to be caught watching as the aforementioned economic rocket leaves the launch pad because you didn’t take the time to pick up your spacesuit from the cleaners.
Remember those ideas you had a few years ago to re-build a green or upgrade irrigation or renovate tees or re-build bunkers because the additional maintenance was taking your staff away from other areas of the course? It’s time to re-visit those ideas. There may be no better time in the last seven years than now to tackle that course-wide bunker renovation program or re-build those problematic greens that you’ve been fighting for years now. With market prices falling, golf course contractors are still looking for work for their crews and you can still lock-in significant discounts on construction compared to the pre-slowdown era. However, as the economic engine begins to warm up and interest begins to pick up in renovations, so do the laws of supply and demand. As the contractors find their demand and their prospects increasing, so too does their price.
Just like it’s time to reconsider those bunker, tee, green, drainage, and irrigation renovations, it’s also time to think outside the box about things you can do to improve your facility that will attract new golfers. Over the past six years, I have designed and built seven practice facilities—including full ranges, practice greens, and (my favorite) full and comprehensive short game facilities. It’s an odd niche that I stumbled into seemingly by mistake at first, before the epiphany that I had—in fact—come full circle. When I was a student in Mississippi State’s Professional Golf Management (PGM) program, part of my experience and training on my cooperative internships was teaching the game to golfers and helping them improve their game and subsequent enjoyment of playing. I naturally gravitated toward teaching the short game.
Why naturally, you ask? Because as a child growing up in Southern Indiana, no one in my family played golf; but my parents had enough land behind their house for me to fashion a short three-hole par-3 course. Granted, I was only 11 years old or so; but if I was going to learn how to play, it was my only real option. So I mowed out “fairways” and “greens” with our riding lawnmower, borrowed an old 7-iron and some even older balls from a neighbor who hadn’t played in years, and began to teach myself how to play by watching Jack Nicklaus for a few hours on television each weekend. In later years, I even added sand bunkers to my course. Because of the short length of the course, I quickly found myself hitting more old pitching wedges and less old 7-irons. Soon, my school-day afternoons and entire summer days consisted of shagging hundreds of balls with an old pitching wedge. When that became boring, I started opening the face and trying to hit flop shots over trees, sheds, and neighborhood children who were brave enough to stand still for long enough. I was first exposed to playing the game by necessity—forcing me to become creative with my short game out of boredom. There were no 60 degree lob wedges in that day. When I finally saved up enough money to buy a 56 degree sand wedge at K-Mart, I remember that it had a dot-punched face—not grooves. But it was on sale and in my leaf-raking-for-income budget. So now, some 30+ years later, I have come full circle because I have been unknowingly using those life experiences from teaching myself to hit those shots and my expertise later in life from teaching others how to hit those shots to design what I feel are the best short game practice facilities for players of all abilities and imaginations.
Practice facilities (and particularly short game facilities) are important to growing the game for a number of reasons. Flash forward to the recent economic slowdown and more courses are looking for ways to attract new players and retain existing ones without the expense of renovating the entire course. Likewise, golfers are looking for ways to work on their games and/or spend time with their families without having to spend four or five hours on the golf course to do it. These higher quality practice facilities fit the bill for both golf course and golfer. With a smaller capital investment by the course and a smaller investment in time by the golfer, an added amenity can be created that differentiates your course from the one down the street and sets you apart in a tightened marketplace.
Three such facilities (one at Annandale Golf Club in Madison, Mississippi, one at Tupelo Country Club in Tupelo, Mississippi, and one at Hattiesburg CC in Hattiesburg, Mississippi) are among the best for private clubs in the Magnolia State while Hattiesburg CC and two other facilities (at Ole Miss GC and at Mississippi State University GC) are among some of the top collegiate facilities—the short game facility at Hattiesburg CC was built in cooperation with the University of Southern Mississippi for the men’s and women’s golf teams as well as the membership. I know what you’re thinking, and before you say “Adding areas for me to maintain won’t help my bottom line,” consider this: a better practice facility will attract new golfers. New golfers bring added play and revenue. Added play and revenue necessitate a better budget. And a better budget helps your bottom line. The cause and effect may not be as direct as you want, but there is a real connection. Just as there is a direct two-prong correlation between bunker renovations and cost savings/increased rounds, so too is there a relationship between better practice facilities and increased play/overall facility revenue.
Case in point is the aforementioned Tupelo Country Club. In 2010, I was commissioned to develop a master plan for the entire golf course and existing practice facility (which at the time consisted of an undersized practice tee, a never-used chipping green, and a putting green). During the planning and budgeting process, it was decided that the practice area would become Phase I and the golf course itself would be Phase II and completed at a later date.
Tupelo Country Club’s new chipping green is part of an award-winning practice facility.
Working with the club and course superintendent Jim Kwasinski, CGCS, we developed a plan to revitalize the driving range that included a practice tee large enough to accommodate the membership. A new tee measuring 100’ by 285’ with internal drainage and a sand base now provides ample tee space that’s playable even immediately after a rain event with multiple target greens shaped to replicate actual greens as targets. Additionally, a 6,500 sq ft short game green with bunkers and chipping areas and a new putting green give ample opportunity for members to work on their short games without being crowded. But the most talked about feature of the new practice facility is by far the “Short Course” behind the driving range. While on a site visit during master planning, Jim and I stood on the back tee of the 7th hole looking out over an expanse of scrub and small trees behind the driving range. The conversation went something like this:
Me: That’s a lot of wasted space.
Jim: Yep, the club almost sold it about ten years ago to a developer to make condos.
Me: It would be the perfect place for a par-3 course.
Jim: Yes it would.
[Both turn slowly to look at the other as the epiphany hits both of us simultaneously]
Jim: Why not?
Me: I need to find a piece of paper.
Soon, I was sketching out what would become unique in its simplicity of operation and complexity of design—a large expanse of fairway with two double greens and a triple green spaced within it and a handful of bunkers strategically dotted throughout. The only things missing were tee boxes—intentionally. I didn’t want Jim’s staff to have to stop and mow tees and move markers and I didn’t want members to feel forced to play certain holes in a certain order. It was designed to be freeform with “the only limitation being the golfers’ imaginations” [Note to self: Write that down—I need to trademark that saying]. Want to play nine par-3 holes with your kids? Perfect. Want to stay in one spot and work on greenside bunker shots then turn the other way and practice fairway bunker shots? Perfect. Have an extra hour of time and you want to work on a number of short shots and wedge shots? Again, perfect. The short course facility worked so well that it has been written about in numerous industry publications around the world and (I’ve been told) even copied by other courses after they visited Tupelo CC (I won’t name names). At the end of the day, Jim’s staff has a few extra greens to mow and a few more acres of fairway to cut. However, the impact on the club has been a renewed interest among golfers and a way to differentiate the club from the competition. It’s also a great way to advertise how nice the course itself will be once Phase II is completed.
Likewise, the short game facility at Annandale GC has been a boost to the club by providing a much-needed amenity to a membership with an above-average skill set. We transformed the old bentgrass nursery area into a spectacular facility with two chipping greens that offer varying lies, elevations, bunker shots, chipping areas, and yardages. Additionally, one of the green contains a “putting lobe” that is adjacent to the new teaching studio where members can have a private putting lesson. The short game facility is adjacent to the driving range, so players can practice short to long irons as well as greenside and fairway bunker shots. Again, Annandale superintendent Al Osteen, CGCS, has two extra greens to mow and a little more fairway area to maintain, but for a relatively small investment, the club has a facility that is used daily by the membership and sets it apart from other clubs in the area. Another important thing to note: Al built his facility with in-house labor and one golf course shaper. Jim’s facility was put out to bid and built by a golf course contractor—proving there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.
The tri-lobed pitching green at Annandale in the distance and the chipping green in the foreground.
The short game facility at Hattiesburg CC is big enough to hit wedge shots from 120 yards away to an elongated green that measure more than 9,000 square feet with a separate putting green tucked away into a private corner. Immediately adjacent to the driving range, it is not only easy to use, but beautifies the drive into the club.
If the economy is in fact about to take off and the future finally looks bright once again for the golf industry, you must be prepared and you must be ready to go when you get the call. There’s no excuse for not doing your homework and being prepared if and when things begin to improve. There’s practically no cost in getting prepared, but there could be huge opportunity costs in not being prepared. Be smart, be prudent, and be ready. Worst case scenario: the economy stays flat for another year and you have a fine-tuned set of goals and a revitalized plan to make them a reality. With that in mind, here are three simple keys to being ready when the economic uptick finally becomes a financial jumpstart:
STAY TUNED IN/GET TUNED IN:
Stay current on current events. This means more than reading just sports scores and keeping up with the Kardashians (you know who you are). Take time every day to catch up on the news and know how it might impact you. If listening to who got shot on your local news every night is more than you care to sit through during dinner, opt for a business news network. Fox Business or CNBC, for example. Do you know what’s going on in the petroleum markets lately? Surely you’ve seen the difference at the pump when you go to fill up. So you must assume that you’re not the only one to feel that rush of dopamine to your brain when a full tank now costs you $30 instead of $75. That extra money in the collective pocket of the population translates into an increase in disposable income, including recreational spending. Is your course ready to take advantage of that? How about that irrigation project you’ve been putting off? A drop in petroleum markets typically translates into a drop in the price of plastic products—like PVC pipe and drainage pipe—not only because of raw materials costs, but also transportation and shipping. Do you have asphalt cart paths at your course? Petroleum is a key ingredient in asphalt. Might be time to look at replacing some of those paths your members have been complaining about. We’ve all seen the stories of crystal meth addicts stealing copper wiring from commercial air conditioning units and trying to cash it in because the price of copper has increased so dramatically. Did you know that innovations in irrigation like Rain Bird’s IC system drastically reduce the expense of copper wiring, not to mention the elimination of above-ground satellite controllers? Maybe it’s time to start looking at those projects again.
More than just watching the news, ask yourself how involved you are in making news. Are you on social media? If you are, great! If not, you need to be (and while you’re there, follow me @lipouts on Twitter. Trust me, it’s worth it). That said, you need to plan ahead for how you will use your social media sounding board. If you want to let people know what’s going on at your course and/or in your career, remember to KEEP IT PROFESSIONAL. If you like to sound off on politics, your favorite sports team, or you can’t help but re-tweet those off-color jokes you see from your college buddies, you really need two separate accounts: one personal and one professional. And since not many things in this day and age will sink a career quicker than a series of ill-conceived (or late-night drunken) tweets, do yourself a favor and use TWO DIFFERENT APPS on your phone to differentiate between accounts and help avoid the potentially career-ending accidental tweet. Don’t add yourself to the list of teachers, small business owners, and US Congressmen who have found themselves suddenly unemployed because they sent a tweet using the wrong account or sent a tweet for public consumption that they mistakenly thought was a direct message.
And while we’re at it, if you don’t know what a tweet is or if you’re confused by the previous sentence’s mention of the terms “tweet” and “direct message,” stay off of Twitter until you have a chance to study up. Better yet, find the nearest 14 to 22 year-old and ask him or her to explain it to you in layman’s terms. Your son/daughter and/or grandson/granddaughter and/or his/her friends should suffice. The same goes for Facebook, blogs, and other forms of social media. Just like other advances in technology during the course of your career, don’t be left behind just because the changes don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy. But remember, unlike the upgrade from hydraulic to electric irrigation, what you do on social media can potentially haunt you for the rest of your career if you’re not careful.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK:
You know your bunkers are in awful shape. You know they have long surpassed the average useful life of sand bunkers (5 to 7 years for the sand, 5 to 10 years for the drainage, and 7 to 15 years for the bunkers themselves, depending on your climate and soil types) and you know you could actually save money on labor and materials by renovating the bunkers and better using the time you spend after every rain (pushing sand back up onto the faces and cleaning out the sediment that washes down and contaminates the sand) for other projects. So start doing your homework now and research what options are best for you. The same goes for irrigation, drainage, tees, greens renovations, etc. When the time comes and the General Manager or the President of the Board stops you at work to ask you about capital projects, think of the satisfaction you’ll have from responding “Actually, I just updated a spreadsheet with some comparisons of cost benefit analysis and the savings from the renovations we need. I’ll email it to you before lunch.” And think about the missed opportunity if your answer to “What do we need to do on the golf course?” is “Hmmm, I haven’t thought about it in a while. Things have been pretty slow. Let me think about it and get back to you” or “We need to renovate the greens, but I have no idea how much it would actually cost.”
It’s never too early to start planning. Just as you plan your budget, plan your family vacation, plan your retirement, or plan your fantasy football league, start by writing things down. Multiple studies have shown that the success rates of individuals who write down goals and re-visit them are exponentially higher than individuals who only think about their goals. And seek out advice from those professionals who can help you the most. As a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), I spend a lot of time fielding calls with potential clients and answering their questions regarding which direction they should be headed. Part of my job is helping superintendents prioritize improvements to their courses and package them into a well thought-out and organized proposal with real world numbers and time lines. Most ASGCA members (myself included) will make a site visit and spend some time helping you prepare this information with very little initial cost to help you get the ball rolling. We know that with the right data and information at your disposal, your chances of successfully navigating the politics involved within your club are greatly increased. Again, we do this for the growth of the game and because the industry is strongest when we are able to work together to advance the success and sustainability of the game. So pick up that phone or click that mouse or swing by PetSmart and pick up that new carrier pigeon you’ve had your eye on, and reach out to us so we can help you get the thought process started. A wise man once said “It’s never too early to start planning, but it might be too late to catch up.” In the interest of full disclosure, no one told me that—I just made it up [Note to self: Write that one down too and trademark it with the “limitation/imagination” one from earlier].
Nathan Crace, ASGCA Assoc., is an associate member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). He is also a member of the Golf Writers’ Association of America and a published author. You can follow Nathan’s insight into golf and other topics on Twiiter @lipouts. For more information on Nathan, visit www.nathancrace.com or www.watermarkgolf.com/design and for more information on the ASGCA, visit www.asgca.org