Woodbridge Golf and Country Club in Woodbridge, California, was ready to open its large, brand-new fitness facility when COVID-19 emerged and the ensuing restrictions kept it shuttered. Kurtis Wolford, superintendent and self-professed fitness nut and triathlete, collaborated with the general manager and the fitness director about how to keep members physically active, engaged and spending time with one another.
“We have a lot of walkers at our club and we felt guided golf course walks were worth trying,” Wolford says. “They are great for exercise and even better for communication.”
Led by Wolford, the walks start at 7 a.m. every Wednesday and last for about an hour. Tee times start at 8 a.m. Woodbridge is a 27-hole facility, so part of the course can be closed if desired. The members choose which nine they would like to explore, or the nines are rotated. Wolford has been with Woodbridge for about 18 months (following the 32-year tenure of Jim Husting) and the walks represent a nice way to become more familiar with the members.
“I see the walks as a really good opportunity,” Wolford says. “Where there is verbal communication and people can also see what you’re talking about, that’s the most effective communication.” Members can bring guests on the walks. The numbers started small but have grown to almost 20. Attendance can reflect the weather as there have been some extremely hot days, very humid days and days with poor air quality due to nearby fires. After two months, there is a steady crowd.
The walkers are usually playing members. “It’s my opportunity to talk agronomy with the group and have them physically see what we are doing before they play,” Wolford says. “I am communicating our philosophy, how we do things agronomically and things we are going to do. These walks give members firsthand knowledge and the opportunity to really understand it all.”
Every walk addresses a variety of topics, including renovation projects. Woodbridge is creating some new tee complexes, renovating others and removing several trees. “Trees are a regular topic,” Wolford says. “I have an arborist background and this is an Audubon-certified course, so conversation includes coyotes, red-tailed hawks and other wildlife.”
Other topics include horticulture, the environment, club events, golf rules or recent news inspired by local and professional tours. “My father was an agriculture teacher for 35-plus years and my wife is a teacher,” Wolford says. “I’m comfortable teaching.”
Wolford has good experience with grow-ins, being part of course construction crews and working with shapers and architects. He understands what architects are trying to accomplish with the placement of bunkers and mounds, the right (and wrong!) place to put a tree and more. “It’s really morphed into more of an educational experience for members,” Wolford says. “I’ve always learned a lot by asking questions. It’s the best way to learn and these walks give members that chance.”
Whatever is discussed, it’s important to dispel ill-conceived notions and cultivate good information. Members often share what they have learned with those they play with and that has a positive effect. An additional benefit to the member walks is that Wolford has learned to communicate more effectively with groups and as a manager.
“A tool that is underutilized in our trade is a laser pointer,” Wolford says. It’s essential during walks to point specifically to what he’s referring to and it makes it easier for the group to concentrate. For instance, to discuss a specific tree branch, the laser can bring everyone’s focus to the same place in an instant without a lengthy description.
The only drawback to the walks is securing Wolford’s time. Morning time is usually hard for superintendents to find. “I had to thoughtfully determine what is worth more, my ability to communicate effectively with the membership or me losing 90 minutes once a week,” he says. “The communication far outweighs the loss of the hour and a half.”
Another popular form of communication with agronomy is Twitter. Wolford (@KurtisWolford) has picked up turf tricks from Twitter users and, in return, he doesn’t hesitate to share his own good ideas. With the member walks, Wolford sent a single tweet and the statistics are mind-blowing, starting with 20,565 views. From the exposure, Wolford received calls from superintendents and general managers wanting to know more.
The power of direct communication can’t be underestimated and face-to-face communication is even more appreciated due to the pandemic. Walking with members and enjoying the course together “is worth its weight in gold to communicate why we are doing what we are doing,” Wolford says. “We get to answer their questions and members become advocates when we empower them with information.”
Lee Carr is a Northeast Ohio-based writer, and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.