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With a big 2023 behind them, the USGA Green Section takes a moment to reflect and look ahead

By |  January 24, 2024 0 Comments

The United States Golf Association (USGA) Green Section may have celebrated its 100th anniversary in November 2020, but the group waited until late 2023 to reflect on the good work it has accomplished in the past, as well as what’s on the horizon.

Assembling a handful of select media — Sports Illustrated, Golf and Golfdom among them — at Pinehurst Resort, the group saw progress on the construction of Golf House Pinehurst, the USGA’s newest campus a mere par four’s distance from the Pinehurst clubhouse.

Media also learned more about the USGA’s Greenkeeper Apprenticeship Program (GAP), the 15/30/45 initiative and the GS3 golf ball. They also got to play a round on No. 2 to appreciate the challenge the clubhouse leader will face when he steps onto the first tee on Sunday during the 2024 U.S. Open.

Photo:John Jeffreys with Pinehurst Resort speaks about the Greenkeeper Apprenticeship Program at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in Pinehurst, N.C. (Photos Copyright USGA/Chris Keane)

John Jeffreys with Pinehurst Resort speaks about the Greenkeeper Apprenticeship Program at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in Pinehurst, N.C. (Photo copyright USGA/Chris Keane)

Mind the GAP

2023 was the first year for the GAP, a partnership between the USGA, Sandhills Community College in Southern Pines, N.C., and several local courses.

Chris Hartwiger

Chris Hartwiger

The program combines on-the-job golf course maintenance training with in-person classroom education and mentorship, at no cost to the golf maintenance employee. The inaugural class recently graduated all 21 of its students.

“If you ask any superintendent, ‘What is your biggest challenge?’ (They’ll respond) labor, attrition, turnover,” says Chris Hartwiger, director of agronomy for the USGA. “There’s a need for a skilled workforce, with credentials in golf. This has worked in other parts of the world; we’re cautiously optimistic that if we cause a little fire here in the Sand Hills it will flame up and expand into other parts of the country.”

Bob Farren, CGCS, director of grounds at Pinehurst, compares the GAP to apprenticeships common in other trades, like electricians or plumbers.

“There are so many hours of on-the-job training, work hours, classroom hours and studying. Then you become a journeyman, you have a certification card that will travel with you — this one will have the USGA brand on it, which will add value to it,” he says. “This one is for the practice of greenkeeping. You can aspire to go on to a two- or four-year degree if you like. But it’s really to qualify you with a skill set that is marketable at a higher value than a non-trained journeyman.”

To earn a GAP certificate, apprentices must complete 2,000 hours of working on the golf course, along with 200 hours in the classroom.

Bob Farren, CGCS

Bob Farren, CGCS

“One of the neat things about turf science is, it’s an applied science. In the classroom, we try to help them with the science and the basic principles. Under the guidance of their mentorship and working on the course, that’s really where the art comes into play,” Hartwiger says. “It’s the science foundation in the classroom combined with the art on the golf course. That’s what will make them high-quality employees that will make them in demand.”

Farren says GAP has already made a positive impact at Pinehurst.

“I think it’ll change the industry in ten years,” he says. “It’s changing it for us now.”

Long-term commitment

In early 2023 Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA, unveiled the 15/30/45 program. In short, the program is a $30 million investment from the USGA in the industry to reduce water consumption in golf by 45 percent over 15 years.

Cole Thompson, Ph.D., director of turfgrass and environmental research for the USGA, notes that saving water has been a goal of the USGA Green Section dating back to its founding in 1920.

“It’s a challenge for the industry, not a mandate — we know that’s not our role,” Thompson told Golfdom. “Our role is to demonstrate the research and practices that we know are effective that can save water, (then) demonstrate those on golf courses in a real-world situation. Show how much water (courses) can save, and then tell those stories to other golf courses so if they have water conservation goals, they can benefit.”

Cole Thompson, Ph.D., USGA director of turfgrass and environmental research, says the 15/30/45 initiative isn’t meant to be a mandate, but a general goal for courses who wish to conserve water. “(We can) show how much water (courses) can save, and then tell those stories to other golf courses.” (Photo copyright USGA / Chris Keane)

Cole Thompson, Ph.D., USGA director of turfgrass and environmental research, says the 15/30/45 initiative isn’t meant to be a mandate, but a general goal for courses who wish to conserve water. “(We can) show how much water (courses) can save, and then tell those stories to other golf courses.” (Photo copyright USGA / Chris Keane)

Thompson points out that the technology to irrigate the course wall-to-wall wasn’t available during No. 2’s construction. Now that many courses are going back to their roots and reclaiming how they originally looked, a common question is, just because we can irrigate the entire course … should we?

“Reducing resource use is a generational change,” he says. “We’ll make incremental improvements, but the next generation is really going to realize the benefits.”

Measuring success

Chris Hartwiger has attended every U.S. Open at Pinehurst since 1999. In those 24 ensuing years, he’s eye witnessed how evaluating the conditions of the course’s greens has advanced.

“In 1999, our key performance indicator was green speed. In 2005, we had access to soil moisture meters and green speed and that helped us dial in the conditions. We took it to another level with firmness, green speed and moisture in 2014,” he says. “In 2024, we’ll have access to information gathered by the USGA’s GS3 ball, which Pinehurst has been using over the last year. We’ll not only be able to measure firmness, smoothness and trueness, (but also) green speed, clipping volume and soil moisture, and we’re going to be able to do it all in a way that optimizes turf conditions for the competitors, really at the request of our championship staff.”

Eric Mabie, assistant superintendent at Pinehurst and a second-generation greenskeeper, demonstrates to members of the media how the GS3 is used in the field. (Photo copyright USGA / Chris Keane)

Eric Mabie, assistant superintendent at Pinehurst and a second-generation greenskeeper, demonstrates to members of the media how the GS3 is used in the field. (Photo copyright USGA / Chris Keane)

The GS3 was another advancement unveiled by the USGA at the 2023 GCSAA Conference and Show in Orlando. Hartwiger says the GS3 will be a game changer for superintendents, allowing them to assign a number to the efforts they make daily to achieve their ideal greens conditions.

“They’re always managing for green speed, they’re always managing for smoothness, they’re always managing for firmness, and now they can assign a number to that,” he says. “They’re going to have a complete historical record of how the greens have performed around those parameters. Once they have a deeper understanding of that historical record, they’re going to be able to use that data to optimize the conditions they want to provide and learn more and more about, ‘When I do X, then Y happens.’”

John Jeffreys, CGCS, superintendent of No. 2 at Pinehurst, says his team uses the GS3 to record greens conditions daily. He says having data that shows how smooth and true a ball rolls is helpful because the golfer’s eye can be deceived.

“We have a number now. That number isn’t just good for daily play, but say we do a cultural practice, an aerification. We can quantify that recovery,” he says. “We can take the number the day before we aerify, and then tell (golfers) how many days post-aerification it takes to get back to that number … not just speed, but smoothness and trueness.”

Jeffreys adds that the GS3 allows him to quantify everything he tried to defend previously because now he can show the data. “It shows we’re invested in the product more than they may have realized,” he says.

With the 2024 U.S. Open only a few months away, Jeffreys says he’s thankful to have the USGA Green Section on his side and so close to his course.

“One of the benefits of being at Pinehurst is having the smartest guys in the room right next door and living in our neighborhood,” he says. “One of the opportunities of hosting championships is getting to learn from their experience … it makes us all better.”

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About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 18-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.


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