Miami Moneyball

South Florida gem Crandon Golf turns to GPS tracking, heat maps and data analysis to cut back on its enormous water bill.

For years, Steve Jablonowski searched for a solution to drop water consumption at Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne in Miami.

He considered constructing a water treatment facility near the course, and even designated a plot of land for it, but figured out after almost four years that it fell short of the solution. Not long after that, he researched whether watering less turf could provide an answer to grab some more control over the irrigation. He was even ready to dive into charting the location of every golf cart for a month before realizing it would most likely “be a lot of snake winds” and show next to no value.

Jablonowski normally works with an annual water budget somewhere between $900,000 and $1.1 million at the 18-hole course — a figure as eyebrow-raising for him when he arrived in 2011 as region manager, golf and destinations, for Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces as it might be for you right now — but that figure is unsustainable for so many reasons. Water is a finite resource, of course. So is money, especially when it comes from taxpayers rather than club members.

He needed some sort of relief.

And then he talked with John Sanford about heat maps.

A past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, Sanford has designed or renovated more than 80 courses during a career well into its fourth decade. He is a veteran who has remained nimble, always learning about implementing new technologies. Heat maps are one of them.

RED - Proposed turf reduction areaes (21.37 acres) BLUE - Existing tidal impacted areas (9.44 acres) PURPLE - Combined turf reduction/tidal impacted areas (5.23 acres)
© john sanford

Sanford dived into heat maps — and the GPS trackers that help produce them — during the 2018 Golf Industry Show, when he talked with USGA representatives about their new Facility App. The app involves clipping a GPS tracker on every golfer who uses a course over a week or so. The tracker is then shipped back to the USGA, which analyzes the data in-house and turns around colored maps indicating what areas of a course are trafficked and, in contrast, which are not. More accurate than golf cart GPS and its plentiful aforementioned “snake winds,” they allow the data to sift into the crannies and rough. “A light bulb went off,” Sanford says. “I thought this would be a great way for us to hone in on where we really need grass and where we don’t need grass.”

In order to help Jablonowski finally trim Crandon Golf’s water bill, Sanford proposed repurposing 29 acres of turf, some of it near the course borders that often flood thanks to Key Biscayne, and most of it nostalgic Bermudagrass, a relic of another era of Florida course construction. Crandon Golf has been ranked the best municipal course in Florida and was attractive enough that Donald Trump attempted to wrangle a 99-year contract to manage the property in 2015, but like most courses, it is not perfect. Any potentially productive tool is worthy of consideration.

Jablonowski approved the use of the trackers, which he says cost a couple thousand dollars to rent — the equivalent of “about a day’s worth of water.” The decision, which Jablonowski calls a “no-brainer,” has yielded 177 tracks and more than 600,000 data points, according to Scott Mingay, director of product development for the USGA. Neither Jablonowski nor superintendent Robert Montesino, who handles those duties at all six county courses, say they recall a single player objecting to wearing a tracker.

“When we got the heat map,” Sanford says, “what was really cool about it is there were some areas where we had originally proposed to take turf out, but then we saw some traffic in those areas — not large areas, probably three or four small areas — and we saw we had to have turf in those areas because that was where people were hitting the ball.”

But thanks to the heat map analysis, Sanford identified plenty more areas originally off his almost-literal radar, bringing the total of proposed repurposed turf not to 29 acres but 42. The difference between those two proposals is equal to about one-tenth of the area of the whole course.

This is what data can do in 2019.

Data is not new, but the deep dives available for architects and superintendents are. Where once you were limited to, say, revenue per round, or round length, now you can investigate the analytics of any measurable metric. “Moneyball” is more than a Michael Lewis bestseller and an Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt passion project.

“We try to use data any way we can,” Sanford says. “In our business, it’s physical data. We always use what we call base information — topographic maps, vegetation maps — that’s our improvement plan we use to make decisions as golf course architects. That all comes from my background and my associate Dave Ferris’s background in landscape architecture. Data to us is information about what’s on the ground — soils, vegetation, topography and, in this case, traffic patterns. I would not call myself much of a data guy, but any time we can get empirical data, base information to help us make decisions, we’re gonna take advantage of that. … It’s kind of just a logical thing to do, you know?”

“We have to be salesmen going up to leadership,” Jablonowski says. “Leadership could be politicians, parks professionals, budget and finance folks up on the 20th floor of the building with no windows, and data is what you have to have to show them return on investment and why we’re doing this, to put it into terms that audience understands. Without data, you don’t have a chance.”

That data has already helped yield about $150,000 in savings, with a projected net reduction in annual water costs of about $350,000.

“This shows the importance of communication with the architects, with superintendents and with the professional group in the front office,” says Montesino, the superintendent. “Everybody has come together for this project, and we all have a great understanding of it. One of the main things was communicating what we were trying to do to all the golfers and everybody was on board. We didn’t get any negative feedback. It highlights what we can accomplish if we’re all on the same page.”

We have to be salesmEn going up to leadership. Leadership could be politicians, parks professionals, budget and finance folks up on the 20th floor of the building with no windows, and data is what you have to have to show them return on investment and why we’re doing this, to put it into terms that audience understands. Without data, you don’t have a chance.” – Steve Jablonowski

The more considerable savings might be realized when Jablonowski and Crandon Golf receive funding for the turf repurposing project that will transition those 42 acres of relatively untrafficked turf into crushed limestone, crushed aggregate and pine straw — improving aesthetics at the same time they improve the bottom line.

Those 42 acres of turf are still turf, though. Because the course is public and one of six owned by Miami-Dade County, challenges contrast those at a private course where boards and members call shots and determine budgets. Funding is, unfortunately, far from a sure thing.

“Public golf is not the easiest animal to take for a walk, but you can be successful if you collaborate and if you know what’s coming every year,” Jablonowski says. “It’s not rocket science but there are an awful lot of moving parts to what we do.” The proposal is one of a handful Jablonowski included for consideration in the 2019-20 county budget, which will total around $8 billion. “We’ve got to get to finance people and get them to authorize the plan,” he says. “We’ve put a nice proposal in place, showing savings over a five-year period, and we can pay for it. … At least we’re at the table.”

The total probable cost is a little more than $2.6 million, with a three-year implementation planned through 2021. “Let’s hope the county gives them the money,” Sanford says.

Because while we live in a world driven by data, cash is still king.

Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.

June 2019
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