If you spend any time around a U.S. Open, it’s tough to miss the impact that technology has had on the event. From real-time, online scoring and live video to the latest in club and ball advancements, technology has revolutionized the way we watch and the way we play the game of golf.
And logically, it also has revolutionized the way the golf course is maintained. In fact, this week’s U.S. Open on the Lake Course at The Olympic Club in San Francisco may very well be the most technologically advanced Open ever as it relates to golf course management.
Consider, for example, the way the greens are being cut this week. During the 2011 Golf Industry Show in Orlando, The Toro Co. — which is the primary supplier of golf course equipment for Olympic — unveiled the eFlex family of greensmowers, cutting units powered exclusively by a lithium ion battery. After nearly a year of refinement, the company announced that it had begun shipping those units to customers just one week before the Open, and a fleet of 10 eFlex 21s are in use this week on the Lake Course (one shown in the photo here), the first real-world use of these mowers anywhere in the world.
“We’ve had them for a little more than a month,” said Olympic equipment manager Kevin Rueneldes. “They are the exact same cutting head as the 2100 with just slight modifications. The unit weighs just a little bit more, but they run pretty much on par with the Flex 2100. You can literally swap out the heads if you want, which we are doing some this week.”
The eFlex units do take some getting used to. Obviously, they are much quieter than a traditional gas unit; I watched them in action several times throughout the week and would equate the decibel level to something akin to a blender. “It took about a week before our operators realized they didn’t need to wear the same kind of ear protection they usually wore,” Lake Course superintendent Justin Mandon told me. “Force of habit, I guess.”
They also have a feature that slows the forward movement of the mower when the cutting unit is lifted off the ground at the collar, just before the operator makes his turn. Operators who are used to whipping the mower around quickly to avoid speeding off the green do have to adjust their turning routines, but “once they finally realize that when they stop, run over the collar and give it a second and then take a very controlled turn, everybody is in love with it,” Rueneldes said.
Then there’s one of the most unique pieces of equipment I’ve ever encountered and one of the first that ever literally stopped me in my tracks. Crews at Olympic are using a massive fairway roller — yep, a fairway roller — from Salsco that one member of the maintenance team described as looking like an "orange dinosaur." This beast features three rolling units (a triplex roller, if you will), two of which are fashioned on hydraulic arms that swing out into place when the unit is in use. As of Friday, crews used the fairway roller on Wednesday to coax a bit of extra speed out of the landing areas before the first round, and Mandon said they would probably deploy it one more time before the end of the tournament this weekend. Not sure if there is a day-to-day use for such a machine for most superintendents, but the thing is darn impressive to see in action.
The water management efforts this week at Olympic are also on the cutting edge. The practices being used by both club and USGA Green Section officials are nothing new, but the coordinated way they are being documented and the impact that data has had on watering plans is a breakthrough.
In short, three different measurements — green speeds with a Stimpmeter, firmness with a TruFirm device and moisture levels with hand-held soil moisture probes — are taken on each green of the Lake Course, both morning and afternoon. That data is then entered into a single chart that represents all 19 greens (18 holes plus practice green) at the facility and presents a unified view of the state of these greens, and how one factor can impact the others.
This statistical approach to water management has taken much of the guess work out of the way the golf course management team at Olympic has approached their work on the greens. In the past, superintendents were typically able to extract great firmness and blistering speeds out of greens during Open week, but might not have been able to marry that with exactly how healthy those greens were.
This year, the team at Olympic has been able to keep all of the pieces together. As the first two rounds have proven, the firmness and speed common to an Open have been there — I walked on at least nine different greens this morning, and they may have been the firmest putting surfaces I've ever encountered — but now crews have statistical proof that the greens are also healthy. In fact, one green in particular was showing moisture perentages of nearly 30 percent this morning but had already achieved the firmness and speed desired by the USGA.
"We could cut that in half if we absolutely needed to and still have a healthy green at the end of the week," Mandon said.
Not that he'd want to, of course, but it's nice to know that technology is giving superintendents the tools to push the envelope when they have to without threatening the health of their turfgrass.