From social media to moisture sensors, technology is changing the way golf course superintendents take care of business.
Golf course superintendents are constantly looking for an edge to sharpen their skills, in areas ranging from enhancing course conditions to improving communication with members. The many forms of technology at their disposal are becoming just the tools they need, and relying on everything from social media to on-course devices, they have been surprised at just how essential these tricks of the trade have become.
“I got into each and every [type of technology] not 100 percent sure that I would get reliant on them, but I’ve gone from having fun with them to not being able to function without them,” says Dave Smith, Golf Course Superintendent/Harbor Club Manager at Fawn Lake Country Club in Spotsylvania, Va. “The office is always with me, so to speak. I’m always connected.”
|SUMMING IT UP
Certified Golf Course Superintendent Stephen Miles, Director of Operations at The Preserve Golf Club in Vancleave, Miss., enjoys the benefits of technology as well.
“Technology gives you that much more reassurance that you made the right decision,” he says. “It has made us a lot more efficient, and information is just so much more accessible now.”
Blogs to Clear the Fog
Access to information is not the only advantage technology offers. Clear communication is essential to any golf course operation, and more and more superintendents are turning to blogs to keep their memberships informed.
In January 2011, Miles started a blog that is tied to The Preserve’s website. “It allows people the flexibility to get current information about the golf course. It acts as a diary for the golf course,” he explains. “We can go back and see what we’ve done on a particular day. It’s a great resource and tool.”
The blog also helps the maintenance staff inform members about course conditions. It came in particularly handy after Hurricane Isaac took down a few small trees on the golf course in August. Miles posted photos of the damage, noted the amount of rainfall, and let members know when the course would reopen after the storm cleanup.
Miles blogs about anything that “affects the golfing experience,” and posts whenever he has something new to discuss. He is just as interested in reading other superintendents’ blogs, from which he’s gained ideas on maintenance practices such as verticutting and pigment use on dormant Bermuda grass.
He also tries to post about unique agronomic topics that would benefit other superintendents. “I don’t have a huge interaction with other superintendents, but I have a few followers,” he explains. “Like me, they like to browse other blogs.”
Miles says his blog now gets about 450 page views per month, and he’s garnered more than 8,000 since he started.
The Wichita Onlineman
Brian White, Golf Course Superintendent at Wichita (Kan.) Country Club, started blogging about two years ago to get timely information to the membership. Blogging has been more effective than the newsletters that previously went to members, he feels. “We’d be trying to guess what would be going on six weeks out. By the time they’d get it in their hands, it was old news,” he reports.
He now tries to post at least once a week, typically about maintenance projects or anything that affects play. He also did a post about home lawn-care tips in the spring.
|For the RecordsThe benefits of technology come in many forms, and some of the tools have helped The Preserve Golf Club in Vancleave, Miss., dramatically reduce its paper usage. Certified Golf Course Superintendent Stephen Miles, Director of Operations, relies on Microsoft Excel to keep track of orders and inventory, and the maintenance operation is virtually paper-free.
“In the beginning, we had paper files on everything. Now we only use paper if we need to print something out for a crew member,” he adds.
Golf Course Superintendent Dave Smith uses a software program to monitor chemical and fertilizer applications at Fawn Lake Country Club in Spotsylvania, Va.
“I have become proficient with Excel, and I’d like to find a way to keep track of my equipment maintenance program in a more advanced way,” he adds.
The Farms Country Club in Wallingford, Conn., is virtually paperless as well. Golf Course Superintendent Paul Sabino contacts suppliers online, and also uses Excel to keep equipment records.
“I’ll print something out for committee members if we have a meeting, but we try to cut back on paper as much as we can,” he says.
Brian White, Golf Course Superintendent at Wichita (Kan.) Country Club, says e-mail and text messages are reliable, efficient ways to contact suppliers. “They can see exactly what we need, and we don’t have to play phone tag,” he adds.
When White talks to someone one-on-one, he might have time only for a quick conversation. With the blog, however, he can put more thought into his posts. Although blogs don’t replace the need for face-to-face conversations with members, White says, it has been a time saver for him.
“I can spend a Saturday morning trying to talk to as many people as possible, or 15 minutes on a blog post that can reach more people,” he explains.
Other staff members also stay current with golf course operations by reading White’s blog. “So if members ask someone in the men’s grill about aerification, he can answer them,” he notes.
White also looks at other superintendents’ blogs to see what they’re doing or how they’re dealing with problems. In addition, he says, “They give me ideas for things to talk about on my blog.”
Never Out of Touch
At Fawn Lake CC, Smith includes a link to his blog every time he e-mails a member, and he finds the blog particularly useful during the off-season, when he lets members know that his staff is busy with miscellaneous projects.
“Some people think we really slow down during the winter, but we don’t,” he reports. “We have a much smaller staff, but the workload is different in the off-season. If I see something that might come up in the bar on the 19th hole, I try to nip things in the bud. I try to hit them with basic information about things they will notice—or need to know if they don’t notice.”
He also uses his blog to pat crew members on the back, by posting comments and photos of them at work.
The blog has become a record-keeping tool as well. “Now that I’ve had it for a little while, I go back and look at it to see what we did the year before,” notes Smith. “It’s a running tally of everything that has happened since I started it.”
Down on the Farms
Paul Sabino, Golf Course Superintendent at The Farms Country Club in Wallingford, Conn., also blogs to answer members’ questions and to address rumors. “People used to hear things in the bar and think that was gospel, because they didn’t hear anything different,” he adds.
Calling it “the best thing I’ve ever done,” Sabino started his blog in December 2009; it was named the Blog of the Month by Golf Course Industry magazine in July 2010.
“It was something I wanted to try, and it turned out to be wonderful for my members,” he reports. “It’s a great way for me to communicate. I never expected it to get as big as it did.”
Sabino has received more than 50,000 hits from about 60 different countries since he started the blog. Sabino also features slideshows of golf course activities, such as member tournaments and wildlife sightings. “It’s a way to get members to look at the blog, and then it just feeds off itself,” he explains.
Blogs aren’t the only form of social media that superintendents use to connect with audiences. At Wichita CC, White recently started using Twitter to share brief updates about the golf course. “More people are using Twitter. It’s another avenue to get information out to people,” he reveals. “It’s simple. It’s fast. It doesn’t take too much time.”
Smith has joined several groups on LinkedIn, and he gets involved in discussions about pertinent topics. The professional networking site proved to be extremely beneficial when he also took over managerial duties of his club’s food-and-beverage department earlier this year.
“I immediately browsed and tried to connect with people that I thought could be helpful,” he reports. “I was overwhelmed with the response and how willing people were to help.” He even started a discussion to solicit ideas on ways to control food costs, and the conversation was still going on six months later.
Smartphones have become indispensable tools for superintendents as well. Miles can now access information such as golf course tee sheets instantly on his phone.
“I use it daily for the weather apps and to check e-mail,” he says. “I can log into the irrigation computer from off-site, to check and edit the irrigation control system or use Dropbox to access work files from my phone.”
White also appreciates the benefits of controlling the irrigation system with his smartphone. “We used to have to go to every irrigation control to make a change, but this frees up more time to do other things,” he explains.
Smith also blogs from his phone. “I can do it on the fly so much better now,” he says. “I post more pictures with captions, [as opposed to] long-winded messages. It’s easier to manage and keep up-to-date. Before, I had to set aside time to be on the computer.”
Photos and videos are another integral component of blogging, and many superintendents rely on their smartphones to capture these visual aids.
“Every picture that’s on the blog was taken with my phone,” notes White. “It wasn’t that long ago that I was lugging a camera around with me on the golf course. But when I needed it, I never had it.”
Now, he frequently takes before-and-after pictures that he posts to his blog. “People enjoy seeing pictures when you’re talking about something. It makes a little more sense,” he adds. “In general, with social media, our membership has a better idea of what we’re doing.”
Miles takes photos in the field and posts them on his blog. He also uploads videos to YouTube to share with a wider audience. Videos help him communicate with his management and with professionals at other golf courses such as managers, owners, chief financial officers, customers and decision-makers.
“I can shoot video of a piece of machinery that shows how specific we are when we operate it,” he reports. “It can help us get the money to buy a piece of machinery. It shows what the machine does, and why we do it.”
Headed in the Right Direction
Technology has changed golf course maintenance in other ways as well. The Preserve Golf Club recently installed a global positioning system (GPS) for its golf car fleet. The system affects the total operation, from food and beverage and the cart barn to the pro shop and marketing department. The maintenance department also benefits from the technology.
“It gives me control of where the carts can and cannot go on the golf course,” reports Miles. “I can slow a golf cart down or fix it so no one can go through our native areas.”
GPS maps on the irrigation control system help Miles locate irrigation heads, and the control system can communicate with any of them. In fact, he has GPS maps of the entire infrastructure of the golf course, along with buildings and bridges. Miles, who was working at the property when it was under construction in 2005, wanted the GPS mapping system to help maintain accurate records.
“They’re great for historical purposes or to find a leak,” he explains. “They show where all of the piping, control wires and valves are, and we use them as a reference on a daily basis.”
Wichita CC started using GPS on its sprayers several years ago. The crew formerly used marking dye when spraying the golf course, but the GPS has given the maintenance staff dual benefits of saving costs and eliminating dye from the turf.
Water is also a precious commodity on golf courses, and superintendents are using technology such as moisture meters to be better stewards of the natural resource.
“They take the guesswork out of whether the green is too dry or too wet,” notes Miles, who started using hand-held moisture meters about two years ago. “They give us more information to make better decisions on when we water greens.”
With the hand-held meters, one or two crew members can scout the greens and probe areas to see if they need water. The mobile sensors allow the staff to test conditions anywhere on the greens, and help maintenance staff members reduce water consumption and power usage by using the pump station less frequently. “We’re also using fewer chemicals and fertilizers, because we have a healthier plant,” Miles adds.
The moisture sensors have even changed the crew members’ language, allowing them to talk in specific terms rather than vague assertions. “Before, I might have had a hunch that an area was dry, but it’s hard to communicate that to the staff,” notes Miles. “With the meters, everything is based on percentages.”
Fawn Lake CC also started using two hand-held digital moisture meters about two years ago. “It hasn’t changed the outcome, but it’s been an easier way to collect data,” says Smith. “We’re basing our decisions more on scientific data than on educated guesses.”
However, he continues, one drawback of the moisture meters is that he has gotten different readings after using them on side-by-side areas. Next season, Smith continues, “We’ll either upgrade or figure out how to recalibrate the ones we have.”
Wichita CC just finished its first full season with moisture meters. “I don’t know what we’d do without them,” reveals White.
The property has hand-held probes and six permanent, in-ground meters in problem spots on some greens.
“With hand-held probes, we can check the moisture every day. Rarely does water go on the greens without a reason,” White says. “The permanent sensors measure one small area, but we can probe the greens with the hand-held sensors 60 times and cover the entire green.”
He was originally concerned that he would have to justify the price tag of the moisture sensors, but soon discovered they could help the department save on labor costs.
“We used to have to keep crew members around to check the greens in the afternoon, but now there’s no more waiting around to see what’s going to happen,” he explains.
The soil sensors help the grounds crew use water more wisely and keep the greens dry, fast and firm, he believes.
“Our conditions are much better, and our greens are more consistent. There are no surprises anymore,” says White, who has been in golf course maintenance for 15 years. “Technology is huge. There’s not one piece of equipment that we use that hasn’t changed. But we use the tools because they help our operations, not just because we read about them.”