skip to main content

Balancing innovations and challenges will certainly set the stage for the USGA Green Section’s next century, but the team is already excited about what they believe will be a productive and ground-breaking next 100 years. The next century will feature new tools and technology, new grasses, and new concepts – all designed to link the agronomy, management, and sustainability of golf courses to the USGA’s continued goal of enhanced golfer experience.

“We have a very strong record over the last 100 years of supporting the industry and certainly, we’re going to continue to be a rock of stability for the next century,” said Green Section Managing Director, Matt Pringle, Ph.D. “It’s not easy to reduce the consumption of critical resources while also delivering a high-quality experience for golfers, but our team’s mission is to make sure that golfers are having the best experience they can have on the golf course,” Pringle added.

Pringle’s role will be to guide the leadership and implementation of the Green Section’s research, tools and technology, course consulting, education and outreach, and championship agronomy programs.

Already, those USGA programs are cooperatively intertwined, extending science-based, site-specific consultation to golf courses throughout the nation, while utilizing cutting-edge tools, data and agronomic options.

In turn, superintendents gain knowledge and techniques on how to make their golf courses more viable, while also better enabling their facilities to be viewed for stewardship and as a community asset by both golfers and non-golfers.

The Green Section’s education and outreach program delivers both technical and non-technical information. It publishes materials for superintendents to receive current updates on research, best-management practices, agronomic breakthroughs or information on such concerns as drought, aeration and disease.

For non-technical outreach, their content provides explanations of on-course maintenance strategies and how changes could impact a course’s budget or green fees. “A big part of what we’re trying to do with our education program is to get information out there to our key audiences that help them either improve the way they maintain the course or provide a better understanding of the realities of course maintenance,” said Adam Moeller, director of education and outreach.

“Sometimes, the public perception of what golf courses should look like or how they should play is based on courses seen on TV,” added Moeller. “That is just not reality most of the time because those tournament courses on TV have been maintained to peak for certain events.”

The Green Section education program also refocused video content production to offer newcomers to the game welcoming tips for such things as repairing ball marks on the green. Rather than calling these actions “etiquette” – a term not readily embraced by today’s players – the approach was changed to simply inform the golfer that “this action is the best way to do things, and here’s why,” Moeller said.

A recent ball-mark repair video was widely viewed and that softer approach will be used to launch additional how-to content in the new year, both in video format and in shorter written form. “I think our biggest innovation in education will be how we’re going to get our information out, while our greatest challenge will be capturing people’s attention span in the digital world and understanding our reach and impact,” Moeller added.

The Green Section’s education program also works hard to influence golfer expectations for things like bunker preparation, which can have a big impact on the maintenance budget.

“We’ve reached a point where golfers are expecting consistency in bunkers and it’s just not possible,” said Moeller. “Some courses spend more money on bunkers per square foot than on greens, so to deemphasize bunker perfection is only going to help courses reallocate resources and produce better playing conditions for greens, fairways and tees.”

Looking ahead, the Green Section staff understands the importance of using science, data, innovation and technology to help golf courses make impactful decisions on many levels that lead to golfer satisfaction and retention in the game. The team focus of research, tools and agronomic course consulting is poised to benefit golf right down to the roots of the more than 40 new cultivars of grass that already have been developed by USGA-funded research during the first century of the Green Section.

One future challenge, they admit, will be to get golf course decision makers to adopt and utilize the technologies and strategies the USGA has developed. Traditional methodology often takes time to change.

“It wasn’t too long ago that many golf courses were irrigated by feel with superintendents doing what they thought it took to keep the course conditions ideal,” said Cole Thompson, Ph.D., director of turfgrass and environmental research.

Droughts in the 1970s and ‘80s ushered in breeding of more drought-tolerant and resource-efficient grasses, as well as irrigation systems that now schedule irrigation requirements based on weather data. Soil moisture sensors and other portable tools can now collect and transmit data to computers, sprayers, irrigation systems and automated equipment.

“In the future, decisions may be increasingly based on the collected data,” added Thompson. “That’s a definite frontier.” Thompson also believes the USGA’s turfgrass breeding program will step into its next frontier using genomic tools to alter grasses that will respond predictably, based on their genetics. In addition, the research program will explore microbial communities in the soil – such as bacteria and fungi – and their effects on plants.

“We still need to learn how our management strategies affect those communities and what else they can deliver to help us push resource efficiency even further,” Thompson said.

Technological tools already have effectively worked in synch with agronomic advances. The USGA Deacon App, for example, offers a cloud-based platform to help golf course managers and decision-makers look at how their resources are being deployed on the course, along with how various maintenance practices influence the performance of the putting greens.

USGA Surface Management helps superintendents manage key variables and performance indicators like green speed, firmness and soil moisture, while the USGA’s GPS Service allows courses to track golfer traffic patterns to better understand where to allocate resources.

“We continue to look at ways to help golf facility managers understand the performance of their surfaces, and in 2021, we hope to launch a new device to help measure the performance of many different playing surfaces,” said Scott Mingay, director of products. “It’s going to be a game changer and we think it will help us directly tie the golfer experience into the maintenance practices we use.”

Challenges will continue to include the cost of labor, the cost and availability of water in parts of the country, regulations on water and nutrient use, and even the prospect of greater automation.

“Some of the challenges will be balanced through continued innovation with better turfgrasses,” said Chris Hartwiger, director of the USGA’s Course Consulting Service. “This program makes a team of agronomists available for on-site visits to courses nationwide, offering site-specific recommendations to maximize playing conditions based on the resources available for maintenance.”

“The more we can do to promote efficiency and to use fewer resources, the more golf can be economically accessible to a wider range of people,” said Hartwiger.

Automation technology already exists in agriculture, but if manufacturers are able to produce cost-efficient technology for the golf industry, Hartwiger could see more automation in golf course maintenance.

“The envelope is already being pushed to get more done with fewer people,” he said. “Automated mowers are likely to be used more in the future, but maybe some of the new grasses being introduced won’t require as much mowing, which could lessen the demand for automation.”

The impact of increased hitting distance in golf and what that means for future golf course construction, as well as future USGA championships, has been another key focus heading into the next century. Today’s top players and modern equipment have challenged traditional course distances, while at the same time, new construction of longer courses may not offer the most inviting experience for average golfers. Longer courses also tend to be larger courses, which can mean higher development and maintenance costs, and higher green fees.

“Our research in the Distance Insights Project is focused on the aspects of the golfer experience and the aspects of the golf course that interact with distance,” said David Pierce, director of research and operations for the Green Section. “That may include design, course setup, course conditions and multiple tee options.”

Darin Bevard, director of championship agronomy, understands the role that distance plays in USGA championships. And while he acknowledges that 8,000-yard courses are possible, he also adds that longer courses with harder setups are not the goal for championships.

“The goal is to make the golf course strategic,” said Bevard. “With Distance Insights, we are learning how agronomy affects hitting distance and that will help us make decisions and look differently at course setup.”

Future USGA championships will be guided by institutional agronomic expertise to use less water and improved varieties of turfgrasses to achieve optimal playing conditions, Bevard added. “This is a time when we’re trying to reduce the use of water and chemicals on golf courses, so while I’m not going to say that we can’t build longer courses, I don’t think that’s the way to go moving forward,” he said.

When asked what he thought superintendents 100 years ago would think of today’s course conditions, Pringle believes they would be surprised at the high quality of playing surfaces available to all players.

And when he looks ahead to the Green Section’s next century, Pringle believes that golfers can look forward to playing rounds at the “right level of challenge, in the right amount of time to play, and on a playing surface that is attractive and fits into the natural environment.”

“I want golfers to have confidence they are playing on a course that’s not wasting water or overusing nutrients and pesticides. I also want golfers to have a course available to them at a price they can afford that provides an enjoyable golf experience for everyone, so that people feel comfortable taking up the game and can enjoy it throughout their lives,” Pringle added. “I think the Green Section can be a wonderful partner in doing that,” he said.

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.