It affects more areas of life and business than we realize. When you talk to the people who mow the grass or keep the clubhouse doors open at your local golf club, you realize that the rising price of gasoline has a much bigger impact than the universal inconvenience at the pump.
Anyone who has spent five minutes online recently has stumbled across a photo of someone spending $100 to $200 filling up a car, truck or SUV. Sticker shock is shared around the world in the age of social media. But few people see the inflated price of drainpipe or the surcharges on shipments of sand and gravel. Not many people outside the golf industry see the astronomical increase in fertilizer prices or the adjustments in mowing practices as the costs of diesel fuel skyrocket.
“The cost of operating a golf course is so expensive now,” said John Stenmoen, the superintendent at Desert Island Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, a place where gasoline is north of $6 a gallon and lines at the Costco pumps (the cheapest gas in town) snake through the parking lot. “Most people don’t realize that fertilizer is a petroleum product, so those prices are going up. It seems like more and more stuff is getting expensive.”
Desert Island recently budgeted for bunker renovations that began at just over $1 million and quickly leapt to $5 million.
“It doesn’t really matter how many quotes you get,” Stenmoen said. “They’re all pretty much the same because of petroleum prices. Now we’re getting all these surcharges because of gas. The prices of the product may or may not be the same, but there is a surcharge to deliver almost everything. In the past, gas prices would go up (in season), but then they would go back down. Now nobody seems to be expecting the prices to go down.”
In the spring, Stenmoen made some difficult calls on fertilizer application.
“We may not put that last application of fertilizer down and hope for the best,” he said. “You just have to be more selective, maybe go with a slow-release (fertilizer) instead of a calcium nitrate. How you manage your fertilizer application is going to be critical with these prices.”
Tim Moraghan, principal of Aspire Golf Consulting and former head of the USGA Green Section, summed up the dilemma by saying, “Let’s say you’re rebuilding bunkers or a putting green. There’s a shipping cost for 25 tons of sand and 25 tons of gravel. But now there’s also a surcharge for fuel to transport the items there. And if that truck is going back empty, you’ve got a freight-on-board cost that goes with it as well as the upcharge you’re paying. The cost of diesel is $9 or so a gallon, so you’re putting in 150 gallons of diesel fuel for your delivery guy’s ride back home.
“Plus, it’s not just gas and diesel. The cost of lubricants, hydraulic fluid, grease, it’s all on the rise. People look at the price of gas and think they can build that into a budget. Well, no, most of your heavy equipment runs on diesel, which is even more expensive. If you have a fixed budget – you’re a moderate, middle-of-the-road club – and you have a $1 million budget, then, suddenly, fuel goes from $2.50 a gallon to $5.50 a gallon, what do you do? If you’re a daily-fee operation, do you pass those costs on to the consumer, and at what cost in terms of rounds? If you’re private, do you add some kind of surcharge to the monthly bill? And if so, what sort of pushback do you get from your members? It’s a really bad situation.”
Everyone knows someone putting $100 of gas in an F150 on a regular basis. Less well known are the truckers spending $1,200 to $1,600 every time they fill their tanks. As Tim Dunlap, a partner at Regent Golf, which owns and operates clubs across the country, put it, “The days of shipping in crushed limestone because it’s whiter than your local sand are over, at least for a while.”
Moraghan also pointed a straight line between gas prices and the current labor shortages at many courses. Most maintenance staff don’t live in the same neighborhoods as the golf courses they mow. If you’re paying a maintenance employee $15 an hour, a third of his hourly wage now buys one gallon a gas. “In a lot of cases, that person is finding other work closer to home,” Moraghan said.
All of this puts pressure on superintendents to do more with less while post-pandemic play continues to hold steady.
“You go through the whole thing – chemicals, fertilizer, labor, on top of the cost of fuel, and getting the supplies from point A to point B – it’s squeezing the industry, and it’s a real problem,” Moraghan said. “Think about every aspect of the operation. You’re in the golf shop and you can’t get your merchandise delivered. You are trying to get range balls because the balls you have are three seasons old and no longer have dimples. You’re trying to get parts for your carts. Yes, you’ve had increased numbers of people playing golf because of COVID, which is great, good for the game, but once that range picker goes down, you can’t get a part to fix it, so you’re out there picking by hand. All of those added costs and problems trickle down. It certainly hurts the golf industry.”
Top: Gas prices make filling the tank – not to mention running a golf course – a challenging proposition. (Photo: Jeff Gritchen, MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
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