Putting perfection on Wentworth’s greens
Image credit: Getty Images
The BMW PGA Championship is the flagship event on golf’s European Tour. As this year’s event gets under way at Wentworth, golfers will expect the Surrey course to be in tip-top condition. We look at the technology used to achieve perfection.
Wentworth has a glittering past for golfing drama, having been the venue for both the World Matchplay and the PGA Championship. Winners across the two competitions include the sport’s most iconic figures – Jack Niclaus, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and many, many more. This year the 2019 BMW PGA Championship has switched from the spring to September to accommodate the US tour schedule.
The tournament is the highlight of the European Tour and is played at one of its most beautiful courses. Not that crafted beauty necessarily inspires the golfers; they want the best, fairest golfing experience. And when the first players tee off on the West Course, they can be sure that Wentworth Golf Club has plundered the latest technology on offer to ensure that the golf is of the highest standard.
“The speed of the first green has to be exactly the same as on the practice green,” says Peter Moore, head greenkeeper on the West Course, “and the following 17 need to be exactly the same as that.” It sounds straightforward, but as he is talking the heavens open and the finer details of the course fade behind the wall of water. Out on the course are a number of hardy souls, all expecting the putting surface to remain perfectly consistent despite the conditions.
At this level, simple drainage is not enough; it doesn’t react quickly enough to too much water and doesn’t protect the grass when there is too little. And technology is now on hand to support the work of the greenkeeper – a trade that traditionally marries together experience with the dark arts. Golf course knowledge and instinct has its limitations when the goal is consistency, particularly on the greens.
New technology is not restricted to course play. Those looking to work on their game can do so in the warm and dry.
The GEARS system is one of only a handful in the UK and the only one at an English golf club. Using the same motion- capture technology used in CGI-heavy movies, cameras pick up on all body and club head movements so that a swing can be analysed and worked on. This syncs with further simulators and radar ball-tracking devices to provide reams of information about how good – or bad – a swing is.
As with any engineering conundrum the first step is measurement. A problem can only be quantified and controlled if it can be measured, and the way of measuring the speed of a golf green is a Stimpmeter. This is used the world over, and is a simple device that involves rolling a ball down a slide of standard angle and length. How far the ball runs is the speed of the green. Lightning fast greens such as at Wentworth and found on the US tour are typically 12ft (Stimpmeters haven’t gone metric), while more typical readings for club golfers might be 8-10ft.
However, the kit does get more sophisticated. The key tool that Moore and his team uses is the POGO system. This is about the size and shape of an old-fashioned bicycle pump with three hydroprobes at one end. These can measure, without calibration, moisture, electroconductivity or salinity – which gives all sorts of information about nutrition for the turf – and there is a thermistor to measure canopy temperature. A GPS link takes this information along with exact location away to the cloud for processing.
One further tool in the armoury is the Clegg Hammer – an impact soil tester that measures the consolidation of the turf and soil. Moore says: “We will take nine readings a green and average them out and that will dictate how firm the greens are.”
And then there is STRI’s Trueness and Smoothness Meter, which measures the lateral and vertical deviation of the ball roll – or ‘bobble’ in golfing terms.
Getting information is one thing, but how is it used to improve the golf greens? Wentworth has, uniquely in the UK, rolled out a system called SubAir across all 18 greens on the West course. The technology provides aeration, moisture removal and root zone temperature control in order to create an optimal subsurface growing-environment for deep-rooted healthy green grass.
“Underneath each golf green we have a drainage pipe with the main drain going off the low end of the green,” explains Moore. At the top and bottom of that we have two ball valves, which, when the SubAir is turned on, creates pressure or vacuum within that drainage pipe material. The fan can either be turned on to vacuum (as they call it) to draw moisture out, or we can turn it into pressure where it pumps air into the system and blows oxygen all the way through from the root zone to the surface. In this pressure mode we are effectively purging all the bad gases out on a periodic level without having to disrupt the surface, which we would normally have to do to allow oxygen in.”
The more oxygen that reaches the plant root system the healthier the grass will be. And Moore adds, as the deluge continues all around us: “Even tomorrow morning we will still be at the same moisture levels as we are today as we are constantly drawing the moisture out of it. Without the Sub-Air system it would take two or three days to get back to a level that is acceptable.”
Further work with the Sports Turf Research Institute is going into the development of TurfSync. This is an app that has been introduced for other sports sectors but will be launched for golf course management next year, following trials at Wentworth. The app provides a repository for all the information that the greenkeeping staff collects. Moore elaborates: “Trueness and smoothness, Clegg Hammers, firmness, moisture, we can also add how much nutrients we are putting in there. We can analyse any day... we can look at if we had a surge in clippings one day, what did we do last week to make that happen – what went in, what we sprayed, what it was for.
“For us we take all the readings anyway, but this puts it all in one place. We can put it all in a graph to show exactly where we are. It can also be used for budgeting and planning for next year.”
Moore concludes: “We need to be perfect, especially in the run up to the tournament. We’re pretty much at the leading edge of the technology, so there are no excuses.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.