United States

Driving success with golf course operations


An interview with Tim Moraghan, Principal of Aspire Golf Consulting

"The reason people play golf is the condition of the course," says Tim Moraghan, founder of Aspire Golf Consulting.

Aspire Golf creates and implements golf course conditioning strategies, which includes developing long-range agronomic plans and preparing for first-class golf events. Additionally, Moraghan also conducts national searches with a focus on the superintendent position. He founded the company in 2007 after a 30-year career devoted to golf course management, including serving for more than two decades as Director of Championship Agronomy for the United States Golf Association (USGA).

Moraghan feels strongly that cost management is critical for private clubs but that need should be placed in perspective of the expectations of members. Speaking to clients of McGladrey, he talked about the downside of simply cutting costs.

"There is a difference between reducing expenses and cutting costs," he says. "If I join a club to play on a course of a certain quality with a certain degree of difficulty, then that is what I expect to find when I pay and play."

This difference extends beyond the golf course. "I worked with a facility that always had complimentary peanuts available," Moraghan says, using an example that shows just how detailed smart management is. "They were a brand of exclusive peanuts, so a significant cost was being incurred. They eliminated the "free" peanuts and the membership was extremely upset. Ultimately, management made the decision to reinstitute the peanuts, but to offer a lower cost peanut. Similarly, another client was using very high quality range balls and they were "disappearing" from the range. A decision was made to change to a less expensive ball from the same manufacturer and the switch was hardly noticed."

Back on the course, he points to tee markers as a common area of over-spending. "I worked with a facility that had an 8,000-yard, 18-hole course. They have 132 teeing grounds with two tee markers per tee. That's 264 tee markers. "Why?" It takes time to remove each marker, mow and replace every single day. That's many man hours that impact the labor line item of the budget. Rather than having five sets of tee markers per hole, certainly you could just have a front, middle and back tee marker."

According to Moraghan, one of the biggest issues in golf today stems from the many initiatives introduced in recent years to promote the game. While he supports the efforts and the sentiment behind these initiatives, he feels too many clubs have started to lose track of what golfers expect and want.

"Clubs have been making their courses more and more challenging in recent years in order to be more comparable to the golf courses used for major tournaments. They're matching what is seen on television but they need to remember who is actually playing their courses," says Moraghan. "If the course is too difficult, it is going to require too much time to play. Consider whether the average player at the club wants to spend two hours, four hours or eight hours to play and whether they will be deterred from playing in the future if it takes too long. Understanding the needs of all of your golfers, including women, children and seniors, is critical to ensuring it remains enjoyable to play."

Moraghan continues along the same lines by noting that private clubs need to decide whether they can afford to look a certain way. "Most golf courses are over-maintained. Most of them do not need ultra-fast greens, tall rough or narrow fairways to make the game more difficult. This places extra stress on the maintenance staff and puts extra expenses in the maintenance operating budget," he says. As for those clubs that are considering upgrades to their golf courses, he reiterates that the condition of the course is the reason why people play but again balances that thought by suggesting "clubs consider their daily player before making any sweeping agronomic or architectural changes."

When clubs do make changes, communication is crucial. "It's like anything else. Communication is your number one tool. It's about communicating what you are doing, why you are doing it and what the benefit is for your members. Most often, golf industry associations can help. Whether the GCSAA, USGA or ASGCA, they have done the research and can provide the information needed to explain every facet of every change," says Moraghan.

Another hot topic is water. Clubs are considering assessing members for water. Moraghan comments that many clubs are looking at whether they need to irrigate "wall-to-wall" and many are experimenting and implementing the tools available to monitor moisture content.

"Many clubs are improving their water efficiency and are taking steps to be more environmental. They are reducing use of pesticides and fertilizers. It's about the environmental benefit but can also be cost efficient. This again is where golf industry associations can be helpful in providing the information that is needed in communicating with members. Once members and customers understand, they become your best messengers."

That level of communication carries into the dynamics between staff professionals. "For far too long, relationships among industry professionals have been fractured. You have a general manager, superintendent, golf professional and executive chef. All of these individuals need to work together and to be on the same page about what the club is offering on and off of the course," says Moraghan.

"What we see are new expectations about the business acumen for everyone, including the golf course superintendent. The superintendents need specific agronomic knowledge to do their jobs and they also need more business knowledge than in the past. We see more superintendents with degrees or going back to school for advanced studies in business, finance and accounting." For those who are in the market and are not looking for formal business education, Moraghan directs them regularly to the association conferences and seminars where they can hone their skills.

"To some degree, it is as simple as reading the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times or other publications every day. It's just about improving financial expertise to understand the environment in which you are operating," he says.

On a final note, Moraghan notes that "golf is a niche sport. It's not for everybody. What is important is understanding who your golfers are or will be and then getting them to keep coming back tomorrow."