Significant advances in turf management, machinery and resources have, in the last thirty-odd years resulted in golf courses making substantial leaps in both playability and presentation. Along with these advances members expectations have also increased, which is typical of human nature, often at a similar pace.
This has now reached the point, in some situations, whereby playing conditions that were considered tournament standard a few years ago are today deemed to be normal day-to-day playing conditions.
This gradual improvement of playing standards comes at a cost. Such advances are desirable providing they are financially and environmentally affordable for the foreseeable future and can be funded from club revenue.
When making improvements in playing quality on a golf course, one needs to remember that the Law of Diminishing Return applies. In other words, substantial (disproportional) increases in inputs are typically required to achieve additional small gains in playing quality.
For example, increasing greens mowing frequency from three to five times a week to gain speed (generally one foot at best) costs:
• Increase in labour (approximately six hours a week or 312 hours a year)
• 40% (approx) increase in fuel, repairs and maintenance for the greens mower
• Greens mower will require replacing (approximately) every 3-4 years rather than every 6-7 years
One of the key areas that must be addressed, if better control of maintenance costs is to be achieved, is for clubs to take more control of their playing standards and adopt a course conditioning/presentation (maintenance) model that best fits their resources and financial situation. In other words, take a more planned or controlled approach towards course improvement and playing quality, and endeavour to avoid additional and often unexpected or unplanned costs as the scenario above.
Clubs should be looking to provide the best playing conditions in accordance with their own budget and resources - not necessarily trying to copy the club up the road as their budget and resource allocations may be completely different. A worrying trend is that the better course standards (demanded by club members) are increasingly being funded from outside agencies and grants and not the clubs revenue stream.
This may seem a great way to make a course improvement in the short term, but what happens when this funding is cut or, worse still, you miss out? In most cases with turf, once you adopt a more costly improvement strategy (such as sand topdressing, fairway irrigation etc.), there is no turning back - the improvement strategy must be adequately resourced for the foreseeable future for it to be successful.
Although clubs in close proximity will inevitably compete for green fees and members, it isn't necessary that you raise your standards beyond your means to keep up with the club down the road. Regrettably, this happens too often and is one of the contributing factors for some clubs now facing severe financial hardship.
The game of golf is unique and there are several contributing factors that can provide a point of difference for each golf club:
For example, each golf course is unique when its topography, climate, soil type, course layout (links or parkland-type), as well as budget and resources (staff and equipment) are all taken into account. With this wide range of factors it is very difficult to draw a comparison with another club's course. Yet, too often, this comparison is used as the driving force for change as opposed to what is the best (appropriate) direction for your club.
The game of golf is unique in the world of sport. Golf's playing surface is essentially dimensionless. Whilst there are some general guidelines (e.g. for length of holes, fairway widths and green sizes) that have evolved over time, there are no set dimensions for size of the playing area like there are for rugby, soccer, cricket, bowls or other sports.
Additionally, course conditioning, presentation and set up is often compatible with the skills of those who will play the course at that time. Thus, the playing conditions one is used to seeing on television are there to test the top echelon of players in the sport. Such standards/conditions/set up are totally unsuitable for the everyday golf club where club members often have a wide range of handicaps. A sensible middle ground must be found.
Therefore, as golfers and club management, we should be celebrating and marketing the individual uniqueness and differences of each golf course.
In many cases, instead of striving for the unattainable, members should look at their own course and assess its strengths and weaknesses, at the same time, taking into account the resources they have available and setting realistic playing standards that the club can sustain long term. In golf there is nothing wrong with being different!
The first step in taking control of your course's presentation is to accurately define the standards for your course. Clearly defining course standards allows golf clubs to:
• Preserve the uniqueness of their club and course environment
• Ensure that the club/course stays on its intended path, matching course playability with their resources (financial and staff). This is important as staff and members are transient, but the course cannot be picked up and moved! Inappropriate changes undertaken now may not only have a significant financial cost, but inappropriate decisions can take many years to reverse or address
• Avoid wastage and additional unexpected costs associated with unplanned course improvements, or changes that the club cannot effectively manage for the long term
• Avoid clubs implementing playing standards beyond their means. This situation often happens when outside funding is used for capital improvements (i.e. construction of a significant number of bunkers, installation of fairway watering system etc.), but the ongoing, long term maintenance costs must be met from the existing budget
• Reduce conflict within the club by keeping members informed as to what they can expect to receive for their present subscription
• Provide club management a basis from which further improvements and the additional cost of these can be compared
Setting appropriate course standards - The development of a Course Policy Document is a mechanism that clearly identifies and records the playing standards that are appropriate for and will be provided by the club. Given the transient nature of committees and staff, the document provides focus, informs the members, provides for continuity and clarity that what is being done is approved by the membership.
Changing Standards: Inevitably, human nature demands ongoing improvements. It is important that clubs don't stifle this, but rather take more control than allowing improvements and changes to occur in an ad hoc manner. This should involve thoroughly investigating the potential benefits provided to members relative to the present situation and the financial (direct and indirect), agronomic and potential environmental costs of such a change.
In summary, the standards adopted by your club are the major determinant of the costs necessary to run your golf club. As we enter an era where both the financial ability and environmental acceptability of present practices are under pressure, it is important that greater control is taken by the club in determining the standards that they will provide members. Key considerations will include:
• Golf courses are meant to be different, so it is important to preserve each course's uniqueness. The game is made up of a series of different questions (9 or 18 holes)
• Playing standards should fairly challenge members. Televised golf courses should not be equated with daily club playing conditions.
• Adopt a playing standard that the club can afford for the long term and matches their available resources (budget and staff)
• Ensure course operation and the standards adopted can be funded from the clubs revenue stream, rather than being reliant on outside agencies
• Changing course standards should be a managed process, thereby ensuring the club is fully aware of and can meet both the direct and indirect costs associated with what is proposed. A Course Policy Document is recommended for all golf clubs as a mechanism for managing standards and member expectations
With thanks to David Howard and David Ormsby, agronomists with the New Zealand Sports Turf Institute. www.nzsti.org.nz