TRENT BOUTS: Economic Reality Bringing About Change to Golf
Pinehurst's Bob Farren brought the house down at a recent conference of Carolinas golf industry members.
The annual gathering was hosted by the USGA Green Section, the body's agronomic arm that touts itself -- without argument -- as "the nation's chief authority regarding impartial, authoritative information for turfgrass management."
Farren, Pinehurst's director of grounds and golf course management, was one of four highly-respected golf course superintendents on a panel discussing the current economic crisis and its impact on golf operations.
Asked what golfers would notice most out on the course as a consequence of the slump, Farren eventually broke a prolonged silence, quipping drily: "Well, there won't be as many golfers."
The laughter that followed was of the nervous kind that often accompanies great truths spoken in jest.
And everyone in the room, every superintendent, club manager and golf course owner, understood only too well the accuracy of Farren's statement.
Golf, like every business, other than the guy who makes foreclosure signs, is hurting now and will likely do so for some time.
Play is down at daily fee courses and members are cutting back their spending at private clubs. Some are canceling their memberships altogether.
The result for most facilities is a dramatic drop in revenues necessitating a correspondingly severe cut in expenditures.
Some superintendents are operating on budgets that have been re-written and reduced three or even four times since last fall.
A time is fast approaching when golfers will begin to see the impact, and not just in having more room on the course.
Farren also talked about how Pinehurst would forego overseeding the rough on all courses next fall, with the possible exception of No. 2.
He also explained how selected out-of-play areas were also becoming largely out-of-maintenance areas with the added benefit of bringing back a more historic and traditional Pinehurst aesthetic.
These are just some of the steps many courses are taking or at least considering as they try to squeeze every cent out of a dollar.
All facilities are being forced to make choices about what matters most.
Maybe fairways might not be mowed so low or as often. Perhaps bunker edges might be trimmed twice a month instead of weekly. The rough might receive less irrigation than in the past.
Some, like Greg Lyman, from the Environmental Institute for Golf, suggest the current economic crunch could prompt a renaissance in the game's essential elements, where color doesn't matter as much as the turf cover, where bunkers are hazards, not beauty spots, and 'play it as it lies' is an abiding principle once again.
Facilities and golfers alike will have little or no choice but to focus on the basics. Flat tees, grassed fairways, smooth greens. What more do we really need?
Donald Ross might be smiling in his grave.
Some superintendents are a little nervous and understandably so.
Their concern is that golfers will mistake changes in course cosmetics as reductions in course conditioning. Worse, they fear that golfers will put it down to a shortfall in expertise or dedication on the part of the superintendent.
For instance, it is possible this season that golfers might find more weeds than they're accustomed to but that's not because the superintendent didn't know what to do or want to do it.
Instead, it's almost certainly a result of the fact that there was no money, or at least less money, for pre-emergent applications that nip weed growth before it becomes an issue.
One of Farren's colleagues on that panel at the conference spoke another kind of truth that afternoon, the kind of truth that makes people purse their lips and nod rather than chuckle.
"We spend a lot of hours on this detailed edging that we didn't do 25 years ago," the superintendent said.
"But it's just evolved into the business. So it's edging cart paths, edging of bunkers, edging markers, edging this, edging that. Everything's got to have an edge on it.
"Well, I think for five percent improvement that kind of stuff costs more like 25 percent to deliver."
In this day and time when we are all having to watch our pennies, instead of complaining, we should be grateful our golf courses are doing the same.
It's only going to save us money in the long run. It's a game for most of us, and playing it is a privilege.
More like this story