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September 2019

USGA Tool Taking Different Track

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By Steve Eubanks

Sometimes what you set out to create is not what the end-user sees at all. Few people know, for example, that the halogen light was invented for ships in the hopes of reducing fires. But in a move that no one saw coming, the immediate and most profitable use of the product in the first year was night baseball.

The internet was created so academics could share research without having to travel outside the confines of their Ivy League offices. No one thought the public would share data through computers.

In our own game, the metal wood was originally designed as a rental club for driving ranges, the logic being that a beginning golfer or a group of kids fooling around on a Friday night couldn’t break it.

A similar phenomenon is occurring with the latest tech tool created by the USGA. The GPS tag and accompanying resource management tool was initially designed to provide pace-of-play data to operators. But within a year, it has become a critical component in course maintenance practices. 

“Our initial plan was always to put these GPS loggers on golfers to create pace of play research,” said Scott Mingay, the director of product development at the USGA. Mingay came to the USGA from auto racing where he worked with Corvette. So, it came as no surprise that speed was on his mind when he helped create a small, unobtrusive GPS device and accompanying software that logged where every golfer walked, stood and hit shots.

It just made sense that this data would be used to track pace. If there are bottlenecks or other areas – bunkers that hold up play, for example – decisions could be made to speed things up.

But the courses that used the product, while certainly attuned to pace, had another goal in mind. “We’ve been running a pilot at Rancho Park (Golf Course in California),” Mingay said. “Because of the data from the tags, they identified more than 40 acres of turf they could take out. As a result, they’re realizing a $350,000 (a year) savings just on water. (Prior to the program) they had about a million a year water budget. That’s a significant savings.”

Water isn’t the only savings. Eliminating that maintained acreage cuts fuel costs in half and, in a year, saves more than 200 man-hours of labor, not to mention the costs of fertilizer, pesticides and other chemicals.
 
“The biggest things we hear from courses is that (they need to tackle) labor and pace,” Mingay said. “We’re hoping to help them answer both of those questions at the same time. Originally it was a pace tool. More recently we made this into a product that the golf course can use to help their maintenance.

“The other thing we’re doing is putting (GPS) loggers on maintenance workers. So we do a bit of time analysis to determine what sort of time commitment certain maintenance paths take around the course and how that is impacting play. The tool allows operators to then put in their own labor rates and run scenarios where you say, rather than having this person do this task in this way, what if we diverted them to somewhere else on the course. Will that have more impact?

“With labor (costs) going up and the fixed pot of money from rounds and fees and other things not keeping pace, the question is: Where should I be using those funds to have the most impact on my customers? If we see that no one goes into a particular bunker but the maintenance staff is maintaining it like everyone is going in there, what if you redesigned it? The tool will show you how many hours and how much money you will save by taking that bunker out. You no longer have to guess, which is what superintendents had to do before. 

“We have almost every (maintenance) line item built into the tool,” Mingay said. “No two facilities have the same problems. We have courses in the Northeast that are facing significant pressures due to minimum wage hikes.

That’s different than a Rancho Park or other courses in the southwest where the pressures are coming from water usage. With this tool, having the ability to look at all those different areas and run scenarios on what can be impacted, we can span the breadth of research that the USGA has assembled.”

Currently, 100 courses have used the tool. The cost is $899, which can be saved in electricity and labor in under a month.

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