How Colorado’s Golf Heroes are Tackling Staffing Shortages, Inflation and Record Traffic to Keep Courses Lush Despite Challenges

First, they had to grow grass despite a drought. Then, they worked through a pandemic. Now, they’re facing staffing shortages and inflation, with record numbers of feet trampling their work every day.

“It’s absolutely amazing to me the condition golf courses are in,” says Colorado Golf Association Executive Director Ed Mate. “I think about how hard it is to maintain my lawn, which is three inches of rough, with nobody walking on it or taking big, gouging divots out of it, no carts driving across it. And I can’t keep it green or even healthy. And these guys and gals are able to keep acres and acres of maintained turf pristine, despite people attacking it all the time.”

READ: 6 Indoor Golfing Spaces to Book Your Tee Time in 2023

The state’s golf heroes these days aren’t the players breaking par but the superintendents and maintenance workers who are on the job long before the golfers tee off. Golf courses all around the state were in impeccable condition last summer and well into the fall, until the late-December snowstorm that shut everyone down through January and promises an equally lush 2023.

Denver Golf Director of Agronomy Pam Smith says the pandemic’s early days gave the crews a lesson in what could be.

“We were shut down for six weeks and had the maintenance staff reporting, so we had the luxury of doing a lot of deferred maintenance, aerification and fertility,” Smith says. “And the lack of traffic had the courses in probably the best shape they’ve ever been in.”

READ: Inside Colorado’s Post-Pandemic Golf Goldrush

After that, says Smith, three seasons of increasingly nonstop, dawn-to-dark traffic raised new challenges: “How do we work while people are playing golf? How do we get our jobs done?”

Mitch Savage, superintendent at CGA-owned and operated CommonGround, credits his board with coming to the rescue with new machinery. “From there,” he says, “it was really about getting creative. A small example might be mowing a new walkway through a little native area where you’re not as worried about people beating down a nicely maintained turf area. We look for ways to help people and carts maneuver their way through the golf course without sacrificing the golf course.”

CommonGround incorporates maintenance blocks twice a month, clearing the tee sheet for three or four hours first thing in the morning so that crews can accomplish things without golfers in the way. Denver’s municipal courses, expected to bring in revenue while also providing their communities with recreational opportunities, don’t have that luxury.  

“So we have the philosophy that we want to get out ahead of golfers, get our greens mowed, cups cut,” Smith says. “Each golf course is different in how they do it, but we throw a lot of labor at those early morning jobs to get out and ahead of golfers.”

Which is not so easy with Denver golfers teeing off on both the front and back nines at sunrise.

“We’re starting maybe a half-hour or hour in the dark,” Smith says. “And that is extremely challenging and sometimes even dangerous for our staff to be operating mowing equipment in the dark. If you have a hydraulic leak, you sometimes don’t know it and it can lead to turf damage … It takes a special person to work maintenance these days for those reasons.”

Meet Kelly Huff: Colorado’s Unconventional Golf Instructor with a TrackMan Advantage

With staffing shortages continuing for businesses around the state, even golf course jobs — which may come with perks like free golf, flexible days and great scenery – are vacant. “You could say 50 percent of our on-call positions go unfilled at any given time at any golf course,” says Smith.

She’s working on restructuring job categories to attract more applicants. Savage has maintained his workforce with a “just say yes” approach to inquiries. “If somebody expresses an interest but says, ‘Well, I really only want to work a few days a week,’ I don’t even bat an eye. I just say, yeah, come on in and fill out an application and we’ll figure things out.”

As these superstars of Colorado golf continue to figure out how to keep courses covered in lush, mowed grass, there’s one thing we golfers can do to show some love: When they’re in the way of the next shot, give them a friendly wave instead of the stinkeye.

“We’re trying to be like Navy Seals out there,” says Savage. “We just want to get in and get our job done and get out, without being seen.”

DENVER GOLF ROUNDS AND REVENUE

2020

374,476  

$10,187,141

2021

405,414

$10,257,205

2022 

414,497 

$11,324,118

 

Susan Fornoff has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle, regional golf associations and her own GottaGoGolf.com. She is a member of the Overland Park Golf Course and Links at Highlands Ranch women’s clubs. This is her seventh Executive Golf Guide for ColoradoBiz.

Meet Kelly Huff: Colorado’s Unconventional Golf Instructor with a TrackMan Advantage

Kelly Huff has tattoos and no PGA teaching credentials, which means he’s not your typical golf instructor. Yet, if you want to book time with him, you’d better be on the South Broadway Country Club website the third Monday of every month, when his calendar opens promptly at 9 a.m.

It’s not quite as difficult as buying Taylor Swift tickets. “No lottery yet,” Huff says, laughing at the thought. But, note the “yet.”

READ: Inside Colorado’s Post-Pandemic Golf Goldrush

“Some instructors are big talkers but they don’t really communicate,” says SBCC staff member Sam Dudley, who has a front-row seat for Huff’s sessions in the nearby TrackMan bays. “He speaks softly and communicates a ton without being overbearing. And it’s all very positive.”

It’s also very egalitarian. Huff’s students range from sports celebrities to newbies to top local golfers. “He does a really good job of leveraging the technology his facility has in TrackMan and using that for instruction,” says client Chris Thayer, the Colorado Golf Association’s Mid-Amateur Player of the Year in 2022. “And he does a good job of explaining that to his students. I think he was an early adopter, and it’s paid off for him.”

Huff fell for TrackMan, the simulator used by most PGA Tour pros, when he was director of instruction at an Atlanta private club.

“I had a good gig,” says Huff. “But I wanted to open my own teaching facility and started doing a lot of research on different golf markets around the country. TrackMan was all over the Southeast, and it was out in California. I saw the writing on the wall and I knew it was going to be a household name for golf improvement, but it hadn’t really made its way to Denver yet.”

READ: 6 Indoor Golfing Spaces to Book Your Tee Time in 2023

It had, however, made it to Portland, Oregon’s RedTail Golf Center, which had 10 TrackMen (now 14!) and an outdoor teaching line. Huff spent 18 months there learning the technology, earning certifications from the Titleist Performance Institute and U.S. Kids Golf, before moving to Denver in 2017 and opening on South Broadway. In 2018 he finally had his liquor permits, and SBCC joined the now crazy-popular niche of indoor golf bars.

By then, Huff had already built his teaching business, mostly by word of mouth but also by watching customers practice or play on the TrackMan. He’d watch them hit a few balls, guess their handicap and speculate on their typical miss. Next thing you know, lessons were booked.

For all his unconventional style, Huff hasn’t felt stigmatized by golf traditionalists. He and his wife, Amy, a real estate attorney who has helped him expand the business to Tennyson Street and Fort Collins, joined Lakewood Country Club in 2020 and have a regular Friday game there.

“I really do love the old school, traditional, mind-your-Ps-and-Qs country club side of golf,” Huff says. “But I obviously like the avantgarde modernization of the game as well. Golf is becoming cooler and cooler. It’s not as stuffy as it used to be, but I truly like both sides of that.”

 

Susan Fornoff has covered U.S. Opens and the Masters for the San Francisco Chronicle, written two golf books and founded GottaGoGolf.com, a website and newsletter for women golfers. She recently relocated to Littleton, and hopes to play all of Colorado’s 10 toughest golf courses – from the most forward tees.

Inside Colorado’s Post-Pandemic Golf Goldrush

At South Broadway Country Club, Kelly Huff is preparing to franchise his five-year-old business combining TrackMan bays, instruction and a cocktail bar. Joe Lynch and Winston Manley are so jazzed with the inaugural year of The Local Drive in RiNo, they’re set for expanding this year into Longmont and beyond. And still to open in Lowry, developers of the Hangar Club have drawn up plans for a whopping 10 bays in Colorado’s biggest entry to golf’s new indoor phenomenon, the golf lounge.

The well-documented, post-pandemic golf rush seems to have evolved into a gold rush for entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on Colorado’s long, cold winters.

READ: Golf Course Real Estate Makes a Comeback in the Mountains

“Indoor golf is evolving,” says Lynch, a former hotel executive. “It’s more approachable now for golfers to come in and be introduced to it. A lot of places that have been built for the golfer were not as inviting. They’re more dungeon-esque and male-dominated. We’re designed for social networking.”

What’s happening in Colorado mirrors statistics released by the National Golf Foundation in January showing that off-course golf engagement, measured at 27.9 million, has surpassed participation on green grass courses, 25.6 million. Those stats, both rising annually over the last three years, encompass driving ranges, entertainment venues like Topgolf, and any businesses with simulators.

READ: Topgolf Eyes Growth Beyond the Front Range

There are already too many Colorado bars featuring simulators to count. TrackMan, the Doppler radar powered device best known for its traction with PGA Tour telecasts and players, lists seven locations between RiNo and Littleton’s Superfly Golf Lounge. And there are also at least three alternative technologies in play.

X-Golf has its own proprietary technology in 75-and-counting U.S. locations. Represented in Denver at Landmark in Greenwood Village, X-Golf shuns cushy seating areas and sleek design touches to create an appeal more along the lines of a macho sports bar than a co-ed lounge. Topgolf also has a proprietary system, Toptracer, on a scale with its large outdoor facilities.

Uneekor Eye XO was the choice of newcomer Stick and Feather, which opened five big, bright bays under three chandeliers in the York Street Yards in 2022 but was still awaiting its liquor permits in 2023; the young owners have had to jump through some hoops, including installing a pizza kitchen. 

Their Korean technology has also been in play at Optimum Golf. The golf minds behind the old Park Hill Golf Course launched Optimum as an indoor golf center without permits for liquor; they offer lessons, host events and run leagues, plus the bay-by-the-hour model that is proving profitable in the lounges.

Insider Tips

Each technology has a bit of a learning curve, though TrackMan fans say it is a quick study for anyone who already plays golf. But as with golf, there’s a certain culture surrounding golf lounge accessibility. Here’s how it works:

  • For somewhere around $50 an hour, depending on day of the week and time, you can book simulator time in advance online. This will give you sole possession of a bay with all the fixings: mat, golf ball dispenser and big screen. You can bring friends (kids too); as with golf, foursomes are preferred but, unlike with golf, even more can play.
  • Generally, you’ll bring your own clubs, though some facilities have free clubs handy, and some offer rentals. 
  • You’ll decide whether you want to practice your golf swing, thus accessing all sorts of measurements, or play a target game, or play a particular golf course. (Pebble Beach and TPC-Colorado ranked at the top of the state’s TrackMan stats this winter.)
  • If you’re playing a round, various formats are accessible, including a scramble where each player tries each shot. Don’t be shy about asking the staff for guidance. Even the bartender has tech training, and, says South Broadway Country Club founder Kelly Huff, “We definitely do not suggest tight, tree-lined courses when it’s a brand-new golfer, because being in the trees on a simulator is not very fun.”
  • Rule of thumb is that 18 holes take one player an hour, two players two hours, and so on. Of course, accomplished players should take less time to play. Setting a wide gimme range on putts moves things along; most players find simulator putting wastes time – except, of course, at those golf lounges like Urban Golf, which specialize in minigolf.

Drinks are optional, though who could resist a Green Jacket at the Crow’s Nest or, at SBCC, a concoction named after the player who most famously crashed and burned in a British Open, the Van de Velde? 

Food is often not even on the menu, probably because it’s surely better enjoyed before or after simulator time. Think about the last time you went to Topgolf. Not only did you pay hourly for your time at a table with a hitting bay, you bought food and drink you were expected to consume during that same window of time. Kind of like dining at Dazzle while playing your trumpet rather than listening to a quartet.

“Topgolf has a phenomenal concept,” says Local Drive’s Lynch. “And their world is evolving too, to indoors, with Swing Suites like at Tom’s Watch Bar. Even at that, it’s still very much oriented to people who want to go play for fun. Not what you see here or at South Broadway.”

READ: A Musing on Golf’s Pace of Play Dilemma

Practice and Profit

Mostly what you see in the golf lounges transforms after work, from quiet nondrinkers working on their games in ones or twos by day to lively parties of four or more playing for fun in the evenings and especially on weekends. Lessons, tournaments and membership packages draw the early crowd, while the later crowd is fair game for leagues and seminars served with cocktails—“Whiskey and Wedges,” for instance, an easy sell at The Local Drive.

The appeal to both audiences pays for those simulators quickly. A TrackMan that costs $26,000 has made its money back in 520 hours, as little as two months at a lounge booking bays 10 hours a day. After that there’s just a $2,000 annual software maintenance fee. Especially without kitchen overhead, says Manley, “Margins are good.”

There’s more money to be made with corporate meetings and events, and Lynch and Manley have added income with a traveling TrackMan, a hit at former Nuggets star Dikembe Mutombo’s birthday party last year.

Of course, there’s one problem with this business model: Spring is here. Stick and Feather can open its rollup doors to the patio, but who’s going to play even those big, gorgeous simulators when there’s a tee time open at Fossil Trace?

South Broadway Country Club has survived five years of changing seasons, and Huff says, “The longer three- or four-hour simulator rentals do go down a bit. People will come in more to look at their numbers and work on their game. It becomes a little more of a game-improvement facility, and I definitely teach more in the summer. It’s not as much of a ‘I can’t get outside and play, I need to play Pebble Beach right now’ facility.”

Huff is packaging everything he’s learned into a playbook for franchises. Whatever the season, he’s convinced that he could be on to the new Starbucks.

“I don’t think indoor golf is going away, and I think it’s just going to keep getting more realistic,” he says. “I don’t really know what that entails, but I’m excited to see it.”

 

Susan Fornoff has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle, regional golf associations and her own GottaGoGolf.com. She is a member of the Overland Park Golf Course and Links at Highlands Ranch women’s clubs. This is her seventh Executive Golf Guide for ColoradoBiz.