COURSE CARE
Addressing the twin challenges of maintenance and sustainability May 27, 2010 By By Kimberly Erusha, Ph.D., USGA

When Jim Hyler took over as the 61st president of the USGA in February, he had both a compliment and a warning for listeners in his opening address.

We can all be proud that the USGA has been an industry leader for more than three decades in promoting a healthy relationship between the game and the environment, said Hyler, who went on to say, If we are not careful, high construction costs, soaring maintenance budgets and declining membership rosters will threaten the survival of many courses and clubs.

Those words certainly ring true with golf course superintendents and their maintenance staffs, the people who have been hard at work for hours preparing the course before many golfers even think about heading out to play. Course care activities in the 21st century go far beyond mowing and watering. Today’s maintenance professionals rely on a wide variety of highly specialized tools, skills and regimens to provide the best possible playing conditions in an environmentally responsible manner.

As just one example of superintendent challenges, a putting green might be able to tolerate short periods of high heat and humidity without the need for an expensive protective fungicide application. But, should those conditions persist for days at a time, the green may be severely damaged without such an application.

Golfers who expect a perfectly manicured setting at all times should remember that superintendents continually strive to balance environmental and economic objectives, and that unforeseen weather challenges also can affect maintenance expectations, Hyler said. When it comes to the issue that is perhaps of greatest concern to golf’s future – namely, water, we must reset the way that we look at golf courses. As we have for the U.S. Open, I believe that our definition of playability should include concepts of firm, fast, and yes, even brown, and allow the running game to flourish.

While the environment is frequently in the spotlight these days, this concern is not new to golf maintenance. In 1920, the USGA began its search to develop better grasses for golf, and the effort has led to the establishment of many new varieties of grasses across the country.

Turfgrass research is the lifeblood of golf, said Jim Snow, national director of the USGA Green Section. Without it, the countless improvements in turfgrass health and playability would have taken decades more to come to fruition. Moreover, research has allowed us to understand the importance of our environment and appreciate the value of the wildlife we live with on the course. Ongoing research is essential to address the many challenges ahead.

A significant part of the research program focuses on water, a critical topic in many parts of the country. The USGA continues to support the development of new grasses for golf that use less water or can tolerate the use of recycled or brackish irrigation water. Heat-tolerant bentgrasses, drought- and cold-resistant bermudagrasses and salt-tolerant seashore paspalum have been developed through the USGA research program, and are used today on golf courses to help reduce water consumption. Today’s new grasses use fewer fertilizers and pesticides while withstanding the challenges of traffic from golfers and golf equipment, close mowing and weather extremes while providing a much-improved playing surface.

Golf is not the only beneficiary of this progress. In the search for better grasses for golf, many varieties were developed that are better suited for use on athletic fields, parks, roadsides and home lawns. The USGA research effort reaches well beyond the golf course.  More than likely, one of the grasses in most golfers’ front yards has some connection to a USGA-funded research program, said Kimberly Erusha, Ph.D., director of education for the USGA Green Section. 

Advancements in the environmental arena extend far beyond turf. Today’s golf course superintendent must closely monitor water and power consumption, prevent erosion and runoff and comply with often complex environmental regulations. A wide range of plant materials offer challenge for the players, provide nesting habitat and protective cover for wildlife and reduce the amount of fertilizer and plant protectants needed to produce an outstanding golf course.

The judicious use of water is a priority that superintendents address with the aid of computerized irrigation systems. As Jim Moore, director of construction for the USGA Green Section, said, Just 30 years ago, the most modern irrigation systems provided the superintendent the most basic of control – that being to turn a sprinkler on for a set number of minutes and then turn it back off. The computerized systems in use today integrate with the pumping plant to conserve electricity, wireless soil sensors that measure moisture, temperature and salt levels, and high-tech weather stations to precisely measure how much water the plant needs. Thousands of gallons of water can be saved each night with the click of a mouse.

To create a successful balance, superintendents must stay up-to-date on every aspect of golf course management. They obtain their information in a variety of ways, including consultations with USGA Green Section agronomists, who work with superintendents to implement the latest research on the golf course. The USGA staff makes on-site Turf Advisory Service visits to golf courses to review their maintenance programs and make suggestions to improve course conditions.

The expertise of the USGA agronomist is based on many years of experience observing techniques and management programs that work in the field, said David Fay, executive director of the USGA. You will not find a staff that is better versed in finding a way to help deal with turfgrass maintenance problems within the available budget.

Of course, the best advice comes when making an on-site visit to a golf course, but superintendents also take advantage of other Green Section educational opportunities. Live and recorded webcasts are a valuable and economically efficient method of providing information to superintendents and maintenance staffs who might not be able to take advantage of an on-site visit. The Green Section also provides regular USGA Web site updates to keep superintendents, course officials and golfers up-to-date on news in their regions. Webcast information and regional updates can be found in the Course Care section of the USGA Web site (www.usga.org).

Protecting golf’s natural environment has long been a USGA goal. As we move forward, we will continue to manage carefully this important responsibility.

Kimberly S. Erusha, Ph.D., is the USGA’s Green Section director of education.