WisBusiness: Parched golf courses feel impact of drought

By Kay Nolan

For WisBusiness.com

Wisconsin’s worst drought in decades has golf course greens keepers singing the blues. And the price of salvaging parched golf courses could mean increased membership fees at private clubs, while public courses are hoping it won’t lead to higher taxpayer costs.

While the golf industry thrives on sunshine and warmth, too much of a good thing — such as this year’s persistent drought and triple-digit temperatures — is spiking costs at Wisconsin courses while at the same time dampening patronage in some areas.

“Water is at a premium,” said Jeff Bollig, spokesman for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “Most of the facilities, I’ve heard, are either tapped out on water supplies or close, and that means they have to buy more water, which is expensive, number one, and then their staff is working more overtime to hand-water places that maybe irrigation doesn’t get to as much, so you’re talking more labor costs.”

“Plus, it’s just been a long season,” Bollig noted. “I’m sure in Wisconsin, they normally bring out their temporary help later in the year, but if I’m not mistaken, it was like, 83, in Madison in March. They were bringing staff on early, so from a budget standpoint, all the good stuff you got with the added business early in the year is threatened by the fact that you’re going to have to pay more for water and your budget for labor is probably tapped out earlier in the year.”

Courses are unlikely to raise their prices for a round of golf, Bollig said, but he predicted some private clubs might assess members to recoup this year’s additional costs.

Bollig says golf courses in Wisconsin and other northern states are typically planted with bluegrass and fescue that isn’t suited for such hot weather. Greens were already drier than usual, too, thanks to an exceptionally mild winter and spring, with little snow and fewer April showers. Working to maintain the grounds in 100-degree heat is no picnic, either.

“Superintendents and staffs are quite frazzled,” Bollig said.

David Brandenburg, who manages the Fond du Lac County public golf course, said this year’s warm spring allowed the course to open in March, at least 20 days earlier than usual. But with July heat soaring in the 90s and 100s, many golfers — especially retirees who like to play in the middle of the day — have stayed home.

“We’ve lost as many days to heat this year as we normally would to rain,” said Brandenburg. In his 16 years with Fond du Lac County and 24 years in the golf business, Brandenburg says he’s never seen a summer like this. “I’ve seen it this dry but I’ve never seen it this hot when it’s this dry,” he said.

Not all Badger State golf courses are in poor condition.

“Our course is actually in really good shape,” said John Okray, assistant golf pro at Glen Erin Golf Club in Janesville. “We’re watering, of course, a lot extra than we normally would — pretty much close to double the water amount that we put on the course.”

Glen Erin has its own well, so the water supply is plentiful. But Glen Erin did stop watering its driving range, in order to concentrate on the fairways and tee boxes.

Jason Boaz, a golf pro with Grand Geneva resorts in Lake Geneva, said recent rain has helped restore parched grass just when the staff was beginning to worry about water shortages or restrictions.

“We were dry, we were having to pump some extra water on the course,” said Boaz.

Business has remained strong at Grand Geneva.

“People are showing up — golfers will play in any weather,” Boaz says. But he adds the resort has stepped up services to help players weather this summer’s intense heat. “We started giving out bottles of water to guests and we’re giving out ice-cold towels,” he said. “We’re doing our best to keep everyone hydrated.”

Hydration is a concern for Brandenburg as well.

“We have marshals who travel the course. They have brought a number of people in that just didn’t feel well,” he said. “We supply drinking water every three holes, but sometimes that’s just not enough if you’re older, or even if you’re young and you’re just not prepared to be out in that humidity and that heat.”

Waukesha and Milwaukee counties, however, report an increase in attendance at public courses this year, thanks to sunshine and an early season.

Ginny Bocek, Waukesha County Parks program specialist, reported a 25 percent increase in revenue and rounds over last year.

“We had a great start to the season with golf in January, as well as a number of successful events and outings at the golf courses,” said Bocek.

One of the county’s three courses is within the city of Waukesha, and is subject to watering restrictions, but Bocek says all three courses are in “great condition considering the drought.”

Although there’s been an increase in watering this year, the golf courses have had to mow less often, which saves on fuel costs, Bocek points out. That, along with the increased attendance revenue, has helped Waukesha County courses stay within budget, she said.

Joe Roszak, chief of business operations for the Milwaukee County Parks Department, is actually predicting a banner year for use of the county’s 15 golf courses. That’s because for the first time in his memory, golfing never totally shut down, even through the winter.

“With hardly any snow, we literally had some of our courses open every month of the year — we had people golfing in January, March, December,” he said. “I would say we got probably a six-week jump on the main chunk of the season, too, which obviously has helped as well.”

Roszak said revenue is up 20 percent compared with this time last year. He said last summer saw several rainy weekends, whereas this year, “Reservations are popping up further in advance — often three or four days and some are scheduled one to two weeks out — because people are fairly confident there won’t be bad weather.”

There are no watering restrictions in Milwaukee County. Roszak admits some courses look better than others, but says all are usable.

“I’ve heard stories of courses around us where greens are starting to let loose and the root systems are starting to go wide and not deep enough, but we’ve been very fortunate to not see that happen,” said Roszak.

At Brookfield Hills Golf Course in Brookfield, a creek runs through the property, filling a pond, which in turn, is used to irrigate the grounds. But three weeks ago, the pond went dry, and things were looking pretty rough, said Jack Storm, who co-owns the course with Peter Epperson.

Storm said he never considered using the well on the property to water the golf course, however, out of consideration for his neighbors, including condos and apartments bordering the course.

“Even though it’s our own well, it draws from the same aquifer as the city of Brookfield,” said Storm. “To water the golf course would take 150,000 to 200,000 gallons a day. Just being who I am, I wouldn’t do that.”

Luckily, recent rains refilled the creek and pond, and Storm says the grounds are looking much better.

But it’s also clear that the intense heatwave has slowed business.

“We’re way down compared to last July,” he said.

Storm views the ups and downs philosophically and says that like a farmer, he’s seen it all: floods, droughts, fungus problems and bugs. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” he said.

Bollig offers this advice to players during this year’s drought:

“Golfers have to realize that you’re not going to have as thick of a rough,” he said. “The fairways will be much firmer — you’ll get more roll. It won’t be as emerald green as you’re used to at this time of year — there will be a little burnout and the putting greens will probably be a little slower.”

Golfers should drink plenty of fluids, wear sunscreen and consider playing early in the morning or in the evening on the hottest days,” said Bollig. Because golf carts pack down already-dry grass, some courses may restrict their use during drought conditions.

“I would take a cooler with water and towels that you can soak,” said Bollig. “Pay attention to your partners to see if they are showing any signs of heat stroke or heat stress. If you’re feeling dizzy, find shade.”