The Northern California Golf Association wanted to bring the 1986 design of Poppy Hills (Pebble Beach) Golf Course up to “modern standards,” starting with replacing the outdated and inefficient irrigation system in an effort to conserve valuable resources and improve playability. In planning, water conservation was targeted as a primary focus; the course was facing higher costs of treated water and reduced annual water allotments due to state mandates.

The approach

Prior to renovation, a water audit was performed at Poppy Hills, looking to uncover ways to save water and use it more efficiently, while simultaneously improving the playing experience. “Water mapping” identified areas of the course that faced chronic problems (ex: insufficient or inefficient irrigation coupled with poor drainage). In addition to turf that was stressed being identified for removal, extensive areas of turf from selected playing areas and out-of-play areas were chosen for removal. Turf removal was performed in areas of turf stress, selected playing areas (without compromising, and often enhancing, strategic intent) and out-of-play areas, always with an eye toward aesthetics.

The solutions

The golf course water consumption has been dramatically reduced. The irrigated turf area was reduced from 82 to 62 acres, while lengthening the golf course from 6,875 to more than 7,000 yards – a modern standard for the championships the NCGA hopes to attract. The water mapping project identified sensitive playable areas to install sensors which measure current moisture content in the soil and provide information used in controlling individual sprinkler heads. This precise sprinkler head technology – which can adjust the degree of arc of water distribution – to ensure even, efficient irrigation only in the places where and when water is needed. By sand capping the entire course, deeper penetration of the roots, combined with more drought-tolerant grasses, allowed all areas of turf to survive on less water.

The course was re-grassed with turf varieties including a mix of shade- and moisture-tolerant fescues, rye and others which can acclimate to all the variables in the Monterey Peninsula weather cycles. Grasses were also chosen based on their ability to be mowed at a single height according to a simplified open mowing pattern, saving time and energy and greatly enhancing playability. Out-of-play areas where turf was removed were seeded with grasses with a slightly higher, thinner, wispier growth pattern to meet permitting requirements, and sandy areas were seeded with a drought-tolerant native mix including yarrow, poppy and several fescues that require no irrigation. Poppy Hills is irrigated with tertiary sewage effluent water as part of a program that provides irrigation water to all seven Pebble Beach golf courses. Sand capping and drainage systems filter the water, which passes into naturally vegetated buffer zones that provide additional filtration into sensitive watersheds that outlet into the Pacific Ocean.

The takeaways

New technologies – water mapping, soil moisture sensors and controllers that take sensor data and in turn manage sprinkler head operation – are available to help courses use less water and energy to manage their layouts while giving golfers more consistent and enjoyable playing conditions.