Turf Tech into the 2020s

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Out goes a decade of disruption. In comes a decade where looming advances could force maintenance operations to advance even faster.

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March 4, 2020

What technology has altered the art and science of golf course maintenance more than any other during the last decade?

Ask that question 10 years ago and plenty of responses would have probably focused on flip phones. Ask it 20 years ago and more superintendents than not would have said computers, definitely computers. Ask it 50 years ago and triplex mowers would have received plenty of love. A century ago, mowers in general. Four centuries or so ago, the humble, hungry sheep.

Life feels faster than ever, though, and 2010 almost feels like some ancient memory — commemorated forever with little more than pixelated snapshots captured on those beloved flip phones.

Most of those models are long gone, upgraded every couple years ever since. What else do you work with now that you could never bear to live without?

According to almost every superintendent and director who provided information and perspective for this story, soil moisture meters dominated the decade. Luke Bennett, the director of golf course maintenance and grounds at Kohanaiki on the Big Island of Hawai’i, says they “have to be at the top of the list.”

Technology disrupted the industry in the 2010s by replacing feel with facts on playing surfaces.
© Guy Cipriano (2)

Early adopters might have used some variety of the tech before the turn of the last decade, but not enough for the devices to gain much market traction. “I have this great photo of one of my interns using one of the first moisture meters,” says Dan Meersman, director of grounds at Philadelphia Cricket Club. “It actually had a dial on it, like the second hand on a clock. It just kind of went back and forth.” That photo was snapped back in 2007 or 2008 — probably not on a flip phone.

Now, though, the latest generations of moisture meters provide data points, eliminate speculation, and help superintendents “communicate to committees, board members, general members in a way that’s really understandable to them,” says Tim Huber, director of agronomy at The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas, outside Houston. “Most of them are analytical by nature.”

Huber had avoided moisture meters before he moved from Ohio to Texas, and even for years after settling into the Lone Star State. He questioned the accuracy of the GPS readings and wondered, “Is that really going to tell me what I need? Am I going to have to learn the percentages? The threshold of the percentages? Am I going to have to get used to that?” He jokes that he reached his turning point after POGO “got access to Russian satellites and minimized their margin of error.”

“What we’re able to track and collect from those devices out in the field is amazing,” says Bill Brown, who was a longtime superintendent and the founder of Turf Republic before becoming the director of brand development and distributor support at AQUA-AID Solutions. “It almost makes me wish I was still a superintendent — sometimes.”

All sorts of digital boards have popped up in maintenance facilities in recent years, allowing for far more efficiency.
© Guy Cipriano (2)

Digital jobs boards are high on the list, too, especially those from Advanced Scoreboards, which essentially established the market and received more mentions than any other company thanks to its taskTracker software. Plenty of superintendents still operate with a whiteboard, scribbling and erasing every day, because that works for them, but plenty of others have shifted gears and upgraded. Nelson Caron, director of golf course and grounds maintenance at The Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Georgia, says the tech “dramatically changed the operation.

“Now we can populate years and years of data, and that is just so interesting,” says Caron, who implemented the tech in late 2012 or early 2013. “You get in front of your board of directors and you get asked these granular questions about cost and you can demonstrate those with time and motion studies. People had been doing that in 2010 but it was all getting a couple guys in a room and crunching numbers. Now all this data is populated for you. Talk about a really incredible advancement. Really unbelievable.”

Beyond producing reams of productivity data, Caron says the digital jobs boards allow him to work more effectively with visual learners on his crew and more quickly reach those on his crew who might not check email or even have an email account. “It’s a big time-saver when you start looking at production rates.”

“I like that I can see on a monthly, quarterly, yearly basis of where my labor is, how much I’ve spent on certain items, bunkers, greens, fairways,” says Adam Mis, superintendent at Brookfield Country Club in Clarence, New York, just outside Buffalo. “And the more accurate we can be with those jobs boards, the more beneficial they will be, because you always have great plans in the morning, and by noon, the day has gone sideways.”

Even sideways days with the digital jobs boards are better than the 12- and 14-hour days Huber says he remembers working when he was an intern. “We would come in at the end of the day and we would have this sheet of paper,” he says. “We would fill out what we did all day and how many hours it took us, and then the poor office admin would track that at the end of the week.” Sounds rough. When, exactly, was that? “That was 2006.”

The biggest tech of the 2020s? Probably autonomous mowers — if the price is right.
© The Toro Company

GPS sprayers started to spread their wings during the last decade — figuratively at most courses and quite literally near the east end of Lake Erie, where Mis added that tech to his arsenal in spring 2014 and then expanded outward a good, oh, 10 feet: A couple years after adding Ag Leader Technology from Agricultural Technology Solutions to a new Toro 1500, he extended his booms from 18 feet to 28 feet, adding 5 feet on either side and allowing his crew to cover Brookfield’s 29 fairway acres with far fewer passes.

Mis says that Ian Durgan, his longtime spray tech-turned-assistant, almost immediately trimmed about three acres and, more impressive, more than three hours during every fairway spray, which works out to about 18 hours every season just on fairways. Factor in light applications on greens every week from early May to early November and as many as 20 applications on tees during the same stretch and a $30,000 add-on paid for itself within two years.

“All of a sudden, you’re saving on chemicals, fertilizers, amendments, wetting agents, just because you know your spots. You mapped them out,” says Mis, who also modified the sprayer by adding custom rims on larger tires, which drops the pressure to about 8 psi and allows the truck to carry as much as 300 gallons per tank. “A lot of superintendents don’t want to be the guinea pig, but it’s been flawless.”

This season, Mis says he wants to add a 300-gallon mix tank that will allow his crew to prepare the next chemical application while Durgan or a new spray tech are out on the course. “If we can mix it while he’s out spraying, he comes in, turns it on, fills the tank, goes right back out, he’ll be done by 9 o’clock” — which would lop off another two hours. “Right now, sometimes it takes more time to fill the tank than it does to spray the fairways.”

Technology never slows down, a trend noted nearly 60 years ago by Gordon Moore, the Fairchild Semiconductor founder and former Intel CEO who observed that the number of components per integrated circuit doubled every couple years. His law has spread to just about all technology — including on the course. So, what might be as disruptive during the 2020s as soil moisture meters, digital jobs boards and GPS sprayers were during the 2010s?

The overwhelming favorite is autonomous mowers.

Mis calls them “the future.” Caron and Meersman both call them “a big deal.” Huber says, “there is nothing could be more interesting right than that.”

But. There always seems to be a but.

Caron recently purchased a pair of Husqvarna Automower 550hs to mow near the clubhouse and a restaurant, but he acknowledges that autonomous greens mowers are still “a little ways away.” Huber says, “you’re still so far out from actually implementing it in today’s golf because it’s expensive, the technology isn’t all inclusive — you probably still have to have somebody watching it — and it’s unproven.” And that was before Cub Cadet exited the autonomous mower sector for golf courses.

Brian Nettz, golf course superintendent at Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco, was among those who had not only added but fully integrated the Cub Cadet RG3, which mowed and rolled greens, into his operations. Like every other superintendent and director who worked closely with them, he loved them. “It was such a powerful tool for us in how we managed the golf course,” Nettz says. “Now to have to go back to almost like the cave man way, it’s going to cost us so much in lost time that we were doing other stuff with.”

And that recent Cub Cadet withdrawal could ripple throughout a sector of the industry: At least one superintendent interviewed for this story says he will likely avoid some other new technology — whether that means autonomous mowers or, say, robotic range pickers — because of potential blowback from members and committees.

Still, the technology is coming — whether it rolls out in 2020, or 2022, or beyond — and labor adjustments will follow.

“I would never want to replace (employees),” Huber says. “I would think it would bring the golf course to another level while being able to hire more skilled staff. I hire a lot of people who have never been on a golf course in their life. For a little more money, maybe you can bring that level up, bring the profession up, because you don’t need to worry about mowing the short turf, you can concentrate on the detail items. I believe my skilled labor knows the golf course back and forth, and when we put them on detail, the course shines.”

“Our deal here is not to replace employees,” Caron echoes. “It’s to reallocate employees to other areas, or keep them in the same area and refine it. … We’re going to have people who have been training in robotic management — not mechanics, but people making sure the robot is doing what it’s supposed to be doing — making adjustments, removing debris. Where else could we put the employees? Detail management, customer service, there are a lot of things golf courses do really poorly, or have done poorly in the past, and this is an opportunity to enhance.”

What else could follow? Drones were mentioned and are already in the sky above plenty of courses, though future regulations could vise potential. Data collection and artificial intelligence will be more a part of the maintenance building than ever before, and big data will translate well from professional golfers to professional superintendents. Other new positions will pop up with the same inspiration as robotic fleet management. Huber says “an autonomous bunker rake would be awesome.” Check Google. Not much out there about those yet. Dream big and make it happen.

“Superintendents are a pretty ingenious group,” Caron says. “In 15, 20 years, all I know is there will be jobs listed on a jobs board that are not listed today. I know that for a fact.”

Costs are still a deterrent for plenty of clubs — what Brown calls “the engine room” of the industry: “I rowed crew when I was in high school,” he says. “The front guy kept the pace, the back guy kept direction, and everybody in the middle, that was the engine room, and their job was to pull as hard as they could. That’s what the mid-level clubs do for this $86 billion industry. They’re the ones that keep it going. On Christmas Day, they’re the ones probably mowing greens so you can get a $15 greens fee. We’ve got to bring the price of technology down so these guys can keep this industry growing for us.

“The only problem with all this technology is still that the people who need it — autonomous mowers, or GPS sprayers, or sensors, or moisture meters, or whatever — still can’t afford it. I’m hoping technology comes down to where everybody can afford it.”

Until then, anybody know the market price these days for some good sheep?

Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.