COURSE CARE
USGA Course Consulting Service Delivers Positive Impact February 7, 2019 By Jordan Schwartz, USGA

When you head out for a round of golf, do you want the putting greens to be rolling smoothly? How about fairways and roughs that have healthy grass and few weeds? Do you want the facility to conserve resources for the good of the environment, while ensuring that unnecessary expenditures aren’t passed along to you in the form of higher fees?

Of course you do, and USGA agronomists have been working hard since 1953 to help superintendents keep courses in the best shape possible through the Course Consulting Service (CCS).

Each year, USGA agronomists make more than 900 trips to courses across North America with the goal of providing better playing conditions. Their field expertise is backed by scientific information provided by the USGA-funded Turfgrass and Environmental Research Program.

Larry Gilhuly has worked as a USGA agronomist for 35 years. Based in Gig Harbor, Wash., he makes between 70 and 80 CCS visits per year.

“For the course, it’s kind of like going to the doctor,” he said. “We come in, look at the course and talk to course officials about ways to make improvements and address any issues they are having.”

Gilhuly is a strong proponent of evaluating forward tees. With proper placement, they can improve pace of play and make the game more enjoyable for golfers with higher handicaps or slower swing speeds.

One of the facilities taking Gilhuly’s advice is Bell Nob Golf Course, a public course in Gillette, Wyo. Superintendent Dwayne Dillinger is in the process of constructing further forward tees and should have them complete in late May.

“It’s going to make it a more enjoyable course,” he said. “It’ll make it easier, which makes it more fun. You’ve also got some who refuse to play the [most] forward tees, so as long as you’ve got one ahead of those, they’ll move up. It should help with the playability of the course.”

Dillinger is appreciative of the assistance he receives through CCS visits.

“I think they’re huge,” he said. “We’re pretty isolated. We’re not in a major metro area where I have access to other superintendents to talk to on a regular basis. Larry visits so many courses and can come in and tell us what he’s seeing.”

What Gilhuly saw at Priddis Greens Golf and Country Club in Alberta, Canada, were significant shade issues that were negatively affecting playability. Superintendent James Beebe encountered resistance when he first approached management about removing trees.

“Bringing in a USGA agronomist who has a lot of experience and can reference other courses that have dealt with similar issues certainly had a huge impact,” Beebe said. “We’ve removed trees and seen significant improvement in playability and turf conditions thanks to improved sunlight. There’s no way we would’ve done that without the USGA’s backing.”

Longtime USGA agronomist Larry Gilhuly spends much of his time visiting courses and identifying areas of improvement. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Facilities pay a fee for CCS visits, but the USGA also subsidizes the program to make the Course Consulting Service available to more courses. The USGA also funds workshops conducted by USGA agronomists that focus on key topics to improve playing conditions. You can help in our efforts to enhance the on-course experience for all who play the game and create a healthier relationship between courses and the environment by making a special contribution to the USGA.

The USGA agronomy staff estimates that more than 10.6 million rounds of golf annually are positively impacted by the nearly 8,000 recommendations made at almost 600 golf facilities during CCS visits alone.

One of those – Chesapeake Hills Golf Course in Lusby, Md., was experiencing serious turf issues on its putting greens in 2011. Calvert County, which owns the facility, was considering closing the course for the better part of a year and spending $1 million to completely rebuild every green. That’s when newly hired superintendent Mike Maher and USGA agronomist Darin Bevard proposed an alternative.

“Mike and I advised the Parks and Recreation Department that implementing a sound program of relatively low-cost agronomic practices could deliver what everyone wanted,” said Bevard.

Maher lauds the collaborative effort.

“Darin has been an instrumental part of identifying the key priorities and helping us implement both large and small changes to our maintenance program,” he said. “The recovery plan saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Playing conditions have significantly improved at Chesapeake Hills since 2011. In 2016, both rounds and revenue were the highest in course history – a 22-percent boost in rounds and a 50-percent revenue increase from pre-recession peaks.

Elsewhere, after discussions with USGA agronomist John Daniels, St. Louis Country Club superintendent Tim Burch decided that he needed to upgrade to GPS-guided sprayers.

“John was out for a Course Consulting Service visit and did a great job explaining to our golfers the value of investing in this new technology,” Burch said. “John explained that not only would a GPS-guided sprayer improve the quality of our applications, it was also going to help us save money over the long term. That got people’s attention.”

Burch has been able to decrease the annual plant protectant budget by $15,000, meaning the equipment will pay for itself in just three years.

At Black Gold Golf Club, a city-owned facility in Yorba Linda, Calif., management was dealing with perennial ryegrass fairways that required substantial irrigation to make it through the hot and dry summers. Therefore, summer playing conditions were soft and wet, and turf loss was common. USGA agronomist Pat Gross suggested converting the fairways to a warm-season grass, like bermudagrass or kikuyugrass, because these grasses are more durable and heat-tolerant.

Gross and Black Gold director of agronomy Bill Houlihan created a plan to gradually implement the conversion over five years so the city wouldn’t lose money by closing the course. The conversion saved the course an average of 21 million gallons of water per year from 2010-17. Resource savings and better playing conditions also helped Black Gold to begin making a consistent profit where it used to lose money.

“With Pat Gross’ help, we were able to make a big change with minimal disruption that has put the facility on a substantial path into the future,” Houlihan said.

Jordan Schwartz is the creative and content lead for the USGA Foundation. Email him at jschwartz@usga.org.

The USGA Foundation secures resources to fulfill the USGA’s commitment to invest in programs and innovative solutions that best serve golf for all who love and play it.

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