Technology in 2022 includes in-ground moisture meters, data products, irrigation software, drones, metrics, task-oriented platforms, mobile grow lights, apps that simulate shade, software for growing degree days, a variety of ways to learn about the weather and so much more, like autonomous mowing machines. A convenient method for manufacturing clouds or a self-repairing green would be fabulous but let’s examine two real blossoming technologies, in and on the ground.
Originally designed for living green walls, Spiio’s moisture sensors are being used at nearly 500 golf courses worldwide, as well as at about 75 colleges, universities and professional sports venues. The sensors help with water conservation, precision irrigation and in-ground data that tracks moisture, temperature and salinity.
The sensors are quick to install, taking literally a few minutes to place and connect online. Currently on the market are the SP-110s, the second iteration of this product. “We rebuilt and improved the moisture sensor in this version and we also moved from 3G to 5G,” giving the product fast and vast accessibility, says Dave Latshaw, Spiio’s national sales manager.The sensors transmit data every five hours and the newly released Spiio dashboard is more detailed. The dashboard can show a geospatial display that can be layered with AutoCAD drawings and weather satellite imagery. Based on sensor data the app can send push notifications and alerts. Users can build different irrigation profiles for a variety of grass and soil types, all to help agronomists provide the best conditions on course for resource efficiency and playability.
Tim Huber, the director of agronomy for The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas, started the property with a few sensors, moved to 20 and is planning to use as many as 180 in 2022. “The installation process is not difficult,” he says. “Deciding where to place the sensors and how you want to use the data before set up is important. It’s a good idea to do some data entry for each sensor before you get in the field.”
The Club at Carlton Woods has two championship courses, designed by Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus, in addition to state-of-the-art teaching facilities. “Data collection from the sensors is great because it happens automatically and at the same location, every day, without fail,” Huber says. “We have baseline information so our team can compare areas. We can look at current or past data to see trends for our main concerns, mostly moisture and soil temperature. It’s the way of the future. The energy the Spiio team has matches the urgency of the need to conserve water. Superintendents are sound environmentalists and stewards of resources, and these sensors are an affordable way to help achieve greater water savings and better playability.”
The sensors are best placed in the root zone. They need to be accommodated for during certain maintenance practices, such as aerating, but they can be temporarily moved or avoided. The SP-110s last five years and the value of data being recorded consistently cannot be underestimated. It doesn’t matter who is at the course, or what’s happening, that data is always going to be there for the person in charge. That data is more reliable than how things look, won’t disrupt play the way that manual readings might and can help not only conserve water but can reduce irrigation-related labor.
There are videos and articles online to learn more about Spiio and how the installation works. “We follow up and 24/7 customer support is available,” Latshaw says. “Spiio helps with large installations or clients can call the tech team to schedule a time.” Spiio’s customers are largely in the southwest, but users throughout the U.S. and internationally are benefiting from this in-ground technology.
Let’s check what’s happening on the surface …
Deacon is an online platform, developed by the USGA and already helping more than 100 properties. It has three main uses: a GPS service, association licensing and surface management. The GPS service enables courses to analyze golfer traffic to determine where managed turf can be reduced. Association licensing creates precise hole-location printouts. The surface management platform provides a centralized way to record data and see how agronomic practices affect playing surfaces.
Deacon began as a concept conceived several years ago by Jim Moore, a USGA agronomist who has since retired. Moore observed how uniformly courses were being maintained even though various sections of the course will thrive with different inputs and levels of conditioning. It sounds simple but the sum exceeds the value of its parts with daily record-keeping. Deacon helps through visual displays and various formulas, including those that track costs-per-acre, even on parts of the course that are maintained differently.
Hunki Yun, the USGA Green Section’s director of business development, explains that Deacon was created to provide an easy-to-use tool to provide the ultimate player experience while prioritizing resource utilization. “A golf course being financially responsible and efficient benefits the environment,” Yun says. “Moore knew we could better measure how resources are being used and better manage the areas that golfers use.”
With Tifway Bermuda tees and fairways, Champion Ultradwarf greens, and pulchritudinous native sandscape serving as rough, Pinehurst No. 2 was an ideal candidate for the pilot program. “We have been beta testing and using Deacon for five or six years,” course superintendent John Jeffreys says. “We’ve been collecting data on mowing and cultural practices, topdressing, fertility, growth regulation and seeing how all that impacted the greens. We have a data set that illustrates stimulus-and-response. That helped guide the surface management.
“We can be more predictive now and we run trials for big events. For example, for the U.S. Amateur in 2019, we did things in 2018 around the same time of year to make sure we were ready. Deacon helps us give everyone the conditions they expect. It’s about using our data to make the golfer experience that much better.”
Challenges with Deacon include making sure measurements are taken and recorded daily. Surprisingly, Deacon helped the agronomic team learn that some practices weren’t having the expected effect. The team made educated adjustments. A few other courses at Pinehurst also use Deacon so the management teams can compare notes about practices on similar terrain.
With Deacon, no installation is involved. It’s a matter of turning on subscriptions for whoever wants access to the surface management tool. “One key mission for the USGA is to improve the on-course playing experience,” Yun says. “What is proving popular is for superintendents to track their practices regularly and then measure the playing qualities, green speed being the most prevalent. When they compare practices to results, they learn what it takes to provide the best possible playing conditions.”
During meetings with decision makers, numbers are more persuasive than charm. “We are able to show our executive team data that helps guide us to golfer satisfaction,” Jeffreys says. They can respond to customer surveys and describe playing conditions every day, even for years ago, because it is all recorded.
“It’s eye-opening for the executive team to see how invested we are in our product and how we take care of it,” Jeffreys says. “Deacon influences how we manage our water, mowing frequency and fertilizer applications,” which adds up to greater resource efficiency.
Pinehurst No. 2 has been using less water, has removed 35 acres of managed turf and encouraged native areas that don’t require any inputs. During the 2010 restoration, irrigation heads were reduced from 1,500 to 450, using 20 percent of the water previously used. “We appreciate what the USGA does for us through friendships, colleagues and exchanging ideas,” Jeffreys says. Deacon has benefited from this partnership between development and field-testing, and the rest of the industry now benefits, too.
“Sustainability is a huge goal for the USGA,” Yun says. “We need to make sure facilities are financially and environmentally viable. Every state has published BMPs and Deacon can be a tool for recording inputs and cultural practices. We didn’t foresee that but as the industry evolves, Deacon is capable of evolving.”Lee Carr is a Northeast Ohio-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.