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Tracking Play May Help Golf Courses Survive Tough Times

By: Blaine Newnham


For me, it has always been an argument of style, the notion that golf courses ought to look more like they do in the United Kingdom and less like they do on television for professional tournaments.

You know, brown is the next green. Besides saving water, the game with harder and firmer fairways could be more fun. Indeed, it could be more welcoming for players who can't hit long, high shots that many of the new designs require.

The premise of brown is better still works, but it's no longer just about style, but survival. Not just about saving the spirit of the game, but about saving the golf course from closing.

Anyone who follows these things knows that golf rounds continue to decline. And that in many parts of the country - especially the Southwest and California - there is a serious drought. Not only is water scarce, but it is also expensive.

Bothered by the pace-of-play issue - the game still takes too darn long to play - the USGA began using small, simple GPS devices to track the movement of players to see where the holdups are. But in the process it also began to track players to see where they actually hit their balls - like in the fairway, or not.

During the last half of the last century, golf was a vehicle for selling real estate and expensive homes with golf-course views. At the same time, there was a fetish for wall-to-wall grass, for lush conditions that resembled Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.

Now there is a move afoot to require less water, less fertilizer and less maintenance, even so far as treating bunkers that are seldom in play differently than those that are.

Guiding the USGA directive on conserving water, energy and manpower, Jim Moore, the director of organization's Green Section's Educational Program, is asking golfers to put the small devices in their pockets to map play.

"It's easy to come in and say it looks like you have a four- or five-acre area that isn't really in play," said Moore, "and get the response that 'you don't know our course and our players.' "

Which, Moore agrees, is true. But with players mapping their way around the course, round after round, there is suddenly a case that can be made for swapping mowed turfgrass for little-watered or cared-for rough.

"What usually happens is the owners of the facility way overestimate how much of their golf course comes into play," said Moore. "It's been easier to just mow everything in sight."

The report from the trackers, said Moore, can "accurately and convincingly" build a case for exchanging turfgrass for rough.

Pinehurst No. 2, site of this year's U.S. Opens for women and men, is in some ways a great example of removing turfgrass for waste areas of sand and native plants. But that renovation was done at considerable expense.

Moore worries about a course just trying to survive, one that could spend less not only on water - if they can even get it - but labor, fertilizer and fuel. He estimates that, on the average golf course, three or four acres are used for greens, 20 to 30 acres for fairways, two to three for tees, and 50-100 for rough.

No one is advocating target golf where small patches of fairways demand pinpoint accuracy from the average player. The game doesn't need to be more difficult. The challenge is to attract more players, to keep costs down, and to make the course more about the players and less about the home owners.

Moore wants to take the tracking beyond mowed turf versus occasionally mowed rough to the use of bunkers. If players seldom play out of a bunker, why does it need to be maintained as well as a greenside bunker that gobbles up shots day after day?

He sees the value of having different levels of bunker maintenance and, in the process, saving considerable money.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's par putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "America's St. Andrews," which tells the colorful back-story of how Chambers Bay was selected as the site of the 2015 U.S. Open. Due for release on October 1, 2014, the book may be pre-ordered at www.AmericasStAndrews.com. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.