Noel Mackenzie: Making greenkeeping at municipal golf courses a success

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:30

Noel Mackenzie: Making greenkeeping at municipal golf courses a success

I recently was commissioned to advise a golf course on its agronomy. However, the visit to the course in question revealed it to be one of the poorest conditioned courses I had seen in a long while, at least in relatively prosperous southern England.

Greens were long, heavy to putt on, tees were uneven – many with significant grass cover loss, fairways were adequate but in places wet and suffering poor drainage, irrigation was a joke and the ecology work around the course was incompetent. So I really liked it then? Clearly I didn’t and I can only say that the course would make an invaluable teaching aid (too be fair some of the problems were down to understaffing – but a golfer won’t know that). And I watched the course marshals collecting balls when they should have been checking tickets, then later putting hundreds of balls in the backs of their cars. Not very ethical working practice.

The course was local authority-owned, but maintained under contract with the contract let with running a leisure centre. The facility had its own resident club and this year its membership halved due to the condition of the course. And because they were ousted from their original accommodation as it was ‘more efficient’ to provide a catering service in the leisure centre some 200 yards from the first tee. The site of their former home had been taken and turned into a community centre.

The local authority was concerned that it was being heavily criticised about the condition of the course and hence why my services were requested. The issue was partly about turf condition on the course – the maintenance being limited by the three staff on site and further exacerbated by the constraints of this level of staff over 18 holes within a course with a complex transport network between the different areas.

Despite this, my sympathies lay with the players. They’d lost their home, got leisure centre catering in exchange, been blessed with a walk of 200 yards to the first tee (though most shortened it to 150 yards by walking diagonally across the football pitch!) and when they got to the first tee were greeted with no grass, poor levels, the longest hole on the course and only the synthetic teeing mat to play from. No wonder members were leaving this club and voting with their feet and their wallets!

This sounds like I am gearing up for a bash of local authority golf. In this instance I am! Local politics, planning departments, a lazy and disinterested contractor, a pretty lazy club (except for a few stalwart complainers) and a local authority that had lost ‘ownership’ of the site (and its clients). All this conspired to create the worst business scenario for a course – and this is before the nearest green to the community centre receives the attentions of delinquents who so often hang around on the fringes of such facilities. It is rare for me to feel so disheartened by a situation but this one really made me sad for the wasted opportunities, and there were many, which effectively were the vandalism of a course and the under-appreciation of its users. Perhaps I can get the message across to all concerned but, I have to admit, I somehow doubt anyone is really listening! There is no ‘ownership’ in management terms.

I was musing on this and the state of local authority golf courses and greenkeeping. I was struck by the contrast with Stockwood Park Golf Club in Luton. Some years ago it was a typical local authority course. It was in adequate condition with a semi-skilled ‘head greenkeeper’ who was in many ways the archetypal council worker having been involved in agriculture in his early years. On the old greenkeeper’s retirement the contracts manager, Steve Battlebury, (following a discussion with myself) argued with human resources that employing someone on the agricultural / manual wage level was insufficient and a properly trained and experienced course manager or head greenkeeper would only be found for management grade money. After interviews (which I again assisted with) the contracts manager settled on Ian Bailey, who had worked on several other courses and was looking for his first ‘head man’ position.

I suggesting the course be set up as a strategic business unit rather than part of the wider ‘leisure services’ which (eventually) it did become. A charity set up a gold academy and this was built with nice USGA ‘specification’ greens on a short pitch and putt style course – ideal for beginners and novices. Inevitably, the local authority culture has stuck in many ways, some good, some not so good, but slowly and surely the supertanker-like golf course gradually turned and both clubhouse and course improved, largely as a result of Ian’s hard work and the arrival of Rob, his manager, in the clubhouse to attend to marketing and the like.

Today many of the features that really would have labelled this course a local authority course are gone. Some remain because the building is of a certain age and there are some structural limitations to it. The main point being that the course was tired (and Ian still has plenty to do) but there is a fresh approach to go with the lick of paint and the new marketing activities in the clubhouse. And because the course still belonged to the council and it had recruited wisely, so the opportunity to do more and ‘own’ the outcomes of the business were retained. Inside and outside the clubhouse a lot of good things happened that make the future pretty rosey-looking for the club and facility as a whole – all of which can only be good for local golf as new players are attracted in and meet user-friendly facilities.

Contrasting these two facilities is interesting. Clearly the first course is failing fast and if something immediate does not happen to this course it will close or have to be sold. The second course is on the up and benefiting from keener interest from new management. Perhaps they indicate the two opposite paths that local authority golf may go down at this time or in the future?

In the past many councils have been all too ready to accept the funding generated by their golf courses in order to supplement the running costs of leisure centres and other services which very rarely make money (when I last checked only one swimming pool hosting leisure centre in the country made a profit). Many golf courses had over £100,000 per annum sucked out of them and as a consequence they are showing the end results of under investment in infrastructure for machinery, irrigation, clubhouses and staff and machinery accommodation. Both courses mentioned in this article show signs of under-investment in the past, though the latter is tackling this issue head-on.

From my understanding of business and the current condition of the golf market it may well be that we will see a scene change in the future. Is it possible that local authorities will continue to want golf courses to supplement the cash required to run other facilities? In the current market golf courses are in competition for players and the price element of the marketing mix that courses employ to attract their clients is a big part of their marketing strategy. If price for membership and a round is squeezed there will be less margin for siphoning off funds for the other interests of local authorities – and if that is the case and their courses become a political and social liability, will some of them decide to quit the golf market?

I cannot pretend to have the all the answers. The free market is a fickle and highly complex animal. What I can identify with is that whether private or public courses are involved the successful courses will survive by providing a good service, good facilities, good course conditions and a friendly and user-friendly service. The courses that will fail and fall by the way-side will be those where the owners of the facilities fall short of presenting good facilities through a lack of understanding of golfer needs, failure to respect the conventions and implied standards of the game and particularly where greenkeeping standards fall below acceptable levels for whatever reason. As greenkeepers it is important to understand that the players will not understand or care if you are short staffed, under-resourced or have machinery failure, these are mere excuses in the face of a disappointing round and poor experience of their course.

Golfer’s do ‘own’ issues and the condition of the course is something they expect to be perfect – hence why the grumble at the smallest things sometimes. Managers and workers of a course also need to ‘own’ it and make the golfer’s whole game and course experience as good as possible by a combined effort from all staff. Marketing is something everyone has a role in because the experience of the golfer is affected by each and every member of staff, whether or not they interact with the player or not. Every interaction can contribute, or detract, from the golfer’s experience. Get it right and they’ll keep coming back for more and they’ll tell four other people its great. Get it wrong and they not only will be unlikely ever to come back, but they’ll tell nine other people that your course is rubbish. And the writing is on the wall in that situation.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:30
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