Anyone working in any type of business has probably given great thought to the idea of optimization. One of my favorite uses of Google is for the purpose of looking up words. Sometimes it’s a word I simply don’t know, other times it’s for the purpose of optimizing my use of a particular word. When you Google optimize, you’ll see it’s a word, which was essentially non-existent prior to 1950, and a word whose use has steadily increased since that time.
No matter the type of business, if one is successful in what they do, they are likely spending a great deal of time actively working to optimize. This is no different for us on the golf course. A great deal of active and passive thought is put towards optimizing the manner in which we work and the level of quality at which we present the golf course.
The following are three examples of how we’ve worked to optimize the golf course:
When I was exploring the golf course prior to interviewing for my position, the importance of the practice area was immediately evident. Subsequent conversations with members confirmed as much. Practice areas are so often a place where well-intentioned maintenance practices go to die. Providing daily attention, and using the same practices we employ on the golf course are always the intent, but when you’re in a pinch, the easiest place to cut a corner is the practice area. Before too long, you’re a long way from where you want to be, and the practice area isn’t to the same standard as the rest of the golf course. Despite my best effort and intent, this is where we were in my first two seasons at Hazeltine. When time or resources were short, the practice area was the first to be passed over. “We’ll get it later” was always the intent, but not always the result.
Enter Peter Braun who came to Hazeltine for the 2015 season. Throughout my first couple of seasons, we’d aspired to have an individual take charge of the maintenance on the practice area. We never quite got there until Pete came along. Prior to Hazeltine, Pete had spent a summer as an intern at a facility in Ireland. The facility had a short course that never seemed to get the attention it needed, until the head greenkeeper put Pete in charge. Off the back of his experience in Ireland, we felt Pete would be the perfect person to take charge of the practice area; and take charge he did. Below you see the practice tee as it look on Labor Day 2013 (l) and Labor Day 2017 (r). In both cases, we had recently moved the set-up to the lower tee after working all the way through the top tee.
Having Pete oversee the maintenance of the practice area brought it to a new level. Every day Pete was tasked with scheduling and implementing the maintenance of the practice area. He determined what needed to be mowed on what days and worked with the assistants to determine what he needed for resources each morning. Pete lived on the practice area - mowing tees, targets and chipping greens. If Pete thought something needed to be fertilized or aerified, he’d bring it up, we’d discuss it, and he’d implement it. As the season went on, the personal attention had a dramatic impact on the condition of the practice area.
After the 2016 season, Pete accepted a full-time position at The Minikahda Club. Replacing Pete on the practice area was always going to be difficult, but this season, we’ve gone from strength to strength. Maxton Kelly came to Hazeltine at the beginning of the 2017 season. Maxton is a former Minnesota state high school golf champion; definitely someone knowing the importance of practice. Maxton was hired as an assistant-in-training (AIT), and came to us after a couple of seasons at TPC Twin Cities. What better way for someone to train as an assistant, than to manage a practice area the quality and size of Hazeltine’s? This season we went another step further hiring Taylor Hanson to act as Maxton’s assistant. With Maxton stepping into Pete’s shoes, and Taylor assisting, the practice area has continued to be an excellent representation of the golf course.
Bunkers are an area in which we’ve constantly optimized conditioning over the past few years. Some of the optimizations have been obvious, others less so.
- In the fall of 2014, Better Billy Bunker liners were installed and drainage improved in all bunkers.
- After a difficult 2015 season, the decision to remove the local sand and install Best sand from Ohio.
- During the 2015 season, moving into the 2016 season, we relied heavily on our team members to develop and optimize the processes involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the bunkers.
When it came to bunkers, once the infrastructure was optimized, the day-to-day conditioning improvements had to come from the staff and the manner in which they maintained and prepared the bunkers. In his book Turn the Ship Around, author and retired nuclear submarine commander, David Marquet writes about the success he had as a commander when he handed decision-making capabilities to those who possessed the information. In 2015, as we worked to optimize the combination of new sand and Better Billy Bunker liners, we learned the power of allowing our team, those who possessed the information, to be the ultimate developers of the processes used in maintaining our bunkers. While the sand used in 2015 was ultimately unsuccessful, the work our team put in to optimize the maintenance processes was of great benefit moving forward.
When it comes to bunker maintenance, quality has continued to rise, while resources have stayed level, or even diminished slightly. True optimization!
Putting Surface Management
After four seasons of managing Hazeltine’s putting surfaces, I would deem myself to be generally happy with the results achieved and most definitely happy with the lessoned learned. From 2013, our putting surfaces were generally very good, oftentimes excellent, but other times just okay. After last fall’s Ryder Cup, it would have been easy to say “let’s manage the greens exactly like that”, as our putting surfaces were never more excellent than during the Ryder Cup. Trouble is, the maintenance processes used to prepare the greens for the Ryder Cup were very specific to that event, and took advantage of reduced play and time of year. The ultimate goal of last fall’s processes was optimizing conditions for the last week of September, even more specifically Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Such processes are not sustainable day to day, week to week, season to season. The demands of daily play, throughout the summer when conditions and weather are not always ideal, do not make the road map to last fall’s conditions a reality. Coming into 2017, I had two goals for day-to-day optimization of our putting surfaces.
- Better day-to-day consistency
- Greater impact on our Poa population, a population, which over the past four seasons has not increased, but has also not diminished as much as I have hoped.
Managing putting surfaces is, at its essence, about managing the growth rate of the turf. Too much growth in the short term and the surfaces are slow and soft. In the long term, they require a lot of topdressing and aerifying to dilute an ever increasing thatch layer. Too little growth and the surface will eventually deteriorate to dirt. As we move through a golf season, our management of the putting surfaces constantly walks the line of too much versus too little.
This season, in search of putting surface optimization, we’ve gathered daily growth rate data on the putting surfaces. We’ve coupled this data with weather and green speed data, which are then cross-referenced with our fertilizer applications and cultural practices. This is all being done for the purpose of learning how to walk the razor’s edge of too much versus too little and ultimately optimize the quality of our putting surfaces.
As I write this, just after Labor Day, I feel confident day-to-day consistency has been excellent and our Poa populations have been impacted more this season than the past four combined. Despite short-term goal achievement, there is room for improvement. Density of the surface was not always as one might wish, at times the surfaces were growing too little to recover from environmental stress and daily play. Successes, failures, observations and deductions have all been duly noted and will help with the never-ending search for optimization.
“Doubt the default”
I recently received the book Originals as a gift from one of our departing interns. Early in the book, author Adam Grant writes about doubting the default, and never accepting that the way things are done now is the best way forward. It would be easy for one to produce a great golf course, then step back and say “there it is, this is the template, the default for quality going forward.” As I read the message of doubting the default rang true with me. As a superintendent, I’ve always doubted the default and looked for ways to optimize the course from year to year. I’ve been a superintendent for nearly 11 full seasons and I’m proud to say the courses I’ve been fortunate to manage have improved each season.
Make the best or most effective use of (a situation, opportunity, or resource).