These high-tech tools can improve your course

The annual GCSAA Conference and Trade Show showcased the latest equipment that can make any superintendent's job easier

PHOENIX, Arizona — An exhibition of a goose dog herding its targets got plenty of "oohs" and "aahs" from many of the estimated 10,000 attendees at the 2024 GCSAA Convention and Trade Show, but numerous high-tech tools promising valuable feedback on course conditions received more serious attention.

Here are four highlights on the tech side, each of which could prove to be a superintendent’s new best friend.

 2023 GS3 device video shoot
The GS3 device is seen alongside a phone using the Deacon app.

After two years of field testing, the USGA is now selling its GS3 Smartball to golf courses. The rechargeable device — the same size and weight as a golf ball — can be used to calculate green speed, firmness, smoothness and trueness. Those metrics are communicated via the Deacon platform (named in a nod to Arnold Palmer’s father Deacon, a superintendent at Latrobe County Club in Pennsylvania) and used to adjust green conditions.

"We got in 10,000 drops using it during our championships in 2023, so now we’re getting it into the hands of superintendents,” says Matt Pringle, managing director of the USGA Green Section. “The quality of the turf is such a huge driver of the playing experience. At best, the superintendents had the Stimpmeter as a tool to kind of measure some degree of quality, but we think the firmness of the putting surface, how true and smooth it is, is really a better measure than just speed."

Pricing is $2,750 during the first year of use and $1,250 for each additional year. That costs includes a Smartball and an annual Deacon subscription needed to keep the GS3 ball active. Additional GS3 balls cost $1,000 each.

Critical information needed by course superintendents lies just beneath the turf surface. How do they access it? One new tool is the Spiio Soil Sensor, produced in a collaboration between Syngenta and Spiio. The cellular, wireless device, implanted mostly on greens, monitors soil moisture, temperature, light, and salinity. Data is gathered hourly and transmitted five times a day, providing a valuable stream of information to develop precise agronomic programs across the course.

Spiio Soil Sensor.

"Having a better understanding of the conditions you’re coming into at the course every day, or what to anticipate, is very helpful," says Lorabeth Catterson, digital platforms sales specialist, Syngenta. “Our platform allows superintendents to create charts and graphs showing historical data, or look at a specific issue on the front nine or back nine. The sensor is ultimately helping with uniform playing conditions, which is what the golfer wants.”

Sensors ($2,000 per year for four) are leased and come with a data subscription.

Drones aren’t just for cool golf course photos. More superintendents are using them for course management purposes.

GreenSight Drone.

One example is the GreenSight Drone, which flies autonomously and cover up to 150 acres in 30 minutes. It contains three cameras: high resolution, NDVI, and thermal. The drone, now in use at more than 200 courses, usually flies 400 feet above a course while downloading images to the Turf Cloud platform for review via phone, desktop, or even live out on the course via a tablet screen. It can highlight heat and moisture stress points popping up across a course.

“It’s a different way of managing the golf course,” says Jason VanBuskirk, vice president of sales and marketing, and a former superintendent at Stow Acres Country Club in Massachusetts. “When you do this daily, because turf is changing by the hour, you can start to better understand how to treat the course accordingly.”

A three-month drone lease with data subscription service costs $2,000 per month, plus $500 for drone shipment.

Husqvarna Ceora.

The Swedish company Husqvarna was founded in the 17th century, but it created the autonomous mower less than two decades ago. Its latest model in that category is Ceora, currently in use at more than 30 of the top 100 courses in the U.S.

The battery-powered mower, with a range of 1,500 feet, can be used on fairways, rough, approaches, green collars, and short game areas. Superintendents can customize mowing schedules, while ultrasonic sensors recognize objects in the mower’s way.

The Ceora docks and launches itself at charging stations, and a digital platform can be used to manage an entire fleet of these mowers remotely. Most significantly, it uses boundary wire free technology.  The cost of the unit, charging station, and a reference station costs $32,000.

"We don’t look at Ceora as a replacement of labor,” says Jason Connor, director, commercial robotics, Huskqvarna. “The way we like to explain this to a superintendent is if you think about your typical day, there are always things that fall to the bottom of your list of things to do. But mowing can’t stop. This allows them to reallocate their labor and in essence, bring the overall quality of mowing up while also getting to other things they couldn’t previously do.”

GCSAA Conference and Trade Show
A team from Purdue University won the College Turf Bowl, the school's third title since 2021.

> A team from Purdue University won the 30th College Turf Bowl, outscoring 63 other teams from 28 different schools. It was the third title in the last four years for a team from Purdue, which finished runner-up last year.

Members of this year’s winning team, which earned a $4,000 donation to the university’s Turfgrass Management and Science program, included Broden Piel, Jacob Winger, Hayden Flick and Eli Ziliak. The team’s advisor was Dr. Cale Bigelow.

The Turf Bowl Exam consists of a multiple choice and sample identification portions. Teams from defending champion Penn State University finished second, fourth, and fifth this year. Third place honors this year went to a team from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

> The GCSAA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), received a $50,000 grant from The Toro Company Foundation for continued support of the Rounds 4 Research (R4R) in 2024.

The program is designed to address a critical shortage in turfgrass research funding by auctioning donated rounds of golf online. The program allows GCSAA chapters and turfgrass foundations to participate as fundraising partners and direct the proceeds from auctioned rounds to specific projects that will have the most significant impact in their local areas.

Since its launch in 2012, Rounds 4 Research has raised more than $3 million. This year’s auction will be held April 22-28.

> Jeff L. White, superintendent at Indian Hills Country Club in Mission Hills, Kansas, was elected to a one-year term as the 87th president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. White, a 33-year member of the GCSAA, served as vice president of the association in 2023 and has been a member of the association’s board of directors since 2018.