Course Maintenance Meets Challenges

Tom Elinskas, left, and Jack Collins, both of the Village of Sunset Pointe, play through the first hole of the Hibiscus course at Cane Garden Country Club.

Setting a golf course isn’t just about cutting new holes and positioning tee markers. Stakes and ropes get most of Chuck Pierson’s attention as he makes his morning rounds at Cane Garden Country Club. Those get repositioned daily, too, though the typical golfer might not notice as he drives off the cart path toward wherever his tee shot settled. In the effort to protect vulnerable turf near cart paths, said Cane Garden’s superintendent, “ropes and stakes are often the only defense you’ve got.” It’s a challenge shared by Pierson’s peers across The Villages’ vast golf array. As COVID-19 safety procedures have more than doubled the number of golf carts rolling across fairways, it’s heightened the test faced by superintendents. So far, it’s a task they’ve met with distinction. With an additional nod to a new maintenance timetable, conditions have drawn few complaints.

“Depending on Mother Nature, it’s not always going to be perfect,” said David Williams, golf operations administrator for The Villages Golf & Tennis. “But we have very hard-working people.”

At the same time, the challenge is just beginning. As temperatures cool and wet conditions turn to dry, grass needs longer to recover — with prime golf season just around the corner.

“We can play defense only so long. We need the golfers to really help us out, too,” Williams said. “It’s a collaborative effort between our maintenance teams and the golfers.”

As operations have returned to near-normal, golfers are being asked to double up in carts again if playing with someone in the same household or with whom they otherwise socialize away from the course.

Golfers won’t be denied the single-rider option, but the fewer tires on turf, the better.

“It’s going to be a challenge to see where we are at the end of the season,” Pierson said. “This is something we haven’t done.”

When single-rider carts became the standard in late March, it doubled the amount of cart traffic on any given day. In addition, rounds played increased sharply as Villagers turned to golf when other activities were shut down.

This summer, a typical day saw more than 9,200 rounds played in The Villages. Even factoring in the occasional walker, that’s 9,000-plus carts scattering about the fairways every day.

“It’s just wear,” said Dennis Swander, superintendent at Palmer Legends. “Anytime a tire goes across a (grass) blade, it creates wear. It’s stressing the plant out.”

Tennis fans might think of Wimbledon, which raises the curtain every summer on some of the most pristine grass in sports. Within two weeks, though, Centre Court shows marked wear along both baselines and even where the ball kids take their positions near the net.

Likewise, a football field oftentimes develops a wear pattern down the middle where players line up for every snap.

“For the amount of traffic we put through, which is enormous, we have very good turf,” Williams said.

Courses in The Villages are blanketed in bermudagrass, a hardy turf that thrives in Florida’s hot weather. As days become shorter and cooler, though, the growth backs off dramatically.

“It’s not going to jump back like it does in the summer,” Pierson said.

One key factor this summer was a change in scheduling at 27-hole complexes, taking a nine out of play for a week in afternoons and evenings. With no golfers to work around, projects big and small have been more efficient and the turf gets recovery time every three weeks.

Previously, Pierson said, crews would constantly “hopscotch” around the course depending on gaps between groups.

“I’d have to hit this area and hit this over here and this over here and then try to come back around,” he said. “Now I can get right behind that last (morning) group and I can go. There’s no (chance of) missing.”

From a manpower standpoint, too, crews didn’t face such long afternoons.

“They start at 5:45 in the morning, and sometimes they were here until 6 or 7 because of the hopscotching they’d have to do all day,” he said. “Now they can get done at a reasonable time and they stay fresh.”

Not every course had that luxury. Orange Blossom Hills and Tierra Del Sol, both 18-hole layouts, maintained their practices. So did Glenview Champions and Lopez Legacy, each with a nine down all summer for upgrades.

It’s worth noting that once Glenview and Lopez returned to 27-hole status, they shifted to the new rotation.

“We did more golf with less inventory, and the golf courses were in better shape,” said Tony Wilson, PGA professional at Cane Garden.

Even so, the high-traffic areas could have been problematic without some old-fashioned stake-and-rope policing.

“There’s 12 golf professionals and 12 superintendents that can tell you all the hot spots on their golf courses,” said Mark Verkey, PGA professional at Palmer Legends. “They know exactly where they’re at.”

“And usually,” Swander added, “it’s at the beginning of the fairway and end of the fairway.”

Said Verkey: “Nobody’s leaving (the path) at the 150-yard marker.”

By and large, golfers tend to leave the path at the first available opening and return just before the green. “If the rope ends here, that’s where they’re going to go,” Pierson said.

The trick, then, is to keep adjusting where the end of the rope is situated. Yesterday’s entrance point won’t be today’s, which won’t be tomorrow’s.

 “If the golfers do what they’re asked to do — follow the signs, follow the posts, pull off where they’re asked to — it’s not too bad,” said Mike Higginbotham, who oversees maintenance at Bonifay Country Club.

Pierson said he might even go out after lunch and reposition some end stakes in a slightly different direction, “just to encourage them to go a different way. I just gave (carts) another 5 feet that saves a little beating down.”

It’s a diligence that can’t let up as summer turns to fall and traffic remains high. And golfers play a role as well.

“One cart is never going to make or break you,” Williams said, “but thousands of carts will.”