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Case Study: The No-Mow Experiment at Hidden Falls June 5, 2015 | Marble Falls, Texas By Kevin Robbins

By ceasing maintenance of little-used areas of their golf course, Hidden Falls Golf Club dramatically improved their financial outlook. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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. 

The process of deciding which areas weren't essential for maintenance included golfers carrying GPS trackers during their rounds. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

“If it slows down play, we just compromised another of our initiatives,” said Jim Moore, the director of Green Section Education for the USGA. “The key is to identify the areas that are not in play for most golfers. The GPS data loggers take the guesswork out of how the players actually use the course, allowing the facility to make the most of its available resources while also improving the golfer experience.”

The situation at Hidden Falls isn’t without other complications. The city of Meadowlakes (population 1,800) bought the course seven years ago so it would have a place to dispose of its effluent (recycled) water. That means the course has a reliable water source throughout the year – a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless at certain times of the year.

The robust springtime rains in Texas are enough to keep the course healthy and green. But Kizer and his crews still have to unload the effluent water from nearby tanks. That creates situations like one it faced recently, in which the ground was so wet Kizer could not operate his mowers. The vegetation grew so high that the Meadowlakes Property Owners Association, which surrounds the course, dispatched a letter. The association complained that Hidden Falls had violated the ordinance restricting “noxious weeds” to 12 inches.

Kizer waited for the ground to dry, then mowed the growth in three days. The association was satisfied. And now, as another dry summer approaches, the maintenance staff prepares for another round of targeted watering and hopes for sporadic rainfall.

The no-mow concept at Hidden Falls is perfectly suited for regions such as central Texas, where critical water sources such as Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan languish at 39 percent capacity and the crippling drought enters its seventh historic year.

Forty-eight miles east of Hidden Falls, the six municipal courses in Austin have begun sampling traffic with GPS trackers. Those courses, which see an average of 32,000 rounds a year, survive on an enterprise fund, meaning the city golf division can spend only what it earns. For green fees to remain affordable, every expenditure matters.

“What we’re noticing is the importance of mowing time,” said Kevin Gomillion, who manages the City of Austin golf division. “It’s not so much about conservation. Sometimes, it’s about cost.”

Sometimes, it’s about simply doing the right thing. The staff at Hidden Falls wants to convince its loyal players – members and daily-fee golfers alike – that a golf course with fewer maintained areas can be good for the health of the club, good for the surrounding environment and good for the game. That may be tricky at first.

“They’re going to see the tall grass and think the worst,” said Wilson. “They’re going to lose a few golf balls they didn’t used to lose. But at least their golf course is open.”

Kevin Robbins is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas in Austin.

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