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FEATURES – TURF MANAGEMENT
More companies, products and recognizable names are involved in Precision Turf Management. But is the industry closer to widespread adoption?
GUY CIPRIANO | May 18, 2015

Sprayers are more precise, mobile apps track inputs, images of turf problems originate from above, soil moisture meters leave maintenance buildings daily, and new business ventures launch with recognizable industry names.

Still, a major question exists: Are golf course superintendents closer to fully embracing precision turf management (PTM) practices?

The answer is complex.

Devices such as soil moisture meters have transitioned from a curiosity with a few dozen users to a go-to water management tool deployed by thousands of superintendents and irrigation technicians. If you’re operating a course in Arizona, California, Nevada and Texas and you’re not regularly collecting soil moisture data, a drought becomes more difficult to endure.

Soil moisture data, coincidentally, led to an influential Pennsylvania superintendent embracing the correlation between data management and input levels. Merion Golf Club, where Matt Shaffer has overseen the golf course operations since 2002, had entered a dire situation as it prepared to host the 2005 United States Amateur, an event with the potential to bring an even bigger prize to suburban Philadelphia.

“It was really a critical championship to Merion with regards to whether they could get the U.S. Open eventually,” Shaffer says. “It was one of the worst summers Philadelphia had seen in years. It was brutally hot and wet. It was overly disgusting. Quite honestly, we were in trouble.”

Shaffer leaned on his mentor, Paul Latshaw Sr., who referred him to Walt Norley and his underground soil moisture sensors. In Shaffer’s words, Latshaw “badgered” him to place a few sensors below Merion’s turf. “I was just blown away off the bat,” Shaffer says. “I was thoroughly convinced I knew how wet the greens were, I was thoroughly convinced I knew the soil temperature, when in fact, everything was wetter and everything was hotter than I originally thought.”

Merion immediately altered its practices, venting turf late in the afternoon and mowing at the coolest time of the day, which happened to be 3:30 a.m. The sensor data also hinted at when turf was ripe for diseases. Norley left the golf industry, but recently returned to launch OnLink, a cloud-based platform providing actionable analytics and recommendations to superintendents. Shaffer has joined Norley as OnLink’s co-founder. OnLink has agreements to integrate its technology with multiple PTM-related companies.

Plenty has changed in the golf industry in the past decade, and Merion hosted a successful U.S. Open in 2013. Shaffer added former Atlantic City (N.J.) Country Club superintendent Dave McDonald as project manager in 2008. Data collection represents one of McDonald’s primary responsibilities. The data he analyzes helps Shaffer make decisions on inputs.

Trinity Forest Golf Club director of grounds Kasey Kauff is making decisions on inputs before golfers step on his course. Trinity Forest, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design in Dallas, doesn’t open until 2016. But past experiences at Eagle Pointe (N.C.) Country Club, Atlanta Athletic Club and Country Club of Orlando convinced Kauff to implement PTM practices at Trinity Forest. With guidance from NuTec Soil owner Marcus Thigpen, Kauff has already collected soil samples using GPS mapping. The samples are proving that not all soils are equal, and the data will help Kauff determine future input levels.

“Anytime you are building a golf course you are moving dirt from here to over there,” Kauff says. “Well, that dirt might have been managed differently throughout the years before you were there so now you might have mismanaged soil here and managed soil over there. Your soil is different throughout the golf course.”

PTM practices such as GPS mapping were met with skepticism when Thigpen brought his soil sampling methods from agriculture to the golf industry. Once superintendents are exposed to the technology and understand how to integrate it into their daily routines, skeptics are flipped into promoters, he says. Similar mentalities greeted Thigpen when he introduced GPS technology to farmers.

“When I started, people thought I was a nutcase,” he says. “Then other guys got into and people thought, ‘Well, there’s something to this technology.’ Then, it spread like a wildfire. There is not a farmer today that of any size that’s not using the technology.”

Nobody considers those selling PTM-related offerings to superintendents nutcases. But two barriers to widespread adoption exist in 2015: cost and the perception it adds to a superintendent’s workload. GCI’s 2015 State of the Industry research indicates a rebound in golf industry spending, although Thigpen says the economic downturn from 2008-13 might have strengthened the case for PTM. “The slowdown actually helped us from the standpoint that people were looking to save money,” he says.

Companies involved in PTM claim upfront costs will eventually be defrayed because of savings created by reducing inputs. Shaffer, for example, says an annual subscription to OnLink is the equivalent to one spray application. Turflux and GreenSight Agronomics are among the other industry newcomers with PTM offerings. Turflux offers GPS-guided sprayer systems and GreenSight Agronomics provides superintendent course images through self-guided drones. Toro also is entering the PTM market with the release of its GPS-equipped Toro Multi Pro 5800 sprayer.

An increase in PTM-related ventures isn’t a coincidence.

“Superintendents accepted the data five years ago, but the difference is that people are willing to pay for it now,” says Winfield product manager Aaron Johnsen, whose company has unveiled its GeoTech Tool for satellite course mapping. Johnsen adds that the golf industry is in the “early-adopter stage” of PTM and estimates that less than 5 percent of superintendents are fully engaged in the practices.

Early adopters include:

Superintendents managing courses with water concerns. “Regions like Texas, Florida and California have been impacted by key drivers among other influencers such as water scarcity and it’s because of this we are seeing an increase in adoption,” Spectrum Technologies President Mike Thurow says.
Younger superintendents. OnLink developed a program for early innovators, and they contacted superintendents in various demographics to determine potential reach. The results weren’t surprising. “Well, of course, it’s different,” Shaffer says. “50-year-old guys, it’s tough. 40-year-old guys, it’s like well … Guys in their 30s, it’s like, ‘I’m interested.’ Guys in their 20s, it’s like, ‘Where can I sign up?’ So, it’s a mentality issue.”Playing conditions (speed and firmness)
Superintendents managing courses with substantial budgets. “That savings of 5 to 10 percent for a course that has a $2 million budget … Whatever the percentage may be, that’s a big deal,” says Penn State associate professor Dr. John Kaminski, who recently jointed GreenSight Agronomics as its chief agronomic officer. “I think people are usually willing to use that technology.”

Kaminski’s fascination with PTM started in the late-2000s, when advances in data collection and mobile apps started offering benefits for researchers.

Conversations that started last year with GreenSight Agronomics COO Joel Pedlikin, who has an aerospace background, led to Kaminski entering a PTM-related business venture.

Kaminski considers self-guided drones — and the images they collect — an important piece to helping golf solve its water issues, and Pedlikin says drones offer “big-picture” water data that can’t be collected on the ground.

“People are going to have to figure out a way to manage their water,” Kaminski says. “To me, that’s a no-brainer for people to get on board if you’re in an arid environment and you have to manage reductions in water. How do you cut back but still give the area that needs water, water? I think the technology is actually going to help these golf course superintendents that are struggling.”
And, according to Kaminski and others involved in PTM, the technology is becoming easier to use.

“Superintendents are overwhelmed with data right now and figuring out a way to have something sent to them and spit out to them in a way that’s understandable and actionable items come out of it is the key,” Kaminski says. “They can’t be staring at hundreds of pictures, saying, ‘What does this do? What does that do? They need something that basically prompts them and makes their life easier.”
Other PTM applications also require minimal time investments, according to superintendents and company representatives. RTK (Real Time Kinematic) systems require circling a course once to establish a GPS map for spraying. Johnsen says learning to understand and use satellite images requires a “half-hour learning curve.” Kauff and his assistants at Trinity Forest needed just 45 minutes to learn how to create GPS maps based on soil samples.

Shaffer calls himself a “crisis manager,” and says data can now be arranged to immediately direct a superintendent to areas that need further exploring, thus eliminating the hours wasted studying parts of a course or operation with no problems.

“There’s going to be a lot of pushback and people are saying superintendents aren’t going to go out on the course anymore,” Shaffer says. “That’s not going to happen. But by the same token, they might be able to get unplugged for four hours for a soccer or lacrosse game.”

PTM from the start

Kasey Kauff is building Precision Turf Management practices into Trinity Forest Golf Club’s agronomic program from scratch.

The Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-designed course in Dallas will open in 2016 with data points that could serve as a model for future new courses. Earlier this spring, Kauff and assistants Andy Deiwert and Chad Kuzawa collected soil samples using GPS mapping.

Trinity Forest has irrigation on the equivalent of nine holes, and Kauff says more than 600 samples have been collected within a 10-foot radius of every head. The results of the testing will help Kauff construct an effective fertility program. “We have already figured out we are low in some things,” Kauff says. “We are really low in phosphorus. We can start working on that now before we even have turf, which is fantastic.”

PTM practices will also help Kauff determine how to manage water. Sub-surface soil moisture sensors are being installed throughout the course, and Kauff also plans on examining above-ground soil moisture data. Trinity Forest is the future home of the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Classic, and water data will be used to create optimal conditions.

“When the Tour does come, we’re going to have that data for two, maybe three years,” he says. “We can show them what a specific moisture gives us far as firmness and what it will do for the turf. We are going to use it as a science experiment if you will.”