Saturday, 21 April 2012

How Wall-toWall Irrigation is Killing Golf!

Here is one point of view regarding irrigation and minimalism. I don't necessarily agree with it 100% but it's an interesting concept either way.

When in-ground irrigation systems were first used on golf courses a single irrigation line running down the center of the fairways was the norm. This was due to the fact that the heads usually had to be manually connected and there just wasn't enough time or money to water everything. As technology progressed and budgets increased multi-row systems became the norm. Along with these multi-row or wall-to-wall systems came the ability to keep all of the fairways and rough green year-round. So naturally the design of courses changed to include thick dense rough all through the course. If we had the ability to do it then why not?

Single row systems keep it green down the middle
where it should be!
Courses that were originally designed with single row irrigation systems were often upgraded to multi-row systems so that lush green conditions could be achieved. The thought was that lush and green was good. It was what the new courses had and apparently what the golfers expected.

With a single row irrigation system only the very center of the fairways can be adequately irrigated. As you moved further away from the center line less and less water would be applied. This allowed for green consistent turf down the middle of the fairways and as you ventured further out the conditions would become drier, and less dense.

The problem here lies when the older courses that were originally designed with a single row system were upgraded to multi-row systems. And even bigger problems were created when only the fairways were irrigated and not all of the rough. The problem here is this:

  • If you hit a shot right up the middle you are presented with a good lie in short green grass.
  • If you hit a shot a little off line you land in the rough, which is dense, green and very hard to hit a shot out of. 
  • If you hit a really poor shot way off line into the non-irrigated areas you are presented with an easier shot out of less dense rough that is not irrigated.
So you can see that this really doesn't make much sense to the penal design of the rough. You are penalized more for a slightly poor shot and even less for a very poor shot.
Take Augusta for example. They are green, wall to wall but they really don't have any rough. This makes sense for a course that is lush and green almost everywhere. Sure their rough is a little tougher than the fairways but the dry pine straw is definitely tougher to hit out of than the rough. This makes sense as to the way the game of golf should be played.

I have talked about the recent "upgrades" to Pinehurst No.2 in a previous post "Keeping it Rough" which discusses how they have reverted back to the "old" way of doing things to make the course more fun and challenging to play.

Many courses have adopted the intermediate rough to combat this issue but all we really have here is another expense, another mower set at another height of cut that needs to go out more often. Furthermore, this typically wasn't the way the course was originally designed to be maintained. There were 3 heights of cut, Greens, fairways and tees, and rough! How many heights of cut do you have, how many different rough heights? How many mowers does that take to maintain? How many hours does it take to maintain each week? I'll tell you this, single row irrigation, One mower, one height, one day, no days in the summer! Zero fertilizer, zero water, zero pesticides.

So in our effort to have the latest and greatest in irrigation technology we have really been changing the way the game of golf is perceived and played. When a new technology comes along it is just human nature to jump on board. We often take these technologies to the extreme just because we can.

In the case of multi-row irrigation systems I think that technology has gone too far. Our ability to water everything all the time has changed the game in many ways. It has changed the way it is played. Players are unfairly penalized for slightly miss-hit shots. It has increased the cost of golf course maintenance. Green grass needs to be cut and acres upon acres of rough is very expensive to cut, fertilize, and maintain. Lets not forget the cost of water! With this irrigated turf comes problems with traffic and pests. If we have the ability to keep it green with irrigation then we must keep it green with fertilizer and pesticides.

My course was designed with a single row irrigation system and ever since graduating from turf college I have wanted to upgrade our fairways with a multi-row irrigation system. Why? Because this is what we were taught. This is what was considered to be the best and most efficient use of our precious water.

Typical summer conditions with a single row system. Green down the middle,
drier as you move out! This rough is free to maintain in the summer!
Tell me this. What uses more water? Wall to wall irrigation or a single row down the middle that is properly operated to irrigate only the middle strip of turf with everything else left to go dormant in the hot summer months?

So with this in mind I challenge you all to think about how you water your courses. Do you have a single row irrigation system? Water just enough to keep the center lines of the fairways green and don't worry about the rest. It will be better for the way the game is played and your budgets. For those of you who have systems that have been upgraded from the "old" single row, re-think the way you use this new technology on your old course. Was your course designed for thick dense rough or was it designed for dry, firm, and less dense brown rough. Maybe only the center lines need to have the water on them. Keep the rough close to the fairways sparse. And for those of you at modern golf courses with the now industry standard wall-to-wall irrigation systems, keep the water on, because sadly, that is what your course was designed for and sadly it is going to cost a lot more to maintain that rough. Modern courses were designed to thick rough, without it they are pointless. The only way out is to rethink the design of the course.

I see a change coming in our industry. We are right in the middle of it. With prosperity came excess, with times of trouble comes clarity. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that it is better. We are starting to see some of the top courses change back to the ways things used to be done. Golfers are becoming more aware of the true cost of thick dense rough and are becoming more tolerant of brown turf. For turf managers the switch to brown rough should be easy but we still have a ways to go before it will be.

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