COURSE CARE
Course Consulting Service Provides Expertise, Cost Savings June 28, 2016 | SAN JOSE, CALIF. By Josh Sens

USGA agronomist Brian Whitlark works with golf facilities to improve efficiencies and sustainability. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

The grass, it turns out, isn’t always greener. Sometimes it wilts from thirst, or browns out from disease, or chokes in undernourished soil.

Other times it doesn’t grow at all.

On a recent sun-splashed morning, an hour south of San Francisco, Don Paul knelt beside a bald spot on the closing hole of Los Lagos Golf Course, the municipal layout in San Jose where he has served as superintendent since 2001.

It was midweek, shoulder season, but Los Lagos was doing its usual brisk business. The first group of the day was coming up No. 18.

Paul waved the foursome through, then gazed back at the grass-less patch of ground beneath him, a stubborn exception on an otherwise lush fairway.

“This has been a trouble spot,” he said.

Standing beside him were Pat Gross and Brian Whitlark of the USGA.

“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” said Whitlark, a USGA Green Section agronomist who is based in Arizona.

He plunged a metal probe into the earth and pulled up a long cross-section of soil. As he suspected, the underlying layers were dark and pasty, signs of oxygen deprivation.

Using a second probe, Whitlark took a second reading.

“You’ve got an EC of almost 9,” he said.

Translation: elevated saline levels, an unhappy consequence, in part, of relentlessly dry weather, and another impediment to healthy growth.

Problem diagnosed.

But what about the cure?

“Have you thought about patching it over with bermudagrass?” Whitlark asked, suggesting a hardier alternative to the existing fairway ryegrass.

Paul nodded. Yet another item on his to-do list.

Photos: An Inside Look at a Course Consulting Service Visit

Golfers take these truths to be self-evident: that teeing grounds should be level; fairways verdant; greens championship-pure and smooth. But they also take for granted how such conditions come about. The healthy and groomed surfaces that players have come to expect are the result of countless hours of labor and tough decision-making, from battles with everything from Mother Nature to trampling cart traffic and strict budgetary constraints. The tireless work falls largely to the game’s unsung heroes: superintendents and their crews. But the tasks are often more than even they can handle.

That’s where the USGA comes in.

Through the efforts of its Green Section, which was founded in 1920, golf’s governing body is long established as one of the world’s leading agencies devoted to course maintenance, management and sustainability. The legacy that Gross, Whitlark and their regional agronomist colleagues uphold dates to 1953, when the Green Section began providing an on-site Turf Advisory Service to golf courses across the country. That program evolved into the USGA Course Consulting Service, which brings expanded offerings and expertise to meet the ever-shifting needs of golf course owners and operators.

Every year, through the Course Consulting Service, USGA agronomists visit more than 1,200 courses from coast to coast, working in concert with those facilities on issues that affect playability, operational efficiency and environmental sustainability. Seasoned consultants untethered to any outside commercial interests, USGA agronomists also serve as unbiased sounding boards and support systems. They’re on hand to lend an ear as well an informed opinion, and to help build consensus on critical decisions among key golf course personnel. The cost of a visit is typically repaid many times over in the resulting savings on labor, equipment and materials.

“These guys see more courses and keep up with the latest science in ways that I never possibly could,” Paul said. “I know I can trust their recommendations, and that I can count on their support when I have to go to my bosses and tell them the things that we really ought to do.”

As a man tasked with caring for a city-owned course, Paul faces a host of challenges that ring familiar at municipal layouts everywhere. Among them: a modest budget and a high volume of play. Throw in California’s recent devastating drought, which has ravaged even deep-pocketed facilities throughout the state, and the last few years have not been easy.

With guidance from Gross and Whitlark, Paul has weathered the trying times and kept Los Lagos in laudable condition, all the while looking toward the future. He has drawn up plans to remove a modest area of irrigated turf as a water-saving measure, and implemented more aggressive aeration and topdressing programs to promote robust fairways and greens.

“It may sound simple, but at a lot of busy courses, the inclination is often to say let’s do less of this or that, either to cut costs or to avoid inconveniencing golfers,” Whitlark said. “So that’s often one of our take-home messages: these cultural practices are important, and you really want to take the long-term view.”

Late morning had given way to early afternoon, but Whitlark, Gross and Paul were still hard at it, walking the entire layout in reverse. As they strolled and chatted, other issues surfaced in their conversation. The bunkers, for instance. There are 45, in total, on the par-68 Los Lagos course; ideally, Paul said, he’d like to remove roughly half of them, partly to reduce maintenance costs but also to improve pace of play. Gross and Whitlark didn’t disagree.

“So much of it comes down to priorities,” said Gross, the regional director of the USGA Green Section’s West Region. “You can come up with a wish list, but you also have to consider what you might realistically get done.”

More: How CCS visits can improve pace of play

As the two USGA agronomists saw it, there was room for even more ambitious turf removal. Up to 10 additional irrigated acres could be torn up, specifically around the tees. The project would take time and money, as well as a more targeted sprinkler system.

“But when you look at the long-term benefits, it’s pretty much a no-brainer,” Whitlark said.

They were at the fifth hole now, a par 3 with a small, distressed patch at the front of its green. The likely culprit: a clogged drainpipe.

It was something to be dealt with, but not today. A more pressing topic was the fairways. Whitlark brought up bermudagrass again, a sturdy, drought and salt-tolerant turf that he believed was better suited to Los Lagos than ryegrass, given the climate and the crowded tee sheets. The bermudagrass could be introduced in strips, and within a year or two, it would take over on its own, a natural transition to a more sustainable strain.

Paul nodded agreement, looking pensive. In his line of work, there was always something. He was still absorbed in thought a short while later when a group of three golfers ambled by, pulling their clubs on trolleys on their way to the green. Paul looked up and waved. The golfers waved back, one of them shouting out a salutation that sounded even sweeter than a well-struck drive.

“Course is looking great!” he said.

Josh Sens is a California-based freelance writer.

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