Superintendent offers five out of- the-box ideas for conservation

This year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst brought back into the forefront of golf management conversations the topic of “brown” golf.

When is brown golf acceptable, and when is it not? How do managers of turfgrass toe that brown/green line successfully? Are they even allowed to do so at their facility without fear of losing their job?

It’s safe to say that at no time in recent memory has there been what honestly seems like a more receptive time and environment for trying to turn many of our golf courses toward the slightly brown. Although we can’t give all the credit for this to what happened at Pinehurst this summer (the economy and stiffer water regulations being other factors), we do need to give a good amount of it to the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the folks at Pinehurst.

One little tidbit I’d like to drop into Pinehurst conversations with golfers (almost all of which I found loved watching the U.S. Open and Pinehurst’s course conditions) is that the No. 2 course went from using 55 million gallons of water per year to 15 million. That’s a real jaw-dropper.

I really think something has been created here that will be similar (and perhaps the exact opposite) to the Augusta Syndrome. Maybe we call it the Pinehurst Effect: The acceptance of the idea of a more natural golf course by the powers that be in golf.

The great thing is, even if many people are still reluctant to this idea of browner golf and hope that once this summer is over the whole Pinehurst Effect thing goes away, next summer’s U.S. Open is going to hit them in the stomach yet again.

The 2015 U.S. Open will be held at Chambers Bay outside of Seattle. Having seen the course myself, I can tell you they’re going to get another strong dose of natural, environmentally friendly, fast and firm golf in the same manner in which they got it at Pinehurst’s No. 2.

OK, so let’s assume for a minute that you’re now going to produce a product that leans toward water conservation in one form or another. This means that the reduction of some of your past watering techniques is based solely on a decision you (with the blessing from the powers that be) consciously made to cut back on usage, and not based simply on a lack of water available to you.

You’ve decided you want to go a little brown. You want to do this not only for the playability of the course (recreating the Pinehurst Effect), but also because you love this big, old planet of ours and you know deep down that water conservation is the right thing to do.

So, how do you go about it? Simply turn down the time on the sprinklers and call it good? Well sure, that would help, but that’s not exactly cutting-edge thinking. Nor is it always the wisest or most efficient way in which to achieve your desired goal.

So, I invite you to consider five water-conservation ideas that are definitely more creative – and most likely more efficient – than just turning the watering time down on your irrigation system.

1. Cultural controls

One big factor in watering turf less is making sure said turf has the ability to handle it. As we all know, there’s a difference between a healthy brown look and, well, dead turf.

Thatch reduction is a key component in getting the water you do put down (or Mother Nature puts down) all the way to the root zone. One thing working in our favor in this is that the stubborn thatch layer is often built up due to overwatering. It stands to reason that turning off water in some areas and reducing it in others is going to help those too-thick layers.

Getting to the thatch as early in the growing season as possible with some type of dethatcher is beneficial. Or, if not a dethatcher, some kind of tine or knife, and then filling with sand. Punch and fill. Simplistic, but effective.

2. Prioritizing.

This means simply determining how much water (if any) each area of the golf course is going to get, at least through the irrigation system. Controlling the weather isn’t quite in our arsenal yet. We’re talking greens, tees, approaches, surrounds, fairways, primary rough and secondary rough.

Does your secondary need water? If we’re truly embracing brown golf, then probably not. Can you even eliminate all watering to the primary rough? If you can get away with it (meaning if you can keep your job), do it. If not, you can certainly reduce it.

Fairways and approaches can be re-evaluated with your new brown approach. Firm and fast, slightly off-color.

3. Wetting agents.

Most of us have been using them for a long time anyway, so this is no great new idea. But perhaps this is the time to expand the use of wetting agents. Use them in areas we’ve never even thought of applying them to before. Primary rough? How about deep rough?

Should you increase the applications to your fairways and approaches? Decrease the amount of time between these apps? How about hitting the greens and tee surrounds when you’re hitting the greens and tees themselves?

A certain cost will be involved with increasing wetting agent use, but certainly this cost can be weighed and offset by decreasing the money spent for water and the electricity required to put that water through your system.

4. Tweaking the system.

The elements of the system that can be tinkered with include the pump station, heads (and nozzles), and the software you’re using to do the watering for you.

Decreasing water use doesn’t mean using an antiquated irrigation system is acceptable in any way. In fact, just the opposite is probably true. The ability to successfully irrigate with less water means better, newer, more effective system components. The pump station will continue to be the pivotal cog in most golf course operations. An efficient, cost-effective pumping station that can deliver consistent pressure, utilizing the water at the nozzle without waste, is imperative. The key to optimizing the playability and the aesthetics you’re trying to achieve is crucially dependent on a fully integrated pump system.

The heads and, specifically, the nozzles you’ve chosen are another important piece of this puzzle. Consider nozzles with low precipitation rates, traditionally used on compacted areas as well as slopes. Nozzles with low trajectory rates should be used for consistently windy, open areas. Nozzles with a second undercut orifice to water closer to the head can deliver better uniformity. Nozzles with adjustable or variable arcs are also important. The tiny nozzle is more important than one can imagine.

And, finally, your ability to communicate with your system is pivotal. Software that connects not only the pump station to the heads and valves, but connects them to you as well, keeps you informed and in the loop. Easy to use. Easy to change. With the manner in which computer technology advances from year to year (or month to month), if your software system is more than five years old, you should probably think about updating soon. If it’s older than 10, you need to update.

5. Spacing or redesign.

I think my favorite quote from Bob Farren, director of golf course maintenance and grounds at Pinehurst, during the U.S. Open was what he said in regard to the single-row irrigation in the fairways, “There’s no strategy involved where the water hits. … It’s intended to be very random.”

Intentionally random. Don’t you just love that concept? Wouldn’t mind that on my gravestone. Loving father. Devoted husband. And one intentionally random dude.

The redesign of irrigation systems back to a single row down the center is fascinating to think of, considering the mindset we’ve had in creating perfect green golf over the last two to three decades. This reversal of technology, if you will – I can’t help but smile at the concept.

I think the main takeaway point from Farren’s interesting comment is the return to the simplicity of the game – the original designs of golf courses, and, if you will, the intent. Aim for the middle of the fairway. Anything right, anything left, who knows what you’re going to encounter? Isn’t this the way golf was meant to be?

Of course, not all water-use decisions are golf related. They aren’t all turf-health related, and they’re not all playability related. Water restrictions and the availability of water now and in the future are ultimately going to guide our decisions, as much as or, in many cases, more than the conditions of a golf course we see on television.

Either way, water conservation by choice or by force, it probably isn’t going to matter. What matters is your ability to keep thinking on your feet about the future of the game of golf, and the future color of your grass.

It’s time for all of us to be a little more intentionally random.