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February 2022

Tiburon Golf Club Hosts Flurry Of Professional Events Amid Staff Shortages

triburon.jpg

By Steve Eubanks

Early on Thursday morning, November 18, Grayson Grainger hopped on a cart and pulled up to the right side of the 18th green at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, the place where he now serves as head superintendent. Grainger was stunned by what he found.

Nothing. Not a thing. Just a tinge of brown grass, one leftover Portalet, and a trash bag fluttering in the cool morning breeze. Never one to be too excitable – Grainger grew up a farm boy in an unincorporated area outside Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and has never been one for histrionics – he raised his eyebrows and said, “Where’d it go?”

The “it” he referenced was a concert stage that had been on that very spot just hours before. Not the garden variety platform stage that clubs erect for the member-guest dinner or a Friday Night Seafood and Cover Band event. This was a full-on Coachella Music Festival structure, two stories high with a bank of lights straight off Broadway and speakers suspended by steel cables as thick as a thumb. Jimmy Buffet had played the night before, a private concert sponsored by CME Group to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Now, fewer than eight hours after Jimmy signed off with his signature tune, Margaritaville, there was no sign that anything had happened. The stage, the cables, the generators, and everything that went with them were gone. The area where parrot heads had crowded against each other the previous night was now back to being a pedestrian walkway beside the last hole.

“I normally try to keep an eye on all those things,” Grainger said of the structures assembled on and around his course. I actually watch those folks a lot closer than my own guys, not because of what they’re putting on the ground but what they’re putting under it. You’re driving stakes and laying cables. I need to know where that’s happening and what you’re near.” 

For Grainger, who came to Tiburon, a Troon property, from St. James Plantation in North Carolina, keeping an eye on third-party structures became old hat quickly. That’s because his is the only facility in the country that hosts three top tour events in a four-month span. The week before Thanksgiving, which included the Wednesday of the Jimmy Buffet concert, Tiburon played host to the CME Group Tour Championship, the season-ending event on the LPGA Tour schedule with the largest purse in the women’s game. Then, the first week of December, the course hosted the QBE Shootout (formerly the Shark Shootout, hosted by Greg Norman, and including major champions Jason Day and Bubba Watson, and Ryder Cuppers Harris English and Ian Poulter, among others). After that, the week of Valentine’s Day, the PGA Tour Champions comes to Tiburon for the Chubb Classic. That’s three tours (although the Shootout isn’t an official event), three different agronomy teams, rules teams and setup crews putting in grandstands, gallery ropes, tee signage, scoreboards and, as Grainger found out, concert stages. 

“Yeah, it’s something,” he said. “They all operate similarly, but they all have their preferences. The PGA Tour likes the greens to be a little firmer (than the LPGA Tour). Speeds are about the same. Then the Champions Tour likes the greens a little faster. But in all three cases, you’re dealing with separate groups of people.

“As for the infrastructure, we work with the tournament management companies and their crew to make sure they’re doing the right thing. But, yeah, we’ve probably spent more time watching those guys than we have watching our guys.” 

His guys, the staff at Tiburon, do extraordinary work getting the facilities ready for each of those events, as well as a group of demanding members and resort guests who stay at the Ritz Carlton, which is an LPGA 9-iron shot from the clubhouse.

So, how does he do it? In a time when almost every business in Florida has “help wanted” signs in the windows and most golf courses are running at skeleton crews, how does Grainger not only manage the demands of his members and resort guests, but get his facility ready to host three major events inside 100 days? 

“For starters, we try to be really healthy coming into this stretch because we know we’re going to get a lot of traffic and a lot of stress, mowing every day,” he said. “So, we do everything we can to be as healthy (in our turf care) going in as possible.”

His location helps. With Ultradwarf bermudagrass, which never has a deep root system, he has to keep an eye on the temperatures. But rarely does the thermometer dip below 40 in Naples. “Occasionally we get a real cold snap but it’s rare,” Grainger said. “We might skip a day (of mowing) every now and then, but in season we try to mow greens every day.”

As for the staffing challenges, Tiburon is no different than any other facility. “It’s really difficult to hire people at the moment,” Grainger said. “We are down, which stresses the staff you have. We are trying to hire, but you are also trying to make good hires. You don’t want to just hire anyone. You want to be selective.

“It’s got to be the right person for this job. You have to love being outside and doing manual labor. You also have to be a morning person. And ideally you like golf. That’s the perfect hire, the person who enjoys getting up in the morning, getting to work on their feet and with their hands, and who also loves golf.

“I do think the schedule is our biggest calling card. A person can come in early and get off early and they have the rest of the day to do what they want. Sometimes those guys are easy to find. But right now, they’re not.”

Grainger has another problem: Tiburon is a 36-hole facility with the eighteens alternating between member and resort play every play. There’s never a time when both courses don’t have to be perfect. And like most 36-hole facilities, he doesn’t have double the staff of an 18-hole club.
 
“You might have a crew and a half or a crew and a third, that sort of thing,” he said. “But you’re not going to have double the staff for 36 holes. And you’re not going to have double the equipment. So, you have to manage when and where that stuff goes out. And you have to manage the staff to make sure you’re using your people as efficiently as possible.

“If you have a member event on one course and an outing on another, it becomes a challenge. Or you have an event (like the CME or the Shootout) where you’re committing all your crew to one golf course and you’re short on the other course. So, yeah, it’s always a juggling act and a challenge to get the right people in the right spots at the right times.” 

That’s where being part of a management company like Troon has its advantages.
 
“We have a national agronomist and our local and regional agronomists who will stop by and see what we need (during the run up to the professional events),” Grainger said. “Then we also have other Troon clubs in the area. We reach out to those guys and get some help. We can borrow equipment and then we usually get an assistant (superintendent during the event) or two. Some of the morning staff will almost always come over from other (Troon) clubs.” 

Troon’s size cannot, however, speed up the supply chain logjam that is also plaguing every business in the country. 

“It takes a while now to get everything,” Grainger said. “We have to plan out everything a lot longer in advance. Trucking takes longer, getting parts and supplies takes longer. And then you have to make sure you have the staff to get the job done once the stuff is in.”  

It's a challenge. But as Grainger said of being part of a management team like Troon, “There are way more positives than negatives. The upside is huge.”

SIDEBAR: Labor Shortage Driving Cultural Divide
By: Steve Eubanks

If gas and food were counted in the numbers, inflation would be at its highest level since 1979. Coupled with a labor shortage that is its tightest since the 1950s, the price of hiring has skyrocketed. In addition to putting pressure on budgets, these rising costs are having a cultural impact on golf staffs everywhere.

“Think about the longest-tenured employees at your club,” said Tim Dunlap, a partner at Regent Golf Management. “They are there because they understand the relationship between the club and its members. They’re also in it for all sorts of reasons, but very few of them are the money. They love the hours; they love the environment; they love the people; they love the low-stress conditions; whatever it is, almost no one goes to work at the local golf club because they want to become financially independent.

“Now, think about the new people coming into the club. What are you having to pay them to fill a position? And how does that compare to the pay scale of your employees who have been there for a decade or longer? How long did it take the person who has been there a dozen years to reach the level of pay you’ve just offered to a new hire?

“That creates a rift within your staff. Suddenly, the people who have been there for years are wondering why they aren’t getting significant pay bumps. People start feeling unappreciated. Pretty soon, you have an internal divide that is hard to bridge.”  

Added payroll costs are an economic problem. But this is bigger and far more problematic. The cost of new labor is creating cultural problems. And those don’t fix themselves when the economy improves. 

 

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