Helping to create longevity in public golf

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Helping to create longevity in public golf
Jeff Danner
By Jeff Danner

In the golf business, much as in our own personal finances, setting aside resources for the unforeseen is a must. As time passes, drainage and irrigation will become outdated. Some features may become tired looking or obsolete from a playability standpoint. By instilling intelligent business and maintenance practices, you’re prepared. While others scramble to finance a needed upgrade, you will be ready. Their target goals will already be your status quo.

When I think of an ideal model for this kind of longevity, I always come home. I recently returned to my childhood course, with a goal of finding out how it has managed to sustain and thrive, even through tough economic times, without sacrificing quality.

Park Hills is a 36 hole municipal golf course in Freeport, north-western Illinois. As a youth, it was the only golf course I knew. As years and experience piled up, I have realised more and more, how lucky I was to learn the game there.

Park Hills has two different courses. The East course has been around since 1955 and the West since 1965. Together they occupy 300 acres and were both designed by the regional architect CD Wagstaff. Freeport is two hours west of Chicago and has a population of less than 30,000. The courses are typically open from April to October.

Golf’s future is dependent on public golf facilities like Park Hills, but it has not been immune to the economic ills affecting the game. In 1997, the two courses hosted 73,000 rounds. Facing a decline of 3-5 per cent every year since, they saw just 32,000 rounds between the two courses in 2014, an all time low. The good news is they’ve survived and even surged back into the black for 2015.

Head pro at Park Hills is Jeff Hartman. He says the golf courses have always been the highest priority for management. “In our best years, there was a lot of temptation to expand; once upon a time there were plans for a bigger clubhouse. There was even an opportunity to buy adjacent land to build another 18 holes,” says the 27-year pro.

But, instead of expansion, Park Hills reinvested profits into its greatest asset, the golf courses. According to Hartman, the savings allowed them to upgrade maintenance facilities and the irrigation system, as well as bunker and greens drainage. “We have always paid off all our debts immediately, so we operate debt free,” he says.

The opportunity to expand or upgrade infrastructure is enticing. But as stewards of the game, we must consider what is right for the club as a whole. It is hard for golf courses to service substantial bank debts and remain profitable. The underlying goal is to keep golf courses sustainable as a business, and a public golf course owned by a park district is not going to stay open long if it is not turning a profit every year. “It’s fair to say Park Hills is still one of the best conditioned courses for the price in Illinois. Maybe even the country,” says Hartman.

Enter Dave Fisher, CGCS, the Park Hills superintendent. “My budget is around US$575,000 for 36 holes. That could be the budget for an 18 hole course,” says the veteran greenkeeper. Fisher has been head superintendent at Park Hills for 34 years. He is a big reason why Park Hills remains a regional favourite. His philosophy is to focus his team’s efforts on only the most important features of the golf course. This goes for mowing, fertilising and chemical application. It allows him and his small staff to keep the course up to player expectations with a high level of efficiency, while stashing away any extra money for future design and technical upgrades.

“People used to ask me why I wasn’t using my full budget every year. I always wanted to set aside anything extra for a rainy day. It’s paid off big time,” Fisher says. Most courses struggle to find the money to remodel or renovate. Yet Park Hills stays in optimal playing condition while saving money for future projects.

Dave’s staff of 16 includes one assistant for each course and a mechanic. The rest are retirees or students who are flexible and more than happy to work part time. This allows for greater focus on green, fairway and tee mowing each day. The crew disappears from golfers’ sight before 8.30 each morning. The assistants, mechanic and handful of others may work later, depending on what else is a priority each day. This is crucial, considering labour can take up to 58 per cent of a typical maintenance budget.

Effective management of labour and resources makes a big difference in cost. For example, Dave recognised an opportunity to reduce his maintained turf. The club consulted a golf architect, and the result was a reduction in mowed turf of 40 acres, while an additional 16 acres were converted to prairie habitat. The combination resulted in Audubon certification in 2002. The cost for the consultation was small when compared to the long term savings in labour and maintenance they are still experiencing.

Jeff and Dave’s operations are streamlined, but adaptable to player demands and Mother Nature. As head professional, Jeff is front and centre to interact with and field feedback from his guests regarding the courses. One example is the growing desire for firm fast greens. In response, Dave now has two new vibrating rollers attached to his green mowers. He uses them every day, but alternates courses, so each course gets a day off between rolling. In turn, the golf course keeps their bent grass greens fun and playable.

In public golf, one size does not fit all. Every course faces different soil, weather and climate challenges. Yet, the factors that should remain consistent are an exceptional head pro and superintendent. They should be savvy enough to make their budgets work. They must be able to recognise the limitations and strengths of their course. They should also be key players in collaboration with the golf architect.

I’m reminded of my own experiences working as a greens mower for a high end public daily fee facility. I remember hours of stripping and afternoons hand watering on various features. This was to combat burnout on steeper slopes. Some were in play, many were not.

It always seemed like extra work to maintain the playability and aesthetics of the architectural features. The course was designed by a well-known architect. The budget for 18 holes was around US$1 million per year, yet the greens fees are twice the price of Park Hills.

I was a young student who asked a lot of questions and, as with all superintendents, it was clear that expectations were high. They were feeling the pressure. They had to use up their entire budget or lose it at season’s end. Different business models right? But is the latter sustainable?

Public golf comes in many different shapes and sizes. Park Hills has demonstrated longevity after 60 years. To have a contingency is one thing, but how you spend it is another. Saving and efficiency should become habit and start to compound. Then, public golf facilities can ensure a more successful future for themselves.

Jeff Danner is an associate member of the EIGCA and works as senior design associate for the Golfplan firm

This article first appeared in issue 44 of Golf Course Architecture.

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