Turf & Rec

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Innovative trends in golf

Superintendents who tap into other ways of getting job done find time for more.

October 15, 2019
By Mike Jiggens

Raking every square inch of a bunker is not only labour intensive, it requires time that can be allocated to other tasks. Adopting the Australian methodology of bunker upkeep requires only the floor to be raked. It’s less work and produces better playability.

Even though a couple of decades have elapsed since the start of the golf course-building explosion in Canada and the United States, the ongoing fallout from its implosion continues to impact golf course superintendents.

They are faced with two options as they move forward: continue to manage their courses the way they always have and hope their doors remain open, or implement strategies aimed at improving their efficiency to achieve the same course quality.

Adam Moeller, education director for the United States Golf Association’s (USGA) Green Section, offered up that advice while speaking before the Ontario Golf Superintendents Association’s winter conference in Collingwood.

“We can’t just reduce the quality of our golf courses, and that’s what really causes golfers to choose our facility over someone else’s,” he said.

The same quality – especially on putting greens – must be applied, he said, adding other parts of the golf course can be scaled back if need be.

“We can’t do less with more. We have to do less with less.”

The answer to maintaining top quality while adjusting programs and expectations on other parts of the golf course is to utilize innovative trends devised in large part by golf superintendents, Moeller said. Several such strategies have been conceived in recent years, contributing to a rebound in the health and stability of many golf facilities in Canada and the United States. This has led to increased optimism for the future.

But, he cautioned, superintendents still must be mindful of the challenges they continue to face, including the cost and limited supply of water.

“It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

Other challenges include the costs associated with fertilizer, electricity and labour – the latter of which poses a particular trial of its own. Golf course maintenance is hard work that is labour intensive, done during the heat of the season and involving early morning hours.

“People are gassed at the end of the season,” Moeller said, adding not only is there competition for labourers among competing golf courses but against other industries that offer workers more traditional hours and the ability to work indoors. “It’s very hard to compete with these other industries, especially when we’re dealing with people or places that are less labour intensive and indoor, or with more reasonable hours. There are definitely some challenges ahead.”

Innovations designed to save golf courses money or resources while improving the facility’s efficiency and playing conditions will usually have an associated cost, but there is always a return on investment, Moeller said, noting water management is one such trend.

“There has been a significant shift at a lot of golf facilities to manage more for playability when it comes to watering golf courses with less emphasis on aesthetics.”

When automatic irrigation systems first came into vogue, the tendency was to overwater which led to poor playability and other challenges. The pendulum has since swung in the opposite direction, Moeller said, giving superintendents more precision than thought possible. Individual control with precision technology allows superintendents and irrigation technicians to know exactly how much water a single head is putting out, “and we can control just that one head with the push of a button.”

The trend today is that more and more golf courses are using less and less water, but not necessarily to save water from an environmental standpoint.

“That’s an added benefit and it’s our responsibility, but we’re managing for playing conditions. It’s not just about water conservation.”

One of the growing trends leading toward decreased water consumption is the use of evapotranspiration (ET)-based irrigation that can effectively track the amount of moisture lost in the soil. A certain percentage of the moisture lost in a given day can be replaced, and it helps to have weather stations on the golf course to help determine amounts lost. Moeller said it’s important to think about how much water is being applied in terms of volume rather than in run times. One green might require six minutes of irrigation while another might need 10 minutes. That’s run time, but superintendents now have the ability to calculate the volume of water being put down.

“It’s important to dial in how much actual water you’re putting down.”

Fertilizer applications
MLSN (minimal level for sustainable nutrition) and SLAN (sufficiency level of available nutrients) help to guide superintendents’ fertilizer applications.

SLAN is the older model and is actually geared towards agricultural crops, but it suggests fertility be done to bring subtle nutrient content to an optimum range that is developed to maximize yield. In golf course applications, however, the goal isn’t to maximize yield but playing conditions and turf quality and density.

“What’s the minimal nutrient you need in the soil to support healthy turf?” Moeller asked. “This is like comparing gas in a car to fertilizer in soil. How much gas do you need to get from one place to another? A full tank or can you get by with a quarter tank? The same principle applies to fertilizer, and this can save in fertilizer use.”

MLSN is in the lower range, but has basically the same categories as SLAN, he said, noting superintendents don’t fertilize over and over to maximize yield.

“You’re basing your fertilizer on clipping yield on what you’re seeing in the turf. What’s the minimum amount you need?”

A more recent innovative trend adopted by superintendents is the increased use of drones on golf courses, but Moeller speculated more stringent regulations are likely to come about over the next few years, making them more difficult to fly.

“They do provide a lot of information that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Drones are able to “paint a picture” that presents information for superintendents they might not realize when driving about the course in their golf carts. Scouting, identifying stress points and correlating moisture levels are among the noteworthy functions drones can perform.

Intermediary rough
Another new trend adopted by several superintendents involves the elimination of intermediary rough. Maintaining it on a weekly basis tends to be labour intensive.

“When you get rid of that intermediary rough, you see improved definition. You can’t just push the fairway out.”

Moeller said money is still being spent on fuel, but eliminating intermediary rough allows the superintendent to remove another piece of equipment and save on a worker who might have previously been dedicated to the task. The outcome is a bigger fairway.

He noted that among the top 100 golf courses in the United States, most do not have intermediary rough, and those that do are generally PGA Tour stops.

“Intermediary rough is really just a product of championship golf.”

Bunker maintenance
Bunker upkeep tends to be labour intensive work that often results in other tasks getting overlooked. Moeller said the Australian bunker raking methodology is taking hold in North America, cutting back on the amount of time needed for bunker maintenance and contributing toward increased playability for golfers. Only the floor of the bunker needs raking. The objective is for the ball to hit the upsides of the bunker and then roll down toward the bottom. It reduces the chances of a “fried egg” lie and gives golfers a better chance to escape the sand with a precision shot. The upsides of the bunker can be periodically smoothed over, but only a smaller portion of the bunker is regularly maintained.

Golf’s new rules that allow for the removal of loose impediments from bunkers will also be beneficial to superintendents, Moeller said. The rules will determine how often workers need to enter bunkers to clean them up and will add to a bunker’s longevity.

Golf course accessories, robotic mowers
Some golf courses have taken other measures to cut back on costs and save valuable time. Courses in which most golfers – if not all – ride in carts don’t need a multitude of benches or ball washers on every hole. The elimination of benches on such courses and a smattering of only a handful of ball washers allows for fewer golf course accessories to be moved out of the way for mowing and other maintenance work.

Robotic mowers have made a name for themselves in residential, commercial and park settings, and the golf industry has since taken notice of their capabilities.

“What this does is incredible. The quality of cut is fantastic.”

Moeller spoke about a U.S. golf course that has six robotic mowers in its fleet of equipment. Because the mowers are contained within wired perimeter boundaries, staff can set them up and concentrate on other tasks elsewhere on the golf course.

“They are expensive, but there is a payback period. It’s something to look into.”

GPS sprayers
Also expensive are GPS sprayers, but the return on investment can be even shorter than that of robotic mowers, Moeller said.

“The precision that these can deliver is outstanding.”

The precision can be so significant, he said, that some golf courses are realizing a 20 per cent reduction in product use.

Forward tees
Golf courses that incorporate forward tees are not only creating a better golf experience for beginning players and those who don’t hit the ball far, they are shrinking their fairway acreage and creating less work.

“You’re probably spending more money on your fairways than on your tees. This is not just for female players or senior players. It’s for anyone who doesn’t swing the club very fast and the ball doesn’t go very far.”

Adding forward tees not only benefits the golfer, but the maintenance crew as well.

Moeller said many of the new trends in golf course maintenance are derived from what superintendents are already doing.

“Not all these trends are going to last. Hopefully none of these trends have any negative effects.”

He suggested superintendents try not to focus too much on the costs associated with newer trends, adding there is always a payback period.

“You can’t afford not to implement some of these innovations because it may leave you financially liable in the future.”