Confronting course crime can be wearisome

If your favorite season of the year is autumn, you're probably not a golf-course superintendent. Although many superintendents are like anybody else--they enjoy the typical festivities of the season: packing the kids off for college, cheering on the local high-school football team and guessing who's giggling behind the masks of neighborhood trick-or-treaters--these same events often are the catalyst for many superintendents' biggest nightmares: Vandalism.

Though the public may look on vandalism as harmless highjinks, the superintendent knows better. Vandalism acts drain budgets, increase insurance rates and force grounds crews to work overtime. A lot of the problem may be that the public doesn't look at golf-course vandalism with the same type of fear or scrutiny that they view vandalism of other properties. And because children are often the inciters--and much of the damage occurs in suburban settings--parents and other authority figures don't take the problem as seriously. They don't tend to recognize golf-course vandalism as the crime that it is.

"People seem to think of a golf course as public property, and their taxes paid for it, so they can do whatever they want on one," says Dick Neumann, superintendent of Highlands Golf Course (Lincoln, Neb.). He describes an incident recently that underscores this point. While driving by a school located near his course's property, he noticed a group of children hitting golf balls onto a field. He stopped to ask the kids where they had gotten the balls. They described how the driving range was "covered" with golf balls, and they would go over after dusk and scoop them up by the bucketful.

Neumann explained that the golf balls were the property of the golf course and that, by picking them up and taking them home, the children were stealing. He gathered up what balls he could and told the children that if they had any others at home that he would like them to return the balls to the golf course.

Later that afternoon, a woman driving a station wagon pulled up to the pro shop's front door. In the back were about 350 golf balls, Neumann says. Although that incident shows that some parents try to make amends for their children's acts, Neumann has other stories that detail parents' culpability.

For example, another superintendent with whom Neumann works got a call one day from someone inquiring about the worth of tee flags and the costs to replace them. "The superintendent said, 'Okay, what do you know?'" Neumann says. As expected, many of the club's flags recently had been stolen.

"The guy said his neighbor was bragging that his kid had stolen all these flags," Neumann says. "The superintendent said, 'Well, you tell your neighbor that what his child did was felony theft.'" The superintendent told the caller how much the flags were worth. "Two days later," Neumann says, "when the golf pro came in that morning, all those flags were standing at the door."

Enlisting others' help Superintendents go to great lengths to deter vandalism and other crime on their courses. Bringing in all the flags and tee markers every night is a common solution. Others try to involve the community.

Stan Metsker is the golf-course superintendent at The Country Club of Colorado (Colorado Springs, Colo.). His club sits in the middle of a residential development whose perimeter melds into the backyards of nearby residents.

"My philosophy is...[that] it is imperative to stay in as good a relationship with the neighbors as possible. Don't make the kids mad, don't make the parents mad--'cause if you do, they can get back at you," Metsker says. "So I've found that that helps [deter vandalism]."

Other superintendents enlist the help of the local authorities. Neumann says, "Police have been very cooperative. They don't want any new incidents of vandalism on the books. Police [in my community] have made an issue of striking back at vandalism at recreational facilities this year."

Nevertheless, despite a positive outlook toward staying "in good" with local residents, Metsker says even that can lead to further difficulties. Several years ago, at another course on which he worked, Metsker says, "A kid broke into the cart barn and broke up a lot of the carts. We knew who it was, and we went to see the parents. The father was the head of [a local Fortune-500 firm], and he traveled a lot. So he says to his wife, 'What have you been doing letting the kid run around like this?' So it ended up in a big family squabble right in front of us. So after that, the board [of directors] said to talk to police and not get them involved."

Getting the police involved doesn't always solve the problem, however. Metsker describes another incident at a new course, which was about 5 miles outside of town. "The only green grass for miles around was on the course," he says. "So the kids would come out and play football on the fairway. It was another subdivision course and legally, in my opinion, they were trespassing. So I called the sheriff's department, and he came out and told them to leave. But then he told me that I was just wasting his time and mine 'cause there's nothing he could do and not to call him anymore."

With such obstacles with which to contend, what's a superintendent to do? Admittedly, many superintendents have developed extremely negative attitudes about trying to combat crime on their courses. As hard as they try, they admit, it seems they have no way to win. And problems only seem to be getting worse.

Highlands' Neumann admits that vandalism always has been a problem. But, he says, "In the past couple of years, there have been some very major incidents of vandalism in the city, such as burning down a bath house at one of the pools. Vandalism numbers have been astronomical in the last couple of years, averaging $50,000 in damage." He pauses, "We're not a huge urban center with a terrible gang problem," Neumann says of the city of Lincoln. "It's a very safe community, which is why people move here. But incidents of vandalism seem to be on the rise, mostly in the seriousness of the incidents. For instance, it seemed that hardly a week went by at another course [on which he worked when an act of vandalism occurred]. And here at Highlands, we only get a few a year--yet, when we get one, it's usually major and usually in the thousands-of-dollars range." The result of such crimes: "We're more paranoid, and we use heavy-duty materials now."

Heavy duty? Don't most courses invest in heavy-duty materials and tools to minimize maintenance on their courses? Of course. But the type of "heavy duty" to which Neumann seems to be referring is chain-link fencing, locks, alarms and increased security patrols.

The advantages of security "Don't fence me in" isn't a tune you'll hear on the lips of Jordy Regan's crew. The superintendent at Downing Municipal Golf Course (Harborcreek, Pa.) has invested in some seriously heavy-duty barriers after a series of vandalism crimes.

"We have a rest room on our No.-13 hole that the kids actually broke into and broke all the porcelain," he explains. So Regan installed a 10-foot Cyclone-brand fence around it. "It looks kind of ridiculous," Regan admits, "but it's kept them out so far."

Broken windows had become so common at the course's clubhouse that Regan began anticipating them. "We have tried on a few of them to use [plastic glass], but they discolor so quickly that it's not really an answer," he says. Thus, Regan is following in the steps of many fellow superintendents: increasing security patrols.

"Right now, we're trying to put in the budget for full-time security for next year," he says. "We'd like to have one on each course from 10 to 2:30 [at night]. I think that having somebody during those times would [take care of] most of the problems."

Security patrols can be extremely beneficial toward deterring crime on a course. Not only that, but they often actually apprehend criminals in the act. When that does happen, however, superintendents face a different problem: pressing charges.

Brian Daniel, CGCS, superintendent at LakeRidge Country Club (Lubbock, Texas) and past president of the West Texas Golf Course Superintendents Association, says his course caught a group of juvenile criminals with shovels after they had carved an inverted pentagram onto one of his greens. "Even when we did catch them and tried to press charges," he says, "it wasn't very successful. A lot of the kids wouldn't confess, and one that did wasn't financially able to pay, so we let her off the hook."

Cleve Cleveland, superintendent/owner of the Newark Valley Golf Club (Newark Valley, N.Y.), has had similar experiences. "A lot of times it's hard to prove it, and they [don't] have any money anyway," he says.

Metsker has become very jaded. "The nearby resort has a security patrol, and they take care of [security]," he says, "and they have caught some. But, because they're underage, they can't do anything. If they can't do anything to somebody who kills, then what are they going to do to someone who vandalizes?"

Dealing with the perpetrators Metsker is not alone in his attitude about dealing with juvenile criminals. Other superintendents have become just as despondent about the problem. Yet, the problem isn't likely to go away. So other superintendents have begun working with local authorities to make the underage perpetrators pay for their crimes in a more hands-on fashion: manual labor.

Highlands Golf Course's Neumann says his course makes vandals "work off the damage." "The city's policy is that they have to work off the damage at another course [than the one on which they committed their crimes]," Neumann explains. The reason the culprits don't work at the course they vandalized? "I think [it's] for their safety. I don't think a vandal at my course would get too good of a reception. He'd have to dig some really smelly holes..." Neumann says.

Cleveland, at Newark Valley Golf Club, is another supporter of putting the lawbreakers to work. After all, he explains, "It's hard to put a dollar amount on the damage." He instituted a work program after some young outlaws galloped across his course on horseback. "Fortunately, they missed the greens," he says, "but the horse hooves tore up [other areas on the course] and ripped up chunks of sod....Rather than having them pay restitution, we had them out there for 2 days repairing the course."

Cleveland admits to being a little bit of a vigilante when it comes to vandalism on his course. "We had a young guy decide to drive his car around the course. He drove off the road and across the fairways and the green. I think he must have lost control 'cause there was a lot of damage right in front of the green. I think he tried to spin out on the green, and he tore up a lot of the approach. But I think he got a little scared and lost some control 'cause the green wasn't torn up all that badly.

"We found out through word of mouth who it was, but I couldn't prove it so I sort of stalked him for about the next year and just followed him around and stared at him," Neumann says with chuckle. "I think it made him kind of scared."

Creative solutions to the problems Neumann recognizes that some of the vandalism his course experiences isn't the result of juvenile delinquents. The golfers themselves are the culprits. Thus, his course began a "golfer-vandalism program." Neumann wants golfers to recognize how their angry actions affect the course as a whole. Thus, "when a golfer hits a bad shot and breaks a rake or hits a tee marker, we [want them to know] how these things add up. So we'll take the [broken] item and put it on display in the clubhouse." Neumann puts up a sign explaining that the damage resulted from misplaced anger by a fellow golfer and describing how the damage affects the course. "We don't know what kind of impact [the program] might have, but we're hoping it might add to the awareness a little bit," Neumann says. He figures that golfer vandalism probably costs his course several hundred dollars a year.

Neumann's course also has invested in some other security measures. "We've gone to motion-sensor lighting in areas where we can't [watch], and we've PVC-anchored irrigation boxes and added more electrical protection for controllers and the like, such as ground-fault protection, so if one is damaged they won't affect the entire system." Neumann says he's also talked to local law officials about the quickest routes to get to potential vandalism sites on the course and giving police the names of course personnel who live nearby. That way, if an alarm goes off, the course personnel can check it out in a hurry.

That type of planning has already paid off for his course, Neumann says. "We've had three vandalisms in and around the clubhouse, and twice the police apprehended the vandals trying to break in," he explains. "Dan Williams, our golf pro, was called about the alarm going off [on one occasion], and he went out to the course to check it out. He saw nothing wrong, but he remembered an incident from another course that had happened recently, and it made him wonder if the alarm could be because of the same vandals. So he called the police and told them he was there and was re-setting the alarm." Williams suggested that the police check back in a little while to see if the vandals returned. Police waited and then drove back by the clubhouse again. Sure enough, police officers caught and arrested the criminals as they were cutting the phone and electrical cords.

While it might not seem to be an obvious solution, Downing Municipal's Regan discovered that having young crew members on staff can be to a course's advantage. After all, Regan says, he's found that many thefts occur right before students return to school in the fall. "College kids seem to want to find stuff to decorate their dorm rooms," he explains. His course recovered some stolen items when a crew member attended a party at a nearby college-campus dorm room. "A guy was having a party," Regan describes, "and he'd stolen the tee sign, the ball washer and had a whole console set up in his dorm room with stuff from this one tee." The crew member turned the student in.

When to expect problems As mentioned earlier, many superintendents have noticed patterns to when the vandalism occurs on their courses. Regan says, "Some times of year are especially bad, such as the nights of home football games. We had an 8 by 10 starter shack that they poured gasoline on and burned it down. We did catch the person who did that because the person wasn't smart enough to get out of the way and caught himself on fire. He put himself out and went home, and his family took him to the hospital.

"It seems that it goes in sprees," Regan adds. "It seems like when the kids get out in the spring and when they go back to school in the fall they have this extra burst of energy to do this stuff."

LakeRidge Country Club's Daniel has noticed similar patterns. "We have figured out the nights when it's most likely to occur," he says. "For example, on the nights when the two local high schools play, we usually have some problems, and other nights, such as Halloween and New Year's Eve."

Obviously, golf-course vandalism isn't going to go away. Superintendents will have to go the extra mile as vandalism cases increase. Standard practice probably should include bringing in expensive equipment every night, gathering up tee flags at day's end, investing in security patrols and installing motion detectors and new lighting. But perhaps Daniel at LakeRidge has developed one of the easiest solutions: a positive attitude. If nothing else, he says, "We've become really good at fixing the problems after they've happened." That's one silver lining to a very dark cloud.

Describing some of the horror stories their courses had experienced seemed almost cathartic for some of the golf-course superintendents that Grounds Maintenance interviewed for this article. Describing what they'd gone through and sharing their distress -- and sometimes a laugh when looking at the situations in retrospect -- allowed superintendents to release some of their anxiety about the topic.

Here's some of the worst stories superintendents shared. Profane sod. "The worst [problems] involve greens. One of the worst was we had some kids who liked to walk down the [railroad] track [that bordered part of the course]. One day, we came in and found that the kids had started at the top of the green and the cup and pulled chunks of sod off of it. Then, they had pulled chunks out spelling out profane words.

"The salvageable chunks we were able to sew back in, and we repaired the rest with sod...but it took about 2 years before it wasn't noticeable anymore." -- Cleve Cleveland, superintendent/owner, Newark Valley Golf Club (Newark Valley, N.Y.)

Desperate thirst and the "call of nature." "We've had our share of incidents. This year we had a couple of pretty senseless acts. Twice now, we've come out on the course and found that vandals had completely destroyed pop machines and rest rooms. As a result, the local beverage distributor that supplied the pop machine has refused to supply us with another pop machine with a dollar-bill changer, which is a pretty expensive part. That incident was in June, and we recently just fished that dollar-bill changer out of our pond [during a ball retrieval].

"They destroyed the bathroom fixtures, vandal-proof lights were destroyed, property was taken, and then they went to one of our putting greens and carved gang signs. Until now, most of the vandalism was attributed to pure adolescent mischief. But we don't want to get involved in gangs and the like. So on this incident, we asked the police for special assistance, and it was featured on the local crime stoppers show. To no avail, though.

"We have a $5,000-per-incident deductible so there are very, very few incidents where we do meet the criteria for vandalism. Insurance companies are very crafty. So, for instance, with the bathroom incident, the damage was split between the city and the soft-drink distributor, so neither of us met the deductible. The most common things that are stolen or damaged are flags, flag poles, markers, etc., so we do budget for replacement of those. But with the bathroom -- I've never budgeted for replacement of a sink or a stool. So when those things happen, it just comes out of our budget and the community just loses something in some other part of our budget.

"Our parks director has stated that vandalism costs us the same as three full-time positions a year in the parks-department budget." -- Dick Neumann, superintendent, Highlands Golf Course (Lincoln, Neb.)

"Holy golf cart, Batman!" "We have three golf courses. This is a municipal one, and we have two outside the city and one inside the city. We lease our carts, and they are kept outside, so we have a heck of a time keeping them secured. We've been using stainless-steel cable to lock them up. But this year the kids have been prepared, and we actually had some come with cutters. This summer, we had one stolen and they took it home and painted it like the Batmobile and were driving it around the city streets. So that one was recovered 'cause the police saw it driving down a street and stopped it.

"You'd think the parents would wonder where a kid would get a golf cart, much less allow them to paint it up and drive it around." -- Jordy Regan, superintendent, Downing Municipal Golf Course (Harborcreek, Pa.)

Park promenades. "We have a lot of bicycles and roller bladers [in the nearby residential area], and they see the cart paths and I think a lot of people see those as walking paths. In fact, I've found a woman pushing a stroller toward a tee when people are teeing off. And we've had people picking up pecans during the day like it's a city park. It looks like a park, but it is private property.

"We keep 'no trespassing' signs up, but it doesn't seem to do a lot. We have lakes and people fish in them, and we have real-estate agents who take prospective buyers out, and they're walking across the fairways in their business suits looking at the lakes..." -- Brian Daniel, CGCS, superintendent, LakeRidge Country Club (Lubbock, Texas)

Marshmallows anyone? "I used to work on a course before I went back to school and got my doctorate. One morning, I went out to check the course and somebody had taken a bag of marshmallows and dumped them all over the fairway. Golfers couldn't see where their balls went because they blended in with the golf balls. So I had to go around and pick up all those marshmallows." -- Dr. Mark Welterlen, editor, Grounds Maintenance

>From bad to worse. "We have a Newark (N.J.) homicide detective as security each night." Some of the problems experienced, which occur at least once a month during the summer, include: "Human feces in cups and on trash cans, flag poles in trees and brooks, condoms and syringes on greens, stolen equipment from shop, stolen vehicles left on course and homeless people living on the property....Bad neighborhoods surround [our] course." --Greg Nicoll, golf course superintendent, Maplewood, N.J. course

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