Head Greenkeeper George Jetson

This greens mower is state-of-the-art now, but someday a robot drone could take its place

This greens mower is state-of-the-art now, but someday a robot drone could take its place

It’s possible that, in our lifetimes, robots with ray-guns will mow every blade of grass on the links and a drone hovercraft guided by GPS will re-cut cups in the pre-dawn darkness. If and when that happens, golf course maintenance won’t be as different from today’s version as today is from greenkeeping’s earliest days. Course managers and superintendents may love the game’s stout traditions, but most of them push the envelope on techno-turf care as far as their budgets will allow. New waves of R & D within the turfgrass industry (and borrowed from other fields) make it possible, while stringent permitting and hard-to-please golfers make it increasingly necessary.

According to experts, the industry’s next push is to save labor costs and reduce carbon emissions—while still producing posh playing conditions.

Here’s a look at the current state of the art:

>>  Sub-surface aeration and hydronics: Looking back, Marsh Benson may have been the only greens superintendent in the world whose imagination could stretch as far as it did in devising the SubAir underground turf climate system. Benson’s employers at Augusta National Golf Club are a tough audience and their budget is basically unlimited.

“Marsh started out with just a shop-vac,” says SubAir agronomist and golf project director Kevin Crowe, who is well acquainted with Benson’s early experiments at Augusta National Golf Club. Benson, who remains on staff at the famed club, was trying to address the older-than-dirt problem of how to balance air and moisture in the root zone of a green that’s supposed to Stimp at 11 to 14 under varying climate conditions. Gravity drainage—through USGA-spec sub-layers—is all the industry had going for it until SubAir. Thanks to Benson, hydraulic pressure was added, by the movement of air through pipes.

“It clears the pores,” says Crowe. “Water that would cling to organic material (like peat or leaf thatch) drains down and lets the roots breathe.” Benson’s invention is now installed at about 500 golf courses, each of which has invested some $300,000 to set up all 18 greens with the sensors and pumps that actually do the work. Dr. Michael Hurdzan, the course architect and noted commentator on agronomic issues, knows many courses where they use a budget version of SubAir. “For only about $30,000, you can buy one portable unit and move it,” says Hurdzan. “You install the hook-ups at each green then cart the pumping system to whichever green needs it.”

>>  Vibratory greens rollers:  When we talk about greens rollers, average golfers of a certain age picture a rusty, barrel-sized steel monstrosity filled with water—a tool that went out with Emil Loeffler’s rake. In its place are greens rollers are like skilled masseurs. Rather than rumble over the grass blades in a single crushing pass, they use a swift drumming action to firm and smooth the soil while straightening grass blades.

Mowing is all about the grass, whereas rollers go a step beyond and treat putting surfaces holistically.  They shake out grit and make it fall to the base of the grass plant. One recently patented device, called a “universal vibratory roller unit,” does all this with equipment that attaches to a triplex greens mower in place of the cutting blades. “The real value in these rolling systems is that you can raise your cutting height and get a faster, smoother green than you would by just mowing,” says Hurdzan. “More leaf surface helps the plant survive stress, so it’s a win-win-win.”

>>  Soil sensors, installed: To change pin placements, a crew member presses a hole-cutting tool into the green and removes a cylindrical plug. These days, superintendents are installing wireless sensors into this root-zone area, replacing the turf plug and monitoring what the sensors say on their desktop computers. One maker of this product, Florida-based RZ-Wireless, debuted it at the 2005 U.S. Amateur and has since forged a partnership with Nicklaus Golf Design. Armed with real-time measurements of moisture, temperature and salinity, course maintainers can give up a carpet-bombing approach to irrigation, fertilization and pesticide use in favor of surgical strikes.

Says architect Hurdzan: “Scioto Country Club had major soil problems on four or five greens, and the superintendent kept warning members about what might go wrong under certain conditions,” says Hurdzan. “They didn’t put much stock in it, until he installed the sensors and showed them the readouts following a major rainstorm. They looked at those numbers and took immediate action to rebuild.” Daily-fee course owners, who aren’t pressured by memberships to undertake major rebuilding projects, make their own decisions about when to invest the money. High-tech tools will help them schedule rebuild work more precisely.

>>  Soil sensors, mobile: Don’t brag too loud about your in-ground soil sensors, lest the course owner beside you turn out to use mower-mounted sensors. According to Dana Lonn, director of something called the Center for Advanced Turf Technologies at the Toro Corporation, mower-mounted sensors will likely come to market within the decade. These sensors can take a snapshot of the grass being cut and evaluate it using NDVI, or “normalized differential vegetative index.” All that means is that a plant receives amounts of red light in some ratio to how much infrared light it receives, and that ratio indicates its “photosynthetic vigor,” according to Lonn. “You can plot this information on a digital graph and use it to minimize applications of water, fertilizer and protectants,” says Lonn. Aided by the same GPS technology that tells you there’s 162.3 yards to a back pin, the superintendent’s desktop monitor tells him which locations on the course need more or less irrigation or chemicals. Being mobile is good because you can monitor fairways, “and fairways are where you are going to save water,” he says, “because there is 15 times as much fairway acreage as green acreage.”

>>  Genetically engineered grass: This innovation takes place in laboratories at the  big seed companies and works its way into local golf markets, but it’s too important not to mention. “Gene mapping of turfgrass started out crudely 10 or so years ago,” says Hurdzan. “Now it’s sophisticated. Someone isolates a gene, inserts it in a cytoplasm, and suddenly you’ve got a new strain of turf— resistant to selected diseases and ideal for a particular climate and playing characteristics.”

A design patent recently filed by Monsanto described a genetic modification process able to generate golf-appropriate turfgrass that is both herbicide-tolerant (including glyphosates) and a dwarf variety. Dwarf strains of turfgrass have always been desirable for their reduced maintenance costs and non-invasiveness, but without biotech enhancements they, themselves, are too easily crowded out. The Monsanto invention, if successful in the field would address that deficiency. The glyphosate-tolerance factor, also highly significant to course managers, has already been proven in plants such as corn.

Agronomy journals also tell of genetically modified Zoysia grass that tolerates the non-selective herbicide Basta, while wild zoysia cultivars grouped into the same experiment died off. This zoysia stain also passed tests for non-invasiveness and ability to cross-pollinate.

>>  Equipment powered by fuel cells:  Given the growing concern over carbon emissions, the image of a motor vehicle whose tailpipe emits nothing but a few drops of water is enticing. Applying this technology to cars is impractical, however, based on the need for thousands of refueling stations dispensing hydrogen. “It would be far simpler at a golf course,” says Toro’s Lonn. “You would have professional operators handling the hydrogen and engines that operate for lots of hours but so do so in the confines of one land parcel.” Two summers ago, Toro demonstrated a hydrogen fuel cell-powered utility vehicle developed with the help of a $380,000 grant from the state of New York, which is ordering production models of the 10-foot long vehicle.

>>  New non-mechanical aeration: This is an incremental but still dramatic innovation. We’ve all seen cloddy tine-plugs littering a green after old-fashioned aeration—and the grid of unfilled holes that remains for several days. These days the holes are more surgically made and then refilled with the appropriate “medium” as the grass-geeks call it. The leading manufacturer is DryJect of Colorado, whose system somehow can aerate, amend (i.e. clean up the mess) and topdress in one operation, allowing play within an hour of treatment. Even more efficient than water-jet aeration, this process combines air and water and deposits narrow columns of permeable sand three to six inches deep into the root zone. Now that course-review websites are giving out so much information on aeration work (and steering play away through blog reports), the importance of completing the task and restoring your surface of play is that much greater.

>>  Irrigation control stations: Out on the modern golf course are miles of double-line irrigation pipe and a thousand valves and nozzles, plus sensors and meters that tell the story of how thirsty or sated each square foot of turfgrass might be. Some of these systems, when purchased, come with weeks of training—even for experienced superintendents. One of their more interesting components is a rain sensor, an irrigation shutoff device that prevents an automatic sprinkler from turning on during or after a rainstorm. The savings in electricity, water volume and turf hardiness seems worth the investment.

>>  Laser mowing systems?  If the surface of the human cornea can be safely altered by laser beams, surely a small expanse of bentgrass can take a laser trim, right? So the turf-ologists began to think, when word of a laser mower floated out of Germany in 2005. “We were all curious to see what they might be up to,” says Dana Lonn, director of something called the Center for Advanced Turf Technologies at the Toro Corporation. “Now a couple of years have gone by without any follow-up. But everyone still asks about it.”

The most obvious obstacle to the laser greens mower is that lasers trim and shape things by burning them, and grass is predominantly made of water. In place of the steel blade’s clipping action, a form of distillation would have to take place, with the water in the grass heated and vaporized, which would require large amounts of energy. Ironically, the laser’s advantage in eye surgery—avoiding contact of a solid object with human tissue—is a disadvantage in greens maintenance. “The mowing process is very much about standing the grass blade up first, then cutting,” says Lonn. “Any new technology would have to address that part of the equation.”

Will golf course superintendents take to wearing spandex suits and jet-packs as they preside over this 21st-century version of what was once an overalls-only occupation? It’s not that far-fetched a notion—although somewhere in a back room they will still have a rake, and surely some occasion to use it.

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