Our Desert is Not Your Desert

While desert markets are unique unto themselves, player expectations for green challenge superintendents in ways they can all relate.

© wigwam Golf Resort

With enhanced water restrictions and statewide usage mandates leading to less turf across California courses, the changing face of West Coast fairways has some wondering about the end-game aesthetic for SoCal. Echoing the laudable creations of Golf & Water Task Forces in the larger, neighboring markets of Los Angeles and San Diego, the 120-course oasis of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley has seen its stated water conservation efforts complemented (for some) by turf removal rebate programs provided through state grant money via the Coachella Valley Water District.

Offering $1,500 per acre removed, at a maximum of seven acres, 2016 and 2017 saw 18 Coachella Valley golf properties remove some degree of turf, accounting for more than 132 acres of cumulative removal and, in turn, nearly $1.4 million provided in rebates. For course operators and superintendents in the Palm Springs area, which accounts for nearly 14 percent of all California courses, and the environmental set across SoCal, the maiden blush of the removal-for-rebate initiative was a boon for both reality and modernity.

Jason Snyder

And for those who bought valley homes and memberships with the expectation of seeing a wash of green grasses outside their respective windows? Well, the appearance of golden Bermuda and desertscaping as a means to address real environmental concerns isn’t always an easy sell.

“It’s been difficult to sell a lot of the memberships on that because of how Palm Springs is perceived to be more of the ‘green desert,’” says Chris Hoyer, superintendent at parkland-style Bermuda Dunes Country Club and president of the Hi-Lo Desert Chapter of the GCSAA. “Historically, this is where everything is overseeded wall-to-wall, the trees are big and lush, and the lack of desertscape was very appealing to a lot of the snowbirds. So, it’s been hard to sell.”

Over 2016 and 2017, Bermuda Dunes, a longtime, former host of the PGA Tour’s Bob Hope Classic (now the CareerBuilder Challenge), removed 9½ total acres of turf from its 27-holes, most along the periphery of holes.

Chris Hoyer

Backing by direction from the state has somewhat assuaged the sell. “The state-mandated decrease in water use, that’s helped out a lot in trying to sell it to memberships and clubs,” Hoyer says.

Of the 132.63 acres removed across valley courses to date – essentially equivalent to one 18-hole course – Hoyer calls the effort, “A very good start.”

While a waning amount of the grant cash still remains for 2018, the program has indeed experienced a degree of quarter horsing. “It started out as a really good thought brought on by CVWD. We’re sort of mirroring programs seen in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas,” Hoyer says. “But, unfortunately, what’s charged for water down here – it’s much less than those other water districts – so the rebates offered . . . it’s been a bit of a deterrent because people haven’t been able to cover the costs of the actual turf renovation. We’ve pushed CVWD to increase those rebates, but because it’s state grant money, they really can’t.”

Many golf mavens, snowbirds and desert-goers come to the Coachella Valley for a certain look, appearance and palate. Which, of course, means said players didn’t go to play or buy homes elsewhere.

Take Phoenix, for example. Located 250 miles east from Palm Springs along Interstate 10, the desert destination adjacent is by-and-large known for an architectural style of play which poses more target golf, with tee boxes, fairways and greens separated by brown swaths of rocks and desert.

For the Coachella Valley market, a reluctance does exist for one desert to match another.

“Very much so,” Hoyer says. “That’s definitely come up in conversations where people talk about picking the Palm Springs area over, say, Phoenix, because of the wall-to-wall green; they don’t like to see the desert aspect. They like the green and lush trees. I hear that a lot; and it makes people worry, because the last thing you want to do is drive away memberships or prospective homeowners.”

Hoyer admits that a genuine fear exists for courses and clubs across the area which can’t afford to simply throw cash at water.

“It’s scary,” he says. “Because I think we’re gonna’ start to lose the whole ‘Palm Springs feel’ eventually. I don’t anticipate the water situation getting any better. The population out here is increasing with more and more developments going up, and as scarce as water is becoming on the western side of the country, it doesn’t feel like something that will be getting better anytime soon.”

While the Phoenix and Scottsdale population is approximately 10 times that of the Coachella Valley, course operators see the desert-to-desert differences as more of a marketing scenario.

Though the markets may compete for business to some degree, the superintendent purview is a stance simpatico.

“I can’t speak for the people in marketing, but from an agronomic aspect, I think the two markets transfer very well,” says Jason Snyder, superintendent at the Wigwam Golf Resort in the Phoenix neighborhood of Litchfield Park. “And I think there’s a lot we can learn from each other.”

Bermuda Dunes Country Club has removed 9 1/2 acres of turf on its periphery.
© bermuda dunes country club

Working in different desert markets doesn’t mean course operators are diverging in ways to save water.

“A lot of what Palm Springs is doing is transferable to here, and probably a lot of what we do transferable there,” Snyder adds. “The soils are a little different, but there are a number of things. Not overseeding rough areas for one; it’s a big thing, a big commitment for people. And I know more courses in Palm Springs are trying to go that direction because of water issues. But I think that, for golfers, dormant Bermuda is a great surface to play off of.”

Overseeing the only 54-hole resort property in Arizona, Snyder’s terrain is unique for his region in its high-degree of turf, with about 400 acres of grass across Wigwam’s trio of courses. Previously having worked at Scottsdale-area locales of The Estancia Club and FireRock Country Club, however, Snyder is well-versed in the more traditional look of approximately 80 acres of green grass surrounded by desert terrain.

In his current gig at Wigwam, working with off-site well water and the area’s restrictions for water usage, Snyder and his crew source from a canal running through property, its history marked from when Goodyear used to farm cotton on the land.

Not that the source or seed is tended in brusque fashion.

“When we decide to water, it’s for a reason,” Snyder says. “Each green is treated like a microenvironment. A perfect example is our Gold Course where, say, the first green, we might water once a week. The 18th green, we might have to water three times a week. We’ve used the POGO Turf Pro to where it gives us confidence that we don’t overwater the course. We water to a number, and that number we can quantify; so, it’s not just knee-jerk reaction to where we say, ‘Well, let’s just water this for 20 minutes.’”

Still, in trying to alter said aesthetic (along with saving water and cost) with a partial overseed across two of the property’s tracks in his first year at Wigwam, Snyder’s efforts resulted in some of the same blowback Hoyer has seen fellow course operators deal with in Palm Springs.

“People come down here, they want green grass; they don’t want it painted, they want green grass.” Snyder says. “So, now, subsequently, we overseed about 325 of the 400 acres here. In your resort setting, people want grass everywhere.”

Hoyer would likely agree with such an assessment of “green expectation,” yet, little-by-little, he’s seeing the playing public educated on a need to conserve, and ultimately doesn’t view the changing face off less turf as a threat to the destination. “I think people will understand in the coming years, especially people that are used to coming down here,” he says.

With desertscaping and brown/golden peripherals now viewed at myriad courses across Palm Springs, golfers are starting to get used to the appearance of a two-tone aesthetic.

“People from, say, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, they come down here and say, ‘That’s a really cool look,’” Hoyer says. “Where we’ve got the dormant Bermuda sprayed out with the blond look, and the green turf in the middle.”

While both the Phoenix and Palm Springs markets remain unique, the future will require flexibility from players and homeowners in the SoCal desert to understand that cost, environmental needs and government oversight won’t be making the resources any cheaper. Which is to say that, in the course of coming years, expect more brown in your Palm Springs town.

Not that Hoyer and his West Coast colleagues are sitting back and idly watching the train go by.

“We’re always toying with paints and pigments and trying to limit what we overseed; I think these ideas might become better options for certain clubs,” he says. “I know that certain clubs out here are now trying out limited overseed, which obviously saves on time, labor, seed, fertilizer. And our winters out here are becoming, in my opinion, less cold. In the last four or five years, we haven’t had to really worry as much with Bermuda going fully dormant. You can find ways to keep Bermuda green all year-round. That might be an option for some places moving forward and I’m definitely toying with it.”

March 2018
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