Maintaining a golf course during ‘shelter in place’

After a county-issued order, a Bay Area superintendent and his assistant have a course to themselves and are busy readying it for the best and worst cases.


Shelter in place golf course
Two’s company: Superintendent Ryan Maher (in the distance) and assistant superintendent Steven Spatafore (foreground) spray a plant growth regulator at Contra Costa Country Club in Pleasant Hill, Calif., on March 19. The pair are currently the only workers tending the 18-hole private course during the shelter-in-place order handed down by the county on March 16. Photos courtesy of Ryan Maher

Ryan Maher is determined to make the best out of an awful situation.

Maher, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Contra Costa Country Club in Pleasant Hill, Calif., is hunkering down to comply with Contra Costa County’s shelter-in-place order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but — for now, at least — he is still allowed to report to work as an employee essential to maintaining the golf course.

GCM spoke with Maher on Wednesday, March 18. The shelter-in-place order was expanded from the Bay Area to all of California on Thursday, March 19.

Maher, an eight-year association member, and assistant superintendent Steven Spatafore, a six-year GCSAA member, spent Wednesday mowing the empty course. Thursday was spray day.

“Honestly, I haven’t been a greenskeeper in, like, eight years,” Maher says. “It’s actually been kind of fun, a good change of pace. Honestly, I feel for my guys who aren’t working. But we’re enjoying having the course to ourselves. I tweeted (Tuesday) that it was always my lifelong dream to be able to maintain a golf course without any golfers.

“But after three weeks of just sitting on a mower,” he adds with a laugh, “I’m sure it will get pretty boring.”

Technically still in its off-season, Contra Costa CC had been “busy” the previous weekend (March 14-15), Maher says, with 100-plus rounds per day.

“We had removed all water coolers from the course,” Maher says. “We hadn’t done anything with rakes or flagsticks yet. We were disinfecting the maintenance shop and areas the guys were hanging out, and of course the clubhouse and shop were disinfecting around-the-clock. We were being very cautious.”

On Monday, March 16, the shelter-in-place order came down, and Contra Costa CC decided to shutter.

“We were reaching out to other clubs to see what they were doing,” Maher says. “The mandate, or order, was kind of vague about exactly what we could do. For now, we’re just being overly cautious. We’re still trying to see if we can potentially open for just golfers walking, no-guests type of deal; see if we can bring in more maintenance staff.”

Until that gets resolved, the Maher-Spatafore duo is doing all it can to maintain the course.

Golf course shelter in place

Right: The sparsely populated job board in the Contra Costa Country Club maintenance facility.

“Basically, our plan is, I think it’s realistic to mow greens three days a week. We’re just triplexing, not walk-mowing,” Maher says. “We’ll mow tees two days a week. Everything else besides rough, we’ll mow once a week. The rough we’ll mow maybe once every other week.”

The two planned to spend last Thursday spraying an “aggressive” rate of plant growth regulators. “Just to slow things down,” Maher says. “Who knows if we’ll be on a more intense lockdown.”

Editor’s note: Read about the all-natural weed eaters at Contra Costa Country Club — a herd of goats.

Maher says the work he and Spatafore are doing now is essential to the health of the turfgrass and the business. Whether they’ll be allowed to continue remains to be seen.

“How does that (shelter in place) apply to golf courses and golf course maintenance?” Maher says, voicing a question on the minds of many. “For us, mowing and spraying right now is extremely important to the long-term picture. We could maybe go a month without doing anything, but there could be a big negative impact — not just a playability impact, but maybe disease? I’m not too worried about disease, but by leaving everything so long, then mowing, scalping ... there could be some turf loss.”

Other than the cancellation of some social events at the club, such as banquets and conferences, no golf events had been canceled at Contra Costa CC as of last Thursday, March 19. The next big event on Maher’s calendar is a greens aerification slated for April 6. The county’s shelter-in-place order is scheduled to run through April 7. For now.

“It might end then, but I have a hard time believing that,” Maher says. “If we can bring on some staff — which we hopefully can figure out by the end of the week — it might take a few more days, but we can still aerate our greens with a smaller staff. But can we bring in more staff? We need to aerate greens — that’s important to the success of our company. We’re trying to talk with Troon (Contra Costa CC is a Troon-managed facility) and the county, trying to figure out what we can do.”

Contra Costa Country Club
Assistant superintendent Steven Spatafore heads down a fairway at Contra Costa Country Club.

Maher’s staff this time of year typically numbers around 19, bulking up to 28 or so in summer. The impact this will have on his crew was among Maher’s greatest concerns.

“My biggest stress through all this isn’t the health of the course or its success or whether the club was losing so much money,” he says. “It was, ‘What are our guys going to do if they can’t work?’ Most of them probably aren’t making a lot of money. Most are probably living paycheck to paycheck. Fortunately, the club decided to make all employees whole through April 7, when the shelter-in-place order is scheduled to end. So the club is taking care of them, and they’re talking about extending it through the end of April. We’ll see if that happens. If it goes much longer, then they’ll probably have to use some paid time off. If it goes a few months, they’ll probably have to look at unemployment.

“But that was a big relief, telling the guys the club was willing to pay them if they’re not working. A lot of higher-end places here are doing it. Public courses can’t do that. But it was huge for my guys we can do that.”

Maher has tentative plans in place should he be rejoined by some of his staff members anytime soon — short shifts to obviate the need for lunch breaks; bans on congregating; split crews. Until that eventuality, though, or until he’s told he can’t make the short commute from his home to the course, Maher plans to keep busy.

“We’re working 10 to 12 hours a day,” he says. “We are waiting until the sun’s up to start, which is nice. Then you throw the headphones in and start listening to podcasts and music.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.