Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Golf Course Operational Study

The following is an operation study to investigate specific issues a private club experienced prior to member conversion from a developer owned club.

By Michael Vogt, CGCS, CGIA

August 13, 2009

Executive Summary

For the sake of organization I will address the individual components of the golf maintenance operation in agronomic and administrative sections.

Agronomic areas will address the health, management and inputs into the turfgrass areas that comprise the East Golf Course and West Golf Course, practice facility and related club grounds. The number one limiting factor for turfgrass excellence is poor soil and water at Sample Fairways. It is a problem that can be overcome, but an understanding of the issues is critical if these challenges are to be mitigated. With proper treatment water use on the golf courses will decline if soils can be drained and sodium levels can be reduced. The turfgrass plant requires up to 25 percent less water if sodium levels are lowered and soils can be properly leached. Established aggressive aerification schedules must be followed if these expectations are to be realized.

Administrative, will address the management of labor, equipment and resources such as budget and fiscal management of the golf maintenance department.

It should be understood that Jack Nicklaus Signature designed golf courses are well known for higher than average maintenance costs. It should also be noted that Mexico’s soil, water and climatic conditions pose a difficult challenge for Sample Fairways. The high level of golf course maintenance which is expected from the membership adds costs to overall maintenance budget.

McMahon recommends the following suggestions for enhancing the golf experience and for managing the golf maintenance operation in the most fiscally responsible
1. Remain on the program of aggressive aerification on all turfgrass surfaces.
2. Install an upgraded injection system to acidify irrigation water.
3. Apply high quality mined gypsum to irrigation water and slice / surface apply to turf to mitigate sodium and bicarbonates.
4. Adjust labor to relate to tasks needed to be accomplished on golf courses.
5. Investigate purchasing programs for golf course supplies; there is a John Deere Landscapes branch in close proximity.
6. Investigate a re-leasing option for the current equipment fleet; a three
year re-lease normally can be accomplished at a great savings. The maintenance equipment fleet at Sample Fairways is in very good condition as of this writing.
7. Consider putting one of the golf courses at idle. Substantial savings in labor and an improvement in conditioning would be realized if one course could be idled.
8. Consider a satellite maintenance facility on the eastside of the property to reduce maintenance staff travel time.

Agronomic Conditions

Salt Affected Soil and Water
The number one problem limiting excellent turf condition in Southwest America is salt accumulation in the soils. This problem becomes severe when soils become out of balance and the relationships between several elements begin to favor original desert-type soil chemistry.

The soil and water pH at Sample Fairways is slightly elevated. The relationship of sodium, carbonates, bicarbonates and pH in the irrigation water is critical to understanding what remediation should occur. The challenge is to amend the irrigation water’s pH to help release added calcium and calcium that exists in the soil. According to soil tests reported in October of 2008, current soil calcium levels are within acceptable ranges.

Sample Fairways has high levels of sodium and bicarbonates in the soil and water which will ultimately deteriorate aggregated soil structure, shifting from blocks of soil to more of a powder texture. A good example of poorly aggregated soil is a fine talcum powder. Water applied tends to bead-up on the surface. The same thing happens to soils that are excessive in sodium and

Acid injection into irrigation water has become a common practice on golf courses to help correct pH, sodium, carbonate and bicarbonate problems. Without acidification Sample Fairways irrigation water will continue to destroy soil structure, thus, disrupting the favorable ratio of sodium ions (Na+) to magnesium ions (Mg++) and calcium ions (Ca++) in the soil.

Negatively charged soil particles that are subjected to an increase in sodium (which are positively charged) will displace calcium and magnesium at nearly a two to one ratio on the soil surface. The net effect of the sodium buildup is a dispersion of soil aggregates resulting in a soil that has the structure of talcum powder. Poorly drained and poorly oxygenated soils lead to root dysfunction, poor plant health and an over-irrigation scenario to supply the plant water requirements in excess of needs. Irrigation water applied to these imbalanced soils tends to remain on the surface and infiltration is very slow. This cycle begins to compound itself as the dry season goes on without proper leaching or flushing of sodium and bicarbonates. Problems with the soil are evident on several fairways on the East Golf Course. Ideally, fine particles of soil aggregate randomly leaving pathways of space for air and water to move through, helping plant roots to grow and thrive.

Correcting the pH of the soil and water is an interrelated remedy and will begin to enhance conditions in the foreseeable future. Injection of acid to lower the water pH, applying gypsum (CaSO4 · 2H2O) or high quality soluble calcium to the soil and continuing on a soil aerification program should have dramatic effects on improving turfgrass health. It is critical that water pH be adjusted to neutral or slightly acid to react with gypsum and other soil calcium to make sodium more mobile in the soil. When sodium becomes more mobile, flushing or leaching out of the soil can occur.

These recommended processes will help make nutrients more available to turfgrass plants by lowering pH levels. Moreover, these programs will also increase the efficacy of chemical spray application of fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. The savings in water, chemicals and fertilizers could be substantial in years to come.

Based on our study of the soil tests supplied by Bill Consultant and Soil Test Labs, it would be beneficial to have soil tests performed showing different testing procedure for southwestern calcareous soils that exhibit high values of bicarbonates along with salts in calcareous soils. These soil tests that were preformed by Soil Test Labs using laboratory procedure Mehlich III, an acid extract are not accurate on high pH (alkaline) soils, like at Sample Fairways. Acid extracts are limited in their ability to extract meaningful test results; high alkaline soils react unfavorably with acid based extracts. Western Regional Methods Manual for Soil Testing recommends the Olson Method for soil testing based on these high pH conditions being experienced at Sample Fairways.

Whether gypsum or soluble calcium is applied as a soil or irrigation water amendment, the mode of action is the same. The calcium becomes soluble as these amendments dissolve and calcium replaces sodium from the soil exchange sites. The sodium can then be leached out of the root zone with extra water.

Bill Consultant of Desert Turf recommendations are correct in that a soluble form of calcium, treatment of the irrigation water and deep tine aerification are the basic remedy to the soil remediation program at Sample Fairways. With aggressive deep soil aerification and applications of gypsum or very soluble calcium, a three year time table will be a victory in improved soil drainage and mitigating the salt affected soils, especially on the East course. As with any soil remediation program soil and water tests must be made several times per year to adjust the management practices to guard against other chemical imbalances in the soil chemistry.

University and independent laboratory research has shown significantly lower water requirements on soils that are managed to increase drainage, and to mitigate high sodium levels. The turfgrass plant will require up to an additional 25 percent more water to maintain vigor in highly compacted and sodium effected soils.

Gypsum (calcium sulfate) is considered a salt and its proper management is critical. A specialist in sodium effected soils with an excellent understanding of the interrelationships of salts, sulfates, and their uses should be consulted on a regular basis.

Sand Bunkers
The sand in the bunkers at Sample Fairways is of a good variety. Upon inspection the sand appeared to be slightly angular, of good color and distributed well in the bunker floor and slopes. The sand appeared to be slightly compacted and for the lower handicap golfer this is ideal. With firm bunker sand the ball tends to rest on the sand rather than into the sand. Average players would rather sweep the ball out of the sand hazard making contact well under the ball without much effort. Lower handicap players tend to make club contact with the sand well behind and under the ball requiring much more strength and proficiency.

The bunkers at Sample Fairways are hand raked, which maintains the firm compacted texture of the sand. Moreover, the water applied to the turf areas also impacts the condition of the sand bunkers often creating a crusting effect and keeping the lower profile of sand continually moist.

A more aggressive raking several times per month will maintain these bunkers for better playability. When the water problems are remedied, the sand in the bunkers should be drier, less crusty and receive a ball much better. Sands can be made more playable with an application of a wetting agent. Experiment with several challenging sand bunkers by making multiple applications at least ten days apart to encourage drainage and dispersal of fine soil particles and organic matter. It is important to note that after a rain, native soils can be mixed with sand. All efforts should be made to remove the soil contamination from the sand before moving the sand back to its original location within the bunker. Soil contaminates in sand is the primary reason sand bunkers become crusty, drain poorly and suffer playability issues.

The tees at Sample Fairways are generally in very good condition. Several of the rear tees seemed to have excessive thatch build-up; footing can be improved with aerification and sand topdressing.

The greens at East Golf Course and the practice area are beginning to show signs of Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua) invasion. This troublesome annual grass is light green in color and is adapted to grow in all climates in the United States. Poa annua is a prolific seed producer and has a clumpy growth habit. When this annual becomes established, it can produce an inconstant putting surface. While the problem is not at a severe stage on East Golf Course greens, a chemical program should be instituted before Poa annua populations increase and affect other greens, tees and fairways.

Thatch accumulation on greens on East and West is at a borderline stage. A certain amount of thatch on greens is beneficial to the surfaces resiliency and its ability to receive a well struck ball. Vigorous topdressing and aerification should be initiated to keep the thatch layer in check to guard against layering in the sand root zone. Again, water quality can contribute to excess thatch accumulation. Correcting the water quality should be priority number one. Excess thatch will also add organic compounds to the sand root zone, literally clogging the pores of the sand and thus inhibiting drainage and air movement. Aerification will keep this organic root zone fraction in check.

Aerification Chart
Chart shows percentage of aerification displacement by tine size. For more information on sand based greens and organic matter displacement go to

Aerification of Greens
The goal at Sample Fairways should be to aerify greens thus displacing between 15% - 20% of the upper 3 inches of root zone each year. The chart above will guide in the selection of spacing and size of tine that is most appropriate for the club’s situation. After aerification, cores should be removed and sand should be applied and worked into aerification holes to dilute thatch and organic layers with sand appropriate and similar to the original greens mix. Aerification is disruptive to the putting surface but several of these techniques can ease the negative effects:

· Use ¼ inch Quadtines, at close spacing, the small holes heal faster.
· Make every effort to fill larger holes (> 3/8”) completely with sand, turf will cover holes faster.
· Apply (1/10# N / 1,000 ft²) fast release nitrogen fertilizer one week prior to aerification; accelerated turf growth will fill over holes faster.
· Aerify early in the day or late in the day to minimize turf injury from hot and dry weather conditions.
· Two days after aerification apply (1/10# N / 1,000 ft²) fast release nitrogen fertilizer to accelerate growth.

Under normal circumstances the greens should be substantially healed in two to three weeks.

Of all cultural practices performed on greens, aerification is the most important and is the foundation of high quality putting surfaces. Aerification aids in root zone gas exchange, water movement though the sand profile, thatch reduction, improved turfgrass root mass and turf density. All of these turfgrass health characteristics equate to a smoother, firmer and finer putting surface.

Bentgrass (Agrostis palustris) fairway turf appeared to be in good condition related to density, root mass and color. I observed the results of the Blec Sandmaster machine and the sand filled slices on fairways surfaces, these will certainly aide in the movement of air and water throughout the root zone.

The slicing of and filling the slices with sand is the perfect opportunity to incorporate gypsum or a soluble calcium into the soil, these amendments can be mixed with the sand injection process and would act to improve soil conditions into the root zone more rapidly. This operation should be continued annually to support the good health of the fairway turf for the foreseeable future.

The rough turf at Sample Fairways is Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), this turf thrives at a pH of 5.5 – 7.5, the current pH of the soil ranges between 7.8 – 8.1. My discussion with several members and Roger Superintendent lead me to discover that the roughs exhibited a yellow off color last season partially due to the elevated pH and other soil and water conditions stated in the above section (Salt Effected Soil and Water Conditions). Correcting these soil and water conditions will yield a much improved turf stand in the future.

Aerification and the addition of gypsum and / or soluble calcium will help to balance soil conditions in the roughs. I would further recommend the addition of a premium all organic fertilizer for the roughs to aide in soil aggregation and addition of an additional organic / carbon fraction.

Water Features
Ponds are generally in good condition. It is imperative that the ponds be kept at a full level to protect the banks and keep them sealed from leaking. I noticed no algae growth or undesirable odors even though effluent water normally contributes to these signs of water problems. The pond air diffusers, located in each pump station, were working well to help elevate O2 levels.

Sample Fairways contracts with a company to treat ponds for chemical balance and algae control. This important operation is budgeted for $48,000.00 for 2009. Although water treatment is critical and should not be eliminated from the program, perhaps a more economical treatment regiment can be discovered. Over 68% of golf course superintendents treat water hazards in-house with supplemental recommendation from laboratories, according to the Golf Course Superintendent Association of America 2007 survey.


As with any golf course, labor is the engine that drives conditioning. Highly conditioned golf courses generally have large staff numbers and proportionate labor expenditures. So it comes as no surprise that Sample Fairways has a large team to manage and maintain its 36-holes of golf along with the surrounding grounds and practice facility.

There are many ways to manage a golf operation to capitalize on efficiencies. The labor expense required to move staff from one area to another is the most wasteful expenditure of hours in the day.

Combining jobs is the first area of labor savings that should be addressed. Some examples of jobs that can be combined are:

· Mowing greens and raking greenside bunkers.
· Changing cups, setting tee markers, put out drinking water and removing trash.
· Mowing Rough and moving traffic control signs and barriers.
· Greens collars mowing and tee mowing (same height of cut).

Today the maintenance staff members move though the courses on a hole-by-hole grooming march each morning. Combining jobs would reduce the number or staff moving through the golf courses.

Another approach to labor management is section maintenance. Within sections of the golf course staff members are assigned several holes to maintain. For instance, one staff member would be assigned to maintain 1, 9 and 10 of East golf course. That staff member would be responsible to maintain all aspects of these holes with the exception of mowing large areas such as rough and fairway turf and chemical and fertilizer applications.

Managing by the section is a more difficult endeavor initially; but in the long term, the results have proven to be excellent especially at large properties such as Sample Fairways. An increase in training and closer labor management would be required.

Labor involved in raking sand bunkers, changing hole-cups, setting tee markers, mowing tees and collars, repairing divots, edging bunkers, string trimming, edging sprinkler heads, hand mowing bunker faces are all labor intensive jobs. Additionally, in the case of Sample Fairways, these tasks entail labor movement across large areas of property. In a section scenario these movements can be reduced by training the morning the crew members to gather all tools necessary to accomplish that day’s work on their section. Travel time back and forth to the maintenance shop is reduced, pride of ownership is increased and employees can be cross-trained on many different tasks. Three to four holes seems to work out best depending on the size of the golf-hole and difficulty of maintenance. Superintendents that have put this process in place have witnessed an increase in labor efficiencies and job satisfaction on the part of the section staff. A swing-man or group leader should look-over (supervise) several section staff to help on large projects and train as needed.

Additional ways to improve labor usage is to stagger crews thus having the rough mowers begin mowing later in the morning and continuing on later in the day. By mowing later in the day the mowers can be moving in reverse-hole order with minimal interruptions during the busiest time of day. Other cultural tasks could be performed later in the day to be less disruptive and move productive, sand topdressing, aerification, divot repair, fairway mowing, tee mowing, trimming banks on bunkers can all be completed in the late day.

Part time labor is a trend gaining popularity on golf courses throughout the U.S. The highest need for labor hours is at first light, to set-up the course for that day’s play. Superintendents are supplementing labor in the morning hours with part time employees. These employees often have other jobs during the evening or late day but have their morning available. Four to five hours, several days per week, can positively impact total labor expenditures and often reduce or eliminate overtime pay.

Equipment Leases
The condition of the current golf course equipment fleet is very good and should perform well for years to come. A re-lease option would be beneficial without sacrificing important capital. Often equipment can be re-leased for approximately one third the amount of the original lease for a three year term. These re-lease terms are generally highly negotiable. The repair and maintenance expense for the fleet might increase slightly, but the lease savings will easily offset any increased expenditures.

Turf Care Center
The turf care center is in very good condition. Appropriate areas for storage and maintenance of equipment fleet are in place. Comfortable areas to support maintenance staff are available with lunchroom, locker room, meeting rooms and offices. The one disadvantage of the turf care center is its location on the far west side of the property. This location will always be a detriment to labor efficiencies because of time spent in transit to the east side of the golf courses.

Budgeting / Cost Analysis
We have completed a budget / cost analysis for the East and West Golf Courses in keeping with current levels of maintenance. The projected expenditures are based on a level of quality standards currently being observed. It is our opinion that the golf course maintenance can be accomplished with an annual savings of over $100,000.00 compared to a proposed 2009 budget of $3,500,000.00. Last years (2008) golf course maintenance expenditures totaled an actual $2,944,925.00 due to across-the-board labor and supplies cost cutting.

In the addendum of this study we have supplied a suggested Zero-Based golf course budget for consideration based on the following maintenance assumptions:

· Both golf courses will operate on the current daily and seasonal schedule.
· Labor hours are based on standards supplied to me by Roger Superintendent.
· 14 full time equivalents (FTE) low season and 39 FTE in high season for both courses.
· Minimum overtime is scheduled totaling $29,000.00 for the year compared to the $71,000 expenditures in 2008.
· Fertilizers and chemicals are utilized at historical levels with all prices and rates confirmed.
· Lease payments are at current levels with the addition of Blec Sandmaster ($45,000.00) and Verti-Drain deep tine aerifer ($35,000.00); we estimated these lease expenditures at $2,640.00 per month.
· (3) Irrigation injection systems added to lease line ($70,000.00 total); we estimate this lease expenditure at $2,310.00 per month.
· No special golf course projects are included for 2010.
· Budgeted information gathered from Roger Superintendent is shown below.
o Hourly labor rates same as 2008.
o Employee meals are a direct charge back from F&B to GCM, we calculated at $2.50 per day per employee, total annual expense $20,270.00 (2008 actual cost was more than $50,000).
o Elimination of the employee meal program would save an additional $20,270.00 per year.
o Fertilizer cost adjusted for increase use of soil amendments for sodium and bicarbonate remediation.
o Aerification schedule from Roger Superintendent.
o Topdressing sand from local supplier with a slight increase in tonnage.
o Gas, diesel and oil products slightly higher cost than in 2008.
o Water usage assumed same as in 2009 projections with additional
mid-year increases in cost for raw water of 8.2% and effluent water 4.1%.

It’s apparent that the bulk of the savings in golf course maintenance comes by way of reduced labor dollars. We assume that additional landscape maintenance duties were requested by other departments or the developer from the golf course maintenance staff.

To accomplish these additional tasks an over staffing situation was likely encountered to meet these ongoing requests. We have eliminated these additional costs by evaluating hours needed to maintain golf courses and associated wages to accomplish these tasks.

A blurry line seems to be evident between landscape department and golf course maintenance department. We have observed these two departments beginning each day at the golf course maintenance building and using the equipment fleet, tools, and other items that seem to be expensed as golf related items. A system should be devised to segregate these two departments requiring work orders and charge-back entries for actual cost.

Golf Course Rotation Scenarios
With the light player load at Sample Fairways it is possible to take one golf course out of service during less active shoulder months. The labor savings from this could be significant. By idling one course labor efficiencies are much improved because mowing can take place without player interruption. Course set-up can be eliminated for the days of closure. Likewise, daytime watering and irrigation checks can be preformed without inconveniencing members. The average weekly golf course set-up costs are approximately $2,000.00. If a rotating course closure system was implemented during the less popular shoulder season (April - May and September - October), labor savings could easily be $30,000.00 per year (based on one course being closed 4 days per week for 16 weeks).

Additionally, a higher level of maintenance can be achieved with less player disruptions by scheduling the most labor intensive operations on the idled course. These operations would include tasks like; topdressing, string trimming, irrigation maintenance, hand watering and chemical / fertilizer applications. With less than 25,000 rounds per season idling one course occasionally should not be an inconvenience, I certainly believe it’s worthy of consideration.

We have submitted for the club’s consideration a course closure scenario to illustrate labor savings in the maintenance department while one course is idle in the spring and fall.

· To manage and maintain just West at Sample Fairways, 21 full time equivalents (848 hours per week). West idled will require 17 full time equivalents.
· Idling one course would eliminate overtime.
· Tasks that could be better accomplished that are especially disruptive are hand watering, trimming of bunker banks, topdressing, deep rake sand bunkers, etc.
· By alternating the idling procedure a higher level of conditioning can take place on both courses with maximum efficiency.
· By shifting employees to the idle golf course after set-up of in-play course, all of the job tasks that interrupt normal play can be accomplished with increased staff numbers.
· During any high use days, communication can take place to open both courses without major complications or “Catch-Up” maintenance.
· Large turf areas are maintained as normal (greens are triplex mowed 3 time per week, fairways and rough are mowed as usual).
· Total estimated savings is $32,000.00 per year (16 weeks X $2,000.00 = $32,000.00).

For further information see HOURLY TASK SCHEDULER in the addendum section.

The negative aspects to closing one course in the spring and fall are:

· High demand times of day could produce slow play “pockets”.
· Certain members may prefer one course over another.
· Course workers would still have to travel through West to work at East.
· Although less maintenance will be performed on the idle course, it would still need a certain “degree” of maintenance.

The option of having more outside play and tournaments for producing more income might be considered. There is not any competition locally for the caliber of golf that Sample Fairways offers in the metropolitan area. An additional 5,000 rounds per year would more than pay for the additional maintenance required keeping both courses open for play on specific days in spring and fall.

If it’s the consensus to keep both courses open for the current 7 month season, a staggered starting time could be used for each course. Considering that the high labor demand is at first light, if one course were to open later in the morning, essentially the same staff members preparing the first course for play could remain “ahead” of play setting-up that later opening course. We estimate total year savings for this staggered at approximately $18,000.00 ($800.00 per week X 23 weeks = $18,400.00)

There remain many options to reduce expenses in golf course maintenance. Idling course usage and moving opening times are an example of some tried and true techniques. The above options will not omit or defer good sound maintenance practices.

It is our opinion that the golf courses at Sample Fairways are in good condition overall. With the addition of an aggressive salt remediation program and simple management changes, the East and West Golf Courses should continued to be viewed as two well managed and great examples of golf in the Southwest North America.

If we can be of any further assistance please feel free to call on us as needed.

Respectfully Submitted,

Michael D. Vogt, CGCS, CGIA

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