Friday, January 8, 2010

GOLF, 2020

By Michael Vogt, CGCS

Looking into the Magic Golf - Crystal Ball what will golf look like in the next decade.

Remember the Cayman ball, nearly 30 years ago. Jack Nicklaus asked the MacGregor Golf Company to develop a ball for a small course his design company was laying out on Grand Cayman Island. The Cayman ball is the same size as a regulation golf ball. It weighs just 24 grams, compared to the approximate 45 grams of a regulation golf ball. These balls travel slightly more than half the distance of a golf ball with a fast swing and a greater percentage with a slower swing. Its lightness also permits beginners to easily get this ball airborne and prevents miss hits from ever stinging their hands, common drawbacks to these players with a regulation golf ball.

Smaller course, less land, less money to maintain, less impact on the environment, less time to play and the Cayman course was supposed to be a gateway to big boy golf. Good idea? No, the concept looked good on paper but never caught on. The golfer wants to blast the ball 250 plus off the tee, that’s golf!

Continued pressure might resurrect this thinking.

Dan Bjorkman of Colorado built a 1.2 million-square-foot championship, artificial-turf golf course. The course, located on his Echo Basin Ranch is the first of its kind, and the largest layout of artificial turf in the world.

There are five different (phony) grasses for the course – putting, fairway, rough, fringe and tee box – ranging from 5/8th inch, 7/8th, 1¼ inch, 2¼ inch on the fairways, and 2¾ inch in the rough. The course is said to be groomed as immaculately as any major golf course, never flooded or swampy after big rains, playable anytime it’s not covered in snow – which will melt faster. All that has to be done for course maintenance is occasionally run the broom over it to pick up pine cones and twigs after big storms and high winds.

The 7,800-yard PGA championship course is the constructed using six inches of three-quarter-inch road base that is meticulously compacted throughout, covered with three grades of Arizona silica sand, spread as a bedding for the turf. As the grades of silica get smaller, the final layer supporting the turf is smoothed and graded as slick as ice.

After the carpet is fitted, it is top dressed with a mix of silica sand and granules of recycled truck tires. This mixture holds up the blades and percolates down through the rubber backing to commingle with the silica, giving the turf a surprisingly real feel and the substance from which to take a divot-type swing without breaking the yarn or tearing the backing. The rolls weigh 600 pounds, are 15 feet wide and require careful cutting at the glued seams and around the contours so there’s no bunching or bubbling.

The cost of artificial turf is twice that of natural grass. But real grass uses many thousands of gallons of water a night to keep green, and it costs $1 million a year to cut the grass the water grows. In golf Mecca’s like Arizona and Nevada, that’s $1 million in water and $1 million in maintenance – $75 per player per round – in addition to the hundreds of thousand of pounds and gallons of fertilizers and herbicides that leach into ground water, that might not be a bad idea.

Why hasn’t plastic grass caught on throughout the world?

High installation cost - as high as $12 to $15 per square foot.

Maintenance costs - "No maintenance" claims are absurd. All you have to do is check out a few of the artificial turf driving ranges and you will see evidence of annual bluegrass and other grassy and broadleaf weeds. The lack of thatch or biomass opens up questions of contamination from using chemicals that could more readily leach into ground-water for lack of a biologically active thatch layer.

Unlike natural grass, it will not be possible to protect the quality of the surface. From the time it is installed until the day it is replaced, the product will reduce in quality in an uneven manner. Unlike turf that can be maintained at a high quality or rejuvenated with overseeding and other techniques, artificial turf will only become more worn out until it must be replaced.

Effective repairs for torn and ripped areas have yet to be satisfactorily addressed. This is a maintenance function, whether it is admitted or not. Solutions to these problems are critical to the future success of the product.

Real growing turf is cooler. The idea of standing on an artificial golf course in the middle of summer in Phoenix is not appealing at all. The feel of the shot from today's artificial turfs may be of good quality, but the experience continues to be unnatural and uncomfortable.

When the artificial turf is replaced the old turf must be handled as a toxic waste in landfills contributing to already overcrowded landfills with slowing degrading petro-carbons.

The jury is still out on artificial turf, for now it’s safe to say “thumbs down”.

Robot Grass Mowers
Already here, just for greens.

At last years Golf Industry Show, Indianapolis-based company, Precise Path Robotics has announced its latest creation, the RG3 robotic greens mower and a fully automated robotic golf course conditioning and maintenance mower.

Precise Path’s vice president of sales and marketing said that the latest technology will undoubtedly help golf course superintendents achieve uniformity and outstanding course conditions while allowing crew workers to tackle other tasks during the greens-mowing process, such as raking bunkers, plantings, turf repair, and so on.

The RG3 comes with a relatively easy operation protocol where the operator places four beacons, each about the size of a bowling pin, in predetermined, fixed locations around the green. Then the operator simply presses “start” and the RG3 automatically performs the mowing operation according to exact specifications set by the superintendent.

The mower remains in constant communication with the beacons to help guide its precise movement across the green during the mowing sessions.

“There is a need for a more consistent method of maintaining golf courses,” said Gamble. “Not only will golfers benefit from better, more uniformly cut greens, but superintendents and crews alike will be able to focus on other important tasks such as general course maintenance and landscaping.”

“Helping golf course superintendents, owners and operators realize the benefits of robotics is our top priority, and we intend to be here for the long haul to support the industry in making this important technology adoption,” said Doug Traster, Precise Path Robotics president and co-founder.

Could this robot go rogue, if the beacons are misaligned or some other mechanical mishap occurs, I would imagine so! The robo-mower could take off down the fairway munching a one eighth inch scalped swath until the kill-robot switch is enabled.

Automatic irrigation was once on the same footing and infancy as the robotic mowers, now computer controlled irrigation completely replaced the night waterman.

Will robotic mowers take over as crew members dwindle, I would bet this is a trend of the future.

The USGA is the watchdog of the rules and equipment used in the game of golf. The latest change in the equipment rules is grooves. Changes in types and surface area of grooves on irons will make it more difficult to execute a controlled shot out of deep rough.

Where were this USGA guys when the titanium driver and Pro V ball hit the streets increasing the average pro drive to 300 plus yards? How many clubs in the last ten years lengthened the golf course to 7,000 plus yards in an effort to keep the course challenging to the clubs low handicapper. As if costs aren’t enough lets add a quarter mile or more to the course because USGA dropped the ball (pardon the pun).
Rule changes often have unintended consequences and in some cases drive up the cost of golf. Where will USGA rules go next, how about we ban golf carts, GPS and laser range finders?

The USGA will keep monkeying around with rules, it’s what they do!

Genetic Engineering
Super Genetically Engineered Turf Plants that can withstand extremes in hot, cold, wet, dry as well as insects and fungal attacks and remain green and growing, that’s what’s next. Round-Up ready bents are already headed to a turf distributer near you in the not-so-distant future.
Once the genetic code is broken and scientists learn how to select and install these super traits in turf the sky’s the limit.

Super grass, you will see this stuff in you lifetime!

Management Companies
Management companies are already a big player in golf maintenance, their ability to leverage purchasing, labor, and other resources are going to be a fact of the golf business. When operators, municipalities and members switch to management companies the dynamics of operations changes and instead of stand alone businesses these courses are managed as part of a big business with substantially more zeros.

Similar to what happened to the old neighborhood grocery store and hardware store; Wal-Mart is the game-changer! Everyday I read news that XYZ Company just inked a new management contract.

More big business for small golf properties!

What’s Next?
Business and innovation is a wonderful thing and is powered by the ability to create a superior product or service at a lesser cost. Million dollar plus maintenance budgets will only survive for the most elite of private clubs in the next decade. With government pressure on water use, chemical and fertilizer applications, tightening of the boarders, fuel prices and taxing the rich; where else can the golf business go?
My prediction for the next decade:

• Reduced new course length (7,000 yard max)
• More robots to replace labor
• Better grasses (no brainer)
• Improved water delivery (sub-irrigation)
• Less private clubs
• No growth or reverse growth in superintendent salaries
• Smaller crews
• More management companies
• Cost will be a bigger factor in choosing courses
• More restrictions on chemical and fertilizer use
• Mega-courses with many nine hole layouts
• Less not for profit private clubs (government will see as found tax money)

Sharpen your pencil, it's all about the money, 2020 will change the face of golf as we know it today!

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