April 28, 2005

Golf courses go high-tech to stay green

  • Course superintendents are using GIS sensors on mowers, "smart" sprayers for chemicals and soil moisture measurement tools to conserve and protect water sources.
    Alliance Communications

    White Horse golf course
    Photo cortesy White Horse
    White Horse golf course, taking shape near Kingston, will have wetland buffers and forested ridges to reduce its environmental impact.

    With the 2005 Masters in the books, golf course superintendents are preparing for a new round of "Augusta National Syndrome." The phrase describes the expectation local duffers impose on their home courses after viewing the meticulously manicured Georgia turf, enhanced by 350 blossoming plant varieties, artificially colored ponds and tinted camera lenses.

    It's a "virtually unattainable icon of expensive manipulation," laments one course superintendent. Another notes the irony of this "green complex," which ultimately results in more difficult and more expensive rounds of golf as course superintendents try to emulate the unrealistic Augusta standard.

    Most golfers probably have little understanding of the work — and science — required to maintain golf courses.

    Playability starts with the land and the architects who shape it on functional and aesthetic levels. Architects are expected to create courses that connect with nature by enhancing a site's natural beauty with minimal disruption of the terrain. Changing regulations are requiring more sensitivity to wetlands, steep slopes, water and soil conservation, and wildlife habitat.

    Eco-friendly designs

    Perhaps no one understands the value of eco-friendly development better than Bob Screen, who spent 13 years pursuing permits for a panoramic 456-acre parcel near Kingston. Now taking shape, his White Horse project will encompass an 18-hole golf course and 224 home lots, many with spectacular territorial, mountain and water views.

    Screen conducted extensive research to find his course architect. The designer had to be willing to fashion a course that would fit the topography yet have a strong environmental ethic and be creative enough to promise playability for golfers of all abilities.

    His choice was Cynthia Dye McGarey of Denver. As a member of the Dye family of distinguished golf course architects, her experience includes serving as the design coordinator at acclaimed courses in the U.S. and Asia. She also holds a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture.

    Calling White Horse the best site she's ever worked on, Dye McGarey said her layout will minimize the impact on the surroundings, which includes wetland buffers and forested ridges. Native vegetation, drought-tolerant grasses and a 2-acre water feature that also functions as a storage/filtering pond are some of the elements that will promote water and soil conservation while preserving wildlife habitats.

    Onsite weather stations and a state-of-the-art irrigation system will minimize water use, with only about 80 acres of turf slated for irrigation.

    Technology aids maintenance

    Both new and established courses are using sophisticated geographic information systems to track maintenance resources and bring more precision to their use of resources.

    "Smart" sprayers are helping courses better control and track the application of chemicals. One such device, being tested at beta sites, can be programmed to not function around sensitive areas. Sensors on mowers can be used for mapping, data collection and diagnostics.

    Other new products are designed to aid decision-making around water management. Among their features are adjustable sprinkler trajectories, subsurface irrigation drips and water distribution technologies tailored for a specific course's different microclimates. Sophisticated soil moisture measurement tools with sensors will help superintendents apply water in zones, adjusting for soil conditions, species, seasons, weather forecasts and other factors.

    Such advances in technology, as well as developments in turfgrass and resource management, mean superintendents must be savvy landscapers while also being part scientist, environmentalist, horticulturist, meteorologist, personnel manager, instructor and accountant.

    Recognizing this changing role, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America promotes continuing education and recognizes best practices and special achievements. Its President's Award for Environmental Stewardship went to three recipients this year, including Steve Kealy, the superintendent at Glendale Country Club in Bellevue.

    Kealy's award cited achievements for a salmon stream rehabilitation project at Glendale that includes an outreach component with local schools. Under his management, the course also attained status as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, one of only eight courses in Washington state to have that distinction, according to Audubon International.

    Water is key

    Kealy said the top two environmental concerns for golf course superintendents are protecting water quality and conserving water.

    Glendale routinely tests the water in Kelsey Creek as it comes onto the course and where it leaves the course. Results over the past three years show no pesticide or fertilizer products getting into the water as a result of course management. Kealy said, however, they've found "quite a few pesticides coming onto the course from someone making applications upstream."

    Such testing isn't required, but Glendale spends about $4,700 per year to make sure it is having no adverse affect on the environment.

    Kealy also noted superintendents are the nation's leading practitioners of integrated pest management, a philosophy that reduces the potential environmental risk of pesticide usage. Like other certified golf course superintendents, he maintains that credential through continuing education. He and four of his colleagues at Glendale also hold pesticide applicators licenses.

    Golf courses are committing considerable resources to conserving water through ongoing training and improved technology, according to Kealy. Industry sources indicate a typical course has around 50 acres of irrigated rough, 30 acres of irrigated fairway, 3 acres of greens and 3 acres of irrigated tees.

    Water use can vary widely, depending on climate, design, management practices and other factors. For example, Shadow Creek Golf Club in Las Vegas reportedly uses 1 million gallons of water each day. In contrast, Desert Willow in Palm Desert, Calif., consumes about 325,000 gallons.

    To conserve water at Glendale, Kealy said they installed the most sophisticated irrigation system that exists — a system that typically costs about $1.5 million. Such systems include individual sprinkler head controls (about 1,500 heads on the average course), onsite weather stations with computer-controlled water programming, moisture sensors in the ground, and specially trained staff to operate the systems.

    Superintendents are also working to re-educate golfers. "We are preparing our golfers for the possibility of water restrictions," Kealy said. Severe restrictions could mean courses will allow the rough and out-of-play areas to turn brown in order to save water for greens, landing areas and tee boxes.

    Kealy, who has a bachelor's degree in agronomy from Washington State University, said the benefits of properly maintained turfgrass extend to golf course neighbors in the form of oxygen production, green spaces in urban settings and filtration.

    With increased development in urban areas, golf courses provide valuable green space and wildlife sanctuaries. "We want the public to know that golf courses are good for the local community," Kealy said.

    Cheri Brennan owns Alliance Communications and is a co-founder of, both based in Bellevue.

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