Thinking long-term on course improvements

High priority course improvements are great for golfers, but require time and consideration to be sustainable.


golfer on course
Renovation projects are easy to approve quickly, but require time, consideration and attention to properly execute. Photo by Shutterstock.

One of the interesting and challenging societal shifts I’ve noticed during my 46 years in the golf business has been the increasing demand for instant gratification by golfers and club members. I have found that decision-makers can be eager to approve changes that they perceive as high priority, but less enthusiastic to invest the time needed to make these changes in a cost-effective and agronomically correct manner.

For example, on small grassing projects, the best decision is usually to just finish things up and walk away, and sod is the obvious solution. But when larger areas need to be grassed, using seed might be the better option from both a cost and quality perspective. Seed requires an investment in time, however, and I’ve found that in today’s “get-it-done” environment, that can pose a stumbling block to ownership buy-in. 

As is often the case, it’s all about communication. It’s easy for us as turf professionals to get granular with details on pounds of seed per acre and the qualities of improved varieties, but a more useful strategy is to focus on the return on investment, such as expected savings due to reduction in fungicide applications. Even better, speak the language of golf by focusing on what the members can expect from a playability standpoint once the grow-in is completed. Just as in job interviews, there are three languages we can speak, and though certainly “turf” is important, the languages of “business” and “golf” should help your sales pitch.

Let’s look at another example: the purchase of large trees instead of smaller ones of the same variety. While it’s true that the immediate effect of a 6-to-8-foot caliper tree outperforms a younger 3-to-4-foot specimen, it does so at a cost that might be 10 times that of the smaller version. Often, transplant shock causes the larger tree to be slow to establish, and the larger specimen is outperformed in growth and vigor by the younger one. Selling the owner of a property on the benefits of installing the less-expensive smaller version and letting time do its thing can be quite a challenge, though, and fighting that fight can get a poor response. The trick — and it’s a difficult one — is painting the picture in a way that your golfers can understand. If possible, use pictures that illustrate the growth curves of both options on your golf course.

In these situations, it pays to give some thought to what the member sees as opposed to what the superintendent sees. Here’s a great chance to take a committee onto a green and pull a core sample that can display your points. When golfers think about golf greens, they think in terms of the playing surface. If we can get them to look at what’s underneath that surface and understand our challenges and concerns, then we have more of a chance of getting the approvals we believe to be correct.

Superintendents often feel the need to solve problems by “doing something,” and frequently that inclination is the correct one. Sodding out a hydraulic oil scar from an important turf area is usually the best play, as doing so makes the scar disappear and shows your membership that you are on top of problems and can repair them quickly. 

But at other times, reacting immediately to troubled turf is the exact wrong way to proceed. Think about a distressed, pocketed green that has marginal roots in early August of a difficult year. Aerifying and reseeding the thin green might seem like a logical move, but in the heat and humidity of northern New Jersey, where I am from, doing that would mean a speedy death of that green. The likely best decision is to nurse the weak grass for a few more weeks until cooler weather arrives, and then begin the many steps needed to restore health to that troubled green.

But your counsel for patience might well appear to be procrastination or, worse, incompetence by the golfers and decision-makers of your club. In difficult times like these, we must use our communication skills to inform our bosses and those who use our course that the inconvenience is temporary, you have a plan, and that as soon as it’s appropriate, you will be tackling the causes of your problem. If you can get your members to understand that you must throw more than money at certain problems and that often you must throw time at them as well, you will be calming agitated waters and, more importantly, doing what’s best for your course and your golfers.

Chris Carson served as the superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., for 36 years, and is a three-time winner of GCSAA’s Leo Feser Award. He is a 37-year member of GCSAA.