‘Dismiss your greenkeepers at your peril’

By Alistair November 20, 2020 07:03 Updated

‘Dismiss your greenkeepers at your peril’

Agronomist Noel MacKenzie explores how UK golf clubs have responded to the pandemic now nearly a year on from when it started, and concludes that the venues that have continued to invest in senior staff, particularly general managers and head greenkeepers, are the ones best placed to thrive in 2021 and beyond.

On New Year’s Eve 2019 nobody except, perhaps, a few Chinese doctors and possibly a few intelligence analysts, could have even vaguely guessed at the trouble looming or the extent this would impact our lives just three months later. It is now nearly a year later and still the surprises keep coming with local lockdowns in response to local outbreaks … all with very little insight as to how this will pan out in the longer term. My observation is that the shock that initially hit and the ongoing uncertainty is impacting severely on golf clubs. I want to explore if the reaction of our industry and the reactions of some clubs is appropriate? Is it all bad news? I also wanted to question some of the common actions clubs are taking focusing on the short term rather than looking long term.

Looking back to March 2020 when the initial outbreak and lockdown occurred, there were broadly three response categories from golf courses (it is stressed this is purely observational only, not the result of a widespread research into course responses). These observed response types boiled down to three main categories and I have named these as follows:

  1. The ‘Doomsday Club’ category: Furlough all staff and stop all operations in both the clubhouse and on the course itself – effectively the ‘do nothing’ option.
  2. The ‘Billionaires’ Club’ category: Carry on course maintenance operations as normal following industry working practice guidelines. This allowed good work for the benefit of turf to be completed with golfers out of the way. This generally occurred at well funded proprietary and resort type venues where budgetary constraints were not an issue which is clearly a rare situation!
  3. The ‘Survivors’ Club’: Characterised by partial furlough of greenkeeping staff with full furlough of most clubhouse staff. This allowed courses to be held in a ‘holding pattern’ of basic to moderate condition with limited maintenance to stop the course slipping into poor repair and allowing it to be bought back into play quite quickly if the situation changed. This was the path I advocated for all clubs at the time and I offered suggested industry working guidelines for governing bodies.

Scroll on to the point where clubs and courses were given consent to open by the government and it was clear who the winners and losers were.

The Doomsday Category was mostly in great difficulty, if not, dead in the water as businesses – there is no way to let a course continue with no maintenance and expect to get it back in a reasonable operational condition for months. There were some nightmare images out on the internet and I can only imagine how upsetting it was for some owners and greenkeepers to see their work of years or decades crumble before their eyes.

The Billionaires’ Club courses were, of course, in great condition and ready for play from the word ‘go’, pretty much.

The Survivors’ Clubs had various levels of challenge to overcome and the management of the course in a ‘holding pattern’ should have allowed any club to get back into play at some level almost instantly or at least within a week. On the whole it seemed most clubs managed this with varying degrees of success. While they couldn’t run clubhouse operations at that time at least play was possible, albeit with compromise golfing rules in place.

Golf is, in many ways, the ideal sport for a pandemic … there is no need to share equipment, there is no close proximity since players are usually separated by the nature of the game and the compromise – golf with a pin staying in situ (the only place that players would normally touch) – means that, on the course, the risk is minimal. The only risk there can be is players’ failing to social distance on tees, in car parks and the like. Restrictions did ease on indoor social spacing, in some cases only temporarily, and clubhouses flickered into life but financial opportunities were limited. Clubs with secondary business activities such as hosting weddings and events will face bigger losses and therefore far more challenges than those sites with just golf and simple catering.

So, what lessons can we learn and what experiences can we draw on? Should we be thinking positively or negatively and if so how does this drive our management approaches? Where do we go from here? What is happening now? How are management committees reacting? How are they planning? What does this mean for turf management operations too? Who is doing what within the club structure? These are questions that club managers or their committees need to be asking themselves.

I would argue that shock has not helped management committees. Usually club committees and managers face relatively mundane issues involving tweaking a business. Covid delivered a serious shock and that tends to induce protective behaviours and a tendency to not do anything in case it is the wrong thing or because nobody knows what the right thing to do is. Most business experts will tell you doing nothing isn’t a safe strategy for long.

Uncertain business environments and lack of income are always a worry for business and it is clear that many clubs have struggled with the challenges thrown at them. The human response and resources available is what determined whether a course was in the Doomsday, Billionaires’ or Survivors’ category. Those already in a precarious fiscal situation were not going to be able to cope with a loss of income, especially as that income hit exactly when the majority of clubs had their spring memberships renew – March / April – the perfect storm of bad timing! Perhaps this is an important lesson for golf clubs – perhaps time to develop a system whereby memberships renew at a time 12 months from first joining thus offering some financial stability.

Man using lawn mower cutting grass at garden

Clearly clubs needed the support of members and the successful ones engaged with members and sought their renewal of memberships. Some courses have been busier than normal by a long way. Opportunities for increasing revenue have required some thinking ‘outside the box’. Furloughing general managers left some clubs struggling to catch up on opening and reacting quickly and dynamically to the situation.

Club policy on furlough and redundancy has been interesting and tragic to watch play out. Typically clubs focus on looking to cut staff costs and senior greenkeeping staff, being more expensive to employ, have been cut in large numbers across the industry. This is losing our most valuable industry and club asset. Without an experienced and knowledgeable leader less gets done, mistakes are made, management systems breakdown, supplier networks are destroyed or damaged and so on. This applies not only to course managers / head greenkeepers, but also general managers who, if absent through furlough / redundancy, left clubs rudderless and drifting. Ejecting this knowledge and skill set when your club needs it most is risky. I anticipate there might be legal trouble over redundancies as furlough ended. There will absolutely be greenkeeping issues on the courses due to Covid, I’ve already seen it!

Unless there is a good reason to get rid of a staff member for reasons of misconduct, fraud, unacceptable performance and so on, removal of the person who creates and manages the course is not a good policy unless totally unavoidable. These are the people who are trained managers and are the ‘golden pot’ of considerable investment in technical and managerial knowhow and they know their team inside-out. Bumping up a deputy to a head greenkeeper is not good policy generally in HR terms.

A key shocking lesson is that a golf club does not require a clubhouse, it requires a golf course … so is the lesson invest in the course and that includes all the resources that are needed to make that course, especially skilled staff who work unfriendly hours?

I am also getting feedback of ‘we were going to replace machinery x or y, but we’re putting it off until next year’. If machinery breakdown and repair costs are restricting the ability of staff to do jobs and making inefficient work the norm, this impinges on course quality as well as being very hard for staff to feel motivated about. If course quality deteriorates then player numbers go down and income is lost … a vicious downward cycle ‘race to the bottom’ is then entered.

The positive lesson from Covid is golf is THE game to be playing … lack of confidence in business isn’t our friend when the amount of golf being played on many courses has increased. Clubs that are only open to members’ play and booked tee times have been a huge help in maximising use of the course efficiently and effectively in high demand. Yes, members moan about booking tee times, but there are advantages and members moaning doesn’t mean that they have to be given what they want unless there is a strong commercial reason for it.

Management planning therefore needs to assess how much golf is being played and how to harness this, especially with post game refreshments. I see busy courses and a good future for golf which should give business confidence. In some areas course closures have occurred and they, the Doomsday clubs would have gone anyway… and more will go which benefits the survivors.

Be a survivor and a success, maximise your course potential, invest in essential resources and above all, protect your course and all its assets and resources – especially the human resource.

Noel MacKenzie B.Sc.(Hons), MBPR, RIPTA, MRSB, is a member of GreenKeeping’s editorial advisory panel and is the director and principal consultant at Sports Turf Consulting.

Tel: +44 (0)7739 505862.

Email: info@sportsturfconsulting.co.uk

By Alistair November 20, 2020 07:03 Updated

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