SERVING THE GAME
USGA Helps Toronto Courses Plot Ski Trails February 16, 2021 By Adam Stanley

GPS data provided by the USGA helped the City of Toronto create alternate uses for its five public courses during the winter months. (City of Toronto)

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Operators of golf courses usually cannot wait for winter to be over. But staff in Toronto have benefited from an app developed by the USGA that will allow people to utilize their five municipal golf courses year-round.

During the golf season, the USGA Facility App allows golf course superintendents to make data-driven decisions that will help to increase golfer satisfaction and improve turf conditions, but it found an unexpected application north of the U.S. border.

City staffers who operate five golf courses close to Toronto’s downtown – Don Valley, Tam O’Shanter, Humber Valley, Scarlett Woods, and Dentonia Park – were able to create eight snow loops ranging from 1 kilometer to 2.5 kilometers (0.62 miles to 1.5 miles) aided by the use of heat-mapping data. Small GPS units that are carried by golfers during their rounds track how much time they spend in particular areas. Facility operators were able to pinpoint the areas that weren’t as popular with golfers, and they created snow loops in those spots – resulting in minimal turf interference during the winter months.

The most that any trail impacts turf at one of the courses is 16 percent of the total acreage, while the other four courses all have trails impacting less than 10 percent of the total space.

The only thing the city needs now is a little snow – as not enough has fallen so far this winter to get the loops open.

Still, Craig Loughry, the director of golf services at Golf Ontario, said he was thrilled to bring the project to Canada’s biggest city.

“The tool was created to help manage facilities better,” says Loughry, who pointed to a discovery made at Don Valley, considered Toronto’s premium public facility. Out of the 130 golfers who wore a GPS unit during the tracking days, not a single one hit into a bunker that is located about 10 yards away from the left-hand side of the green on the par-4 2nd hole.

“We may not have been aware of that because of various reasons, but [this tool] can show you an aerial heat map of where the golfers are going, and you can make some positive changes with that information,” said Loughry. “A golf course can become a little more efficient in how they’re maintaining things. Supply this data to a golf architect and you can make sound decisions on how to improve playability.”

The opportunity to utilize data to help courses make better decisions – whether in the placement of a cross-country ski trail or by removing a bunker – is at the heart of the Facility App.

“‘Multi-use’ is a big trend in golf courses, not just for municipalities but for private clubs, too,” said Hunki Yun, the director of business development for USGA Regional Affairs. “You want to make sure that a piece of real estate – which is a huge asset, especially in a city like Toronto where the land has great value – can be used 12 months per year.”

Yun pointed out that the largest single expense for a golf course is maintenance, and that cost continues to climb. The USGA Green Section has been helping golf courses provide better playing conditions for more than 100 years, and is primed to help them increase efficiency in the coming years.

Yun said that courses must determine where and how limited resources can be allocated. There’s not much point, he said, in spending uniformly on 100 acres of maintained turf when golfers are only using 50 acres of it, or to spend thousands of dollars annually on a bunker when fewer than 1 percent of golfers actually hit into it.

Humber Valley Golf Course near Toronto created eight cross-country ski loops with help from USGA GPS data. (City of Toronto.)

In the case of the City of Toronto, it was important to provide alternative uses for its golf courses during the winter months. “We were impressed,” said Goran Mitrevski, the manager of parks, Scarborough District and Toronto golf courses, of the USGA data. “We could see how we could transform or reshape the golf courses to make them more playable and cut down maintenance costs.

“The mayor was challenging all the divisions to come up with some access for citizens [during COVID-19] and golf courses stepped up to the plate.”

Not only did the data allow the city to optimize the location of the snow loops, it also developed a nine-hole disc golf course at one of the facilities. Stephen States, a data scientist with the USGA, noted that information gleaned from the app can also be used to determine the most efficient mowing patterns, to target maintenance efforts, and even analyze tee-time intervals for optimal golfer experience and revenue growth.

Oddly enough, there’s just one thing left for Toronto golf course managers to add as they try to take advantage of the data and allow people to utilize their facilities year-round – a phrase they’ve likely never been excited to say before: let it snow.

Adam Stanley is a multimedia golf journalist based in Ottawa, Ontario.