Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Golf Course Survey, Again, More Than You Need To Know!

By Michael Vogt, CGCS

Surveys represent one of the most common types of quantitative research into a study group. In a common survey the survey administrator selects a group of respondents and executes a standardized questionnaire to them. The questionnaire, or survey, can be a written document that is completed by the person being surveyed. A survey can be conducted as an online questionnaire, a face-to-face interview, or a telephone interview. Using surveys, it is possible to collect exacting data, desires and tends from a specific population.

Proper focus groups and surveys help you:

● Determine how to correctly target your golf course maintenance and capital spending and plans

● Identify membership desires and other opportunities at your club

● Determine what you are doing wrong as well as what you are doing right

● Uncover problems with your course maintenance business that may not have surfaced otherwise

● Evaluate your success with projects and maintenance with measurable data

Focus Groups

In combining focus groups with surveys, group members not only can help provide topics for surveys but importance rankings and survey question distribution. If you want to assess your members' needs beyond simple questions and answers here's how focus groups can help.

Focus groups are typically composed of 4 to 5 pre-screened members that meet criteria you specify. They are assembled in one room to discuss and react to specific topics relevant to your golf course business.

Consider this: you are planning your next year’s annual budget and would like to learn what your members think about conditioning on the golf course before bring the plan to the board for approval. You could hire a company to conduct a survey beginning with a series of focus groups and a survey to follow but that can be very expensive. So how can you get this information more affordably? You can attempt do it yourself.

Clearly, any research you do yourself will have limitations when compared to studies conducted by professionals, but if you are seeking some general guidance about important topics of interest, you can get good information for a nominal cost.

The goal is to explore the general attitudes of the participants to the topics selected for inclusion in the session and ultimately to aid in the construction of survey questions. Focus groups are intended to generate macro information, whereas quantitative survey research seeks to provide micro information. Use the focus group to help formulate your survey questions.

There is no rule as to the number of focus groups to be conducted on a specific topic but two or three groups of different age, handicap and gender usually will work fine. This raises one of the most important issues relative to the implementation of focus groups; the definition of the participants. In any focus group session it is vital that the composition of the group is as homogeneous as possible in terms of key demographic characteristics. For example, if course conditioning is the topic there would be major differences in attitudes between high and low handicappers, social and full golfing members, men and woman and participants who are under 35 compared to those over 65. Not only will the participants have different views on a topic, but getting participants to share their attitudes will be much easier if they are not placed in an environment where some might be intimidated by others due to age, skill of the game or gender. Therefore, it is important to conduct at least one group with each constituent group of the same gender and of different abilities at least.

Before the focus groups meeting, develop a very clear and precise written statement of the objectives for conducting the research. It is essential to have a well-thought-out 'target' for the study which will form the strategic basis for the project. It could be titled, “The Importance of Conditioning as it Relates to Annual Budget Preparation at Pleasant Fairways Golf Club”. A brief explanation of the plan should accompany each written statement. Be sure to give these statements to each participant in advance of the meeting.

Create a discussion guide outline that contains all the topics you hope to cover in a focus group. The discussion guide is the most important tool in focus groups and is as vital to the novice as to the experienced moderator. The guide is intended to provide a logical flow to the discussion, so that all topics are covered and there is consistency across all the groups in a series relative to the information discussed. Golf course superintendents know the steps involved in different types of course conditioning, member golfers do not. Explanations of the differences in course conditioning and budget preparation are helpful in the discussion. To this end, it is helpful to provide a time estimate for each of the topics as a guide for the moderator and to ensure that everything gets covered, but also for those interested in the output of the research.

Ensure the group does not go off on tangents, wasting valuable time. It is the responsibility of the moderator to direct discussion so that all topics are covered.

View the group discussion as a way to obtain interaction among the participants. It should not be a series of questions directed at each individual. One of the key benefits of the focus group methodology is to have participants react to each other as ideas are presented, so it is possible to determine the differences in attitudes among participants.

Finally, use write-down exercises to initially lock participants into a position about a particular topic, so they are not swayed by the effects of group dynamics in which a dominant personality can influence the flow of the discussion. Essentially, a write-down exercise is a vehicle whereby the moderator raises a topic (e.g. reaction to increase in green speeds) and each person in the group is asked to write their point of view in 30 words or fewer on a piece of paper prior to discussing the topic. If this is done, the participants will be more honest about their responses than if they were asked to respond to the question without having written down their view first.

Focus groups are helpful because the participants can be probed for the reasoning behind their opinions, and conversations can be generated around a particular topic giving you what's known as "rich data" as opposed to, for example, the finite answers you get from survey questions alone.

As the name implies, these are focus groups, keep the subject matter narrow to the immediate task at hand. For example, if you want the focus groups to guide you to areas on the course that need attention, in their opinion, ask the group a specific question and give them specific choices.

“In your opinion, what single maintenance item needs to be accomplished to help our club compete with other clubs in our region?”
1) Green Speed
2) Replace Bunker Sand
3) Add More Cart Paths
4) Renovate Rest Rooms on Course
5) Level Tees

Then, discuss these items and take copious notes. From the feedback you’ll discover the “Hot Button” items that should be uncovered from the focus groups passion about the subject as well as the solutions these members might have. Remember, BITE YOUR TONGUE, this is not the forum to rebut criticisms and comments!

Equal weight should be given to each group, so often the low handicappers are the driving force for change on the course. The women, juniors, seniors and weekend-playing high handicappers must be involved in the process or the questions placed in the survey will not be appropriate or statically valid for the good of the membership as a whole.

Remember, the focus group was used as a preliminary research technique to explore the membership’s ideas and attitudes. Also, the focus group is often used to test new approaches, and to discover membership concerns. Generally, keep the subject matter thin and to the point during the focus group sessions. At all costs, conversations with these focus groups must be kept for becoming grip sessions.

The Questions

Writing the questions to ascertain the answers needed to guide your course to the next level of membership satisfaction and playability are difficult and could become a Catch 22 if not carefully formulated. Here are some simple guidelines and examples for building a meaningful question for your golf survey.

• Ask for an answer on only one dimension or topic. The purpose of a survey is to find out specific information. A question that asks for a response on more than one dimension or topic will not provide the information you are looking for. For example, survey questions investigating new bunker sand asks, "Do you like the color and playability of the experimental sand in the practice bunker?" If a respondent answers "no", then the superintendent will not know if the member dislikes the color or the playability, or both. Another questionnaire asks, "Are you satisfied with the quality of cut and height of cut of our greens and tees?" Again, if the respondent answers "no", there is no way to know whether the quality of cut, height of cut, or both of greens and or tees were unsatisfactory. A good question asks for only one "bit" of information.

• A survey question should accommodate all possible answers. Multiple choice items are the most popular type of survey questions because they are generally the easiest for a respondent to answer and the easiest to analyze. Asking a question that does not accommodate all possible responses can confuse and frustrate the respondent. For example, consider the question:

What’s the name of your favorite golf course architect? ______
A. Tom Fazio
B. Jack Nicklaus

Clearly, there are many problems with this question. What if the respondent doesn't have a favorite golf course architect? What if the member’s favorite architect is Pete Dye? What if the member has multiple favorite architects? There are ways to correct this kind of problem.

What’s the name of your favorite golf course architect?___
A. Tom Fazio
B. Jack Nicklaus

C. Pete Dye
D. I don’t have a favorite golf course architect
E. Other(s) Please List ___________________

• A question that probes satisfaction and importance should always include five factors. These questions most often give information that can be easily analyzed and give the superintendent very specific direction on needed improvements and changes in management strategies. (A graph that illustrates this is explained in the data section of this article)

Choose A though E to describe your satisfaction on overall greens condition __.
A. Very Satisfied
B. Satisfied
C. Neutral
D. Dissatisfied
E. Very Dissatisfied

• The importance of each tested element should also be indicated similarly:

Choose A though E to describe the importance of overall greens condition ____.
A. Very Important
B. Important
C. Neutral
D. Unimportant
E. Not important at all

• A great question has mutually exclusive options. A great question leaves no ambiguity in the mind of the respondent. There should be only one correct or appropriate choice for the respondent to make. An obvious example is:

Why do you play golf? ____.
A. For fun
B. For enjoyment
C. To be outdoors
D. To appreciate nature

The answers to the question seem ambiguous. Furthermore, player who enjoys more than one feature would not know whether to select choice A, B, C or D. This question would not provide meaningful information.

• When a question produces no variability in responses, we are left with considerable uncertainty about why we asked the question and what we learned from the information. If a question does not produce variability in responses, it will not be possible to perform any statistical analyses on the item. For example:

What do you think about the golf course? ___.
A. It's the worst golf course I’ve ever played
B. It's somewhere between the worst and best
C. It's the best golf course I've ever played

Since almost all responses would be choice B, very little information is learned. Design your questions so they are sensitive to differences between respondents. As another example:

Do you repair ball marks on greens? (Circle: Yes or No)

Again, there would be very little variability in responses and we'd be left wondering why we asked the question in the first place. Among the most subtle mistakes in questionnaire design are questions that make an unwarranted assumption. An example of this type of mistake is:

Are you satisfied with the club’s USGA specification greens? (Circle: Yes or No)

This question will present a problem for someone who does not know what a USGA specification green is. Write your questions so they apply to everyone. This often means simply adding an additional response category.

Are you satisfied with the club’s USGA specification greens?____
A. Yes
B. No
C. I don’t know what constitutes a USGA specification green

• One of the most common mistaken assumptions is that the respondent knows the correct answer to the question. Industry surveys often contain very specific questions that the respondent may not know the answer to. For example:

What percent of the greens consist of Poa annua?___
A. 20%
B. 25%
C. 30%
D. 40%

Very few people would know the answer to this question. If you ask a question similar to this, it is important to understand that the responses are rough estimates or completely erroneous and there is a strong likelihood of error.

If there is any possibility that the respondent may not know the answer to your question, include a "don't know" response category.

• Wording of a question is extremely important. We are striving for objectivity in our surveys and, therefore, must be careful not to lead the respondent into giving the answer we would like to receive. Leading questions are usually easily spotted because they use negative phraseology. As examples:

Wouldn't you like to have golf course condition similar to Augusta National? (Circle: Yes or No)

Don't you think the board is spending too much money? (Circle: Yes or No)

Never use emotionally loaded or vaguely defined words. This is one of the areas overlooked by both beginners and experienced survey administrators. Quantifying adjectives (e.g., most, least, majority) are frequently used in questions. It is important to understand that these adjectives mean different things to different people.

• Branching in surveys should be avoided. While branching can be used as an effective probing technique in telephone and face-to-face interviews, it should not be used in written surveys because it sometimes confuses respondents. An example of branching is:

1. Do you currently play golf at another club? (Circle: Yes or No) If no, go to question 3
2. How much are guest fees at the other club?

These questions could easily be rewritten as one question that applies to everyone:

1. How much are guest fees at other clubs you play?___
A. Less than $45.00
B. Between $46.00 - $50.00
C. Between $51.00 - $65.00
D. Between $66.00 - $80.00
E. Above $81.00
F. I don’t play at other clubs

• Questions asking respondents to rank items by importance should be avoided. This becomes increasingly difficult as the number of items increases, and the answers become less reliable. This becomes especially problematic when asking respondents to assign a percentage to a series of items. In order to successfully complete this task, the respondent must mentally continue to re-adjust his answers until they total one hundred percent. Limiting the number of items to four will make it easier for the respondent to answer.

What are the most important items (by percentage) we should address when considering the practice areas?___
A. The practice tee divot program
B. The chipping green size
C. The practice green size
D. Better more visible target greens

The Data

From the above satisfaction questions we can ascertain a variety of statistical measures, the graph below will illustrate some interesting information of membership desires in specific areas of the course.

The graph in Figure 1 indicates greens are the highest rated component tested, it is what is known as a quality driver, high satisfaction and highly important to most all members. Testing tees at these golf course components should be slated for priority improvements or simply put, very important to golfers but could use more improvements. Rough, cart paths, practice range and bunkers are of less importance to members and should be viewed as missed opportunities but not as critical as the rest of the components tested.

By testing these seven critical areas we have ascertained information that will guide maintenance and improvement programs to meet membership expectations.

                         Figure 1

                         Figure 2

Critically import is the standard methodology used to understand the membership’s importance of an asset or activity, the graph to illustrate these outcomes is apparent in Figure 1. Figure 2 compiles survey respondent averages for questions based on importance and satisfaction and the gap or deviation between the two. The closer this gap is to zero the better the balance is between importance and satisfaction. Importance of a component or activity in most cases will most likely remain the same from year to year, if the importance does move, it will slowly move, over time as attrition changes the demographics of the club. Satisfaction is the important driver that needs to be most examined in a timely fashion or perhaps yearly fashion.

As the above graph shows, data points that are in the right two quadrants are of higher importance to the member, as these data points move up in the graph satisfaction increases.

The curved line represents a “Value Boundary”; items below this curved line are indicated as needed improvements, especially the data points furthest to the right two quadrants. They indicate higher need for improvement based on attaining membership satisfaction relevant to importance.

We know form this example that greens, fairways and tees are classified as high importance, these three golf course components also scored high in satisfaction. The superintendent can gather from this graph that bunkers are deemed important but scored low in satisfaction. A bunker program is indicated by this member survey. Tees are also deemed of high importance and slightly below the “Value Boundary” in satisfaction, tees should be considered for some sort of renovation in the near future to achieve a better satisfaction score.

Rough, practice range and cart paths fall into a range in the upper-lower left quadrant. They are considered significant enhancers, not very high in satisfaction or importance. If these components move into the upper right quadrant they would become significant enhancements to the overall golf course condition in this example. Recommendations would be to address these items as time and funds become available.

The club’s vibrancy depends on three basic features:

Utilization → Satisfaction → Retention

Asking questions based on the members perceived importance and satisfaction become important drivers to accomplish the finest plan to sustain membership value and contentment. Formulating questions in a format that asks for satisfaction and importance becomes critical in an improvement plan and routine maintenance practices.

This article just touches on some of the valuable information on conducting a focus group study and survey to determine membership player satisfaction. Getting information on value and direction of important management strategies is more important today than in prior years. Through use of specialized management techniques including surveys, operational studies, strategic planning and annual budget and program forecasting you can increase utilization, satisfaction and ultimately enable your club to increase membership retention. In today’s competitive golf environment member’s enjoyment and satisfaction are paramount to retaining a fully satisfied membership roster.

Download a free copy of a sample survey in excel format.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Steps for a Better Golf Management Business, Step #4

By Michael Vogt, CGCS

Like construction of a building the foundation for a great management scheme begins with solid, proven business practices. We have already formulated a plan to ascertain what the members desire (survey) we have dovetailed the memberships desires into a set of standards, the standards have been quantified into the time it takes to carry out the tasks. The hours needed have been rolled in dollars for labor.

To formulate an all encompassing golf maintenance budget a tally of needed supplies must be added. The supplies needed to carryout the golf course maintenance have to be gathered; chemical controls, fertilizers, equipment parts and other amenities to carry out the business of maintaining the course.

Putting all of these known factors into a concise budget, which in mathematic terms will describe your maintenance plan, is the next and final step. A budget that explains the time, motion and supplies needed to provide the desired playing conditions is often very difficult to generate. Each line item needs to be explained in a language designed for the layman.

A list of each budget line item should be addressed and at minimum should contain the following:

Labor                                                                                Fertilization
Water                                                                               Chemical Controls 
Power                                                                               Maintenance and Repairs
Seed, Soil and Plants                                                         Gas, Diesel, Oil and Lubricants
Materials and Supplies                                                       Leases
Travel and Education                                                         Uniforms and Laundry
Projects (Non-Capitalized)                                                 Cultivation Schedule

A sample of a budget template can be viewed at;


The culmination, recording and assembly of this information will demonstrate that sufficient thought and consideration went into this portion of the business plan for your golf maintenance programs. Presentation and defending the budget and your programs will be much easier for the simple reason that everything you will present has a purpose based on the desires of the membership, the actual hours needed to perform the desired tasks and the need for the supplies to fulfill the maintenance and projects desired. Obviously, the more information supplied to the budget approval persons the better chance your plan will not be scrutinized and approved as submitted.

If and when the maintenance operation is relegated to saving expense items a well prepared budget will make the savings decisions easier by the virtue of the documentation process. An example; if you know how much it costs each day to rake bunkers an alternate plan can be devised and the savings amounts can be discovered much simpler.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

The more homework you do and the better your supporting documentation the more credibility you will carry with your board of directors or general manager. If you follow these steps to create a solid business plan you will begin to manage the golf course maintenance department more like a business, with less unexpected surprises, and more control over your golf maintenance business environment. That farmer just had a bad plan!            

Friday, February 5, 2010

Golf Course Management’s Dirty Little Secrets

How is it that golf courses are beginning to manage turf without all of the inputs thought just several years ago to be necessary?

• Fertilizers applied to greens that approach or surpass 5 pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet per year,
• growth regulation chemicals to keep grass from growing after applications of excessive fertilizers,
• special amino acids to replace important nutrients and balance the soils that we have messed up with all of the other chemicals,
• products to control cyanobacteria because greens are built in places they shouldn’t be,
• moss species invading greens surfaces because natural selection makes the greens surface a better place to grow moss than bentgrass,
• USGA specification greens that have to be rebuilt every 15 years because thatch and organic matter choke the upper sand layer of oxygen and water,
• insecticides that are being blamed for a mass destruction of the bee population,
• over watering has caused many problems from over-fertilization to increase use of fungicides, not to mention the waste of water,
• Ground water in jeopardy at golf courses that have insufficient mix and load facilities.

The pendulum is starting to swing in the opposite direction! Golf course superintendents are beginning to use less chemical fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides. More and more superintendents are relying on soil testing to augment nutrients needed to grow quality turf. Each day I read stories about a golf course starting on the path of organic products, spraying less and focusing on “feeding the soil”.

The latest report from the golf course superintendents association stated that:

• 202,192,000 pounds of Nitrogen where used on golf courses in the study year,
• 73,620,000 pounds of Phosphate,
• 198,010,000 pounds of Potassium.

That’s 473,822,000 pounds of fertilizers on just golf courses in one year! That’s 361 pounds of active ingredient fertilizer per acre, average, per golf course!
Just Say’n

Monday, February 1, 2010

Steps for a Better Golf Course Management Business, Step #3

By Michael Vogt, CGCS

Now that you have a great documented guiding mission statement and a set of standards that members and staff have agreed upon, you’ve even went so far as to survey your membership to really tune into their needs and desires – now what?

Find Out What it Costs to Deliver the Product.

People that have been in the business of golf course maintenance know that the largest part of golf course work is production. Cut the grass, then when you’re finished, cut the grass again. This not to say that some tasks are not routine, spray the grass, water the grass, fertilize the grass, those efforts are different every time.

What does it cost to cut the grass? Easy to quantify, get out a stop watch and time the task. Greens – 5 men, 3 hours – easy enough, right? Not so fast, rake the sand bunkers, three guys 4 hours. What if you put two more guys on greens and had them rake bunkers as they went around, maybe you save some labor, maybe not but you’ll never know until you try. Travel time is a killer, the more guys you have running around leap-froging from hole to hole the more labor you waste.

Imagine this; if you can save just 5 hours per day, in a year that translates to about 1,200 hours. At $12.00 per hour inclusive that’s $14,400.00 per year based on a seasonal employee. I have heard so many stories over the last year about superintendents looking for ways to save money or budgets being cut by another 10%. I believe the old way of thinking about how we accomplish the routine jobs needs to be viewed differently.

Shift Into High Gear

When does most of the grass get cut? Most mowing occurs during the early morning and throughout the day, right? How about we consider mowing fairways and rough later in the day, after noon or into early evening. The next question is, “who will supervise those late day employees mowing rough and fairways?” Hire and train the right person, chances are they don’t need to be supervised, I was a night-waterman, I was never supervised while I preformed one of the most important jobs of applying water to the whole course.

That late shift can also move hole cups, and pick up trash, fill divots, add water to ballwashers, set tee markers, move traffic control ropes and signs. Spilt or duel shifts work amazing well and give the golf course superintendent the opportunity to utilize part-time labor. Normally at reduced cost without full time benefits. I have had the chance to work out some of these late day options and they work out great, saving valuable time during early morning golf course set-up. I did learn not to rake sand bunkers the night before, every animal with twenty miles of the course will visit and play in freshly raked sand during the dark, bad idea!

I have never understood that one of the busiest days of the week is the weekend, why do so many courses not mow fairways, approaches and tees on the weekend. Sunday afternoon most courses are starting to look and play a little shaggy, just a thought. Wouldn’t your members and guests be thrilled if you maintenance practices had a mowing of fairways, approaches and tees during the weekend?

After exploring new and exciting ideas to save valuable labor we all know that overtime does not produce one and one half times more efficient labor, overtime is an extreme waste of your businesses money. Overtime is not an entitlement to make up for low wages, pay fair wages to begin with. Overtime in some cases can not be avoided; emergency situations like irrigation repairs, chasing hot spots on Saturday or Sunday afternoon are examples. The golf course budget is money you have the authority to spend but you never have the authority to waste!

After you decided on allotted times for routine maintenance practices design your plan to assign dollars to the hours and you’ll have a good beginning at a labor budget than truly reflects the cost of maintenance at your course, doing the jobs tasks as you designed and forecast.

Next Week Part #4 will look at budget formulation.