Technology Influencing Golf Course of the Future

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Report from the National Golf Course Owners Association conference (“Solutions Summit").
Session: The Golf Course of the Future (held 2/10/05)
Speakers: Debra Bly, Marketing Manager, Center for Advanced Turf Technology, The Toro Company; Dana Lonn, Director, Center for Advanced Turf Technology, The Toro Company

Author: Cheri Brennan

Technology Influencing the Golf Course of the Future

Four key issues and trends are influencing operations at today’s golf courses – and technology will play a key role in addressing them, according to a pair of speakers at the Solutions Summit, the annual conference of the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA). Those issues, identified by Debra Bly and Dana Lonn of The Toro Company include:
1) Tight resources, forcing managers in all aspects of operations to do more with less.
2) Labor, including the availability, skill levels, safety, communication and management. In many parts of the country, language is another consideration, with an increasing number of workers speaking a language other than English as their primary language.
3) Water management. Availability, quality, disease issues and cost are a growing concern. Courses that spend more than $1,000 per acre foot per year will be more commonplace, the speakers believe.
4) Other environmental issues. Chemical use, energy use, noise and air pollution are having a growing impact on course operations. An increasing number of jurisdictions are restricting when mowing can occur. Areas where air pollution is worrisome are imposing more controls on when certain maintenance equipment may be used around the course.

Looking ahead, the speakers, both from The Toro Company, expect golf courses will apply more technology to maintaining their facilities and equipment. Course managers will rely on more sophisticated cell phones, PDAs, digital cameras, computers and software.

Technology will also be used by course superintendents in response to growing responsibilities in the areas of water management, administration, equipment management and maintenance and turf maintenance. Wireless radios, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and other mapping devices, sensors, variable rate applicators and robotics will become more prevalent, the speakers suggest.

Integrated turf management systems are another concept that courses will need to embrace. Such systems will enable improvements in irrigation, equipment maintenance, deployment of labor, and cart management, to name to few areas.

A fourth emerging trend that future-minded courses should anticipate is the use of more outsourced services to augment their facilities’ core competencies. Preventive maintenance on equipment is one example offered by speaker Debra Bly, Toro’s marketing manager at the Center for Advanced Turf Technology.

For golf courses, there are many impacts of the emerging trends:
· Better decisions with more information and easily shared access
· Different business economics as technology is shared across different entities and investments in infrastructure are leveraged.
· Improved cost management as investments are leveraged, resources are used more precisely and common technologies enable use of fewer parts and services. Standard user interfaces should reduce requirements for training and equipment will become easier to use.
· Fewer but more highly skilled workers will be needed.

Speaker Dana Lonn, an engineer by training and current director of Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology, said three market drives are influencing the direction of technology at golf courses. They include environmental concerns, labor and cost controls.

With regard to environmental issues, savvy courses are using sophisticated geographic information systems to track spatial resources and bring more precision to their use of resources. Another benefit of GIS is the sharing it enables (“knowledge is no longer tied to one person”) and portability (with more user-friendly dialog boxes coming online for handheld devices).

“Smart” sprayers are also helping courses better control and track the application of chemicals. One such device, currently being tested at beta sites, can be programmed to not function around sensitive areas.

Other new products are designed to aid decision-making around water management. Among their features are adjustable trajectories, sub-surface irrigation drips and water distribution technologies for various microclimates at a facility. Sophisticated soil moisture measurement tools with sensitive sensors will help superintendents apply water in zones, adjusting for soil conditions, species, seasons, weather forecasts and other factors.

Reflectance-sensing (a method of calibrating soil properties) is another emerging tool for golf courses. Research shows sensors on mowers can be used for mapping, data collection and diagnostics. The knowledge gleaned can help superintendents identify turf that is vulnerable to disease before it is visible, thereby enabling quick response and minimal use of chemicals.

Research is also under way in the areas of new cultivars and genetic engineering, with goals of improving salt and drought tolerance, reducing water use and improving turf’s resistance to disease. Alternate energy sources, including biodiesels and electric engines, are yet another area being explored by golf courses.

Lonn acknowledge some of the cutting edge technologies are cost-prohibitive, but he believes the market demand will grow as costs are reduced and returns on investment are demonstrated.

Working together and applying technology will yield multiple benefits to golf course superintendents, owners, operators and industry suppliers, the speakers believe. Golf course managers will gain more understanding of emerging needs and issues, become more responsive to mutual concerns, make better decisions and develop products and technologies to help them do more with less.

The National Golf Course Owners Association held is annual education conference in Orlando in mid-February. This year’s event marked the inaugural Golf Industry Show presented by NGCOA and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in association with the Golf Course Builders Association of America, the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and the National Golf Foundation. The Club Managers Association of America will become associated with the event in 2007 when it will be held in Anaheim, Calif.

About the author
Cheri Brennan is the owner of Alliance Communications and a partner in Golf Marketing, both based in Bellevue. She may be reached at 425.957.0654 or at