A plea for our golf courses

It's everyone's responsibility to maintain a golf course. Here’s how to do your part and encourage others to fall in line.
When a bucket of divot mix is growing new stands of grass on its own, you know it hasn't been used enough by golfers.

In a send-up of the classic hero-surveys-his-gadgets scenes in the original Naked Gun movie, Lt. Frank Drebin, played by the hilarious Leslie Nielsen, gets a tour of the new anti-crime toys his home Police Squad is rolling out. One of them is a wall that, when sprayed with graffiti, sprays the vandals right back.

Golf courses should have something like that, but for people who injure the turf and put no effort into fixing it.

In a supposedly genteel game played by earnest lovers of outdoor recreation, how is it that practically every course, from modest munis to “Top-100” private clubs, suffers from so much neglect by golfers?

Course conditions and maintenance practices have improved noticeably over the last quarter-century, but each facility still faces the same scourges: people don’t replace or fill their divots, they don’t rake bunkers and they don’t fix their ball marks on the green.

Even the earnest, charming, community-oriented Goat Hill Park showed these common signs of stress when I played there last week. If the laid-back, environmentally conscious golfers of Southern California’s surf towns can leave greens a pockmarked mess, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I know what you’re thinking. But Tim, I am a conscientious golfer! I always leave the course better than I found it.

Dear reader, I believe you. I have a sneaking suspicion that you would not have opened this half-rant, half-rallying-cry if you were one of golf’s many ne’er-do-wells who, either from laziness or a gross sense of entitlement (“I paid good money to play this course…I’ll let the greenskeeper and maintenance staff clean up after me!”), do not do their duty to help make sure the playing field is as pristine as possible.

It is easy to see golf courses as examples of the “tragedy of the commons,” a historical and economic argument that holds that common available goods tend to decay when many people have access to them. People will use that resource in a selfish way that satisfies their own needs but, when repeated by many users, ends up being contrary to the common good.

You can see how this situation plays out at practically every golf course. Replacing divots and fixing ball marks are extra tasks on top of the already difficult project of hitting that little ball toward the cup. I choose to believe that most of the neglect is oversight borne out of forgetfulness rather than active disregard. I’ll hit an approach shot that makes a mark on the edge of a green but ends up off the putting surface. This is when I’m most likely to forget to fix it, because I have probably gotten wrapped up in playing my pitch or bunker shot that I forget that I may have marred the green at all.

Back in the fairway or on the tee box of a par 3, my track record is better, but only when I’m properly equipped. What can I do when I’m carrying my bag on a course that has Bermuda fairways? What can I do on a par 3 where my divot breaks into half a dozen small shards and there’s no tub of sand beside the tee box? These are situations where course operators might seek solutions to help remind and encourage golfers to care for the course…at least until electric fence technology that can tell whether a player has not filled a divot or smoothed the sand before exiting a tee box or bunker can be fine-tuned.

But the vast majority of the blame for golf’s own tragedy of the commons rests on golfers themselves. How can we do better? And for those of us who are exemplary auxiliary Keepers of the Green, how can we get more people on our side?

This isn’t a complaint against the course so much, but they give you a repair tool to fix your ball marks on the green. EVERY SINGLE GREEN had 10-15 fresh ball marks. You can’t putt anywhere without going through old unrepaired marks. I probably repaired over 30 today.
- From a recent review of Grandover Golf Resort

I have a few tactics (but would prefer to hear your ideas):

Shaming

One day during a high school assembly, Mr. Briggs, one of our teachers, implored us to call out students who littered with an elegant six-word phrase: “Hey bozo, I live here too!”

I think “Hey bozo, I play here too!” might be effective, especially if incorporated into signage. Picture a disheveled-looking golfer in a clown suit with those words beneath in blunt lettering. The absurdity of it would be more eye-catching than the usual boring admonition found on scorecards and golf cart placards.

Gamification

Turning everything into a little contest is a very Millennial trend, I realize, but it might be effective if added into the mix of a foursome’s normal match. Next time you play, add a wrinkle that a player who hits the green in regulation must fix his or her own ball mark, plus one other. Any player who misses the green, however, must fix five ball marks.

This makes the task of caring for the course sound like a punishment, which might seem a little counter-intuitive, but if the result is smoother greens, who cares?

Socialization

Host Tommy Fleetwood joins the ground staff in filling divots after his round during Day 3 of the Betfred British Masters at Hillside Golf Club in Southport, United Kingdom.

If you’re a member of a private club or a regular at a public course, you could institute a “Course Care Committee” that takes to the course at dusk once a month to fill divots and fix ball marks.

Make a little party out of it: the parade of golf carts setting out onto different holes, maybe a few beers (furnished by a grateful pro and/or superintendent, even, to sweeten the deal?) and everyone’s happy while improving the course.

Do you wish your fellow golfers would take better care of the course? Does your home course have some effective initiatives? Brainstorm below...

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
51 Comments
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The municipal course at Jacksonville Beach offers a bag of sand to all walkers at the start of their round and fresh bags at the turn. It’s a nice way for walkers and they have a large amount, to fill their divots.

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The new rule of leaving the flag in the hole while putting has done an enormous amount of damage to the edges of the cup. Don't believe me? Take a large practice putting green with 1/2 the holes using the standard practice flag with the flared cup attached to the bottom of the flag, and the other holes with a standard, regulation sized flag.
At the end of the day, the edges of the cups with the standard sized flag will have damaged edges from people trying to get the ball out of the hole with the flag in.
Why not attach a little soft rubber, flared tray to the bottom of the flag so we can use the flag to gently pull the ball out of the hole?

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I think this is a great idea, I have been advocating for several years. It would also speed up the game. the pool noodle foam inserts being used now to prevent needing to reach into the hole and contaminating it has been a blessing to the speed process. with the leave the pin in rule we were told by the superintendent that it would speed up play but because it is more difficult to extract the ball with the pin in people will try and pinch the ball with the pin and flip it out. it works but often damages the edge of the hole. the rubber cup on the bottom of the pin would remedy this. I have been playing the last couple of weeks on a public course withe the Covid-19 foam inserts with guys in the 25+ handicap range and markedly higher rough( read lose your ball in the first cut and we have been finishing in under 4 hours.

Commented on

You are being too kind, Tim. I see this problem's roots as just the fact that people are more ignorant, even willfully ignorant than ever before. Much of it is the "I paid my green fee" mentality that seems to also carry into the behavior of fans attending games and acting obnoxiously "I paid for my ticket" mentality My last two rounds of golf were played at Shale Creek golf club (Medina, OH., 9/26/19), and Butler's golf course, Lakeside course (9/29-19, Elizabeth, PA.) and I actually kept track - average of 6 ball marks I fixed on EVERY green. Even worse are the golfers (NO!! I will no longer call them golfers. They are just people who go play golf - and in my mind there is a difference) who will literally DEFEND THEIR IGNORANCE, which is doubling down on their cretin-like behavior. My other pet peeve is when someone drives their (wooden or plastic) tees into the ground on a tee box. This will cause a destruction of the root system of the grass in those areas. The plastic tees will not decompose, and the wooden tees can take years - yes, years, to decompose.

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I'm fairly new to the game, and I had a fellow golfer tell me that replacing a divot is a waste of time because they never take. If the course does not provide sand mix, don't bother. He then pointed at a failed attempt to replace a rather large beaver pelt, pointing out the dead grass around the edges. That didn't, and still doesn't make sense to me. I still repair/fix/rake any damage I make (and any other damage I see), but have no real proof that what I fix in the fairway actually "stays fixed". BTW, around here it seems like the guilty parties on ball mark repairs on the greens are solo golfers (I've actually witnessed several times)...I think when people play in groups, repairs are more common.

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Maybe not surprisingly, the worst I’ve seen here in the San Diego area is at both the North and South Torrey Pines courses. The number of unrepaired ball marks on the greens is simply shocking. I usually fix 5 fresh marks on every green. Maybe this expensive city-pwned facility falls victim to the attitude that “I paid a fortune to play here, so let them fix my damage”. Of course, this attitude gives no regard to the other players who must play on these highly damaged greens ... Damage that could easily be repaired, and should be by the golfers who created the damage.

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I play my weekend round with a bucket of sand mix. As the assistant, I’m trying to set an example . My bucket usually last two holes before I have to refill.

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Agree, I find on every green people not fixing their ball marks.

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I find newer players need to be taught how to take care of courses. Maybe after giving a golf lesson a pro could mention a tip or two on course repair.

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Absolutely! When my wife and I played in the US (California) for the first time, we did not know what these bottles at the side of the carts are for. But the use of rakes and the pitchmark-tool should be known by everyone after only a single golf lesson.

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Bulle Rock in Md. supplies a pitch mark tool in every round with instructions on how to use it. they want the damage fixed. Maybe Marshalls would be better utilized by encouraging/ teaching people how to fix damage rather than just pushing golfers to speed up.

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I agree with all of the ideas, however, the super's need to do their part. I play a course where there were sand boxes strategically placed on the par 3 tee boxes. The decision was made by the super to move them well away from the tee boxes to planting areas because it took "20 extra minutes" to move them when mowing. I never could figure out why they didn't have a paver under them so mowers could edge right around them but what the heck it was the super's stop watch.

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I too enjoy a well maintained course, but rarely have experience any golfer really abusing one. Sure I have seen and I am guilty too of not repairing a fairway divot, but then again rarely have I had a cart with sand provided to do so - if there is a grass piece to replace , then most players do so. So I'm really not sure what this article is going on about. What does cheese me off is paying big bucks and finding a course poorly maintained by the owner - with crappy sand bunkers, poorly kept greens and tee boxes that look like the third world war has hit them. Sorry, but as a paying golfer I want value - and that in far too many cases has nothing to do with other golfers who are paying a lot to play the game. too. The course has to set the tone - far too many are in it just for the cash - and most are over priced!

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I have been told by pros that replacing divots in the mid Atlantic summer is a waste due to the heat and the sand/seed mix is a better repair. I have found that when a course designates too many fairways as cart path only they really don't want them repaired since the average person isn't going to walk to the ball trying to carry several clubs and bottle of sand seed/mix, or make another trip from divot to cart get bottle to divot then back to cart to fix divot.

Commented on

Dennis, Dave is right, YOU can choose to be part of the solution or part of the problem. Sounds to me like you have chosen - part of the problem.

Commented on

Dennis, it sounds like maybe you are part of the problem and not the solution. If you are so wrapped up in "value for your money" and not so much on pitching in to help maintain good course conditions your missing the point. The maintenance staff needs and should take care of the course over all, but if you play on a high traffic course your going to have more players who don't care about the course itself, just themselves. As a patron of the game you seem to forget about respect for the course.. Remember if the course turned into a cow pasture because the maintenance staff cannot keep up with the number of people who don't care about the conditions, you would not be playing at all. All it takes is if you create a divot or a ball mark, fix it and also the one right next to you that you didn't make. It's really pretty easy to help.

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A plea for our golf courses