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Point: Articial turf is a viable option for golf courses

Point: Articial turf is a viable option for golf courses / Counterpoint: Artificial turf must overcome problems

Starks, Mike

To narrowly define the golf course industry as only what happens on the golf course proper and dismiss practice areas as peripheral misses the big picture. Today’s golfer practices much more than in the past and good practice areas have a large influence on the golfers overall experience at a golf course. This is in large part due to the example set by the modern PGA Tour player. Who hasn’t heard the stories of Vijay Singh hitting balls from dawn to dusk, or about Tiger Woods’ work ethic when it comes to practice and physical conditioning?

Research conducted by Golf 20/20 shows that what keeps players coming back to the golf course is hitting good shots. The more a player practices, the more likely he is to hit good shots and therefore return to the course to play again. I would say then that practice areas are an integral part of the golf course industry. If you agree that practice areas are an integral part of the golf course industry, then you would also have to agree that any product that makes practice areas more playable, less expensive to maintain, and open for longer periods of time is good for the golf course industry. Also, reducing maintenance requirements of the practice areas frees up resources (money and manpower) that a course can redirect to the maintenance of the in play areas on the golf course.

TourTurf products for tee lines, practice greens, landing zones and landscaping are much different than the old Astroturf-type products. A recent poll of NFL players voted the Fieldturf artificial field at Seahawks Stadium to be the third best field in the league. That’s not the third best artificial field. It’s the third best in the NFL of all fields, including natural grass fields. Just as innovations made by our partner Fieldturf have made synthetic surfaces much more acceptable as an alternative to natural grass for athletic fields, TourTurf’s innovative artificial turf products have raised the acceptance by the golf industry for natural grass alternatives. You might be surprised to read our client list, which includes some of the most prestigious private clubs in the country, as well as golf learning centers, The First Tee facilities and public driving ranges.

Our artificial turf tee lines are much different than driving range mats. The old driving range mats were installed on concrete slabs and usually had a permanent rubber tee. A TourTurf tee line is composed of two-inch polyethylene fibers. The fibers are held in place with an infill mixture of sand and cryogenic rubber. This combination provides a much more realistic practice experience than hitting off the old-style mats. A golfer can use a wooden tee to tee his ball anywhere on the surface, and he is rewarded for good swings and penalized for bad swings. With TourTurf landing zone, a course can redirect water used to irrigate the range to the golf course and eliminate lost balls due to plugging.

I believe that golf is best played on natural grass and it pains me to think that economics, environmental concerns and the scarcity of water in certainareasof the country are threatening the viability of traditional 18-hole courses. However, as a realist, I have to accept that and focus on finding quality alternatives to keep courses open and playable. We have recently signed a contract to build a course in Colorado utilizing artificial turf on all playing surfaces: tees, fairways, and greens. There was no available water in this area of Colorado to irrigate a golf course, so it was either artificial turf or no golf course.

Two years ago, my partners and I sat down with Arnold Palmer at his office in Latrobe, Pa., to discuss our company and products. Mr. Palmer predicted then that at some point an entire golf course would be built with artificial turf. I don’t think any of us, including Mr. Palmer, thought that it would happen this quickly. As much of a traditionalist as Arnold Palmer is, he recognized that things change. He also recognized that improvements in artificial turf were making the product more and more acceptable as an alternative to natural grass and that artificial turf has a legitimate place in the golf industry.

Artificial turf usually looks artificial from a distance and there is no doubt about it up close. My preference for natural grass is clear. Golfers, as a group, will choose natural grass over artificial grass when they are given the choice.

A friend of mine was at the Bay Hill Club where Arnold Palmer has an artificial turf putting green as well as normal turf greens. He said when both are open, there is no one using the artificial turf putting green.

While artificial turf has found a place on athletic fields, this is primarily due to significant problems faced by natural grass in specific locations and uses, often due to heavy traffic and/or poor drainage. Natural grass failures will continue to drive the market for these products. If you can’t grow acceptable turf, then artificial turf is an important option, sometimes the only option. The quality today is vastly improved and should continue to improve over time as solutions are found to problems that have made it undesirable as compared to natural turf.

So, what are the obstacles that artificial turf must overcome to gain acceptance? I would suggest these few as highlights:

* High installation cost – You may not have to install an irrigation system, but costs as high as $12 to $15 per square foot were quoted on one Web site.

* Maintenance costs – “No maintenance” claims are absurd. All you have to do is check out a few of the artificial turf driving ranges and you will see evidence of annual bluegrass. Weeds must be controlled, and the use of chemicals may stain the material. For sure, the lack of thatch opens up questions of contamination from using chemicals that could easily leach into ground-water for lack of a biologically active thatch layer.

* Uneven wear-As a golf course fairway, they will be like an old mattress, worn out in the middle. Unfortunately, unlike natural grass, it will not be possible to protect the quality of the surface. From the time it is installed until the day it is replaced, the product will reduce in quality in a linear fashion. Unlike turf that can be maintained at a high quality or rejuvenated with overseeding and other techniques, artificial turf will only become more worn out until it is replaced.

* Tom seams and rips – Effective repairs for torn and ripped areas have yet to be satisfactorily addressed. This problem takes the luster off the factory shine very quickly. This is a maintenance function, whether it is admitted or not. Solutions to these problems are critical to the future success of the product.

* Loss of the environmental benefits of turf-I mentioned the thatch that is so valuable for trapping nutrients from reclaimed water and drainage water that flows from off site across turf. In addition, turf is cooler. The idea of standing on an artificial golf course in the middle of summer in Phoenix is not appealing at all. The feel of the shot from today’s artificial turfs may be of good quality, but the experience continues to be unnatural and uncomfortable.

Today, golfers will choose natural grass when they are given a choice. I do not know what the future holds or if golfers will always be given a choice. Water is a precious commodity, especially in the West where I live.

Is it fair to call the use of artificial turf for an entire golf course blasphemy because it is just so far from the experience we expect? I am unwilling to say that golf should always be played on turf and that artificial turf will never replace natural grass. It is certainly possible that in the future water will not be available in some parts of the country for recreational uses. In this circumstance, artificial turf might be the only option.

Mike Starks is CEO of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.-based TourTurf Holdings LLC.

Ray Davies is director of golf course maintenance and construction for Petaluma, Calif.-based CourseCo Inc.

Copyright United Publications, Inc. Jul 2003

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