Scientific knowledge is exploding – estimated to be doubling every five years. So what will golf course maintenance resemble in 2050?

Editor’s note: This isn’t a story about how golf courses will be maintained in the socalled “Jetsons” age. It’s a story based on technology that’s happening now and continues to improve rapidly. The story’s sources include Jack Uldrich, a renowned futurist, and three veteran golf course superintendents, whose passion and wherewithal for their profession allow them to take a smart and realistic look at the future of golf course maintenance.

With respect to “Star Trek” fans, golf course superintendents will not be “beamed” around their golf courses as a way of transport in 2050. They’ll still travel by golf car (guided by GPS, perhaps) from hole to hole, but some of the maintenance that superintendents perform on their courses in 2050 will be distinctly different from today.

Think about how much golf course maintenance has changed in the past decade. Now think about how much it will change in the next 36 years when it’s 2050. It’s hard to imagine, really.

That’s because scientific knowledge is changing faster than the putting greens roll on the PGA Tour. In fact, scientific know-ledge is estimated to be doubling every five years, says Jack Uldrich, a global futurist based in Minneapolis.

“In five years we will know twice as much as we know now,” Uldrich says. “In 10 years we will know four times as much. This new information will change [what we do] in profound ways. But we have to be aware of what is coming.”

Uldrich’s last statement is the reason that superintendents, suppliers and others in the industry should keep a keen eye on the future. What happens today – consider government regulations and other factors – will define tomorrow.

“It’s wise for us to consider what our industry will look like in 2050,” says Mark Esoda, the certified golf course superintendent at the Atlanta Country Club in Marietta, Ga. “Most of the world goes day by day, and we don’t look enough for ways to improve for the future.”

Water, water not everywhere

The U.S. population, currently at 317 million, is expected to grow to 439 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There’s a net gain of one person every 16 seconds.

With population centers swelling and land resources becoming limited, water will become even scarcer, says Jon Jennings, the certified golf course superintendent at Shinnecock Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.

Industry researchers will continue to develop turfgrass varieties and plants that require less water, but something more will need to be done, Jennings says.

“I’m not talking about a Band-Aid-type fix,” he adds.

Jennings wonders if desalinization could become more popular, but he says it’s currently very expensive and leaves a “huge carbon footprint” along with a briny byproduct that isn’t environmentally friendly.

Irrigating with reclaimed water is a great idea, but Jennings wonders if reclaimed water will be available for use on golf courses in 2050, especially if more of it is purified to the point of drinking water, for which there is a push.

Esoda is already looking to the future and has been for several years. He was instrumental in formulating a best management practices irrigation template for Georgia superintendents, which was endorsed by the state’s environmental protection division and recognized by the governor’s office as a proactive method of water use and conservation by the industry. Esoda advocates that golf courses and other entities begin to harvest and store water, something that isn’t happening enough. Just conserving water is not enough, especially with the population increasing, he says.

By 2050, “Golf courses will only be able to use the water that they can store,” Esoda adds.

In arid regions like Arizona and California, golf courses will have to store water underground so it doesn’t evaporate, Esoda notes. “And they’ll have to be very judicious with it,” he adds.

Esoda is on a Georgia planning committee to determine water use through 2050. The committee has allocated a 0 percent increase of water use for all golf courses through that time. So if 20 new golf courses open between now and that time, the state’s current courses will have to share that water allotment with the new courses.

Far-Out Thinking

A few years ago the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine polled Americans on what the world will be like in 2050. Here’s what some of the research revealed:

81% feel computers will probably be able to converse like humans.

71% think man will find a cure for cancer.

64% are optimistic about the future. (But this number has dropped from 81% in a similar poll conducted in 1999.)

61% feel the Earth will be warmer mid-way through this century.

40% believe the technology to read people’s minds will exist by 2050.

The Atlanta Country Club has embarked on a program to enhance its water capability annually, which includes drilling a new well, upgrading the pump station and installing new liners in irrigation lakes. The club’s buildings and parking lots are also constructed to harvest water.

“It’s whatever we need to do to make sure we have water and are storing water for the future,” Esoda says.

If people, including golf course personnel, aren’t thinking about storing water now, they will in the near future when water use reaches a crisis point because of population growth. What will it take to get golf courses to change? It could start with water restrictions, Esoda says. But the key is for golf courses to start now to store water.

Jeff Carlson, the superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard, is a proponent of subsurface irrigation and expects that more golf courses will adapt to the technology by 2050. Carlson envisions irrigation systems comprised of underground sensors and sub-surface drip irrigation.

“Our water use will drop unbelievably [if we adapt the technology],” he says “Sprinkler heads will be a thing of the past.”

Sensor technology could be widespread on golf courses in 2050. Sensor use is roughly doubling annually in all industries, Uldrich says. Soon, through sensors, turf will be able to “talk” to superintendents about various inputs, Uldrich says.

Superintendents will purchase more in-ground sensors as their cost declines and they become more user friendly, Jennings predicts. Mobile soil moisture meters, which are common on golf courses now and have helped superintendents become better irrigators, will be much improved by 2050 and will be able to achieve more hard-line data, Jennings says. More data points mean superintendents will be able to more easily make agronomic decisions, including with irrigation.

“It will take a lot of the ‘feel’ out of the job,” Jennings adds.

While Jennings counsels superintendents to embrace improved sensor technology, he quickly adds that they shouldn’t become solely reliant on it. “Feel” will still be important, he states.

Improved drought-resistant turf will still play a role in water reduction. Uldrich raves about the improvements being made in gene sequencing technology, including a reduction in cost. The improvements will only help researchers in their quest to develop drought-resistant turf.

“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg with this, and the advances are only going to accelerate,” he says.

Biotechnology will also improve to make irrigation more efficient. For instance, Uldrich says researchers at Oxford University are researching E. coli bacteria to deliver growth hormones to plant roots to prevent plant desiccation.

A Glimpse Into the Future

  • Superintendents won’t be “beamed” around their courses.
  • Courses will have to store more water for irrigation.
  • Courses will utilize more underground sensors and sub-surface drip irrigation.
  • Improvements in gene-sequencing technology will make for improved drought-resistant turf.
  • Pesticides will be so much safer that the skull and bones on labels will be long gone.
  • Nanotechnology will help the industry advance with electric technology.
  • Robotic technology will be better, faster and more affordable.

Six months of efficacy?

Superintendents have seen how much synthetic pesticides have changed in the past five to 10 years. They now feature more environmentally friendly active ingredients and improved efficacy.

Jennings says superintendents don’t use nearly the amount of contact fungicides they used to. He remembers the days not long ago when superintendents and their crews sprayed fungicides every three to five days if needed.

“Now we have fungicides that last up to 21 to 28 days,” he says. “And we’re putting them out at 0.25 ounces per 1,000 square feet, and they have the toxicity level of coffee.”

Could a fungicide application last up to six months in 2050?

“I think it could,” Jennings says. He notes that some vaccines last a lifetime and says he wouldn’t be surprised if such chemistry makes its way into turfgrass science in coming years.

Of course, a fungicide that controls dollar spot for six months would be priced accordingly, Jennings adds. A superintendent wouldn’t want to waste a drop. That said, superintendents could see savings on costs related to manufacturing (chemical companies wouldn’t have to manufacture as much product) and shipping.

Pesticides will be so much safer by 2050 that the skull and crossbones on labels will be long gone, Carlson predicts. Most pesticides will contain the signal word “caution,” currently the least threatening verbiage behind “warning” and “danger,” but they will perform well, says Carlson, who also says future fungicides will be more about enhancing natural defenses in the plant than killing the fungus.

Carlson also expects a more environmentally friendly approach toward insect and weed control. He says weeds could be “zapped with something like iron or nitrogen that cause them to grow out of their skin” and die.

Bionutritionals and biopesticides, which are already making headway in golf course maintenance, will also improve and be more widespread. It’s estimated there are 40,000 microbes in a single gram of dirt, with each microbe containing its own set of unique genes, Uldrich says.

“I really think we’re just at the start of this revolution,” he adds.

Bioproducts will be more abundant for another reason.

“We have to find more ways to get rid of our garbage,” Esoda says. “As time goes on, we’re going to get better at managing nature with nature. We have to.”

More robots?

Five years ago nanotechnology was a $100 million industry. By the end of the decade it’s projected to be a $100 billion industry, Uldrich says, noting that nanotechnology will become a “game-changing technology.”

Nanotechnology will impact golf course maintenance more and more. It will help the industry advance with electric technology. How cool would it be to charge an electric greens mower or a utility vehicle in a matter of minutes instead of several hours?

“There are some extraordinary advances occurring within the research and development labs at some of our large corporations,” Uldrich says.

Robotic technology will be better, faster and more affordable, Uldrich adds. Google has already developed technology for a robotic car, which is now legal in Nevada, California and Florida.

“The advances in robotic technology are coming sooner [rather] than later,” Uldrich adds.

The industry may need more robots on the course, Jennings says. Despite an increase in population, there’s currently a decline in U.S. birth rates, which could lead to fewer workers to mow.

“Labor scarcity could be the genesis for increased automation and robotics,” Jennings says.

Carlson would rather not see robots replace human beings, but he thinks it’s a great idea if robotic mowers could mow courses at night and humans could set them up during the day.

“Robots can do the routine stuff,” says Carlson, adding that they would make sense for raking bunkers and rolling greens. “But I don’t think they can set up a golf course.”

More than ever, golf course maintenance will be about precision in 2050, says Esoda, who expects the cost of GPS technology to decrease by 2050, which means it will be used more on golf courses. He envisions a spray rig being able to instantly detect the difference between a broadleaf weed and a grassy weed and then spraying the appropriate herbicide to control it.

Carlson envisions GPS-guided sprayers that shut off automatically upon entering certain areas that don’t need to be sprayed. “Maybe only a third of the fairway is sprayed because that’s the only part that needs it,” he adds.

The increase in technology could mean that superintendents and assistants will need more than agronomic expertise; they’ll need to understand computer programming and engineering components as well.

“The labor pool won’t be geared toward the work as we know it now,” Jennings says.

Not that far out

Jennings says his peers shouldn’t be intimidated by the complexity of future technology.

“I’m not saying we’re going to be mowing grass with laser beams or anything like that,” he adds. “This is pretty realistic stuff.”

Rather, superintendents need to embrace what’s coming, he stresses.

But Jennings is adamant that there will always be a place for golf course superintendents. Golf courses will still need people who can scout the putting greens, among other agronomic duties, not to mention deal with inquisitive golfers.

“I don’t think it’s about dumbing down or smarting up the superintendent,” Jennings says of future technology. “It’s just adapting to the way the industry moves.”