Golf's artificial future

Sean Dudley

Will advances in synthetic grass technology, combined with the increasing cost of maintaining turfgrass, result in golf being played on artificial surfaces in the future? Adam Lawrence reports.

With golf under economic pressure in most of its important markets, developers, operators and architects are constantly looking for ways to improve the financial prospects of courses. Any innovation that might result in reduced maintenance costs (while, of course, retaining high quality playing conditions), or the ability to push more rounds through a facility is being seized on.

One idea that might push the envelope a little further than most is the widespread use of synthetic turf in place of ‘real’ grass. Already, to be sure, many practice facilities have been built with synthetic surfaces, and on golf courses themselves, relief tees are often constructed with artificial turf. ‘Mats’, as they are often referred to, have been in use for winter tees for decades, in the UK and elsewhere, but the synthetic turf available today is a different beast from that of ten or twenty years ago. And with practice putting greens now commonly built without real grass, could playable greens on full-sized golf courses soon follow?

Such a suggestion might sound outlandish. But consider the alternatives. The locations in which the game is growing, especially those aimed at holiday golfers, are generally hot and dry; good weather is central to the appeal of tourist golf. Hot and dry, though, isn’t necessarily ideal conditions for growing fine turfgrasses. Availability of water for irrigation is one of the greatest barriers to the growth of golf in many parts of the world; turf companies are investing large sums of money in breeding new grass strains that can tolerate heat, drought and irrigation with poor quality water. Wouldn’t it be easier to cut to the chase and play the game on an artificial surface, if that could be made to perform like natural grass?

British architect Steve Marnoch has, in part at least, already done just that. At the Kikuoka golf club in Luxembourg, Marnoch built a six hole short course that used synthetic turf for tees and greens. He says, though, that the synthetic route is no panacea. “We have had enquiries for full golf courses using synthetic turf from areas where they haven’t any water,” he says. “So it is possible that such a course could be built. But it is very expensive to build that way, and, although people think synthetic turf is a no maintenance option, they are wrong. I think if you do it well with retention of some good natural features, it could work. But only in the right circumstances.”

Tony Hynes of synthetic golf greens supplier Tour Greens Europe echoes Marnoch’s view. “Synthetic golf will never replace natural grass golf courses,” he says. “But for executive courses, linked to hotels, in hot areas where water is scarce – there you can see the point. I’m pricing a golf course in France at the moment – the idea is to have natural grass fairways right up to the green complexes, which will all be synthetic. The design calls for quite small greens complexes, averaging 350-400 sq m including synthetic bunkers, chipping areas and so on. All par threes, except one short par four. It works in that environment, part of a casino. It’s a maintenance thing, they don’t want proper greenkeepers. One guy could look after it. Olazabal Design has come to me with two projects – they have a client who wants to build a golf course in a hot area where there’s no water available.”

Hynes says the cost of the synthetic turf would dictate the design of such a course, minimising the areas that would be turfed. “It would need to resemble a desert course, with big sandy waste areas,” he says. “And you would have some of the same issues with high traffic areas that you have on any golf course. Every little valley at the side of a green is a potential problem area. I think of the fifteenth hole at Portmarnock – about 70 per cent of balls end up in the little valley to the side of the green. There are a lot of maintenance issues with that area as it is. If that was synthetic you’d have a lot of issues with sand splash coming out of the turf.”

Cost is the big issue. “To build synthetic greens on a large scale is expensive, there’s no doubt about it,” says Steve Marnoch. “You need to shape everything as normal, then you’ve got to pay for a sand carpet as well as the synthetics, and it still needs maintenance. Some of the turf is OK, some is not so good. It’s all in the preparation. You can have a reasonable grass on a good base and it will play very well – but the best grass on a poorly installed base will not work well. You can shape and contour it perfectly well – we did that in Luxembourg. The problem with building contour into synthetic greens is the speed – it’s very easy for them to become like glass, and thus not very good for putting. To slow it down, you put sand on it – the more sand, the slower the surface. But sand gets dirty, so you have to brush it out and replace it after a while – and obviously that all adds to the cost.”

“Most people are buying their turf from the same manufacturers,” says Tony Hynes. “Essentially there are only two types – nylon, which ideally suited for putting, but which doesn’t take a shot very well, and the sand-filled polypropylene infill greens. If you sand dress it, you get a smoother putting surface. If you go for the sand filled, your problem is keeping the speed down.” Like Marnoch, he counsels that the high speed inherent in synthetic greens mitigates against highly contoured surfaces. “When you’re doing shaping on a golf green and its surrounds, you’ve got to think flat,” he says. “The simpler you keep the design, the better value it is. It looks boring, but it’s more usable.”

Hynes adds that a typical price for a synthetic green is in the region of €20 per square foot. “I have a 10,000 square foot green in my garden,” he says. “If you built eighteen of those complexes they’d probably cost in the region of €250,000 each.” With a typical USGA specification green costing around US$40,000 to build, it’s not hard to see that the numbers can only stack up in special circumstances.

So what role does synthetic have to play in golf’s future? Paul Huxley of Huxley Golf, a British-based supplier of synthetic golf surfaces, says the answer lies in consistency and quality. “It is about guaranteed year-round performance,” he says. “Top golf professionals choose synthetic grass over natural grass because they get consistent high performance throughout the year – which they couldn’t possibly get from natural surfaces. A high proportion of the top professionals outside America practice at home on synthetic surfaces because they say they are better than grass for their purposes. Similarly, a large number of top courses have synthetic somewhere on the course, because they want to provide the best surfaces all year round.”

Huxley is talking, generally, about practice facilities – putting greens, ranges and short game areas – and relief tees on golf courses themselves. There has, as he is quick to acknowledge, been a significant amount of prejudice against synthetic surfaces in the past: how many new courses have advertised their all-grass, no mats ranges as a sign of the overall quality of the development? “When we started this business ten years ago, there was a tremendous bias against synthetic turf,” he says. “To be frank, quite rightly: the stuff that had been put down wasn’t good enough. Now, though, that’s not the case, and the range of people and facilities choosing to go synthetic proves the point. To date, very few, if any golf architects have come to the same conclusions. But the emphasis is on yet. We have been asked by architects about synthetic turf – but generally their clients have chosen to go with natural grass on practice facilities. As architects and owners become aware of how good the turf is and how well it plays, they will come to see the benefits. We still have a job to do.”

That this job is being done is shown by the range of customers cited by the synthetic turf companies as users of their products. English firm European Golf, which has become the official supplier of synthetic putting surfaces to the PGAs of Europe, has a long list of high-profile endorsees, including touring pros like Lee Westwood, Nick Dougherty and Darren Clarke, as well as a bunch of top teaching pros. American firm Southwest Greens, which expanded into the European market a couple of years ago, has a partnership with Nicklaus Design. The interest, clearly, is there.

Paul Huxley says the credibility issue is best addressed by showing the range of applications that have already been successfully put in place. How do you provide confidence? By demonstrations,” he says. “We have put in quite big installations at places like Celtic Manor and St Andrews, and when you show a potential client those facilities, it is easy to create confidence. It doesn’t make any difference whether someone is considering building a big practice area, or tees and greens on a course. They should talk to a reputable supplier, and speak to people who will give them unbiased information. Users need to be confident in how the product is going to behave in some years time. They should ask about how it plays. About maintenance. About how it’s differed since it was put down. For me, they should choose the company before the product.”

He adds that the quality of installation is crucial, a point echoed by everyone in the business. “We are sometimes asked by prospective customers to send samples, and generally we’re very reluctant to do so,” he says. “I liken it to baking a cake – you can’t judge the cake by looking at a pack of nuts or a bag of flour.”

Traditionalists, then, can rest easy: synthetic is probably not the future of golf in hot climates; not in the immediate future at least. But there seems little doubt that the use of artificial turf in golf will grow fairly dramatically. As the scale and complexity of practice facilities continues to increase, and the demand of ‘realistic’ practice environments grows, how many courses can seriously commit the maintenance resource required to keep them in good condition? “There will be a lot of golf projects where, without the use of synthetic turf, the cost of maintenance will be impossible to justify,” says Paul Huxley. Steve Marnoch agrees. “I think synthetic has a big role to play,” he says. “It will help make golf more available, in city areas for example. And it is a good product. I think you can blend synthetic and natural features well, and I’d like to do more of that in the future.”

This article was initially featured in the January 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.