With proper planning and personnel in place, golf course superintendents can minimize the hiccups of irrigation replacement projects and keep things flowing smoothly.
Golf course superintendents are used to working under stress, but few situations might generate a greater range of emotions—from angst to anticipation—than watching a construction crew tear up their turf to install irrigation piping beneath the ground. And that’s the case even when what’s being replaced is nearing the end of its life expectancy, and the superintendent knows the new system will bring much-needed new efficiencies.Just ask Todd Voss, Chief Operating Officer and former Golf Course Superintendent at the Double Eagle Club in Galena, Ohio. The exclusive property, which has 60 local members and 160 national and international members, completed the replacement of its irrigation system in June. While the project, which got underway in the spring of 2018, appears to be a success, Voss was feeling the heat during the process.
“I was scared to death,” he admits. “Double Eagle is known for our conditioning. I had to watch as giant machines plowed through everything and other machines dug up where the [sprinkler] heads were going.”
In fact, the irrigation crew foreman even suggested to Voss that he take a few vacation days during the project. So did he follow that advice? Not a chance. “I was there for every cut, every day,” he says.
But there are other ways to make the replacement of an irrigation system, which generally has a lifespan of about 30 years, relatively pain-free.
Eye on the Prize
One of the best ways for superintendents to keep their peace of mind while keeping a project on track is to keep the end game—the goals they hope to accomplish with a new irrigation system—always in mind.
The 28-hole Double Eagle property, which includes an 18-hole golf course, a “buy hole” for settling bets, and a nine-hole, par-3 course, replaced the original irrigation system on the property that was built in 1990-91 and opened in May 1992. The age of the irrigation system, along with changes in technology, provided the motivation for the project. “Everything was replaced. There is nothing original left,” says Voss.
The main goal of the project, he adds, was to improve coverage and have better control over where water is used. Because of its age, the club’s previous irrigation system had become unreliable. “It wouldn’t turn on when we needed it, or it would turn on when we didn’t need it,” notes Voss. “The old system was so unreliable that we only watered in the daytime.”
During the project, however, Double Eagle had to keep the old irrigation system up and running as the new one was being installed. The property, which shut down the project during the winter, closed holes as the new irrigation system was being installed on them. By using the “bonus hole,” though, golfers still could play a complete round.
Double Eagle’s new irrigation system has 2,500 heads, compared to 1,100 heads with the old system. The wall-to-wall system on the golf course, where the layout has a lot of doglegs, is nine heads or two heads wide, depending on the hole.
“The project was like building a house,” says Voss. “With irrigation systems, you have that many choices.” For example, Double Eagle selected HDPE pipes, which are fused, instead of PVC pipes, which are glued, and the size of the pipe was determined by water demand and the amount of time the grounds crew spends watering the course.
The creeping bentgrass on Double Eagle’s greens, tees, and fairways uses less water than the bluegrass in the rough, which also includes tall fescue. “It’s not about being green and lush. It’s about sustainability,” says Voss. “We want to be able to put water down where we need it and when we need it, as uniformly as possible.”
A Proper Signature
Desert Highlands in North Scottsdale, Ariz., which was built in 1982, is also replacing its original irrigation system as part of a $7 million, four-part renovation project. In addition to installing an all-new irrigation system, the property is redoing the bunkers, replacing the cart paths, releveling some of the tees, and revamping the par-4 13th hole of its Jack Nicklaus Signature Course. The renovation is expected to be completed in September, after which the property will overseed before reopening for play in October.
Desert Highlands also replaced the irrigation system on its 18-hole putting course. This 80- to 90-day part of the project, along with running a portion of the main irrigation lines, was completed in the summer of 2018.
Before the renovation got underway, Desert Highlands’ original irrigation system was starting to show its age. “We were having leaks, mostly at the fittings, not from the pipe itself,” notes Golf Course Superintendent Phil Shoemaker. “The distribution uniformity was sliding downhill on us, and we needed to protect our asset—the golf course.”
Control problems and communication issues were beginning to surface as well. “The field clocks exposed to the desert heat were starting to fail,” Shoemaker says. “We would come in each morning and ask, ‘What didn’t water last night?’”
To upgrade its system, Shoemaker says, Desert Highlands looked at a number of options, including changing heads and controls, positioning the heads around the bunkers, or improving the system with a wholesale replacement project. “The wholesale project is the route we took,” he reports. “We could have put a Band-Aid on it now, but in two or three years, we’d be back looking at it again.”
Making Water Great Again
Great Waters, an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Course at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Ga., also will reopen this fall after a total renovation, which includes a new irrigation system. The project, which started in June 2018, includes total turf replacement; new greens, bunkers, tees, and water features; updated infrastructure; and cart path renovation.
“It’s exciting to start a new project,” says Vice President of Agronomy Lane Singleton. “It’s even more exciting to finish one up.”
The property selected a two-wire irrigation system made by the same company that produced its previous system and manufactures its maintenance equipment. Reynolds Lake Oconee looked at other systems, Singleton says, but based its final decision on the quality of the familiar company and their comfort level with it. In addition, he adds, “It made the most sense financially to make volume purchases from the same manufacturer.”
As part of the irrigation project, which replaced the original system on the golf course that was built in 1991-92, Great Waters overhauled its pump house, main lines, lateral lines, and heads, and also upgraded its software.
“The golf course and its features were getting a little tired. It just wasn’t performing at the highest level any more, and Great Waters is the highest rated golf course we have,” explains Singleton.
“We wanted to get water where we needed it, and not run two or three heads at a time for one small area,” he adds. “We want to run water in an effective manner, and we want better uniformity.”
With 1,600 heads, Great Waters’ new irrigation system gives the golf course better coverage. The original system, which was starting to experience a lot of leaks and frequent down time, had 1,000 heads. “We will cut back our water usage,” says Singleton. “By adding more heads, it allows us to get water exactly where we need it.”
In addition, he says, the quality of the turf has improved on the golf course, courtesy of the renovation. The golf course now has zoysia tees and fairways, TifTuf Bermuda rough, and TifEagle greens. Previously, Great Waters had MiniVerde Bermuda greens and primarily 419 Bermuda on the rest of the golf course.
“We have completely changed our turf varieties,” says Singleton. “From a design standpoint, zoysia in the tees and fairways has different requirements. The hardline system in the fairways contributed to the number of heads. The heads are spaced out so that we can water the rough only, or just the fairways.”
Generally, it doesn’t seem to take long for golf course properties to reap the benefits of upgrading their irrigation systems. At Double Eagle, the new system gives the maintenance staff more control over its water inputs, and grounds crew members can now water only the rough, for example, instead of the rough and fairways
With its new irrigation system, Double Eagle is achieving its goals of using less water, providing better coverage, and giving golfers a better playing surface. “We’re watering more now, but using less water,” Voss says. “And the golf course is drier and firmer. Everything is cyclical. We’ll water heavily, and then not for three nights.”
In addition, he says, the advances in technology let him pinpoint irrigation inputs on the golf course with more accuracy. “We can water exactly where we need it,” says Voss. “I can use my phone to turn on one head for one dry spot.”
While it’s too soon to quantify results, he adds, “We’re definitely using less water, and [that] leads to savings any way you look at it.”
With its new irrigation system, Desert Highlands expects to reduce operating costs, decrease golf course maintenance, manage the water more efficiently, and take advantage of a more dependable system. “We did not sell the project as a return on investment to save water usage,” explains Shoemaker. “But if we can save a few percentage points, we’ll take it as a bonus.”
So far, Shoemaker notes, it has been difficult to quantify savings because of the fickle weather patterns at Desert Highlands in the past year. The golf course had one the wettest winters he can remember, but now, in the midst of monsoon season, the property hasn’t had rain in months. “When you depend solely on your irrigation system to water your turf, it’s a challenge,” he says.
Nevertheless, he adds, because of the new irrigation system, the grounds crew has already seen a decrease in maintenance efforts, such as troubleshooting problems with old sprinkler heads. As a result, the staff can spend its time on other golf course inputs.
The new irrigation system at Great Waters will give the property “the ability to grow grass where we didn’t have success in the past,” says Singleton. “It allows us to do our job a little easier and a little better,” he says. “We can work smarter, not harder.”
The property is in the final phases of grow-in, and the new irrigation system has accelerated the process. “It used to take eight to 10 hours to get everything to run,” Singleton says. “Now we can run everything on the golf course in four hours. We can water in an organized, structured, quick manner, and that is critical for grow-in.”
Over time, Singleton expects the new irrigation system to help the property reduce water and energy usage, lower electrical utility costs, and decrease manhours. “By running water in a shorter amount of time, we can save electricity in the pump house,” he notes. And the installation of more drought-tolerant turf varieties will lead to savings as well, he believes.
People, Planning and Presentations
During a renovation project, everyone involved has a role to play. As the former golf course superintendent at Double Eagle, Voss was heavily involved in the irrigation replacement project at his property. Because Double Eagle has no boards or committees, however, Voss reports only to the property owner.
Knowing your contractor and communication are key to ensuring that the project runs smoothly, he says
“As much as I hate meetings, it’s important to have meetings,” notes Voss. “You need to set expectations early, and I’m a timeline person.”
By adhering to the timeline, he explains, the other components of the project fell into place. “We did not have a single change order,” he notes. “When you go through the details, it makes a difference.”
Double Eagle’s Golf Course Superintendent, Lee Carlson, also played an integral role in the irrigation replacement project. He was part of the bidding process, laid out where certain components of the system would be installed, and was part of the construction management team.
Shoemaker also emphasizes the importance of hiring good contractors and good designers, which in turn leads to strong working relationships.
Desert Highlands hired an irrigation consultant to help the maintenance staff evaluate and design the project. The consultants have continued with the project by staking and mapping the property and helping with computer programming. The two irrigation technicians on staff at Desert Highlands have also contributed to the project, by helping the contractor know where the existing pipelines were located.
“Everybody knows each other. They respect each other. Everybody knows what their job is,” says Shoemaker. “If something goes wrong, you ‘cowboy up’ through it, and move on.”
Shoemaker has overseen the entire project, serving as a conduit between the contractors and the members. “If anybody has questions, it goes through me,” he says.
The Desert Highlands renovation is Shoemaker’s eighth irrigation project, but he says he has learned something during each one. From Phase I of the Desert Highlands renovation, for instance, he has discovered more about design and layout and where to actually locate the new sprinkler heads.
Technology has helped the property improve its irrigation practices as well. “The software and programming, and monitoring weather data, are so much better now,” notes Shoemaker.
With all of the technological advances in the golf course maintenance industry, however, at least one aspect of irrigation hasn’t changed.
“At our level —and at most higher-end golf courses—you’re still going to hand water, no matter what,” Voss says.
No Questions Not Asked
Keeping the membership in the loop is another key to a successful renovation. Desert Highlands held town hall meetings and created PowerPoint presentations for its membership. A group of members also served on the irrigation committee.
“A new irrigation system is not a sexy item like a new car or a new dining room,” notes Shoemaker. “It’s all underground. All you see are the sprinkler heads on the surface.”
He also cites the advantages of replacing an irrigation system as part of a larger, multi-faceted renovation project. “We had that discussion through the planning process, and we decided that we wanted to have one summer of disruption of the golf course for our members. Otherwise, it could take three or four summers,” he says. “While we don’t have a lot of members here in the summertime, we still want to maintain our standards and satisfy their needs.”
Singleton’s role in the Great Waters renovation project began long before any work ever got underway. “I started working with the ownership and executive team two years before the project started,” he says. “We had a lot of meetings and conversations. We discussed how long it would take, how it would affect golf course operations, and how it would affect us financially.”
Reynolds Lake Oconee is a real estate company, Singleton explains, and continued investment in the property and its overall conditioning will help sell properties. “Our members are our best source of referrals,” he adds. “If they’re not happy, nobody’s happy.”
Reynolds Lake Oconee personnel also decided to include the new irrigation system in the comprehensive renovation while the golf course was closed to make the other upgrades.
“We have six-and-a-half golf courses, so it was a fairly easy decision,” notes Singleton. “We wanted to do it all at once, rather than drag it out over several years.”
He also stresses the need to bring knowledgeable people on board for major renovation projects. “There’s a lot of moving parts, so having a good contractor onsite has been great,” he says. “It takes good planning—first and foremost, good strategy, and good people in the right places who know what they’re doing.”
At Great Waters, Golf Course Superintendent Brandon Hayes served as Singleton’s “guy on the ground each and every day, at all hours of the day.”
Cooperation from Mother Nature also helps, Singleton says, as well as the ability to plan accordingly. “You need to consider what your older system is doing for you versus what your newer system can do for you,” he reports. “You need to do enough research to make the right call for your facility.”
Summing It Up
> By replacing or updating an irrigation system as part of a larger, multi-faceted project, golf properties can minimize disruptions to their memberships.
> To ensure the success of an irrigation project, superintendents should have confidence in their contractor and make sure that everyone involved in the process understands their roles.
> The technological advances in new irrigation systems can help superintendents reduce their water usage, while still irrigating their properties with more frequency and more uniformity, to give golfers a better playing surface.