Is golf embracing synthetic solutions?


Sean Dudley
By Kevin Holinaty

Kevin Holinaty

Has the golf world finally begun to embrace synthetic products in courses and practice facilities?

For years synthetic golf greens have given discerning golfers the ability to practice in their own homes: many top pros like Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk have synthetic greens in their gardens. I have been involved in the construction of a few of these greens, and it is interesting to talk with some of the world's best players to get their feedback. Generally speaking, they tell me that the qualities required for tour pros is achievable on well designed and well installed synthetic surfaces. So why has it taken so long for the golf world to embrace the idea?

Today there is more reason than ever to consider synthetic solutions. In southern Europe, water shortages are at an all-time high and no one needs to be told the ramifications for the golf industry. In northern Europe, with a limited season and problems caused by too much moisture and precipitation, golf course superintendents have ample reasons to discuss synthetic options. Also, golf is growing across Europe, and golf courses and practice facilities are experiencing high traffic, leading to maintenance issues for natural grass.

The synthetic golf industry has been around for more than a decade. Though still young, the few pioneering companies that have embraced quality solutions over lower prices have allowed it to come of age. Now there are products available that perform to the expectations of industry professionals and even some of Europe's golfing federations. Federations in Holland, Norway, and France have scrutinised synthetic products and have agreed the need for them, while maintaining that quality is most important. I have spoken to many golf industry professionals, from architects and builders to superintendents and owners, and the theme remains consistent. Synthetic options will only be viable if the product is durable and functional in both the short and long term.

Golf is not like other sports that use synthetic surfaces, such as football or hockey. Golfers are very critical of the surface they play on, as it has a direct impact on performance. As such, installation processes and turf specifications are much more comprehensive. Products must be installed correctly and only the highest quality materials used, or there will be disappointment and the product will not be used. Very few full package installation products will hold up in the long term in a commercial, high traffic golf setting. Key considerations are design and shaping, comprehensive crushed granite aggregate bases, using high specification synthetic turfs, using various turf types, installing with a high pile height sand-fill system, using a shock pad turf underlay system to ensure proper roll and ball acceptance, and – most important – the use of experienced technicians.

If golf ever truly embraces synthetic, it will do so because the result is not drastically different from what is currently expected from a natural product. Construction of natural golf courses is complex, requiring a conscientious, determined, even tedious approach to achieve a world class result: the same should be true for synthetic solutions. Synthetic turf construction companies that deliver high quality solutions worthy of being installed in golf course settings know this, and understand how to make a product that will mimic natural solutions.

The market is also beginning to understand this. However, some companies entering the synthetic turf market do not understand the craftsmanship required to deliver solutions that work. This could give the industry a temporary setback, as lower specification (and therefore lower price) installations will go into the ground, only to be torn out within a year or less. Our motto is: "Consider solutions that will function, or don't consider the synthetic option." For customers it can be simple: decide whether the synthetic company's construction process is as comprehensive as the natural one. If not, it is probably time to sit back and rethink. Typically, the initial construction cost of a synthetic golf green is higher than that of a natural green. This does not include golf course architects or shapers – as this should remain the same cost in both scenarios.

There could be cases where costs are actually closer, and others where the synthetic option could be as much as twice the initial cost. But going the synthetic route has the most merit when you consider the long term cost savings in maintenance. A study conducted by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America analysed the maintenance costs of natural and synthetic turf greens (Southwest Greens helped derive data for the synthetic scenario). The survey found that the annual maintenance cost of a natural Bermuda grass green was US$48.22 per sq m, while the synthetic green cost US$2.05 per sq m.

The synthetic golf industry has matured and high quality options for course owners and managers now exist. But it is essential to consider all the facts before considering going the synthetic route. As more projects are delivered, it will become much easier for the market to judge honestly for itself the advantages of synthetic turf solutions on the golf course. The moment of truth is fast approaching, and perhaps already here.

Kevin Holinaty is CEO of Southwest Greens Europe & Middle East.

This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.