The United States Golf Association created a GPS service in the summer of 2014 to help courses track golfer movements in order to improve pace of play. Knowing how long rounds actually took and what holes were bottlenecks helped inform a better assignment of tee times.
At the 2018 PGA Merchandise Show, golf course architect and designer John Sanford approached the USGA booth and realized the technology could offer a different use. He had already created a preliminary plan to aid Florida’s Crandon Park in reducing natural turf and making the course more sustainable but wondered whether GPS tracking could enhance that effort.
“I started paying attention and saw what this tracking system could do in terms of creating the traffic patterns of golfers and the heat map that is produced from it,” Sanford said. “I thought this could really help us where we really need turf grass and where we don’t. It was literally a light bulb went off. It’s a simple but effective tool for that kind of approach.”
Crandon is a public course on Key Biscayne owned and operated by Miami-Dade County that has hosted 18 PGA Tour Champions events. Its 18 holes included 130 acres of turf, which cost the county $1.1 million in irrigation costs per year. Sanford’s original site analysis identified 29 acres of Bermuda grass that could be replaced with other materials.
Sanford’s preliminary plan for Crandon Park. (Courtesy of Sanford Golf Design)
Sanford, owner of Sanford Golf Design, and Crandon Park began collaborating with the USGA. Hundreds of golfers carried GPS tags around the course over several weeks, helping create a heat map with red areas showing heavy traffic and blue showing minimal passage. The graphic objectively showed where golfers regularly hit their shots and where they walk the course.
Sanford overlaid the USGA’s heat map over his own turf reduction plan and found additional areas of little-used turf—and also the opposite.
“The heat map, that’s the real indicator for us, in terms of overlaying that onto the golf course work we had done and seeing really two things: where we could reduce turf, of course, but also where we might need turf,” Sanford said.
Sanford’s final plan for Crandon Park. (Courtesy of Sanford Golf Design)
The final plan Sanford submitted to Crandon Park included more than 40 acres of turf that could be removed. That landscaping work will be done in phases, but the expected savings in water costs are $350,000 per year, or about 30 percent of the current irrigation budget. Sanford said the Crandon course superintendent has already removed some sprinkler heads and adjusted a few others, making a 10-percent reduction in water usage without any capital expense.
Those are significant savings facilitated by the use of non-invasive GPS tags and the USGA’s resource management tool. “Most of our involvement is helping the end user understand and get the data,” said Scott Mingay, the USGA’s director of product development. “As you know from any big data project—and we collect a lot of data when we go on site—it can be overwhelming to a user sometimes.”
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An additional consideration in the reduction plans is how to replace the turf. (Simply allowing grass to die off could lead to a weed invasion.) At the Crandon course, Sanford has recommended the installation of crushed stone and several plantings. He emphasizes local materials that will enhance or at least not detract from the aesthetics and playability.
“Keeping the ground plane clean and allowing people, especially in a public golf situation, to find their ball and advance it is extremely important,” Sanford said. “Obviously pace of play comes into effect in those situations.”
All of Sanford’s course renovation projects include some degree of turf reduction aimed at making the sport more sustainable, both environmentally and economically. To date, Sanford has not yet used GPS to aid those decisions anywhere other than Crandon but, he said, “We definitely will.”