Maintenance volunteers come from across the globe to support others in the industry at professional golf tournaments. But the question of whether those volunteers should be compensated for their efforts has become a much-discussed one in the industry. Photos by Scott Hollister
Every GCSAA member should be aware — and proud — that the fruit of their labor has had a major impact on the U.S. economy.
According to the National Golf Foundation, golf contributed $102 billion to the U.S. economy in 2022, which was a 20% increase from 2016, the last time there was a proper review of golf’s economic contributions. To put $102 billion in perspective,
it is 2½ times the reported revenue of the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball combined last year. News of golf’s financial gains combined with encouragement from readers of “Up to Speed,” the column I penned for GCM for
nine years, is the impetus for this article.
When I was regularly writing for GCM, I would normally receive two to three emails from readers following publication regarding the article’s content. On a handful of occasions, I would receive twice that. That’s relevant, because following
the publication of my May 2019 column, “Shaking the tree for low-hanging fruit” (https://bit.ly/2WxNFZe), I received well over 100 passionate and thought-provoking comments via email, as well as numerous phone calls and text messages from
golf course owners, superintendents, assistants, ground crew members, academics, students and distributors.
Comments came in from four different continents and over 30 U.S. states. And even though I don’t use X, formerly known as Twitter, I was informed the column inspired plenty of conversations on that platform.
In that column, I suggested it was counterproductive for college-educated professionals to provide maintenance for professional golf tournaments on a volunteer basis. To support my case, I provided financial facts that everyone associated with televised
golf tournaments was earning exponentially more money over the past 40 years, with the exception of the grounds crew that provided meticulous playing and aesthetic conditions.
Part of the reason I addressed the question about volunteering in the first place was golf’s ongoing labor shortage and its direct relation to the reduction of college turfgrass students. I can’t think of any other scenario where college-educated
professionals give away their labor at the most visible and financially opportune time. I have dug into the archives and tried to find out how this practice started, without success. I imagine its roots begin with Old Tom Morris and fellow greenkeepers
of his time preparing golf courses for The Open Championship. The difference between then and now, of course, is that many of those greenkeepers also played in The Open.
Because of the feedback I received from that column, I always wanted to write a follow-up that shared some of the most common responses I received and the prevailing thoughts shared. Many who commented asked to remain anonymous, while others were happy
to have their names included. With that said, I chose not to include any names, and I also left out the name of several host courses and tournaments because I believe it may distract from the broader point.
Nearly three dozen women volunteers gathered to assist in maintenance operations at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. This marked the third consecutive year that the “women in turf” served as volunteers at the U.S. Women’s Open.
Advocates of volunteering made up approximately 20% of the responses, and one of my personal favorites was, “Vol·un·teer: A person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.” I admire the direct approach
and concede if a person is volunteering, they are not getting paid.
With that said, many who responded felt volunteers weren’t working for free, stating benefits such as, “networking, housing, meals, uniforms, valuable experience to take back to their clubs and the reward and sense of pride of helping a host
club/team achieve their goals seems like adequate compensation for ... ‘volunteering.’” Many others pointed out that most volunteers are getting paid by their home courses while they’re assisting with tournament prep.
One superintendent with many years hosting professional events offered a particularly thorough thought on the topic. “Your article has some great points and I agree 100%. Brilliant take on the subject and a view I quite honestly hadn’t considered,”
he said. “I have to agree with your assessment and would suggest that volunteers are needed at the larger events to support the existing crew who have already put in countless amounts of hours in the build up to the event over days, weeks, months
and, in some cases, years. Volunteering comes with the additional benefit of learning and developing oneself and forms a big part in my view of an individual showcasing their desire to progress when reviewing a résumé for employment.
“It’s not to say that a financial reward should not be in place; I like that idea. But as host superintendents, you don’t want assistance from individuals who may be doing so simply for financial benefit. There is great value in gaining
access to volunteers who are there to learn, give back and grow whilst creating a great network of friends in turf who support each other long after the event is past.
“If payment was an issue, let’s pour some money into the experience that you gain as a volunteer — giveaways, access to the course after the tournament to play, time with the winner after the event to say ‘thank you,’ accommodations,
travel expenses to attend, food and beverage, etc. An hourly rate to volunteer? Perhaps. Food for thought? Absolutely! Great discussion points … love it!”
Superintendents who host professional golf events that attract volunteer interest set the parameters, including daily schedules and work assignments. This is a meeting prior to afternoon maintenance at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach.
Not every superintendent who had hosted events supported the volunteer philosophy. “If you dive deeper, you’ll realize that not only do (volunteers) not get paid, but we are responsible for begging our vendors and equipment manufacturers for
money to support housing, meals, uniforms and additional equipment. It’s a vicious circle.”
Another said, “Does the value of volunteering at tournaments correlate directly to résumé building? Probably not. However, the incentive of building friendships and connections for the future is perhaps the greatest value of volunteering.
I do think it is a huge oversight that most clubs, tournaments and (sponsoring organizations such as) the PGA Tour or USGA do not share the burden with the superintendent in terms of assisting with both the financial responsibilities of hosting a
tournament as well as assisting in finding volunteers.”
I also received insights from superintendents who attempted to get something for their support staff. “I totally agree with you, this is nonsense. I held an event a few years ago at my club and when I brought up the fact that my extra staff should
be compensated, everybody on the board looked at me as if I was from outer space. I provided motel rooms and clothes for them; that was the best I was allowed.”
Numerous comments lamented the demands of the profession, along with its historical camaraderie. “I just read your article on volunteers being paid for working professional events ... I could not agree with this more. As an already undervalued profession,
I see this as a way to start righting the ship. We already spend more time at the course than with our families. When you throw a tournament in the mix …
“It is in our nature to help make our fellow turfheads successful in any way we can. It might sound cliché, but we don’t do it for the fame. A little something for the effort would be nice. Thank you for your continuous support of superintendents;
there is no one that supports us like you do!”
Many others stated they volunteered out of relationships they already had with the host superintendent. “I volunteered because of my friendship with the golf course superintendent and because I wanted to support the many turf maintenance volunteers
that I know who were there. By paying the volunteers, perhaps the hourly wage that your article suggests, you would emphasize the importance of those who prepare the turf for play, and, more importantly, provide a level of respect that is lacking
but much deserved and warranted.”
And another insight from a noteworthy turfgrass academic: “I love this article, Thom, and how you think outside the box. Our community of turf managers is so willing to help others by nature that we have probably been taken advantage of. Certainly,
it is a topic for consideration. Also, this is especially important now considering how little free time anyone has any more.”
One thing that became clear from the responses is the volunteer staff is treated quite differently from event to event. “I volunteered a few years ago at my old club. When we got there, there was not even a cup of coffee, a muffin or a shirt to
greet us. We did not have access behind the ropes or in the volunteers lunch tent. It was like they were doing us a favor by letting us work at their course. No need to mention that I never went back.”
Golf course maintenance volunteers mow the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach during this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. Volunteers fill a variety of roles at most professional golf events, from raking bunkers and divot repair to mowing and water management.
Many others saw both sides of the argument when it comes to volunteering at professional events. “My first reaction as I read your column was ... why complain?” wrote one. “The opportunity to work at a tournament as a volunteer on the
maintenance staff should be a great opportunity to learn about the best from the best, build a strong résumé and potentially fulfill a lifetime dream for a serious golf course turf manager. I still feel that way, to a point, though less
strongly than before reading your article.
“All that to say that your article was convincing as you brought into focus the striking gap between the multimillion-dollar purses at these tournaments and the unpaid time by the volunteer maintenance staff. I think your point is valid and after
pondering your article for a few days, I believe your suggestion is reasonable that we should at least seriously explore compensation for the caretakers. I’m not sure how the volunteer caretakers are selected, and I would hope compensation wouldn’t
hurt opportunity for those who could benefit most by it (i.e., maybe they want the experience and résumé-building notoriety more than the compensation).”
Another acknowledged what a hot-button issue this has become. “I have had a long and somewhat prosperous career as a result of the great game of golf. When I read your article in GCM, my first thought was either you’re very crazy or very courageous
to address what appears to be a … touchy subject.
“I have never responded to anything I have read before, and there have been many times I’ve written either a rebuttal or concurrence to something published ... but never pressed the ‘send’ button. I did this time. Your article
struck a nerve of concurrence that I really felt the need to offer support for.
“I have frequently asked the superintendent responsible for getting the course ready for a televised event if any of the players at any time come to the maintenance department and thank the crew and volunteers for a job well done. The answer has
always been the same ... ‘Nope,’ they tell me. ‘It’s pretty much a thankless job.’”
Some tournaments provide educational opportunities — such as this one that took place during this year’s U.S. Women’s Open — for volunteers to enhance their overall experience.
Who foots the bill?
One of the most thought-provoking comments came from the state of Montana. The author described himself as a “purveyor of blue-collar golf to tank-top, tattooed, tennis-shoe-wearing, Bud Light-drinking and lake-ball-playing clientele.” He
wrote, “One of the beautiful and perhaps unique aspects of our profession has always been the high level of collegiality and the willingness to help each other. I think it is great that this can be demonstrated even at the highest levels of
national and international competition.
“What would be even greater is if the sponsoring and governing bodies conducting these events recognized this fact and made a generous contribution in the name of all the volunteers to GCSAA’s educational programs or to the Environmental Institute
for Golf (now the GCSAA Foundation). A $25,000 or $50,000 added ‘cost’ to the sponsor would not likely break their bank and replicating that 6 or 8 times throughout the year would be a significant boost to our association. You get what
you pay for; in the case of the championship volunteers, you get way more than you pay for.”
If volunteer ground crews are to be paid — which, by definition, would no longer make them volunteers — the question becomes, who should pay them? The PGA Tour or the tournament’s sponsoring organization? TV networks? Commercial sponsors?
The host course? Or maybe the players themselves?
The latter might sound crazy, but Major League Baseball grounds management and personnel often get awarded with a sum of money from the players for preparing the field during the postseason. I know of several MLB field managers who received six-figure
checks following their teams’ World Series wins; I know of one who was awarded $1 million! Additionally, at Michigan State, we had a sports turf management student who interned for a team that made the playoffs and was gifted a four-figure check.
These questions should not be seen as criticisms of golf organizations who put on professional events. Instead, the game should be applauded for its charitable efforts — in 2022, golf’s charitable impact reached $4.6 billion, which is approximately
1% of all charitable giving in the U.S. ($485 billion) from individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations combined.
But to expand on the concept of sponsoring organizations making charitable donations on behalf of maintenance volunteers, another possibility is the Wee One Foundation. That group was formed to assist golf course management professionals (or their dependents)
who incur overwhelming expenses due to medical hardships. Since its inception, the organization has aided more than 200 individuals and families throughout the U.S. and Canada. The support provided by the Wee One Foundation allows those in need to
focus on their health and well-being and offers assurance that they are not alone in their struggles.
Professional golf wasn’t always flush with cash. A little over 100 years ago, professional golfers were not allowed in the clubhouse at many golf courses, and those they could enter often made them come through the back door. In 1920, Walter Hagen
hired a car to use as his dressing room for The Open Championship, parking it in the driveway of the clubhouse because he was refused entrance to the clubhouse dressing room.
That same year, the U.S. Open was held at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. Encouraged by Hagen, the professional players donated a grandfather clock to the club in appreciation for being allowed access to the clubhouse during the tournament.
Fast forward to 2022, and the PGA Tour’s collective purses exceeded $421 million, $31 million more than in 2021.
Additionally, due to new media contracts and competition with the LIV Golf tour, projected purses for 2023 should increase by $140 million.
While some things change, others stay the same. Professional golf is making significantly more money, while college-educated professionals are donating their time and expertise to make certain the grounds are in perfect condition on the world’s
biggest stages. As the old saying goes, why buy the cow if you get the milk for free?
Thomas A. Nikolai, Ph.D., the “Doctor of Green Speed,” is the turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and a frequent GCSAA educator. He wrote his bi-monthly “Up to Speed” column in GCM
from 2013 to 2022.