Golf Course Superintendent Roundtable 1: Basic Maintenance Principles and Realities

A topical discussion with the game's leading greenkeepers


Some of golf’s unsung heroes are the Superintendents who rise early and spend their days tending to the golf course and maximizing golfer’s enjoyment. Their jobs are extremely difficult and most golfers know little about the day-to-day challenges they face. For the first edition of our roundtable, we are joined by Mike Manthey of Midland Hills Country Club in St Paul, MN, Sean Reehoorn of Aldarra Golf Club in Sammamish, WA and Connor Healy of Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, IL.

Beyond basic etiquette (repairing ball marks, raking bunkers, filling divots) what’s something you wish the average golfer knew or did that would make your job easier?

Mike Manthey: Replacing divots instead of automatically reaching for the sand/seed bottle. Divots recover so much faster than seed, and make a huge difference in playability and aesthetics. It’s amazing how many people never think to replace them on par 3 tees as well. That, and walking when you’re able to, because your golf cart may be the most damaging aspect to the course. People who take carts can’t complain about thin/inconsistent lies in collection areas or popular visited rough because the result is more than likely from their carts. Exercise is also a nice benefit of carrying/pushing your sticks – push carts all have cup holders now!

Sean Reehoorn: I had to google who gets credit for this quote, “Leave this world a little better than you found it,” said Robert Baden Powell. I remember this quote from my childhood. Replacing ‘world’ with ‘Golf Course’ would go a long way toward makong the maintenance crew’s job easier at any property. Picking up a piece of garbage, putting a bunker rake back, it only takes a few seconds but makes a huge impact for everyone playing and/or working that day.

Connor Healy: Foot traffic is incredibly impactful on greens. The walking around that players and caddies do on the green can lead to unnecessary damage. So minimize the amount of times circling around a pin location or even walking off the green in a direction that may be slightly off the straightest path can be helpful. It also seems like people almost tend to congregate in those areas that are the most worn out on their way to the next tee, so they actually step back and forth on the same spot many times as they are talking or waiting for someone to putt out.

If your budget gets cut, what’s the first area you would cut back on?

Manthey: We run a program-based budget so every aspect of our operation has a dollar amount attached to it. If my BOD were to come to me and say we need to cut $50,000 out of the budget, I present options with costs. Then no one can just say “cut some labor out,” which is usually the easiest reduction since it’s the largest line item. But making someone decide if mowing the rough 1 time per week instead of 2 is a much harder decision and forces thought and ownership.

If I’m forced to cut, which I have been in the past, we’ve cut from the flowers and landscape budget. It has the least real impact on your round of golf. We’ve reduced most of the flower and shrubbery beds to just around the golf course, saving us a ton of money and labor over the years.

Reehoorn: Labor would be the first to be cut. It’s the largest portion of any budget, so with less people you have to cut other things as well. Bunker maintenance would be the most obvious choice. Not having to hand-rake bunkers every day and flymow the edges every week would make an immediate impact on the budget.

Healy: That is a question that has a lot of variables. Depending on the severity of the cut, I would try to work with my Chairman, COO, Finance Committee, and the Board of Directors to review the extent of cuts and assess where they felt the cuts would best serve the goals of the club. With respect to labor, I would lean towards keeping the people, but managing overtime, which ultimately means something is not going to get done on the course. The first areas I would recommend focusing on is reducing time and inputs is towards the hazards, i.e. bunkers and native area management.

How do you think about balancing green speed, green contours, enjoyment, and Stimpmeter ego?

Manthey: We’ve created a Property Management Plan that’s implemented our ideal green speed. We know that if we go over that number, with our Seth Raynor contours, we have issues. We still need to be cognizant if we’re in the range and we have a 20 mph wind because that can have a big impact on keeping balls on the green. Our club prides itself on rounds of golf under 4 hours (we average 3:45 rounds). The single-digit handicappers may want them slightly faster but they’re 5 percent of the entire membership.

With our elimination of trees around greens, our rough surrounds are thick and can be extremely difficult to chip from. If our greens speeds are much faster than 11.5 on the stimp, there’s more pain and suffering than enjoyment. We want our members to enjoy their rounds so they celebrate how much fun they had in the grill than commiserating over their post-round beers.

Reehoorn: Great work has been done by Dr. Thom Nikolia of Michigan State University and Mike Morris of Crystal Downs CC in Frankfort, Michigan. They surveyed the membership to determine what they thought was the ideal green speed. Maintenance practices are now centered around achieving the desired speed the membership has determined to fit them. This is Business 101 – find out what your customers want and strive to provide that (link).

Older courses weren’t designed with stimpmeter readings over 11 in mind. Architectural features are eliminated because certain hole locations aren’t usable when they roll like a linoleum floor. Golf takes too long as it is, finding acceptable speed with smoothness is when it becomes fun and we can get back to four hour rounds.

Healy: First off, I absolutely hate the whole stimpmeter conversation. It has become such a focal point for golfers and TV conversation today. It almost seems like a game of who has the highest number and I do not entirely believe everyone is very truthful about what it really is.

I wish TV commentators would stay away from mentioning those numbers because that becomes fodder for every level of golfer who may or may not know how that relates to the given challenges at the place they are playing. I believe there is value in a Superintendent monitoring how speeds may fluctuate on a given day or between various greens. But even in tournament settings, when you start plotting out data points for green speeds, there is a variable component between given greens based on a number of factors – microenvironments around particular greens or severity of undulations. I think about green speed everyday and how it relates to what we are doing agronomically at that point in time. What golf events are happening at the club? What time of year it is? What is the short- and long-term weather forecast? We have a very good collection of golfers at Conway Farms, so we want the greens to roll well, roll true, and play firm when weather cooperates to maximize enjoyment for members and guests.

What is the toughest challenge you face day-in and day-out that is unique to your course and how do you combat it?

Manthey: Labor. We’re all in the same boat with this issue. The early mornings, weekends, manual labor, quick pace, seasonal timing, and better options for pay all work together to make finding competent labor a massive obstacle. We need staff to complete very detailed tasks in a fast manner and accomplish them every time because the work is highly scrutinized. That’s tough. Myself and my full-time staff are very detail-oriented, but getting through to someone who just thinks of it as a “seasonal job” is a real challenge. With competing wages in other industries, it’s difficult to not only find quality individuals, much less retain them. That’s not unique but it creates unique challenges to our course. It’s very hilly with dramatic topography, which results in cognizant operating of equipment and a lot of hand labor. Keeping staff focused and motivated to operate at high level is something we work daily on.

Reehoorn: My biggest challenge is trying to maintain creeping bentgrass surfaces in the Pacific Northwest with a year-round playing season.

It’s unique to our area, as nearly every other course has Poa annua (annual bluegrass) putting surfaces.  There are many benefits to bentgrass as a putting surface, but additional labor is required to achieve our goal. Whether we are successful who knows, but we believe it’s the right choice to provide the membership with the conditions they desire.

Healy: Every golf course is so unique in what they do to achieve an end result. One of the biggest challenges operationally for our team is the location of our maintenance building and the size of the course. We are located across the street from the course, with the farthest hole a few miles from the shop. Not having a centralized shop, we have to prepare very well for our first, second, and third jobs to be as efficient as possible because so much time can be lost by just driving back and forth. One of the biggest ways we overcome this obstacle is by rotating employee’s lunch times and having people take over on pieces of equipment, like mowing rough. When one person goes to lunch another person takes over for that person immediately so that the machine never stops running and then they swap back for the other person to take lunch. It is a juggling act, but ultimately gets the job done as fast as possible. We also start on the early side comparatively to get out in front of golf as much as possible because that dramatically slows down our completion time on almost every task if we are to get caught by groups of players.

Give us an example of how you creatively stretched your maintenance budget when you haven’t had all the resources/equipment you needed for the job?

Manthey: When I first started at Midland, we were spending over $50,000 on tree removals with a contractor. I wanted to use those resources for other things, such as topdressing sand, more labor and more capital improvements. We started to do the removal work in-house – about 95% of it – and cut that budget down to less than $10,000 but we upped our tree removal numbers each winter. We’ve upgraded capital needs to accomplish the removals, purchased a stump grinder, etc., so we’re now self-sufficient and have removed over 700 trees in the past few years. Training someone to safely drop a tree, piece it out, chip it, log it and safely haul it has to be precise because there’s no room for mistakes. We’ve found someone to mill the logs on property and haul them away for no exchange of money and the City takes our 300 yards of woodchips each spring to distribute in their parks. There’s an incredible amount of material that is generated when doing large amounts of tree removals, and it can be costly if you’re paying for someone to take it off your hands. A little creativity can save thousands of dollars.

Reehoorn: Twitter has stretched my maintenance budget as much as anything in the past few years. I know that sounds totally weird, but I believe that. Superintendents from around the world are on Twitter sharing ideas – ones that work and don’t work – allowing their colleagues to get to a proper solution faster. I’ve worked for and with many people in this industry and the good ones are always searching for a better way to do things and sharing their ideas with others. Twitter has expanded our ability to share ideas and help each other continue to innovate and improve.

Healy: I feel very fortunate to have a club that is committed to supplying us with the resources we need. It is very difficult to complain when I feel tremendous support from a resource standpoint. I would say that the person or people that most often get overlooked in the operation are the equipment technicians. The amount they do to keep everything running on a daily basis is nothing short of a miracle. They have to be extremely flexible in their approach to any given day, because there is no way to know what is going to break or when it is going to happen. Usually it happens at the least convenient time in the most difficult location of the course so they have to drop what they are doing and put out the fires as they happen. They are also fighting to keep everything running smooth when many of the agronomic practices we perform are not ideal for upkeep on equipment, like sand topdressing. You need to have someone that recognizes the things we are doing as Superintendents to maintain a playing surface are not always going to work well keeping mowers sharp and clean. It is a great balancing act that nobody really sees except for us, but it is so appreciated, especially if you have a good relationship with people and everyone has an understanding of how all of our jobs are intertwined.