Course superintendents are benefitting from advancements in artificial intelligence and GPS that are putting technologies such as drones, self-driving mowers and wireless soil sensors in their hands
Over the past century, the role of a golf course superintendent has continued to evolve. While the prime responsibility is for the overall maintenance and management of a golf course, financial implications and technological advances have forced superintendents to become resource managers much more than laborers and administrators working on turfgrass care, irrigation systems, pest control and landscaping.
A superintendent, part artist and part scientist, strives to ensure that the course is in excellent condition and provides a high-quality playing surface for golfers, but resource control is now a crucial consideration.
Water conservation is a key component in effective golf course management and technological advancements have already provided massive help in this area, thanks to innovations such as satellite-controlled watering systems, triplex mowers, aerators and lasers.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. More recent technological developments in artificial intelligence and GPS have sparked great enthusiasm within the industry because of what is now possible.
As superintendents plan what actions to take, they are increasingly relying on self-driving mowers, wireless soil and turf sensors, and drones to help them offset labor scarcity and receive the best possible information about which areas of a golf course are in most need of irrigation.
All of this comes with the backdrop of a $30-million, 15-year water conservation investment announced by the United States Golf Association in April 2023.
In a long-term bid to make the game more sustainable, the USGA has pledged to advance underused strategies and technologies beyond those that golf course operators have implemented to reduce water consumption by 29% over the past 15 years. This commitment is focused on irrigation optimization and advanced conservation innovation, as well as on water sourcing and storage for golf courses and communities throughout the country, since water is the game's most vital resource and one that has become increasingly regulated and impacted by cost and availability concerns.
"This is not about mandates, but an important call to action to the golf industry to work together towards a common goal," says Matt Pringle, managing director of the USGA Green Section. "We are focused on providing a set of tools that an individual golf course can use to conserve water by as much as 45 percent or probably even more, depending on the individual circumstances of the golf course. When we talk about advancing underused strategies, the three that I single out are reducing turf, turf conversion and the use of sub-surface drip irrigation.
"But we are very conscious of not trying to sign an individual superintendent to a goal that isn't in line with their course's needs. It's really being able to say to any golf course superintendent, 'Hey, if you need or want to reduce water consumption, the USGA and our partners are working together on a set of options and tools for you.'"
Agronomists and turf-care experts from the USGA Green Section are spearheading this multi-million-dollar initiative in collaboration with university researchers, golf course owners, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, regional golf associations, architects, industry partners and water agencies.
The likelihood of overall success will be greatly boosted by the impact of technology to support the traditional water conservation efforts already adopted by the USGA and their partners.
"In many parts of the country, water is an incredibly existential issue," Pringle says. "If the spigot was ever turned off, golf as we know it just wouldn't exist. But in a large part of the country, the biggest issue facing superintendents and general managers of golf courses is labor. Autonomy, and especially autonomous mowing, is certainly an approach to addressing that issue. From a water conservation perspective, we are applying emerging technologies. We deploy a USGA GPS Service where we send out loggers to courses for golfers to carry in their pockets while they play. We're not tracking them in real time, we're just collecting a heat map of where golfer traffic is to help inform where there are opportunities for turf reduction.
"We also rely on many types of geo-spatial mapping data of the golf course in conjunction with player traffic, in conjunction with the goals of the architect and what kind of product the golf course is trying to present to its members. All of these technologies help inform turf reduction opportunities, help inform areas of under or over-irrigation that can then be fed back to the redesigns or updating of the irrigation structure. One more example — sprayers are now coming with GPS devices, whether that's self-drive or to direct the nozzles to turn on and off, and those are contributing to 20-30 percent reductions in the consumption of chemicals."
Autonomous machines have been used in large-scale agriculture for several years, and the golf industry is now seeing an increasing amount of self-driving mowers cutting grass on fairways and greens across the globe.
The biggest challenges have been the quality of cut (reel mowers tend to be better than rotary-style mowers) and the price point can vary massively from $6,000 to more than $200,000. The decision on whether to use self-driving mowers hinges on cost-benefit analysis, given that the fundamental rationale for using the autonomous option is to overcome staffing challenges and rising labor costs.
The use of drones is also on the rise, to help identify which areas of a golf course need more irrigation than others.
GreenSight, a Boston-based company that specializes in robotics, analytics and automation, operates daily drone flights for golf courses all over the United States. Imagery and real-time data captured from just one hour of flying time can give golf course superintendents vital information about plant health and which parts of the course are dry, compact, wet or average.
And then there is the benefit of state-of-the-art wireless soil and turf sensors. Companies like GroundWorx have been using technology and a proprietary infrastructure to help superintendents monitor more effectively salinity, temperature and moisture levels across the entire golf course.
Optimal success is achieved by implementing all four of the technologies offered by GroundWorx — a wireless soil sensor, a micro weather station, a handheld spot-check device and an alerts dashboard.
David Yanez, director of agronomy and golf superintendent at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar in San Diego, has been using the GroundWorx GX-1 soil sensor since early 2021.
"From May to December of 2021, we saw a reduction of 24 million gallons of water based on our history of water use in previous years, and we saved about $135,000, which was a 29% decrease in costs," Yanez says. "I'm always looking at the data ... to see where we're at moisture-wise, and then I make decisions on what we're going to do for irrigation based off the information that's coming in from the sensors."
Soil and turf sensors, drones and self-driving mowers are already making a significant impact on water conservation and golf course management. So where do things go from here and what is the likely landscape in this space 15 years from now?
Enter iGolf, a collaborator with the USGA for almost a decade and a brand which has established a strong global presence in golf data mapping spanning more than 20 years and is specifically focused on providing the golf technology sector with advancements in software, hardware and GPS content.
"We're still a ways from autonomous mowers fully handling golf course greens, but the technology will continue shaping the future over the next decade," says Brian Verdugo, iGolf's CEO and founder. "Environmentally, there is also the push towards electric mowers and away from gas-powered vehicles — but these are still technological-challenged from a battery-storage standpoint, and there is still a need to fine-tune the accuracy of these devices."
While drones are already helping superintendents identify which areas of a golf course need more irrigation than others, Verdugo sees this technology as being more of a long-term opportunity.
"We're still a long way from optimal use regarding drones, and there are also understandable safety concerns and standard regulatory issues," Verdugo explains. "All that to say, we're on a progression where we're about 10 years out from realistically seeing golf courses using autonomous drones consistently."
Artificial intelligence, by understanding patterns and behavior, will increasingly make more detailed recommendations to superintendents on how to improve efficiency and thereby drive costs down for the golf course management industry, says Verdugo.
"The more sensors golf courses can afford to implement and deploy, the sooner we'll see developers and companies with the ability to digest the data and produce detailed reports," Verdugo adds. "The more hardware we see utilized on golf courses, the more software we'll see developed to support the initiative – resulting in a greater reliance on this type of technology to utilize resources more efficiently. That should have everyone feeling optimistic and excited for what's in store."