Precision Irrigation - The Key To Firm And Fast Playing Conditions

By Larry Gilhuly and Derf Soller, Agronomists, Northwest Region
August 6, 2010

There is no question that the duel at Sahalee Country Club for the U.S. Senior Open was a great golf competition, but the story behind the scenes is how Superintendent Rich Taylor and his staff took a golf course to near-perfect firm and fast playing conditions for seven straight days.  Competitors were treated to a consistent playing surface, with green speeds each day in the 12’6”-12’8” range.  The heavily tree-lined fairways offered the maximum challenge, requiring extremely straight tee shots and irons.  How did they do it?  With precision irrigation practices, also known as good old hand watering. 

Many golfers in the Pacific Northwest have asked, “how did Sahalee withstand reasonably warm weather for Poa annua (high 70’s to mid-80’s), and with so many trees and their corresponding roots, without showing wilt?”  The answer was a committed staff of 31 (Sahalee is a 27-hole facility) combined with an additional 10-15 volunteers in the mornings and evenings.  Those responsible for precision irrigation carefully applied water where needed and when signs of moisture stress began to become visible.  Morning and afternoon applications were made to greens, approaches, tees, fairways and roughs to avoid creating overly-soft playing conditions.  This is in direct contrast to using automatic irrigation heads that, theoretically, apply an equal amount of water over an entire area. Generally, shade patterns, soil/grass types, organic amounts and traffic patterns are not part of the equation.   

A good example of this can be seen in the accompanying photo.  Note that the afternoon shade from this maple extends only to the area that is green.  The brown area is in full afternoon sunlight -- under more stress -- and precision irrigation was definitely needed.  If the automatic irrigation system was used in this situation, the entire green area in the shade of the tree would have been excessively soft.  Mr. Taylor made the correct decision to use the observational skills of the staff, rather than the computer, to create the desired playing conditions with green color as a secondary priority. 

One of the claims sometimes made about the USGA is that we come into a golf course championship site and turn off the water.  Such is not the case.  Rather, the reliance on the automatic irrigation system is drastically reduced or eliminated, and precision irrigation (hand watering) becomes the standard operating procedure.  Water is applied where it is needed, when it is needed, and in the proper amount to avoid excessively wet conditions that negatively impacts the stated goal of ‘firm and fast.’  When Mother Nature cooperates, as she did at Sahalee, the results can be exceptional. 

Many golf courses in the Pacific Northwest have suffered during the recent economic decline, and staff sizes have been diminishing.  Trying to produce fast and firm conditions, similar to the Senior Open, is not possible without a substantial increase in labor necessary for precision hand watering.  At a time when labor has been reduced, don’t make the mistake of trying to compare your golf course irrigation practices with those conducted at a USGA national championship.  If you do, you could get burned! 

Source:  Larry Gilhuly, lgilhuly@usga.org or Derf Soller, dsoller@usga.org
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