Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in June 2012.
Sitting here watching the Masters Tournament, I marvel at the athletes. I marvel even more at the playing surface they are on at Augusta National, it’s just immaculate. I see how they have a practice area for player warm-ups, and the “playing field” isn’t touched until the “game” starts, and as a sports field manager, I get jealous. Everyone involved has great respect for the playing surface. I really admire the professionalism of those who manage this phenomenal facility. While I know that this is the pinnacle and does not represent operations at the average golf course, I still can’t help wondering why there is such a great separation in this country between golf course management and sports field management. It’s all sports turf. Golf is just a specific type of sports turf. So, why do we separate them so completely in this country? And, why do the average golf course conditions exceed the average athletic field conditions?
Maybe it’s the relative size of the two industries. There are about 17,000 golf courses, and according to some estimates there are as many as 750,000 athletic fields in the U.S. In terms of acreage, or numbers of facilities, the scope of athletic fields dwarfs golf courses. Still, when it comes to teaching, research, product development and sales, golf turf dwarfs sports turf. It can’t be the size.
Perhaps the critical distinction is economics. Golf courses are either private businesses or run like a business by a municipality of some kind. While this is changing, most athletic fields have been owned by municipalities or schools and are not really run like a business. More and more we see municipalities owning and operating athletic field complexes as a sound business and not managing these fields at a level just above neglect. There are many privately owned golf courses that are open to the public, but few if any such operations for sports fields. In terms of cost per hour of play, it’s easy to see that sports fields are significantly undervalued. Here in Denver I sometimes get a day off (it’s been known to happen). I could choose to play golf at the local park district’s golf course for $55 (18 holes with a cart); or I could enter my softball team in a men’s double-elimination tournament for $25 per player; or maybe I’ll head up I-70 and take in a day of powder skiing for about $100. My round of golf will be about four hours, or $13.75 per hour of play (drop the cart and it’s $10 per hr). At an elevation of 11,000 feet, five hours of actual skiing is a lot. That’s $20 per hour of play. For my $25 to play softball all day, I will play at least five and as many as 10 games that day, if we win. Let’s say we are average and play seven games, or seven hours of play at $3.57 per hour of play. Any way you slice it, the consumer cost to use athletic fields is far too low.
One big difference is that golf course superintendents have had a wonderful resource in its governing body, the United States Golf Association (USGA), particularly in its Green Section. Since 1921, the USGA Green Section has helped to improve course conditions throughout the U.S. They have supported a tremendous amount of turfgrass/agronomy research, and offer on-site consulting with an expert USGA agronomist available through the Turf Advisory Service. If you think of golf turf as sports turf like I do, the USGA is a great resource (www.usga.org and click on the “Course Care” tab). Think about it, a sport governing body taking an active interest in helping to promote better maintenance practices through research, education, agronomic consulting, economic and environmental sustainability and course management. When will the NFL, MLB and MLS have a “Field Care” tab on their websites, and a “Green Section?” The lack of support for sports field management from the sport governing bodies in this country is unique in the world, as best I can tell. I hope I live to see the day when these organizations offer full support. My goodness, we have the best sports turf researchers and research facilities in the world and they can’t find funding. The depth and breadth of these assets are unique in the world, and they are uniquely unfunded by our sports governing bodies.
The culture of sport is another important contrast. Golfers are generally conscious of their impact on the turfgrass and course conditions, much more so than the typical athletic field user. For example, golfers may not like it, but they understand when they can’t go out and play on a strong canopy frost. Try telling that to a footballer. They will ruin a field rather than postpone a game for a wimpy canopy frost. Imagine a full stage, musicians and dancers on the 18th green of Augusta at the halfway point of the Sunday Masters. In football, we just call it halftime. There are no Gatorade showers on golf greens. I could go on, but who would deny that the average athlete treats his or her golf turf with more respect than their athletic field?
The sports field management industry has come a long way in the last 30 years, but has a lot of work to do in fully developing its potential as well as the golf course management industry has. Safety in sports will continue to grow in importance in society, and we are uniquely positioned to make strides in the profession like never before because of this honorable movement. Safety matters, as has been the sports turf mantra for three decades. This month, a lot of us will be watching the U.S. Open at the historic Olympic Club near San Francisco. I will be watching a wonderful sports surface hosting athletes at the highest level and wondering how we can raise the median sports turf bar to the level of our big brother, golf.
Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 26 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager).