The important role synthetics will play in the future of golf

The important role synthetics will play in the future of golf
Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Jon Scott of Nicklaus Design and Kevin Holinaty of Southwest Greens tell Adam Lawrence why they believe synthetic turf will be an important part of golf’s future

It comes as a surprise to hear a professional grass guy extol the virtues of synthetic turf. But Jon Scott, Nicklaus Design’s chief agronomist, is convinced that synthetic has a much wider role to play in the future of the golf business. “Ten years from now, we will most definitely see greater acceptance of synthetic turf in the golf business,” he says. “The water scarcity issue demands it. People are not buying the concept of playing on brown, hard, dry natural turf. People like green – it is part of the relaxation process. It draws us to nature in parks, our back yards, and on golf courses. Brown just doesn’t get it done.”

Less surprisingly, Kevin Holinaty of synthetic golf surfaces specialist Southwest Greens agrees. “The golf industry is changing, everyone knows this,” he says. “The absolute certainty of further and extreme water restrictions on golf courses in the future, together with a much greater requirement for golf course owners to act responsibly and create sustainable environments on their courses with less hazardous chemicals and more efforts towards environmentally acceptable strategies is clearly moving the industry towards dramatic shifts in the way courses are designed, built, and maintained. And there is absolutely no question that synthetics will play a very major role in this movement. In fact, I personally believe that the paradigm shift in thinking is already here, where golf courses are looking for sustainable solutions that require an ‘out of the box’ mentality.”

So, how far will the shift to synthetic go? “Synthetic has made inroads already for practice tee use,” says Scott. “High end golfers still prefer turf, but understand that there are times when the use of turf areas must be prohibited, such as during the winter dormant period with non-overseeded warm season grass types or in the heat of the summer when the cool season grasses will not recover. I think synthetic turf will definitely find a place in high wear areas where turf is affected by traffic concentrations, as well as areas of high erosion potential, such as lake banks and stream banks. It may become acceptable to use synthetic turf in high shade areas where turf will not grow well, but this remains to be seen. Practice area target greens can be synthetic as well as the bunkers and potentially the range floors. This, of course, has already been done but I think you will see it expand as more and more emphasis is placed on reducing water use and the carbon footprint. Bunker liners have also been tried and proven to work, and there will be more acceptance of this as well as the stacked synthetic sod bunker walls on links type courses. I have suggested that bunker faces may also become synthetic, especially on desert courses where the golfer is used to seeing a different colour and type of grass (not overseeded with the rest of the course). I doubt if synthetic greens will be accepted unless that is the only way a golf course can be permitted in a given area, and the same goes for tees. In extreme cases where a golf course would otherwise not be allowed to be constructed, I can see a total synthetic, high end golf course such as has been done in Europe.”

Cost, Scott says, is the key problem with synthetic. “The upfront investment is significant and most developers of golf courses don’t look beyond a ten year payout,” he says. “Second is the perceived need to replace the turf in ten years or less. Again, this relates to cost and it may not work out against maintenance of natural turf for the same length of time. Surface temperature, especially during the heat of the summer, is a drawback or at least a perceived one. Everyone has heard TV announcers talk about the difference between the field heat and the outside temperature in stadiums and how much higher it is on synthetic turf. Even if they haven’t, they will notice it when they play a synthetic course. Somehow, surface temperature needs to be reduced. I don’t know where all that heat can be transferred to, but perhaps some kind of a sub-surface heat sink needs to be part of the construction. Again, what do you do with the heat that has accumulated? It has to go somewhere unless it can be harvested and converted to energy that would be beneficial to the facility. I am thinking out of the box, but somebody smarter than me will figure out how to make this work.”

Holinaty accepts the upfront cost of synthetic turf is a challenge, but points out the maintenance savings over time. On heat issues, though, he is bullish. “We have successfully created a revolutionary chilling technology for our various synthetic sports systems that cools the synthetic turf to levels that you would expect to experience if you were playing on natural grass,” he says. With this innovation, heat issues on synthetic turf will be a thing of the past. We have solved the biggest issue facing the use of synthetic turf – the temperature of it in the hot sun.”

Even so, there is a way to go. “Obviously, the cost needs to be in line with the benefits,” says Scott. “If a golf course can be profitable and grow natural turf, it will not likely switch unless there is some way to increase that profitability. Therefore, cost studies and models must be created for a variety of situations so that the concept of synthetic turf can be properly marketed. If, for instance, the installation of synthetic turf on a practice range effectively reduces total maintenance cost by say 10 per cent, you will get someone’s attention. If it reduces it by fractions, then it is a harder sell because of the large upfront investment. The turf will also need to be good for preferably 15 years. If you can get to 25 you probably have a home run.”

“Ten years from now, I predict that there will be dramatic changes to the golf course industry, with a great majority of those changes stemming from the wide acceptance and integration of synthetic solutions,” Holinaty says.

This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture Issue 34.