The USGA has always been at the forefront of scientific research and intricate if not sometimes arcane history. If you want to run down a rabbit hole of info on the four U.S. Opens played at Myopia Hunt Club before 1910, or deep-dive into data-driven analysis on spin ratios, moments of inertia or the evolution of mowing patterns, Golf House is the place to go. But for many years people on the frontlines of the golf industry – golf course owners, architects, superintendents and professionals – have felt disconnected from the USGA’s services. Million-dollar ad campaigns to combat slow play are nice, but they don’t help the average course owner fill his Tuesday tee sheet.
Well, today’s USGA executives have taken notice. And in recent years, the folks in Far Hills have taken a more assertive role in solving real-world problems. For example, the Girls Golf initiative organized by the USGA and the LPGA has boosted entry-level participation among junior girls to record highs.
Now the association is taking its efforts directly to course owners with an initiative called “Driving Golf Forward,” an in-the-trenches helping hand that, for some, could be a business-saving lifeline.
The USGA’s most immediate and dramatic impact of this new program could come from something called the Resource Management Tool. It is a computer modeling program – a simulator of sorts – that identifies the lowest and highest traffic areas on a golf course and allows owners to run simulations of different maintenance practices to see how much money they can save. For example, if a bunker is never in play, the tool shows the owner how much it costs to take it out and how much can be saved by no longer maintaining it. If an area of the course is not in play, the program shows the owner how much money he will save on water, labor and chemicals if he converts it to native grass or ground cover.
“It’s even more intuitive than that,” said Matt Pringle, the USGA’s senior director for Research, Science and Innovation. “You might have an area that you’re maintaining as fairway but the tool shows you that nobody is going there. So you might want to convert it to low-maintenance rough.
“With a drop-down box (on your computer) you can convert that area from fairway to rough. And then either using your own data or some aggregate data that we supply, you will instantly see what that (change) means in terms of dollars, hours of labor, gallons of water, nutrient application … everything.”
The program also takes guesswork out of what areas are in play. For participating clubs, the USGA sends “loggers,” small GPS devices about the size of computer memory sticks, that calculate where golfers go on your course.
“We like to get it to 200 people,” Pringle said of the sampling. “That allows you to get (the logger sticks) into the hands of men and women, long hitters and short hitters, walkers and riders, a good mix.”
It also provides a large enough sample size to extrapolate meaningful data on a universe of players.
“You’d need an assistant pro handing out these tiny little loggers on the first tee,” Pringle said. “Then you collect them (after the round), put them in a box and send them to the USGA. We’ll map out the patterns for you. It’s really neat.
“We work with a partner that has mapped most of the golf courses in the U.S.” Pringle added. “So I would be shocked if your golf course wasn’t already mapped. Then we start you off with some reasonable (aggregate) numbers (for your area). That would allow you, right away, to look at the effects of whatever changes you’re considering.
“The perfect scenario would be for an owner to call one of our regional agronomists. As part of our course consulting services, (the USGA agronomy expert) can provide ideas on how to repurpose certain (low traffic) areas taking them from high-maintenance to low-maintenance. The tool allows (owners) to see it and to put dollars and cents to it. You’ll know approximately how much you will save and in what areas (you will save it) before making your decision.”
USGA Green Section agronomists always have been around. But this sort of tangible tool providing information about potential real-world savings is quite different from the white papers and marketing campaigns normally associated with the USGA.
“Our agronomists have been using it and we’ve had it in a handful of clubs, beta testers if you will,” Pringle said. “And several architects are using it. (In the past several months) more than 100 golf course (owners) have made data-driven decisions (based on this tool in its beta phase).
“The tool gives you information on every single resource you use on the golf course – water, nutrients, pesticides, labor – whatever you want to put into the tool, that’s what you’ll get out of it.”
Wide release is expected this season. And the impact on the industry could be dramatic.
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