Using artificial with intelligence

  • Pelz Player Greens
    Pelz Golf

    Dave Pelz created an artificial turf facility in his backyard where he says his pros can play “every shot you can hit on earth from one hundred yards and under”

  • Pelz Player Greens
    Pelz Golf

    The firm has combined real grass and artificial turf elements for the practice area renovation at Cedar Brae in Toronto

  • Pelz Player Greens
    Pelz Golf

    Pelz Player Greens has designed a putting course at Oxley Golf Club like a full-length layout, but at a five per cent scale

Rob Gavarkovs
By Rob Gavarkovs

In 2018, short game legend Dave Pelz invited my colleague, 20-year experienced golf course architect Paul Jansen to his home in Austin, Texas, to see what he and his son Eddie had created several years before. Dubbed “the world’s greatest backyard” by The Wall Street Journal, Dave had built a four-acre practice area where his tour professional clients (including Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and more than twenty other major championship winners) could practice and prepare for the biggest stages in golf.

What began as one green became seven, including replicas of the seventeenth holes at TPC Sawgrass and Pebble Beach, and the twelfth at Augusta (at Phil Mickelson’s personal request). Eventually, Pelz ended up with what he describes as “every shot you can hit on earth from 100 yards and under”. This included practice putting pads at one, two, three and four per cent slopes to teach players scientific green reading plus a wedge calibration area, where targets are sized to reflect PGA Tour proximity averages from varying distances.

Dave, a Nasa rocket engineer before turning to golf, says: “I was tired of travelling all over the country to meet my pros and help them with their games. I had an idea that if I could create the perfect space for them to practice, they would come to me. I didn’t have the time or attention to take care of a full short game grass facility here at home, so I turned to artificial turf – maybe it was possible to get it as good as the real thing? Back then, artificial turf for golf was in rough shape, but I saw the potential.”

Pelz worked with SYNLawn to develop a bespoke putting and chipping turf for his backyard. And it has stood the test of time, the backyard still looks and plays like real after twelve years of use by the world’s best. While a 12-year warranty with a 20-year life expectancy and SYNLawns HeatBlock technology keeping the turf cool in hot temperatures, and the added fact of zero infill for zero maintenance, the crucial factor was realism. “The artificial turf was no benefit to me if it didn’t play like a real grass green,” says Pelz. “That was the majority of our work, to create a subsurface technology I developed which sits under the turf – called ShotStopper – that coupled with the turf and gave us the most realistic bounce, spin and putting performance that my pros needed to practice.”

Paul was captivated by the visit: “It became obvious to me that with the right turf and technology coupled with my golf design and construction knowledge and Pelz’s coaching expertise that it was possible to create systems that were not only real in every way and fun to play but also practice performance driven. What I could do with real grass I could exaggerate using artificial turf, and this made me excited given my creative side.”

One of the first of those was at the University of Arkansans’ golf team campus. There we designed and built a 10,000-square-foot indoor short-game practice area, including a multitude of short game chipping and putting modules using tight lie and rough turf varieties. This was one of Dave’s favourite projects, providing “practice with performance in mind” for the world’s future best golfers.

We’ve also worked at California’s Stockton Golf & Country Club, where water restrictions and drought conditions in the state provided a compelling case for the transition to artificial turf. There we worked with both surfaces, extending their grass putting green to reduce wear and tear while adding an artificial practice green, with a view to a future transition to artificial greens and tees throughout the golf course. We also introduced an artificial tee line, and a multi-use fairway strip that the club could use for junior camps, events, banquets, weddings and even lawn bowling. This has significantly reduced the maintenance burden on an area that previously was routinely torn up following these activities, much to the superintendent’s delight.

At Cedar Brae Golf Club in Toronto, Canada, we are combining Pelz’s turf technology, our grass design expertise, and input from PGA/LPGA tour short game specialist Gareth Raflewski, to deliver a dozen short-game practice modules and a practice scorecard so that golfers can track their development, practice with purpose, and improve their games. This project also involves a new 15,000-square-foot putting and chipping green, an artificial turf wedge calibration range with greens spaced at 20 yards to 100 at the driving range, and a separate 1,500-square-foot artificial putting green will become home to the club’s junior camps.

This project blends tradition with the future, using artificial turf where it is needed and grass where it is wanted.

Another application is in the world of golf entertainment. Given Pelz’s adeptness for the short game, putting courses are a particularly good fit.

The first of these was at Oxley Golf Club in Brisbane, Australia, where the concept was to design a championship length golf course, then shrink it to five per cent of that size as a putting routing, where all the contours, strategy, risk/reward and hazards you’d find in the full-length version remain. The club now draws crowds of golfers and non-golfers that reaps more revenue from the putting course than its full course.

At Timberwolf Golf Club north of Toronto, Canada, a ‘Pro-Putt’ course also eschews clown mouths and windmills for a true golfing experience. Artificial turf can be ideal for driving ranges as well, and we have two designs in construction in Australia that will both have wall to-wall artificial turf surfaces with automatic ball-collecting capability shaped so that balls hit into the range will filter towards collection points then back to the ball dispenser. These facilities will be two of the world’s first zero maintenance driving ranges. We are also working on several playable par-three course/driving range concepts where realistic playing artificial turf is essential for the dual capability maintenance requirements.

But why does artificial turf matter to golf? With the pressures of rising costs, labour shortages, water availability and environmental reputation, golf needs to look at creative solutions. For those of you designing, building, maintaining, and operating golf courses for the 95 per cent of the golfers that just want a quick drive from their home, a reasonable price, and a good time with their friends or family, enjoying a game that for centuries has brought people closer together, that solution may be intelligent artificial turf designed and built to play like the real thing.

Rob Gavarkovs is a golf course architect and partner at Pelz Player Greens and Jansen Golf Design

This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.