The staff at Hidden Falls Golf Club no longer mows 42 acres of its course, a measure that has done much more than reduce the club’s water usage and therefore trim expenditures – it has ensured the club’s survival.
The semi-private club in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin faced bleak financial projections last fall. Its membership of 105 and modest daily-fee play would fall short of sustaining the course’s future without dramatic measures. Club administrators thought they had done all they could, short of abandoning essential services.
That’s when superintendent Jamie Kizer and general manager Jeff Wilson redefined “essential.”
The television coverage of the 2014 U.S. Open Championship had highlighted an intriguing and liberating possibility. The restoration of Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, which replaced 650 sprinkler heads and 35 irrigated acres with flowing blankets of scruffy sand and native vegetation, proved the efficacy of eliminating turf and the water required to keep it alive. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the architects of the restoration, wanted to return the course to the look conceived by Donald Ross, but they also tapped into a movement: less (water) is more (quality golf). In drought-hampered Central Texas, that sounded a lot like salvation.
“The timing was perfect,” Wilson said.
Wilson and his staff asked players last fall to carry small GPS trackers in their pockets during their rounds. The data from the trackers showed Wilson and Kizer where players typically would go. Just as importantly, the data informed them where players did not go – a revelation that led to a map created with the help of Brett Briant, the water conservation coordinator for the Lower Colorado River Authority.
Wilson and Kizer studied the map, and saw clearly which parts of their golf course saw little or no activity. Those areas, Kizer determined, could be eliminated from routine maintenance.
Kizer earmarked 42 acres of less traveled areas behind greens, around tees and beyond the typical hooked and sliced shots into the rough. He calculated the costs of maintaining those acres in fuel, labor, equipment and chemical inputs. His conclusion: Hidden Falls could save $40,000 a year by no longer mowing those areas of the 6,732-yard course where few golf balls strayed. The threat of closing abated.
By mid-2015, Hidden Falls already had a dramatically different appearance. Areas once covered with bermudagrass rough were allowed to grow longer, creating contrast and visual definition on the holes. Kizer said he plans to trim the areas monthly at 4 inches. Club officials are still considering options to address the inevitable aggravation from players who lose balls in the longer grass. Among them: adopt a local Rule allowing players to drop with penalty, similar to a lateral hazard.
But the club is sensitive to potential collateral damage. Like other facilities tackling resource management, it needs to weigh the financial benefits of converting turfgrass to native areas against the effect on the golfer experience. If the areas are retained as an integral part of the course, players could spend a lot of time searching for lost balls – significantly impacting pace of play and golfer satisfaction.