Here’s why Michigan golfers must get used to sub-par course conditions

Staffing issues, particularly on grounds crews, are a major problem for many courses…

Here's why Michigan golfers must get used to sub-par course conditions 1
Here's why Michigan golfers must get used to sub-par course conditions 2

Golfers, by nature, aren’t the most patient species. Most like to play fast. And most like the course conditions to be pristine, regardless if they’re paying top dollar or if they booked an inexpensive round on one of the many internet discount sites.

Things are coming up rough on both counts early in the 2021 season. 

In a carryover from 2020, when rounds played in Michigan and across the nation were in the stratosphere with golf being one of the few activities allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, play again is surging, with tee times increasingly difficult to secure. 

That renewed interest in golf — which took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thanks to the Tiger Woods boom, but since had been steadily declining before the pandemic — has definitely helped the bottom lines of many public courses, slow play being an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect.

And now, a new hazard has emerged — a severe lack of workers, particularly on the grounds crews, which has many Michigan golfers grumbling on social media about conditions, which typically aren’t up to par early in the season anyway, but are well off even that soggy-spring standard.

“Like everybody else, we’re struggling with labor,” said Adam Ikamas, executive director of the Michigan Golf Course Superintendents Association. “It’s a cause-and-effect. It’s great that there’s more play, but that comes with a set of drawbacks.

“It is 100% not because the superintendent doesn’t care. But they’re not magicians.”

The typical public golf course has one superintendent and several grounds-crew workers under them. The total workforce depends on budget, from low six figures at lower-tier public courses to well into the millions at upper-echelon bucket-list courses and private clubs. Ideally, a course will have at least 12 workers, some full-time and some part-time. The staff can reach the 20s for top-end public courses and private clubs.

The grounds crews, most years, work two shifts. Early in the morning is the best time to address the major issues like cutting the holes, mowing the tees, greens and fairways, and raking the bunkers. Then there’s late in the afternoons to take care of pretty much everything else. But last year and this year, with all the play, afternoons are increasingly tough to maneuver, if not totally out of the question, without getting in the way of golfers.

So that leaves less time to do more work, with fewer workers. Your weekend muni never was going to look like Oakland Hills, but many courses aren’t even going to look like themselves. For instance, a staffing issue last year and this year at Radrick Farms, a University of Michigan-owned private course in Ann Arbor, led to complete neglect of multiple bunkers, which now have been grassed over.

“The biggest thing golfers are gonna have to be patient with is, like, the tee conditions, with all those divots through March and April when the grass isn’t growing,” said Doug Ware, superintendent for the city of Livonia, which has three public courses that, between them, already have seen 20,000 rounds played this year.

“We may never catch up this year.”

Ware is in charge of Fox Creek, which has a grounds staff of five — himself, one full-timer and three part-timers. The ideal staff size, he said, is 10 to 12.

“I get another guy next week,” said Ware, with a defeated chuckle, “so that’ll be good.”

Help wanted

The golf course workforce issue is similar to many other industries. You drive through any downtown in any town or city in Michigan, and you’re likely to see “Help Wanted” signs. They used to be pieces of paper in the window; now, often, they’re massive banners draped across the business front.

Pay is the main issue. Superintendents can make six figures and educated assistants in the mid to high five figures. But grounds crew staff — like pro-shop and bar/restaurant staff, which are hard to find, too — typically are hourly, and in past years many have worked for around the $10-an-hour-range (plus, at most places, free golf). With unemployment benefits extending through September, and including the extra $300 a week from the federal government, $10 an hour no longer is competitive. Ware has bumped up his starting pay modestly this year, to $11, which requires a raise for returning workers, too.

He’s hopeful he can fill his staff once school lets out, with high school friends of his son, Brenden, a student at Livonia Stevenson. Most courses don’t have that pipeline.

That includes private courses, which are feeling the labor pinch, too. If such courses see tough conditions, that can’t sit well with high-paying members. To fill out staffs, golf courses are having to turn increasingly to seasonal high school and college kids, as well as people seeking a second, part-time job — where the unemployment isn’t a factor — rather than full-time workers who may have some experience.

“We ran an ad Wednesday,” said Ryan Moore, superintendent of private Forest Lake Country Club in Bloomfield Township. “Normally, we’d get, say, 20, 25 people that would apply out of interest, half were legitimate people and half were just applying to any job. If we wanted to fill our staff, we didn’t have much of a problem.

“We’ve had zero responses.”

Forest Lake, typically, has a grounds-crew staff of 13 to 15, which is small on the country-club scale. Typically, 18, or one person per hole, is ideal. Moore just got a new employee last week, putting his staff at 10. Two of his crew work at the course during the day, and at a restaurant at night. Traditionally, Moore’s new employees, depending on experience, start at $11 to $12 an hour. He’s now looking at $13, and figures he’ll eventually have to pay at least $15. That, again, means raises for the holdover staff.

Unemployment benefits are one factor, as is the ongoing pandemic. Many people still don’t want to work around other people. A supply-chain breakdown, like with the mad toilet-paper rush of early 2020, is another problem. Parts and products, including fertilizer, that used to take weeks to arrive now can take months.

Flagging interest

But there’s a bigger issue at the root, and that’s the lack of interest in colleges’ turf-management, golf management and hospitality-business programs. Enrollment in Michigan’s turf-management (Michigan State) and golf management (Ferris State) has been on a steady decline. Specifically, with the 18 golf management programs in the United States, enrollment has declined 42.6% from 2013 (2,580) to 2020 (1,480). Ferris State’s program has seen a comparable decline and currently has 95 students — just as the game’s popularity went on a birdie-eagle-birdie run, when you couldn’t go bowling, see a movie or attend a ballgame.

“There are lifestyle elements to this,” said Mark Wilson, interim director of Ferris State’s PGA Golf Management Program who has been in the golf business for four decades. “You have to be willing to work when other people don’t. You have to work weekends and you have to work holidays and you have to work long hours.”

The game of golf gets blame here, too. It has stuffy roots but got away from that a little bit when young people began flocking to the courses amid the Woods effect. The game has been creeping back to its old ways, when jeans and cart speakers were really frowned upon. That attitude does nothing to help grow the game, for golfers and potential future industry workers, many experts agree.

If those trends don’t reverse or at least slow, golf courses could see much bigger staffing and condition issues in the coming years. Most of the state’s PGA club professionals are over 50, and most superintendents are closer to retirement than graduation day. Eventually, there will be a massive exodus, and likely little in reserve.

But that’s still a little way down the cart path, and golfers don’t really think about the 20-foot bending putt they might have to make tomorrow when they’re facing a 225-yard 3-wood carry over water today.

Golfers can do their part to help matters, as they’ve always been asked to do. They can replace their divots more frequently than they do, and repair their pitch marks on the greens — and maybe one or two extra, given all the extra wear and tear. (Golf rounds were up 50 million from 2019 to 2020, the second-highest spike since numbers were recorded, after 1997, when Woods won the Masters. Most experts expect another huge increase this year, if not a new record.) They also can be willing to pay $35 to $55 for a round of golf, rather than settling on the first $18 offer that pops up on GroupGolfer or GolfNow. Like anywhere, you get what you pay for — and this year, more than ever.

“It’s really gonna hurt the public sector right now,” said Ikamas, a point person for a superintendents association that works with many of the state’s 800-plus courses.

“We’re in for maybe a bit of a rough road.”

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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