David Ward, Superintendent of Golf at Coyote Run Golf Course, has brought his wealth of experience and insight from private course management to help develop a successful new municipal property.
In the golf world, there are experts in the management and maintenance of private clubs and their golf courses, and experts who know how to make the most of clubs and courses that are open to the public. Operating the two types of properties is very different, though, and it’s rare to find someone who has strong experience with both.
One such person is David Ward. He began his career by building an impressive resume at private clubs, including the renowned Olympia Fields (Ill. ) Country Club, where he presided over course maintenance duties for two major tournaments, including the 2003 U.S. Open. Then four years ago, Dave moved on to the challenge of helping the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District, in suburban Chicago, get its new public layout, Coyote Run Golf Course in Flossmoor, Ill., up and running. As Superintendent of Golf, his efforts have played a large part in Coyote Run’s initial success, with the course already being rated the “Best Buy” in the Chicago area by Golf Chicago! magazine
At a time when superintendents at every type of property are under the gun to maintain standards and conditions with significantly reduced resources, Dave’s insights on how to do more with less, in any environment, are especially timely and valuable.
|David Ward moved four years ago from a distinguished career at private clubs to help the Homewood-Flossmoor (Ill.) Park District build and develop Coyote Run Golf Course (above), which is already rated as one of the Chicago area’s best public values.|
Q Dave, tell us about your background and how you became a superintendent.
A I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, very near my current course. After starting out at Illinois State University as a biology major, I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1974 with a degree in agricultural science. I got interested in golf course maintenance by working summers on the grounds crew at a local country club, Idlewild, and decided to pursue a career as a superintendent when I couldn’t decide if I wanted to teach biology or try to get into medical school.
I have been a superintendent at four facilities: Kenosha (Wis.) Country Club; Ravisloe Country Club in Homewood, Ill.; Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, and currently at Coyote Run. While at Olympia Fields, the club hosted the 1997 U.S. Senior Open and the 2003 U.S. Open.
Q What were some of the highlights—and challenges—of managing a private, upscale club like Olympia Fields, and hosting major events there?
A Managing a “top 100” rated facility with 36 holes, a large budget, and demanding members is challenging, and that challenge can be fun—most of the time. I enjoy construction and had the opportunity to be involved in major renovation projects prior to both USGA events. Hosting a major is not something I was trained to do, but I had the chance to meet and learn from exceptional superintendents with “major” experience, and that was a definite highlight.
Just being involved and watching a major unfold, from the planning stage until the last semi-load of bleacher material pulls away, is priceless. Putting together a team, developing a plan, and then pulling off a major event and making it a fantastic experience for all who participate were highlights of my career. The best individual day of my career was the Monday after the Open. I went in early to apply some water to a few spots and was the only one on the course on a beautiful morning, driving around in the dew with an incredible sense of relief and accomplishment.
Q You now manage a public course in the same area, and were involved with its development and construction. What major differences do you see between managing an older course with old technology, vs. a new course with improved plant genetics, modified root zones, new irrigation and drainage, etc.?
A On an older course that had been highly modified through the years, many of the greens had different soil or sand types, and different species that required different chemical and cultural practices. With a high percentage of Poa annua, shade issues, tree root competition, and other challenges, timely syringing was required through most of the summer.
On the new course, with uniform, USGA-specification greens and some of the newer bentgrass varieties, syringing isn’t necessary. In fact, we only water greens about once a week, regardless of weather. The varieties also handle heat and any cutting height we want to use. An engineered drainage system through the whole course takes care of all of the surface water after heavy rain, so we don’t have to worry about scalded turf after morning thunderstorms on a hot, sunny day in July.
The downside is the lack of topsoil. Our soil profile is much that of like a new subdivision, with two to three inches of black topsoil on top of heavy yellow clay. Even though the surface water drains off, the soil stays “squishy” for too long after rain events.
Q When building a new course or renovating an existing one, what have you learned about cost- saving design elements that can be implemented to lessen some expenses or operating budgets?
|A Blog to Cut Through the Fog David Ward also maintains a blog with daily entries to keep golfers and other interested readers updated on his efforts to bring new efficiencies to the operation and maintenance of Coyote Run Golf Course. To read the blog, go to http://coyoterungolf.com/courseconditions.html|
A The most important thing is to work with your architect, to make sure he or she knows what the maintenance budget will be, what type of hand labor you can afford, how much fairway turf you can afford to maintain, and so on. Make sure to go through the construction specifications with a fine-toothed comb, to be sure you will be getting what you want. If it isn’t in the specs, it won’t happen without a costly change order.
I also don’t think you can install enough drainage in bunkers—and not only are “smile” drains at the low end of bunkers important, a “frown” around the top is also vital. Also, spend time on the selection of the bunker sand, and talk to other superintendents about the sand on their courses.
If properly installed, I think liners are a great idea that can reduce operating costs by eliminating the need to push sand back in place after heavy rains. Coyote Run has only been open for four years, and we are already rebuilding bunkers because the sand specification wasn’t tight enough and the contractor selected a local sand that was too fine. The fine sand, combined with the silt that washed down the bunker slopes, caused the drainage to stop functioning. With other cost overages during course construction, we couldn’t afford to switch to coarser sand.
We are also having issues with the soil/water interface and muskrat damage in our lakes. It is a lot cheaper to install erosion control on the edges of lakes during construction than after the course is open.
Q Expectations drive the conditioning of a course, which often translates into more expense. What have you learned about managing your expectations, as well as those of the various types of golfers, so you can stay within budget requirements at different facilities?
A One of the big differences between a private and public course is the criteria the superintendent is judged on. At private clubs, the condition of the bunkers or the edging of the cart paths might be the determining factor. At public courses, it’s all about the greens.
At any facility, the budget needs to realistically match the expectations. Another way to reduce the cost of maintenance at a public course is to tolerate some disease and put into practice a curative, rather than preventative, fungicide program. Using generic products can also save a ton of money.
Tracking costs is also important, so the decision-makers can be shown the expense of hand-raking bunkers, edging cart paths, or fly-mowing banks. In today’s economy, all golf course maintenance budgets are being scrutinized. Communicating effectively with memberships or the public about what we can and can’t do to meet expectations, given the new financial restrictions, will be even more vital if we are to retain our jobs.
At Coyote Run, which is owned by the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District, reduced tax receipts and increased pension-related costs resulted in every Park District department head, including me, being asked to cut our budgets to the bone. In my case, our golf maintenance budget was already pretty lean, so some painful decisions had to be made. We eliminated one full-time employee and had the rest of our seasonal crew start a week later in the spring, and they will leave a week earlier in the fall.
We also eliminated, at least temporarily, an expensive, kelp-based liquid nutrient program, and are cutting back on soil testing. I did not attend the national [Golf Industry Show] this year, tree pruning is out for a year, and the purchase of hand tools for the shop has been postponed.
These reductions, along with little cuts in a lot of budget categories like office supplies, maintenance supplies, uniforms, etc., will save the District close to $50,000—about 10%—this budget year. I am also treating the moss on our course with a $1.00 box of baking soda, instead of Quicksilver. But I don’t think we can cut the budget any further without affecting the quality of the course.
Q Some are already arguing, though, that the economic downturn is offering golf an opportunity to get “closer to its roots,” meaning less-maintained conditions. What can you share about the pros and cons of this notion?
A I’m not sure if the average country club member will accept golf getting “closer to its roots.” People will continue to demand pristine conditions, particularly on the private side. We will have to be as creative in managing the budget as we are in maintaining the golf course, and look for areas where we can do things less expensively, without reducing standards.
I believe money can be saved without affecting playing conditions, by reducing chemical and fuel use and through the more creative use of part-time labor. A lot of satisfaction can come, in fact, from providing great playing conditions frugally.
We are also trying to use more organic products like the free bio-solids—composted sludge from Chicago’s sewage treatment system—that we have been using in our roughs and hope to use on all of the fairways this fall. And one of the ways in which we save fuel is by mowing based on the needs of the plants, rather than for aesthetic reasons.
Not all of these initiatives will save money; in fact, many will cost a little extra or have longer pay-back periods. But we hope the net effect is a reduction in resource use and an improvement in the environment. In fact, while some superintendents are worried about the new Administration imposing more stringent environmental restrictions on chemical or water use, others, like me, say—to use George Bush’s words—“bring it on!” Superintendents have always shown an ability to be creative and adaptive. We have dealt with economic adversity and restrictions on chemicals before, and the best superintendents always find a way to produce great conditions.
And as part of this, we can also be leaders by helping to make a real impact in a broader scope, as we find more inventive and efficient ways of doing things. Recently, I was asked by my boss, the Director of the Park District, to head up a committee to develop an overall environmental policy for the entire District. The policy is comprehensive and should save us some money by reducing energy usage through little things like turning off unused lights, installing programmable thermostats and setting temperature guidelines, reducing heating and cooling losses from buildings, etc. C&RB