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Key Takeaways

  • An increasing number of superintendents are incorporating data collection into their putting green management program.
  • There are some misconceptions about the time and effort involved with collecting and recording putting green data and the value of the data for improving management decisions and playing conditions.
  • Superintendents have found that data collection takes minimal effort and adds very little time to the daily routine.
  • For superintendents who collect data, the information gained is a critical tool for managing greens and communicating with golfers and decision-makers.
  • A comprehensive data collection program may not be practical for some courses, but quantifying key aspects of putting green performance has proven well worth the effort for those who give it a try.

I remember the first time I saw a moisture meter on a golf course. As a seasoned hose dragger, I was particularly curious and pondered its potential to make my life easier. Still, I was skeptical about this new technology – after all, a quick look at our typically dry greens sometime around lunch seemed to work fine for letting us know if it was time to start hand watering. It wasn’t until I gave it a try as part of our moisture management program that I realized the value of this new tool. This sentiment about the now-ubiquitous moisture meter is not unlike skepticism occasionally heard today about measuring clipping volume and other forms of putting green data collection. What will I do with the data? We don’t have time to collect data. My greens are great, why change anything? These are valid considerations, but the trend certainly seems to point toward increasing use of data collection and analysis in golf course management. Superintendents that commit to data collection preach the return on investment from spending just a little extra time and effort collecting putting green management data like green speed, clipping volume, firmness and percent organic matter. So why is there still resistance in the industry and can we address some of those concerns?

Our USGA agronomists recently asked some superintendents who haven’t considered data collection, or were hesitant to give it a try, what their reasoning was. Some responses were expected and some were slightly surprising, but it also became apparent that there are misconceptions about what is required to gather meaningful data and the potential impact this information can have on putting green management. We heard several of the same questions and concerns repeatedly and our hope is that by highlighting and addressing them, we can provide some insight into the process of data collection and analysis and explain the potential benefits. Let’s look at some of the key issues that are keeping superintendents from collecting data for putting green management and see if we can put some of those concerns to rest.

I just don’t have time

In today’s world of labor shortages and packed golf courses, most maintenance teams are already stressed for time, so hesitation about adding data collection into the mix is understandable. This was by far the most common concern so it’s crucial to delve into the time commitment involved with data collection.

Jared Nemitz, director of golf course and grounds at the Ford Field and River Club in Savannah, Georgia, started collecting and analyzing putting green surface management data over 14 years ago on ultradwarf bermudagrass greens. He emphasizes how it wouldn’t be possible without the maintenance team’s cooperation. Nemitz explained that, “When you create the process, you get the whole team involved and it takes very little time at that point. Everybody on staff knows their role. The mowing team measures the clippings and relays the data to our first assistant who plugs the numbers into the spreadsheet, adds a few notes – like how many times did you cut it – and it’s done.”

A key reason why many superintendents worry about data collection involving a significant time commitment is the misconception that you need to measure something like clipping volume every day from every green to obtain useful information. You can certainly do that, and it’s interesting to see that data, but a daily process on every green may not be practical for some courses. Collecting clipping volume or green speed from select greens on certain days to observe trends in putting green response to various practices and inputs can still be extremely valuable and it will require less time. A common approach is to collect data from one or more “average” greens along with the best- or worst-performing greens, or even just from a green close to the shop to make it easier to record the data.

Nemitz has noticed that it becomes second nature for staff to record clipping volume for their allotted greens. “They do it themselves – they’re mowing the greens and dumping baskets anyway, so it adds very little time,” he said. In over a decade of data collection Nemitz has never found it burdensome. He reports that the whole process takes from five to 10 minutes per day – time that he has found to be well worth it for the valuable information generated. Skipping unnecessary practices or applications adds up to significant time savings, especially when the maintenance team is already stretched thin. The time invested in data collection pays for itself quickly considering the time and money that is saved on labor, fuel and other inputs that aren’t providing any significant benefits.

What will I do with all that data?

This question came up often among superintendents who aren’t currently collecting putting green management data. When addressing it, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s no standard method for collecting data. Some superintendents collect lots of data while others focus on one or two key metrics – it all depends on priorities. A useful way to get started is to think about what’s important to you and your golfers. Is trying to save time and money the primary concern? Are you looking to achieve certain playability goals? Answering these questions will allow you to focus data collection on your most important management considerations.

Beyond helping superintendents make decisions and refine their management plan, one of the most important benefits of data collection is improved communication. “Superintendents have a lot of pressure on them to justify costs – the economics of greenkeeping,” said Nemitz. Trying to identify what can be cut or what maintenance a course can do without is a popular exercise in green committee or stakeholder meetings at courses everywhere – a point Nemitz also emphasized in a panel discussion on data management at the 2022 Golf Course Superintendents Association of America Conference and Trade Show. Superintendents are also continually trying to make improvements in their operation, which sometimes means asking for additional investment from the facility. These conversations are much more productive when they’re guided by data. “When you come to a meeting with all your data – exactly how many times you cut and rolled greens, clipping volume, how much sand you put on, cultural practices and how much each cost – it no longer becomes a guessing game,” said Nemitz. “When you have numbers and you can show exactly how much each practice or input costs, and the direct impact it has on putting green performance, it makes it a lot harder on them to take things away from you.”

This information also makes it much easier to explain the potential benefits of investing in new equipment, additional staffing or infrastructure improvements. Showing the time, money and playability metrics associated with various practices and highlighting the potential savings or improvements that could come with changes is a powerful tool. It takes the complex world of agronomy and golf course management and puts it into terms that golfers and facility managers can readily understand and relate to.

Nathan Hagel, superintendent at Mount Paul Golf Course in Kamloops, British Columbia, is relatively new to data collection, but measuring clipping volume each morning has already had an impact on how he manages the mixed bentgrass and Poa annua putting greens. “We have limited fungicides and plant growth regulators available to us in Canada, with more on the chopping block, so managing putting green growth and plant health through nitrogen applications is necessary. Collecting clipping volume daily is how we do it,” explained Hagel.

Like many other superintendents, he took part in casual data collection by looking in mower baskets, but two years ago he decided to take a formal approach. He uses an Excel spreadsheet that tracks clipping volume and estimates the amount of nitrogen removed via clippings. “I’ve found targeting nitrogen rates that replace what’s removed by clippings works well for us,” Hagel said. Clipping volume data has given him insight into how nitrogen application rates and timing affect his putting green growth and helps him achieve more consistent growth with less inputs. The biggest impact has been on nitrogen applications. “I’ve reduced the amount of nitrogen I apply by nearly 50%, but we’ve also reduced Poa annua populations significantly and lowered disease pressure – all with no negative impact to putting green quality,” said Hagel, a self-described “modest-budget superintendent.” With current fertilizer, chemical and labor costs the positive impact on Mount Paul’s maintenance budget can’t be overstated.

My greens are fine, why change anything?

One comment we often heard from those with reservations about data collection is that their greens are doing just fine and they don’t know if the benefits will be worth the time and effort. Our answer would be that there is always the possibility your greens can be even better, or you might be able to achieve the same putting green quality with less inputs. One of the primary reasons superintendents stick with data collection is because it improved their putting green performance and/or maintenance efficiency – even if they weren’t sure it would help at first.

Jared Nemitz isn’t alone in observing meaningful playability benefits from data collection. Many other courses that are pleased with their putting green performance are collecting data and find it worthwhile, especially for improving maintenance efficiency. At Cascata Golf Club in Boulder City, Nevada, director of golf course maintenance Scott Delpiere already had his bentgrass greens in great shape when he began collecting data. At certain times, it seemed that time-consuming maintenance practices and costly inputs weren’t significantly improving playability, so he sought a way to quantify putting green growth and performance. He now relies on green speed and clipping volume data to make better-informed maintenance decisions. “I can skip a mow, a roll or even both and still get the same putting quality and green speed as if both practices had taken place together,” said Delpiere. Clipping volume and green speed data help him decide whether to mow or roll with complete confidence. Cascata is also not immune to the labor and material cost challenges facing the industry and skipping unnecessary maintenance allows Delpiere to redirect resources to other tasks. It also reduces unnecessary wear and tear on equipment and putting green turf, which can lead to better playing conditions and lower maintenance costs.

Green speed isn’t my highest priority

While the exact green speed number on a given day might not be of particular concern to many golfers, regular players at a course likely notice inconsistencies in speed and variations in putting green performance. They may also be aware of how the greens at your course compare to others in the area and they almost certainly notice what they pay for a round and whether putting green maintenance disrupts playability or access to the course. Some level of golfer awareness regarding green speed, firmness and trueness is a reality that most golf courses have to accept and maintaining the best conditions possible within the budget should be something all courses are striving for, regardless of the resources available. Measuring clipping volume, green speed and other characteristics offers an objective way to consistently provide the putting green conditions and speed that are ideal for your golf course and budget. This information can also help you field questions about green speed should they arise – and they inevitably do.

I’m not a data person

Getting started with data collection doesn’t involve buying a new computer or learning statistical software. Most superintendents use some form of spreadsheet program to track their budget or other aspects of the management operation already, so the foundation for collecting and analyzing putting green data is likely there. A productive way to start is by collecting clipping volume or other basic putting green surface measurements and entering the data into whatever spreadsheet program you are familiar with. As discussed earlier, you may already be collecting data without knowing it. For example, many courses check green speeds from time to time, even if they aren’t entering the information into a spreadsheet. The same is true of monitoring data from putting green soil tests. Formalizing the process using some basic software allows you to visualize the data and identify trends or issues – which ultimately leads to making better decisions.

At Mount Paul, Nathan Hagel got started using Excel spreadsheets built by a fellow superintendent. “It really is a simple process – the greens mower measures the clippings in liters, puts the number on a clipboard and they enter it into a spreadsheet when they get back to the shop,” said Hagel. Data collection is made even easier with new programs like the USGA DEACON™ platform, which allows you to quickly enter surface measurements on a mobile device and automatically uploads data so you can see trends in clipping yield, green speed and other metrics in real time. You can also create presentation-quality figures that are invaluable for communicating with decision-makers, golfers and other departments at your course.

Greenkeeping is more art than science

Imagine for a moment you’re at a conference listening to an esteemed plant pathologist present findings from a new fungicide trial. Now imagine someone asked how they knew the product worked and the scientist answered: “Listen, I’ve been doing this a long time, I get out on those research plots and take a look around – I can just tell this product works better than all the other treatments – next question.” Not only is this turf professor’s tenure in jeopardy, their argument isn’t credible without good data.

There are some aspects of putting green management that may always skew toward art rather than science, but in cases where you can put a number on something it usually ends up being beneficial. Every superintendent has looked in a mower basket to judge clipping volume, but there’s a decent chance that your visual assessment won’t match your assistant’s or the mower operator’s, so when you talk with each other about clipping volume you might not be speaking the same language.

Tracking clipping volume and other data collection doesn’t necessarily mean setting “target” numbers and it shouldn’t be the only factor in a superintendent’s decision-making process. The real value is developing a way to consistently and objectively measure how aspects of your program are working, and being able to put that information into terms that people on your team and at the facility can all understand. Take advantage of being able to quantify anything that helps you better manage your greens. Science and data elevate the art of greenkeeping.

"Science and data elevate the art of greenkeeping."

Final thoughts

As more superintendents incorporate data collection into their putting green management program, the process will only get more and more user-friendly. One day, mowers may even measure and report clipping volume automatically. There was skepticism and uncertainty about the moisture meter when it debuted 15 years ago and the same was true of many other practices and tools that are commonplace today. It’s likely that in 15 years we’ll be looking back at putting green data collection in much the same way.

Making evidence-based, data-driven decisions on inputs and cultural practices can take putting green conditions and maintenance efficiency to new heights. If you still have reservations, perhaps the topic is best summed up by renowned 19th-century physicist William Thomson: “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it. When you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.”

John Petrovsky is a manager in the Green Section Education program and a former golf course superintendent.