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A golf course renovation-redefining revelation

By |  January 21, 2020 0 Comments
for turf removal. (photo previous page courtesy of Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne)

GPS technology helped Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne determine which areas were ideal for turf removal. (Photo courtesy of Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne)

GPS technology has thousands of uses, the most basic of which is tracking movement. How golfers move around a course — or fail to — helps or hinders pace of play. If you can track patterns, uncover bottlenecks and address them, you can significantly whittle down a 4.5-hour round.

That was the USGA’s hypothesis in rolling out a series of tests in 2014 using GPS “loggers” placed on golfers at 135 courses around the country. The USB-drive-sized devices fit easily in pants pockets and recorded a golfer’s position every five seconds. Interns stationed at the first tees of select courses collected additional demographic and player-ability information to help calibrate the results.

As the USGA expected, the data haul was robust, and the output was eye-opening. USGA overlaid movement patterns with myriad other layers, such as green speeds, rough heights and bunker locations. Operators could then visualize how setup and design impact “flow rate” — how fast golfers move through a course.

What the USGA hadn’t anticipated was the emergence of an alternative application of the technology that would be a game-changer for superintendents.

“We pride ourselves on looking at things from different angles, and the shift to agronomy occurred with [retired Green Section Director] Jim Moore,” says Scott Mingay, USGA director of product development. “Jim had a passion for water use and educating courses about conservation. He had a vision of putting this to use to help courses make data-driven decisions about water conservation and turf removal.”

In 2017, the USGA unveiled what it dubbed the “Facility Tool” to superintendents to glean feedback on agronomic uses. While operators benefited from its ability to generate flow rates for pace-of-play analysis, the tool’s “heat-mapping” feature emerged as the change agent for course maintenance and renovation.

The “heat” has nothing to do with temperature. Rather, it shows data values represented as colors; red is high use and blue is low use.

“Basically, we’re able to highlight areas where golfers don’t walk, drive carts or hit shots,” Mingay says. “We can either present the results agnostically, or we can work with the course to implement recommendations based on its objectives.”

Crandon’s conundrum

Golf course architect John Sanford never will forget the 2018 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla. In December 2017, he’d been retained by Miami-Dade County to identify areas of its Crandon Golf (course) at Key Biscayne that were ripe for turf removal. The 7,300-yard layout’s 130 acres of bermudagrass generated a yearly $1.1-million water bill that wasn’t sustainable, resulting in substandard conditions.

Sanford caught wind of the USGA Facility Tool and arranged a meeting at the show with Mingay and Hunki Yun, USGA director of outreach, partners and education. Sanford and his team had developed an initial plan for removing 29 acres of turf and were well on their way to finalizing recommendations.

“When I saw the heat-mapping feature, I thought, ‘Wow, the USGA technology will really take (turf removal) to the next level,’” Sanford says. “We did our turf plan as golfers and architects, but we err on the side of caution, because once you remove and replace it, it’s gone for good.”

After the meeting in Orlando, the USGA took the show on the road and deployed its GPS loggers on golfers at Crandon.

“It was genuinely a revelation,” Sanford says. “I wasn’t thinking we’d be able to remove more turf. I thought it would provide empirical data to validate our findings to a public entity (Miami-Dade County).”

Sanford and the USGA found an additional 13 acres of turf to be removed. The data were used to create a master plan that ultimately will save $350,000 on water annually. The turfed areas will be converted to crushed stone, naturalized plantings and aquatic materials (along water features) in coming years.

“Any course that is paying for water and not doing this is lost,” says Steve Jablonowski, region manager for golf and destinations with Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces. “We are through phases 1 and 2 and have already reduced our water use by 20 percent.”

Phases 1 and 2 entailed changes to sprinkler heads and nozzles. Phase 3, turf removal and replacement, is yet to be funded by the county. Jablonowski says it’s only a matter of time, as the cost of water in Miami-Dade County continues to rise.

“It has to be done; there’s no way we can keep going at this pace,” he says. “Our water budget will eventually be higher than our payroll, and we can’t pass the cost along to the golfer.”

The team at Fox Hollow Links used the USGA Facility Tool to remove one of two bunkers on the course’s ninth hole. (Photo courtesy of Fox Hollow Links)

The team at Fox Hollow Links used the USGA Facility Tool to remove one of two bunkers on the course’s ninth hole. (Photo courtesy of Fox Hollow Links)

Fox Hollow follows suit

Fox Hollow Golf Course in Lakewood, Colo., is a high-end, 27-hole municipal course west of Denver. Superintendent Mark Krick had researched the USGA Facility Tool and was interested in leveraging the technology for an upcoming bunker renovation project.

“We were always aware of the bunkers and their impact on pace of play, but we needed the USGA to take it from subjective to objective,” Krick says.

He and original architect Denis Griffiths used heat maps to create a bunker renovation plan for Lakewood’s three nines. They started with the ninth hole on the Links Nine, removing one of two bunkers along a small lake right of the green that golfers never hit into.

In 2018, Krick’s crew removed five more bunkers; the following year, it reduced the size of a series of massive bunkers on the Meadows Nine. Krick says the results on pace of play are staggering. Golfers play the Meadow Nine 15 to 20 minutes faster and any 18-hole combination 20 to 30 minutes faster. The city also saves about $1,000 for every bunker removed.

“I would say (that) in seven years, we’ll recoup the cost,” Krick says. “Not all the benefits can be measured in dollars. We’re moving golfers more comfortably around the course, and they’re having a better experience.”

Slow and steady

The Facility Tool is effective, efficient and easy to deploy. And while the USGA doesn’t publish pricing, Mingay says the organization intends to make the tool accessible and affordable.

So why isn’t it in wider use? According to Mingay, it’s a matter of perfecting the product.

“We’ve had good uptake from courses over the past year,” he says. “We realize technical change can be difficult, and we want to ensure the Facility Tool provides a seamless experience for course managers everywhere.”

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About the Author: Shane Sharp

Shane Sharp is a freelance writer and content marketer based in Greenville, S.C.

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