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February 2019

Combating Compounding Damage

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Getting Back On Solid Footing After Nature Deals A Blow

By David Gould

You aren’t well suited to run a golf operation if you can’t handle what Mother Nature dishes out. This is all the more true as climate change produces increasingly extreme conditions. Hurricanes in the Southeast, wildfires in the West and rising sea levels have been in the news extensively, leaving a tally of damage in their wake. Last spring’s Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii wasn’t related to global warming, nor was Alaska’s recent major earthquake — they’re just further cases of the disruption and damage our environment serves up.

Resilience and an upbeat attitude are vital for any staff of a course hit by storms, quakes, fires and the like. Patrick Wilkinson, who heads up operations at Diamondback Golf Club in the Myrtle Beach town of Loris, South Carolina, dealt with Hurricane Florence in September. Because the storm didn’t make a direct hit, locals were counting their blessings — a bit prematurely, it turns out. 

“We were in the golf shop talking about a section of local highway that was closed,” Wilkinson recalls “Just then we got news of floodwaters starting to block our other access roads. Before long we were basically cut off from the world.”

For 12 days, the facility had an open golf course but only one small area to draw business from.

Scientists who specialize in natural disasters call this “compounding” damage. Hurricane winds didn’t thrash Myrtle Beach, but major flooding did come along after. A related term is “cascading” damage, in which a natural event spawns problems that are likely to last for years. Mudslides on hilly terrain deforested by wildfires are a prime example, one that California and other Western states must bear in mind.

Was the Diamondback staff undone by their predicament? Wilkinson says no.

“I’ve never seen a crew demoralized or ready to quit based on something nature hit them with,” he asserts. “As long as ownership is able to provide the necessary resources, we keep our heads up and get to work.”

At Diamondback, proof of ownership’s resolve came soon after the Florence cleanup, as the club made a $30,000 investment in winter tarps to protect its greens. All 18 had recently been resurfaced in Sunday bent, known for its hardiness, but the tarps were viewed as extra insurance. Spending $30,000 on a capital asset that will also yield tax benefits in the form of depreciation “is much better than taking the risk of losing $300,000 in revenue because your greens are gone,” says Wilkinson.

Policies and practices will sometimes need to change in the aftermath of disruptive natural events. The much-publicized California wildfires of late 2018 produced little in the way of reported difficulty for golf facilities, a welcome outcome. However, the previous year’s fire season affected several courses significantly, and this led to heightened vigilance. Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, California, took measures to warn spectators at last year’s Safeway Open about a fire alert issued for the area. The frightening image of a tent structure burning during the 2017 Safeway tournament was vividly in mind, although Silverado was far less impacted than neighboring courses like Fountaingrove Golf Club and Mayacama, the latter having suffered severe damage to its maintenance facility.

Bouncing back from events like hurricanes and wildfires can involve locating outside sources of support or relief. Many in the industry may not be aware that the PGA of America set up a Golf Relief and Assistance Fund in 2017, seeding it with $250,000 in initial capital. Hurricane Florence and the autumn wildfires in California were among the first occasions for assistance via this fund, available not just to PGA of America members, but also to any employee of an affected golf facility. A decade prior, the GCSAA had responded in similar fashion to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, creating its own Disaster Relief Fund. That resource continues to be available to those in the superintendent community victimized by tragedy caused by natural disasters.

Withstanding a cruel blow and making a fresh start is instinctive — and inspirational to witness. But the golf industry is also seeing cases where there’s no comeback story to be told. Hurricane Michael — the third strongest in U.S. history — plowed through the Florida Panhandle in October and dealt a fatal blow to Hombre Golf Club in Panama City Beach. In its wake lay nearly 300 downed trees, plus damage to infrastructure, and a restoration project estimated to cost $1 million. Ownership saw no practical course of action, unfortunately, other than closing down for good.

Golf is a cornerstone attraction for Hawaii’s tourism industry, which is why the Kilauea Volcano images from last May proved a hardship to resorts and clubs on the affected islands. There were reports in the weeks following the eruption that $5 million in tourism revenue had already been lost, due to safety concerns on the part of tour operators. It’s an example of “compounding damage” that mainly involves public perception, not the reality on the ground.

Golf’s involvement with the volcano was primarily a matter of videos and still shots of golfers blithely continuing their play while massive dark clouds of smoke and steam rose in the background. The images went viral, and if they were intended to suggest that the game fosters obsessive devotion, we knew that already — but there’s no harm in restating the point. 

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.

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