Terry Buchen – Beneath The Golf Course Surface

For many years, I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working on many occasions with fellow Penn State Nittany Lion and Agronomist extraordinaire Terry Buchen. At Golf Property Analysts, our clients often present challenges requiring specific technical expertise relating to the agronomy and infrastructure of golf courses and clubs and Terry’s assistance is always a valuable asset. Buchen, a frequent lecturer, author and one of only 80 individuals worldwide to be designated a Master Greenkeeper afforded me the opportunity of an interview that was a value-packed seminar on golf course maintenance.

He’s performed Due Diligence Agronomy / Infrastructure Analysis on hundreds of golf courses nationwide. His evaluations include how each golf course & practice areas were originally built, renovated & restored to determine the existing and remaining “life expectancy” of the entire infrastructure.  Also, past and current maintenance, the maintenance operating budget, capital equipment budget and staffing. This due diligence agronomy / infrastructure analysis greatly assists entities purchasing and selling golf courses, as well as operators.

Some of the more common situations where he’s called into action are:

  • Evaluating Life Expectancies of golf course and practice area infrastructure;
  • Private club transition committees seeking a detailed history of what the membership will be getting when they take over the ownership of the venue (community clubs) and the timeline and estimated cost to make infrastructure improvements based on life expectancies based in all three climatic zones;
  • HOA’s/POA’s acquiring their community golf course;
  • Conditioning Improvement;
  • Second Opinions;
  • Disease or Insect infestation;
  • Budget Development

Having seen Buchen’s exhaustive, 55 page checklist, I asked him what were the most common deficiencies he finds. He said: “Golf course and practice area infrastructures that are well-beyond their life expectancies, e.g., re-grassing all playing surfaces, bunker renovations, tee enlargements & alignments, irrigation system upgrades & replacement, drainage improvements, cart path replacement, selective tree trimming & removal for improved sunlight & air movement for healthy turf, etc.” When I asked which deficiencies owners and club boards often ignore or can’t see, he focused on deferred maintenance and properly budgeting for capital reserves. Items like lack of sunlight, limited air circulation, high traffic areas and cart paths buckling from tree roots are among the most frequent issues encountered.

Of course, golf course maintenance budgets are a focus for all clubs. Buchen notes: “Having a “zero-based” maintenance operating budget where each expense line item starts from scratch annually and is based solely on the club officials (or owners) desired maintenance conditioning standards instead of increasing the operating budget each year based on the CPI is by far the best approach moving forward. Having labor flow charts of exactly how much labor time is spent on each and every task throughout the year helps to know where golf course maintenance routine tasks can be reduced, increased or left well-enough alone.” He adds that a written maintenance plan “gives the golf course superintendent a clear understanding exactly what the club officials and golfers / members want and expect – then the superintendent prepares a realistic operating budget to match the desired maintenance & playing conditioning standards and presents that product for the golfers to enjoy.

Buchen advises more clubs to increase their budgets than to reduce. Some reasons:

  • Golfers expectations are not being met because the maintenance operating budget is not producing the “product” desired by officials & staff, e.g.;
  • Not performing certain maintenance tasks (aerification, chemical application, etc.) frequently enough;
  • There isn’t enough maintenance staff during the growing season and earlier in the spring and later in the fall in cool-season or transition zone climates;
  • The club declines replacing equipment that is old, outdated and too expensive to keep repairing, etc.;
  • The maintenance facility is often the lowest priority and neglected.

Buchen emphasizes that the most important thing clubs can do to maintain quality conditions more efficiently and and cost-effectively, is to use technology to track labor accurately. This aids in staffing for following the maintenance & playing conditioning standards in a precise manner.

Of course, any discussion about golf course maintenance inevitably includes water usage. Buchen says: “Agronomically, it is best to irrigate deep and infrequently whenever possible for the overall health of the turfgrass plant and to provide good playing conditions. Many golf courses use the philosophy that a golf course should look good and play good in a 50/50 ratio. When the desired maintenance & playing conditioning dictate that a golf course plays firm and fast, the ratio becomes 60%-70% playing good and 30%-40% looking good, where the turf is off-color, which is providing a healthy turfgrass plant and providing good playing conditions. Al Radko, former USGA Green Section National Director, said it best that “Golf is played on grass, not on color.” The obvious question, according to Buchen is whether the focus will be on looking good or playing good.

Buchen envisions technology being used in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Drones
    • They are quite effective for contour topography mapping of all of the playing surfaces and other design features.
    • They also are beneficial for aerial inspections of trees, shrubs, turf conditions, pest infestation, storm damage assessment, construction sequencing & progress reports, digital yardage books, etc.
  • Autonomous Mowing Equipment
    • Cub Cadet had an autonomous greens mower but it suspended further development in 2020.
    • Toro and John Deere have prototype autonomous fairway mowers and other equipment but there are no set dates for completion of developmental trials.
    • There are also autonomous fairway mowers being used in Europe and Canada made by Husqvarna. The future is looking bright for these future technologies.

Making more efficient use of existing labor can be enhanced through the diligent use of drones and autonomous equipment. A slight reduction in the maintenance staff could also be achieved on a case by case basis. Buchen emphasized the importance written maintenance standards that clearly identify what the club wants and that quantifies labor needs. He strongly recommends that clubs lease more frequently used equipment on 5 year cycles and avoid the time and cost of breakdowns that occurs with older equipment. He advises purchasing equipment that’s not frequently used and establishing a separate budget for equipment lease and purchase.

Other ways Buchen advocates for more efficient and cost-effective maintenance are replacing typical rough in out-of-play areas with low maintenance fescues and reducing the size and number of bunkers, where practical. Water usage, already an expensive proposition in many parts of the country will likely encourage the use of new heat and drought resistant turfgrass varieties, which may be an “off-green” color but provide quality playing surfaces.

When I asked how Buchen saw golf course maintenance changing in the next 10 years, he mentioned the following possibilities:

  • Greater efficiency through autonomous equipment;
  • More electric, battery powered equipment, especially in areas with noise ordinances;
  • Reductions in the size and number of bunkers;
  • Additional Tee Areas for different playing options;
  • More tree management and removal for increased air circulation and improved turfgrass health;
  • The use of solar power;
  • Reduced amounts of turfgrass to maintain;
  • The use of artificial turf.

The last question I posed to Buchen was: Right now, some clubs spend near or more than $100 per round played on golf course maintenance, seeking perfection – because they can.  Do you ever foresee the top clubs becoming more cost and environmentally conscious in their maintenance programs? His answer was: “During the crash of 2008, clubs significantly reduced their maintenance operating budgets to compensate for reduced revenues. Once the economy recovered, many clubs played “catch-up” because of “deferred maintenance” to bring back the desired maintenance and playing conditioning standards that they set forth and desired. During the 2020 pandemic, maintenance staffing was initially reduced, but then often reinstated because of the heavier amount of play that resulted from social distancing guidelines. I believe superintendents are very well versed in keeps costs in line based on the maintenance conditioning standards that club officials have determined. Environmental stewardship is continuing to be accomplished and will continue to grow.