When creating a manual of maintenance standards, include cultural practices, like aeration, verticutting, topdressing and venting. Photos by Jim Pavonetti
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the July 2022 edition of the Metropolitan GCSA’s chapter publication, Tee to Green.
Golf courses, like any other business, serve thousands of customers each year and should have a formal set of standards and long-range plans to guide daily operations and maintain customer satisfaction.
What’s more, developing maintenance standards for your golf course can be an effective way to show your customers — your golfers — what goes into maintaining their golf course. It can also identify current and future needs and allow
course leadership to budget for them.
Though many golf courses have some sort of maintenance standards in place, a fair share of them aren’t documented or based on golfer feedback. If creating formal maintenance standards seems like more trouble than it’s worth, read on. This
article will highlight the many benefits of documenting your maintenance standards; it will provide an outline of what to include in your document; and it will detail how they should be established and administered.
Why create maintenance standards?
One of the reasons for documenting your maintenance standards is to clearly define the club’s current expectations and match them with the maintenance procedures. Because these expectations are defined by direct feedback from the players and other
club-affiliated professionals, this document becomes a valuable tool in determining whether time and money spent in maintaining certain aspects of the golf course are actually the areas most important to the players. If you discover you’re a
bit off track, you can adjust your priorities.
Another advantage to creating formal maintenance standards for your course is to provide a lasting guide sheet for green committees that come and go. New committees might have agendas that don’t match the goals of the membership — or the budget
established. Formal maintenance standards can help keep committees on the straight and narrow.
Finally, maintenance standards will also protect the operating budget. Since each part of the operation will be listed with labor and other associated costs, the document becomes helpful in illustrating how a proposed budget cut will affect playing conditions.
The document can also help forecast future budgets as certain maintenance goals become more important to members and decision-makers at the course.
Soil testing, water testing and International Sports Turf Research Center testing should be a part of a club’s maintenance standards manual.
Benefits of maintenance standards
• Benefits to the superintendent. When defining your maintenance standards, you’re also defining what the next level of maintenance will be and what’s involved in getting there. By creating and presenting formal standards
with an eye toward future improvement, you will be recognized as a golf course manager who is not only forward-thinking, but also fully capable of leading any course-improvement initiative as soon as the resources become available.
• Benefits to the club or facility. The club or facility benefits by having every aspect of the maintenance operation defined. If the club hits hard times, it has a clear road map to what things cost and what the operation can live
without until it rights the ship. If funding becomes available, a list of potential improvements and required funding will already exist. Any improvements on the list should have been prioritized beforehand by the green committee.
• Benefits to the green committees and green chair. Committee members come and go. So do green chairs. When their term is up, what better way to quickly acclimate a new committee member or chair to the golf course maintenance operation
than to provide them with your formal maintenance standards document? Spelling out future goals and daily maintenance functions are certain to smooth the way for a quick and easy transition.
• Benefits to board members and presidents. Like committee members, every few years a new president and board members will cycle on to the board. With golf course maintenance department standards and goals clearly defined, the board
will quickly get up to speed on your department’s daily operations and priorities and hold you and your department in high regard. After all, how many other departments in a club have their operating procedures spelled out in a formal document?
When it comes time to decide which department’s budget requests or capital improvements get approved, which department is going to be poised for the additional funding?
• Benefits to the course finances and finance committees. Finance committees all have one thing in common, no matter what level the club or course: They all hate surprises. Having defined standards and short- and long-term goals
will help finance committees plan and forecast for the future. Every finance committee will appreciate knowing what their golf course will need several years in advance.
Include details on each task performed by the staff — number of employees, equipment used, cultural practices, time of day, etc.
Who’s involved in setting the standards?
One mistake you want to avoid making is creating standards in a vacuum. In other words, don’t set standards without seeking the feedback of the people who matter most: your golfing members, who, of course, include your green chair and committee
and often your club president and board of directors.
You can gather player feedback by way of surveys or even daily interaction with players while on the course. It never hurts to keep a notepad handy to record their comments and observations.
Couple player feedback with green committee and board member notes, and you will have your main source of information to get started on your document.
Other individuals you might call on for guidance include assistants, interns, staff members, equipment managers, consultants, USGA agronomists, architects, men’s and women’s golf committees, and golf professionals. Of course, you don’t
want to get mired in too many opinions, so pick and choose who you think might offer the best counsel. Among my favorites are the agronomists and golf pros.
Golf course agronomists know, firsthand, golfer expectations, and when they visit your course, they note the cultural practices needed to meet those expectations. They are also helpful in identifying and adding credibility to long-range improvement projects.
Golf pros are the individuals who meet and greet your golfers on a regular basis, so who is more aware of common issues and concerns, as well as golfer skill levels, which might dictate conditioning?
What do you include?
While there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for formatting your standards, you might want to include a cover page, table of contents, mission statement and introduction, and sections on the main areas of the golf course, including greens, tees, fairways,
rough, bunkers, ponds, trees, and any other area you feel is worthy of documenting.
Here are the sections I’ve created for Fairview Country Club’s maintenance standards document.
I like to start off with a mission statement and an introduction or narrative on the purpose of the document. But it’s also helpful to include some specifics: a brief description of the course architecture and turfgrasses used, as well as a basic
idea of how the course will be maintained. You might also introduce your management staff, such as your assistants and equipment managers.
This is also a good time to mention that the standards are not meant to be a fixed set of guidelines. Because things change over time, the standards should be revisited and updated at least every other year. Achievements can be noted and new standards
and goals can be set.
The main turf areas on the golf course: Greens, tees, fairways and rough.
For turf areas, there are several standards to consider. You might start with the number of employees each task takes, the equipment that is currently used, and necessary cultural practices, such as mowing heights and frequencies, including time of day
and when it needs to be completed to accommodate play.
Example: The greens are mowed each day using three staff members. The height of cut is 0.125 inch. We use Jacobsen Eclipse mowers set up with grooved front rollers to complete this task. The greens are mowed starting at 6 a.m. to accommodate the 7 a.m.
first tee time.
This can help justify tee sheet start times and labor requirements make it all happen.
For greens in particular, other cultural practices to include would be when and how you aerate, specifying depth and the type and size of the tine, as well as whether the course is closed during the process.
I like to use an example of an International Sports Turf Research Center report to illustrate why we aerate as much as we do. If you use turf fans or SubAir-type systems, you should include what the parameters are for using them.
Example: We use fans at night when temperatures are above 65 and during the day when the dewpoint averages about 69.
Note topdressing procedures. What kind of topdressing is used, how much, and how is it incorporated into the holes? You might also include similar specifications for verticutting, grooming and rolling.
Discuss how these areas are irrigated (hand water, automatic, etc.), and spell out how you judge how much to irrigate (sensors, scouting, time domain reflectometry [TDR], evapotranspiration).&
It’s also important to include standards such as speed, smoothness, firmness, turf density, color and pest thresholds. You will undoubtedly want to include other standards depending on whether you are referring to greens, tees, fairways or rough.
Explain what you do and the tools you use to perform those tasks.
For bunkers, it helps to start by including the frequency of raking, as well as how you rake — footprints versus full raking, for instance. Specify whether you are using the traditional method of raking or the Aussie method. Next, note how many
employees are required to rake and what time the general raking needs to be completed to accommodate play.
You should also specify the standard sand depths of your bunkers and how often you check those depths. In addition, note the desired moisture content and firmness of the sand, as well as how often bunkers are edged and what equipment is used.
Ponds, streams, lakes, bays, etc. are other aspects of many golf courses that require maintenance. Discuss how you are protecting these water features. For instance, are you using weed- and algae-control methods, such as aerators or diffusers, fish and
dyes? What are you doing to maintain buffer zones?
Another critical component of course maintenance is your irrigation system. It can be helpful to include descriptions of the current control system, piping, sprinkler types, age, pump station, sensors, TDRs, weather station, etc., as well as any work
associated with its upkeep. For instance, how often do you audit the coverage and efficiency of the system? How often do you edge the sprinklers and valve boxes?
Like irrigation, a section on your general drainage infrastructure is useful in pinpointing areas that will require time and money to renovate. Include drainage systems on greens, tees, fairways and rough. Note the larger catch basins and culvert piping
that all the 6- and 4-inch pipes run to. How old are these pipes? What is their condition? How often are you edging all the inlets?
Landscaping is another golf course feature that requires a high level of maintenance. It’s useful, therefore, to specify practices needed to properly maintain the beds, shrubs, native areas, and walls and hardscapes surrounding the clubhouse and
throughout the course.
It’s also helpful to acquire proper labor and budget dollars. Note how much labor is required to keep landscaped beds maintained and the conditions of the current hardscapes, walls or similar items. If you have native areas, note their composition
and the programs you have in place to maintain them at their best.
If you have a predominance of native areas, you may want to spell out your maintenance standards for these areas in a separate section.
When describing the daily setup of the golf course, be sure to include all the detail work.
Trees are an important part of the golf course landscape that require ongoing maintenance and attention. Before setting standards of tree care, it’s wise to start with a tree inventory and then a policy for future tree planting and removal. As we
know, poorly placed trees can seriously affect turf quality, particularly on greens and tees. At the same time, feature trees that are important to hole design should be noted and preserved.
Standards should also be established for such ongoing maintenance practices as cabling, limb and root pruning, pest management, and any other tree maintenance concerns.
Roads and paths
Document your current roads and paths, including the materials used to pave them and any intentions for relocating, adding or removing roads or paths.
Equipment maintenance and replacement
I like to divide this section into two parts: equipment maintenance and fleet replacement.
Fleet replacement: In this section, first include the equipment that is owned versus leased. Then create a five-year replacement schedule and mention what will be purchased and what will be leased. Include costs, what the new equipment will do to improve
efficiency and course conditions, and the age of the equipment it will be replacing — if, in fact, it will be replacing something. And will the new equipment save labor or require additional labor?
Equipment maintenance: In this section, include recordkeeping, reel-sharpening standards, back-lapping, servicing, tools and shop equipment (lifts, tire mounting machine, grinders, hydraulic hose makers, etc.). Also include any computer programs you might
be using for inventory and repair/maintenance tracking.
In an era dominated by public environmental concerns, every superintendent should have environmental standards spelled out for their golf course maintenance operation.
In this section, it pays to include all your environmental initiatives, such as the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, the Groundwater Guardian Program and any case studies/projects that you have initiated on the course.
List buffer zones, no-spray zones, wildlife habitat, nesting boxes, water-body-protection measures, and pollinator enhancement and protection.
You can also note best management practices, including chemical safety data sheet locations and how often they are updated; spill kit locations; mix-and-load areas and how they are maintained; and anything else that could fall into this category. If you
use a computer program to track chemical and fertilizer applications and inventory, you should include that here as well.
A facility BMP plan can be created easily, using the GCSAA’s template. Go to https://facilitybmp.gcsaa.org/ for access to the BMP tool. You may want to create a separate section for your BMPs, but you can reference it in this section.
Include a section on your maintenance facility. Be sure to mention the age, size, function, equipment washdown system, pesticide and fertilizer, safety, organization, shelving, job board and facilities.
Staff, the most important asset of any maintenance operation, deserves its own set of standards. Here, note such things as the size of your staff, their level of experience, and whether they’re supplied with uniforms, training, annual reviews and
educational opportunities. Also note any safety standards you’ve put in place.
It’s also wise to include a seven-day staffing plan. If you’re seeking your GCSAA Certification, you’re required to provide this information anyway for your attesting portion of the process. This will justify your daily staffing needs
to committees and boards. Include any computer programs you might be using to track labor, post job boards, payroll, etc.
Including details about moisture management — like the use of evapotranspiration gauges, weather stations, subsurface moisture meters or time domain reflectometers (pictured above) — can demonstrate how much thought and effort goes into your maintenance program.
Cap each section of your standards document with a page for notes on any progress made or new needs that have cropped up in that standards category. This will give your facility direction on what needs to be done, what could be done and how much it is
going to cost. It will serve you well when it comes time for your two-year updating.
Presenting your standards
Developing maintenance standards clearly requires time and effort, so it is worth devoting the extra effort to presenting them in a professional manner. Adding high-quality photos, for instance, can enhance your document, making it more engaging for the
reader, while at the same time informing readers about any unfamiliar maintenance practices or documenting the need for future improvements, such as added drainage in an area. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words!
Once all your facts, figures and photos are compiled, I recommend distributing spiral-bound color copies of your maintenance standards to the green committee and board members and having a PDF on the club’s or your department’s website for
I take it a step further and have a page on the club’s website that states the course conditions and rules for the day. I also use this page to mention special course maintenance or project news. I post the link to the maintenance standards PDF
there with a brief summary of what it is and the reason to have it.
In the end
Like any well-run business, successful golf course operations have an idea of where they’re headed and how they’ll get there. There is a wide range of standards out there, depending on your course size and budget. There may be sections mentioned
in this article that don’t pertain to your operation or other standards that you’d like to add. Feel free to make any adjustments you see fit.
In every case, establishing a formal set of golf course maintenance standards helps take your course in the right direction by managing expectations, establishing necessary resources and future needs, and ensuring continuity in management objectives from
year to year. Not only will you elevate your department’s status in the eyes of your course leadership and golfers, but you’ll also have a clear road map for future success.
Jim Pavonetti, CGCS, is a 27-year member of GCSAA. He has served as golf and grounds superintendent at Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., since 2008