Modern meets classic

Features - Irrigation

National Golf Links of America: Modern irrigation design and principles meet classic golf

May 16, 2017

The windmill on the National Golf Links of America grounds is one of the most iconic images in golf.
© submitted photo

A walk through the former golf course maintenance building at National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., is like visiting a museum. Golf course superintendent Bill Salinetti has preserved a mix of early 20th century equipment, converting an area of the former maintenance building into a showcase for these relics. It’s truly a visit to the past, which makes one consider how irrigation — specifically, how water is applied and controlled in the golf industry — has come a long way over the years.

The only thing missing from Salinetti’s “museum” are the old images of horse-drawn carts carrying water storage drums with hoses for supplemental hand watering that were common prior to pressurized water systems. It’s readily apparent that irrigation has gone through significant changes. Technological advances have kept pace with player expectations, course conditioning trends and the need for environmental responsibility.

National’s Renovation

Given the costs of upgrading and modernization, many courses are forced to work with an inefficient irrigation system and try to minimize any negative effects on the turf and course playability. The $1 million- to $2 million-plus price tag for an irrigation system renovation is a hard sell to a club whose members won’t notice the upgraded system buried underground, as readily as they might notice new bunkers or cart paths. Often, it’s difficult for clubs to communicate the agronomic benefits of increased water distribution uniformity, efficiency, control and system management. However, Salinetti saw past the barriers and replaced an outdated, circa-1998 irrigation system with a new, state-of-the-art system in 2007.

Built in 1911, National is a classic C.B. Macdonald links design with deliberate mow lines, different turf types and striking contrast between roughs, fairway cut and putting surfaces. Outside the narrow strips of primary rough are seemingly unplayable native grasses that penalize the errant golf shot. By 2007, technology and knowledge had advanced significantly, making National’s previous irrigation system outdated and inefficient. With its new system in 2007, National improved irrigation system efficiency, saving water while also improving the course conditioning for members, day in and day out. Salinetti is known for providing firm and fast course conditions with remarkable attention to detail and consistency. Salinetti will be the first to tell you how important irrigation system control and reliability is to provide repeatable, consistent course conditioning. “The control and precision we have with our current irrigation system is incredibly important to providing consistent results,” Salinetti says. “I know when I leave at night, the course is receiving exactly the irrigation needed. The intelligence of the central control software allows it to make instant adjustments as conditions change, even in the middle of the night when nobody is at the course.”

Out with the old

The old system consisted primarily of double-row irrigation throughout the course. It was also referred to as a “block-style” system, meaning multiple sprinklers were controlled by one electric remote valve. There were approximately 600 sprinklers on 76 acres of maintained turf. Spacing was consistent with irrigation system designs of that era, with fairway sprinklers spaced at 75-plus feet apart. This design provided little control, and its distribution uniformity was particularly poor, given National’s windy conditions and required sprinkler throw distance.

As if the lack of sprinkler control, low distribution uniformity and an undersized pipe network weren’t bad enough, Salinetti and his staff faced numerous other challenges with the old system. Pipe and fittings failed at a frequency of one per week, forcing them to devote labor hours away from golf course management activities to repair pipes and wire. To further complicate matters, there were few points available to isolate leaks, and consequently, the staff was forced to address them immediately or several holes would be without water until the leak was repaired. An already stressful situation would become even more dire when multiple holes were without water in the heat of a Long Island summer.

With the old system’s challenges continuing to build, the club decided in late 2006 to move forward with a complete irrigation system replacement. The new system would be designed by Aqua Agronomic Solutions of Clinton, N.J., and installed by Leibold Irrigation of East Dubuque, Ill. National’s irrigation system renovation was justified and approved based on the long-term benefits of water management and improved uniformity. The renovation would also serve as a tool to help Salinetti continue to deliver championship-level playing conditions.

The evolution of golf course irrigation can be observed when studying the changes in the system at National Golf Links of America.
© submitted photos

In with the new

The new irrigation system was installed from November 2006 through March 2007. The new system was designed with 4,000 sprinkler heads and a new control system manufactured by Rain Bird Corporation and supplied by Atlantic Irrigation. Fairway irrigation was designed at closer 65-foot triangular spacing with single sprinkler control. By applying a precise amount of water only where needed, low trajectory, part-circle, block-type sprinklers make it possible to irrigate the narrow strips of primary rough while consistently maintaining the unique native-area mow lines. Part-circle sprinklers irrigate small tee tops independently of the surrounding roughs, allowing Salinetti to customize the amount of water to the two different surfaces with totally different plant-water requirements. National is subject to a constant wind due to its location between the Great Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, so the designer and Salinetti chose the specific spacing and pattern as well wind-tolerant nozzles designed to deliver uniform irrigation even in the constant wind that often exceeds five miles per hour.

Tangible savings

Salinetti can now precisely control when, where and how much water is applied to the different turf types throughout the property for proven, responsible water savings. The large number of sprinkler heads throughout the hundred acres and tighter sprinkler spacing give Salinetti the ability to irrigate specific areas and control both playability and turf health like never before. The new sprinklers’ dramatically improved water distribution uniformity provides greater efficiency, resulting in shorter runtimes, achieving excellent turf heath with less water. Multiply that over the thousands of sprinklers and the water savings add up quickly.

Supplemental hand watering is still used to precisely apply water to very small, stressed areas without utilizing the overhead sprinklers. However, the new, more efficient irrigation system has reduced the amount of necessary hand watering. Salinetti estimates they are saving 75 to 100 labor hours per week in hand watering over the older system.

Despite the improvements in pipe sizing, spacing and sprinkler efficiency, an irrigation system manager must still make sound scheduling decisions to truly maximize water savings. Salinetti and his staff utilize other tools such as a weather station, soil moisture sensors and sophisticated central control features that react and adjust irrigation based on environmental conditions such as rainfall and wind. They have also taken advantage of the numerous added features and improvements to the software as well as other control equipment over the 10 years since the new system was installed.

I know when I leave at night, the course is receiving exactly the irrigation needed.” -- Bill Salinetti

Historical water consumption

National has been recording actual water use as far back as 1971 when they first received permits to install three on-site wells for irrigation and other needs. Water usage can vary widely throughout the year on Long Island as it does in most of the Northeast. Southampton typically receives an average of 36 inches of annual rainfall, with extreme years varying from a very wet 68 inches in 2011 to a very dry low of 30 inches back in 1969. National increased the number of sprinkler heads with the new, modern system by 600 percent, but is using the same amount of water or less than before.

Looking at years with similar rainfall totals and comparing them to National’s irrigation amounts is quite eye-opening. In 1998, Southampton recorded 39.27 inches of rainfall, and National applied 23.6 million gallons of water (72 acre feet) through both time-intensive hand watering and the older, less-efficient irrigation system. With a similar rainfall total in 2008 of 39.57 inches, National applied only 53 acre feet of irrigation water, even though the new system covered a larger area of the course. In 2013, with 42.95 inches of recorded natural rainfall, National applied 70 acre feet of irrigation water, while in 1993 and 1994 with similar rainfall amounts, National applied 79 acre feet and 90 acre feet, respectively.

Of course, these numbers can be interpreted in different ways. That aside, there are many lessons to be learned, and now that the system has turned 10 years old, the collected data over the lifespan of the new, modern system shows the return on investment associated with fewer labor hours, less power, lower water consumption, greater playability and improved turf health. Furthermore, Salinetti and his staff are less stressed thanks to their reliable, efficient irrigation system with its built-in intelligence to make application and runtime decisions. It’s a powerful story even in the Northeast where irrigation amounts can range between 15 and 30 million gallons for a typical 18-hole layout. Imagine the potential in the South and Southwest where irrigation demand is year-round, and water usage for 18 holes can be as great as 100 million gallons annually.

Still going strong

National has solidified its position as an elite course due to the architectural brilliance of its century-old design and layout. Obviously, the meticulous manicuring and course conditioning provided day after day by Salinetti and his staff contribute to this honor. These tasks are made easier by an efficient, reliable irrigation system capable of providing precise water distribution. Responsible management of the now-10-year-old-system by Salinetti and his staff has resulted in water, energy and resource savings that testify to the importance of efficient irrigation.

Ian Williams is an area specification manager for Rain Bird Golf. This is his first article for GCI.