Golf and sports turf going in opposite directions

May 13, 2009  - By

By: Ron Hall

ST. AUGUSTINE, FL — Golf course superintendents and sports field managers work in sister industries, and the two professions have a lot in

common. Most notably, the success of both is measured by their ability to provide facility users with functional and attractive turfgrass playing surfaces.

There are obvious differences, of course. Sports field managers must also be able to maintain synthetic turf fields, and fake grass has yet to make significant inroads into the golf market. Also, sports field managers are not challenged with mowing their fields at a fraction of an inch as golf course superintendents must do with their greens.

The recent American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC) Conference here revealed an even larger difference between the two groups — future growth prospects of their respective professions, which would seem to have career implications for the next generation of turfgrass managers.

In a nutshell: The sports field industry is expected to continue its robust growth, while the golf course industry is stagnant and is expected to remain so for several years to come.

William “Bill” Kubly, founder of Landscapes Unlimited, Lincoln, NE, provided ASIC members and guests with an overview of the golf course industry at the recent conference. What he shared about the golf course industry wasn’t encouraging, not in the short-term anyway. Let’s start with the numbers.

Kubly said that through most of the 1990s and up until 2001, more than 300 new golf courses were being opened annually in the United States, almost one a day. Since then, the numbers have been dropping significantly with 100 new courses opening in 2006, 60 in 2007, 43 in 2009 and only 30 new courses projected for 2009. That number of annual openings is likely to remain about 25 a year for the next five years, he predicted.

“We knew this was going to happen. We just didn’t know when,” said Kubly, whose company provides project development along with design, construction and irrigation services for golf courses, sports fields, parks and major landscapes.

A number of factors are contributing to the golf industry’s malaise, he said, including: the number of rounds played remains flat, too many courses and the inability of the golf industry to get out of its economic funk, which actually started in 2001.

Right now, golf course owners and operators are holding onto their cash and are putting off major renovations and irrigation projects, and what few projects are in development are attracting “a lot of hungry contractors,” he said.

Eventually, the golf course industry will revive, Kubly said, but not to the level it experienced in the 1990s. He said a realistic figure for new course openings when the golf industry revives will be about 60 courses annually.

But even Kubly, whose company specializes in golf course work, sees some bright spots in the industry’s depressed condition. The industry shakeout will weed out a lot of the weaker owners and operators, and bonding companies will look harder at the contractors they bond, eliminating less qualified contractors from major projects.

It’s also a great time to do a renovation or irrigation project due to lower commodity prices, Kubly said, adding, “we’re very excited about the irrigation and renovation side of this business.”

Beyond that, if you’re a golfer, you’ll likely never see a lower price if you’re looking for a golf membership, even at high-end courses, he said.

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