Lecturing people in course etiquette doesn’t work, writes Steve Carroll. If you want golfers to listen, you’ve got to do something different
It’s cause for a toast if you’re caught on camera at one Troon Golf property. Players captured on social media repairing pitch marks can celebrate in the 19th hole with a free beer.
If it sounds a bit like bribery – an outlandish way of trying to solve one of golf’s age old problems – then Simon Doyle, Troon Golf’s European director of agronomy, would prefer to call it “positive reinforcement”.
For the company, which runs the likes of the Grove and Fairmont St Andrews in the UK, have come to the same conclusion many of us have rather suspected when imploring golfers to clean up after themselves.
You just can’t tell people what to do.
Even the most passive observers will notice the signs dotted around clubhouses and on the golf course urging members and visitors to repair their pitch marks and rake bunkers.
It’s basic etiquette, and good manners to boot, but the same sideways glance at the twitter accounts of plenty of greenkeepers and course managers on a Monday morning will reveal it’s a plea that’s largely ignored.
Pock-marked surfaces and footprints in a newly raked hazard drive hard working staff to distraction and yet the traditional message goes unheeded no matter how passionately it is promulgated.
“It’s the industry’s oldest problem,” admits Doyle. “There are fewer people repairing ball marks then there used to be. I believe it’s to do with so many factors. There is awareness, respect and lack of knowledge of etiquette.
“Everyone is a bit busier today in their lives. Their mind is elsewhere sometimes and I get it. It’s unfortunate and it’s just something we have to deal with.
“Telling people that this is the way it needs to be done, or this is bad etiquette, doesn’t work today.
“People don’t want rules. Rules don’t work in golf and many hospitality businesses anymore. It’s just different. That’s gone. We have to realise that and take a different approach.
“We’re not going to embarrass people into pitch mark repairing. There was a day that every golf course had a marshal that could go round and make them repair ball marks and that worked. But it just doesn’t exist today.”
And so we come to the idea of a free beer – a way of encouraging golfers to behave in a certain way and rewarding them if they do.
Doyle explains: “It’s trying to find different ways to motivate people.
“It’s taking a different approach and saying, ‘Hey, if we see you out on the golf course repairing a pitch mark, tweet it, or if we see you and it’s tweeted, you will get a free beer in the clubhouse.’
“It’s finding a fun way to educate people on repairing ball marks as opposed to the negative ‘you can’t do that’ and ‘you shouldn’t do that’.
“When people play golf today they don’t want rules. It’s the reality. It’s typically non-members and we know the membership market is less and less and more daily play. They naturally have less respect for the property as it is not ‘their’ club.
“We have to understand that and find different ways to educate and encourage them. Otherwise it’s just a losing battle.”
And losing the battle is a dispiriting feeling that all greens teams know only too well. ‘Extremely frustrating’ is how Doyle describes the effects 18 holes full of pitch marks have on the morale of his teams.
For a start, it bogs them down when it comes to cutting greens. Repairing pitch marks is important before the blades can properly do their work, otherwise there’s a danger of causing even more damage.
“If you can imagine that you’ve got a fresh pitch mark and, typically, that’s causing a slight protrusion above the green,” he says.
“As you mow over that, the blades will catch the protrusion and essentially scalp and kill that piece of grass. You now have dead turf. If that ball mark was properly repaired, by stretching it across, you would recover that area.
“It’s either repaired nicely and no one notices the difference or it gets mowed over and it’s even worse.”
With teams trying to get the greens cut before the first wave of golfers hit the course not too long after sunrise, you can imagine how stopping that task to clean up could be demotivating.
But there’s also the fatalism that the tried and tested ways of getting the message home to golfers about repairing pitch marks aren’t getting through. So finding new ways, such as the free drink, is a way of encouraging players to make a change to their golfing habits.
“It may not be the answer you want to hear but unfortunately sometimes we just have to accept the golfer for what they are and we have to do the work,” Doyle continues.
“We’ve had some interesting studies in places where, if the work is done wrongly, we’re better off doing it ourselves.
“It’s somewhat of the wrong attitude but it’s also the reality, especially with the daily fee golfer. That’s why I like the positive reinforcement method.
“It’s, ‘Hey, you guys help us out and we’ll help you out and do something for you.’ That’s what I like. The rules and monitoring – you can only do so much with that.
“Yes, you provide the information and if they choose to abide by that then fantastic but we just have to find different ways to motivate people in a positive sense.
“And if they don’t we say that’s our job.”