The task of trying to identify the most significant challenges facing golf course superintendents today is a lot like trying to choose a favorite Beatles song: there are so many, it’s nearly impossible to choose just one.
Unlike listening to John, Paul, George and Ringo belt out Let it Be and Hey, Jude, which is a good thing, picking from a list that includes anthracnose and the threat of becoming unemployed at age 50 isn’t so positive.
Too few players, lack of job security, shrinking budgets and escalating player demands, labor issues, a world of uncertainty due to changing healthcare legislation, inherent soil conditions, increased disease pressure, weather concerns. The list goes on and on.
Walt Norley, Matt Shaffer and a group of their colleagues believe they have come up with a tool that will allow superintendents to collect data on some of these issues and use that to develop a plan that will help them to save time, reduce operating costs, improve playability and produce a stronger, healthier plant.
OnLink is a cloud-based, data-analytics software program that aggregates key line-item data to help superintendents manage soil conditions, water use, fertilizer and pesticide use, labor and more as efficiently as possibly.
Founded by Norley, who brought golf UgMO (Advanced Sensor Technologies) and Shaffer, director of grounds at Merion Golf Club, OnLink was derived from an existing ag-based platform known as OnFarm.
Based in California’s San Joaquin Valley farming region, OnFarm is a cloud-based data-aggregation platform that has been helping growers increase yield and reduce the cost of production for three years. OnFarm has more than 1,000 clients large and small, the biggest being Anheuser-Busch. More than 1.3 million acres of agricultural land are under management with OnFarm since 2012.
The data analytics that OnLink brings to the table is similar, Norley says, to that which is used by sports teams and was made popular by the 2011 baseball movie Moneyball, in which Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) taught Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) how to build a winning baseball team without spending like the New York Yankees.
The same concept, Norley says, can help superintendents maximize playing conditions and plant health with minimal inputs and labor. And, he says, the technology brings decision-making power to golf that is long overdue.
“How do you manage something without information? It’s perplexing to the rest of the world how to manage something without information,” Norley said. “Other markets have been using data analytics and data-aggregation decisions on cost efficiencies and revenue for years. This industry has been slow to adopt to data analytics.”
Norley’s UgMO technology, which was the talk of the GIS trade show floor in 2008 in Orlando, was developed to help superintendents reduce water use and save money while improving playing conditions. Like UgMO, OnLink isn’t about making superintendents spend more money, it’s about doing more with less.
Due out as early as April, OnLink’s cloud-based system collects data from soil-monitoring technology and computerized irrigation systems, utilizes its own weather system and also can capture information such as fertilizer use, fungicide and pesticide inputs, and mowing schedules. That’s when OnLink really kicks into action as the service, as Norley says, “crunches the numbers” and provides key information delivered to a smartphone or tablet that is designed to help superintendents make decisions on agronomic programs that will maximize playability, produce healthier turf and provide more consistent conditions while minimizing water and chemical inputs, energy as well as financial resources.
“It’s integrating information that is already out there and putting it into one location where it all talks to each other,” said Shawn Emerson of Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona, and president of OnLink’s advisory board. “The beauty of it is that it tracks everything, but the superintendent can make his own decision on what to do with that information.
“It is a virtual consultant.”
Although it utilizes the same basic technology that has made OnFarm a hit in the agriculture market, OnLink owns the rights to its own technology. That said, superintendent users retain ownership of all data uploaded to the cloud.
Managing labor at six-course Desert Mountain used to be a challenge for Emerson before he started using OnLink. The system has helped him reduce his managers’ workweek from 55 to 50 hours. It has helped him save in other areas as well.
“We don’t have to water as much as we used to. We don’t have to flush our greens as much as we used to, and of course we don’t have to amend our soils as much,” he said.
“We are the Moneyball of golf. While Billy Beane started that, now everyone uses analytics.”
The system also communicates with human resource management systems like ADP and Paychex to help reduce overtime.
Shaffer said the tool has proven invaluable in preparing monthly reports for membership.
“Those reports take me 20 minutes to write, but it would take me an-hour-and-a-half just to gather the information,” he said.
Now all the information he needs is in one portal.
What a superintendent does with the data OnLink spits out on the back end depends on their goals.
Part of what Shaffer wants to accomplish is to further minimize inputs without compromising playability so he can keep costs down at Merion. At Desert Mountain, where play often is highest when places like Merion are under snow, is to remain green while using as little water as possible. By aggregating data and establishing acceptable limits, both are able to accomplish different goals with the same system.
“Our fertilizer and chemical costs have stabilized the last three years because of this information. Water costs are going up, we can’t control that, but our water use is going down,” Emerson said.
“I’m using it because I can’t outrun it.”
OnLink’s brain trust includes, from left, Shawn Emerson, Walt Norley and Matt Shaffer.