Thursday, March 4, 2010

"We Have Met the Enemy... and He is Us"

By Michael Vogt, CGCS

Modified USGA specification greens, sand bunkers with pure white sand also add expensive fabric liners to these bunkers so we can flash sand at ridiculous slopes, oh, and don’t forget blemish free turf from tee to green. Is it harder to let go of the tiger than it was to catch him by the tail? We are the victim of our own technology; let’s examine just two basic problems with technology, golf design and maintenance and see if we have identified the enemy.

Let’s examine the green:

In an article by James Moore, Director of USGA’s Construction Education Program states that, “After 20 years the greens will probably not drain well internally.” The highly modified and engineered USGA specification sand greens that dot the golf landscape are each dying a slow 20 year death, according to the USGA!

We build high content sand greens to encourage rooting, increase gas exchange in the root zone, drain water so we don’t miss an available tee time, reduce compaction to allow root space and allow golf designers the ability to contour the putting surface as they seem fit. How is it we create these superior surfaces and now have the added expenses of hand watering, constant fights with thatch, rolling to increase ball speed, fight moss and bacterial invasions, add fans to increase air circulation and have to limit the natural growth of the turf with plant growth regulators? Do we aerify greens less today on sand greens than we did on soil greens? No. With dense new bentgrass cultivars these new super grasses seem to produce even more thatch, so instead of aerification to just relieve compaction we need this process to remove accumulated thatch and pore clogging organic matter.

International Sports Turf Research Center (ISTRC) a physical soil test lab in Kansas, is so convinced in the importance of removal of thatch that they recommend in most of their soil reports that 20% at a 3 inch depth of the green surface be removed annually just to “manage” the thatch layer. That equates to at least 2, 5/8 inch hollow tine aerifications annually, followed by introduction of pure sand into the hole to act as a conductor for water and gas exchange in the root zone. The ISTRC guidebook should be required reading for all golf course superintendents that mange sand greens, the guidebook can be found at: ISTRC Guidebook

Old push up style greens I have observed lately compared well with these fancy sand based wonders of technology. Poa annua (Annual bluegrass) is still no less of a problem in most geographic regions with or without sand based greens. So, what have we gained by building greens with scientifically selected sand size? Elaborate drainage systems and a complete greens replacement schedule of every 15 to 30 years and this schedule was reviewed and endorsed by the USGA, GCSAA, CMAA, GCBAA, NGF, NGCOA and compiled and distributed by the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

Let’s grab this tiger by the tail and run the numbers. The cost of 19 new greens is perhaps, on the low side, $600,000 (about $4.00 per ft²). If the greens in a drastic situation needed to be replaced after 15 years (minimum time frame set forward by the above golf associations) a course would have to save, in today’s dollars, $40,000 per year. That’s nuts! Even if the greens endured for the maximum time, the course is on the hook to put away $27,000 per year! That means as soon as the first putt rolls in the cup at least one dollar per round, forever, needs to be saved for rebuilding of the greens, in today’s money!

A soil green, (of which there are many great examples in the USA) can be built under the strictest specification and be built for a fraction of the cost. These greens often have better soil microbial activity, use far less water, play firmer and support very good populations of turf.

Apparently, most people believe the USGA specification green building and subsequent renovations are worth the extra money or not as many people would be requesting the fancy sand greens; but how long can courses sustain these expensive modifications, maintenance and green rebuilding schedules?

Another driving force in the favor of sand green is the golf course architect, the reason being is they can shape a green with extreme contours and not be concerned with surface drainage as the old soil based greens. The type of sheet drainage (old style greens) that was said to lead to soggy approaches and waterlogged greens surrounds. Those soggy areas around greens are easily solved by installation of drainage at a fraction of the cost.

Let’s examine the sand bunker:

Bunkers are even more absurd than greens! Flash sand bunkers with laser sharp edges is also a function of fad; golf course architects piling sand on ridiculously steep banks for visual effect, not necessarily for playability, because they could create a visual stunning look from the tee and/or second shot.

In these cases form followed newly functional and improved building techniques, golf course architects used these new and expensive building and maintenance techniques to build extreme cost and high maintenance golf course sand bunkers. The life of sand bunkers is said to be only 5 to 7 years. I completed a complete sand bunker renovation during 2008 on a Tom Fazio design golf course, the bill, $650,000. That’s a whopping, $92,857 per year of bunker life based on 7 years of asset in service.

As mentioned earlier if you amortized the cost of just bunkers and greens the course would have to reinvest $132,857 per year. That’s just for bunkers and greens renovations or replacements, from day one the asset was put into service.

Whom else to blame?

The superintendents are the next nemesis of the grand old game. Their ever increasing expertise demonstrated that super-green, blemish free turf could be achieved, at a substantial additional cost!

Golf course designers have been practicing one-upmanship for the last 50 years. The golden age of golf architecture with practitioners such as Maxwell, McDonald, McKenzie, Tillinghast and Ross are lauded today for their design genius, even today. They understood the game of golf on a higher level than most and based their designs on what was available to build with on site. They never moved 100,000 cubic yards of soil; they designed the greens to surface drain properly. Trees, as a rule, didn’t have a purpose on golf course design except for an occasional grove of apple or pear trees to supply the walking golfers with a treat during the dog days of summer.

The cost of golf has increased dramatically due to these advances in design, construction and maintenance. With today’s economic pressures, over-supply of golf, reduction in leisure time and lenders and banks classifying golf as “Toxic Assets” we have built high maintenance features without the forethought of cost. Golf maintenance has never been inexpensive; however, golfer, owner, members and superintendent demands strive for ever-increasing pristine conditions and visual perfection. These elements have driven the cost of golf into the stratosphere. Slowly the game will once again be reserved for the ultra-rich with ample time and resources to enjoy.

Let’s examine the maintenance cost:

Now that the other shoe has dropped the buzz is, maybe less is more in golf design and maintenance, to wit, Bandon Dunes, Chambers Bay and Barnbougle Dunes. These are wildly popular courses that focus maintenance on play areas, have little or no trees and have sand bunkers that are truly hazards; not perfectly groomed, white sand, lined maintenance headaches.

We are now experiencing the perfect storm, less free time, less disposable income, high maintenance costs, banks and intuitional lenders turning their back on golf and a mass exodus of members fleeing the private club sector. Perhaps less is more in golf design and maintenance, to wit, Bandon Dunes, Chambers Bay and Barnbougle Dunes. These are wildly popular courses that focus maintenance on play areas, have little or no trees and have sand bunkers that are truly hazards; not perfectly groomed, white sand, lined maintenance headaches.

Million dollar maintenance budgets have become the norm at just average golf courses from coast to coast. Should we attempt to look at golf course design, building and grooming and accept a through-back principle to less expensive, simpler times? There will always be golfers willing to pay a premium for super-ultra private club golf courses. I just find it hard to imagine the average small business owner or upper wage earner spending an average of $130.00 per round (at a club) of golf before the first beer.

What do you think, email me with your view?

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