With golf under economic pressure in most of its important markets, developers, operators and architects are constantly looking for ways to improve the financial prospects of courses. Any innovation that might result in reduced maintenance costs (while, of course, retaining high quality playing conditions), or the ability to push more rounds through a facility is being seized on.
One idea that might push the envelope a little further than most is the widespread use of synthetic turf in place of ‘real’ grass. Already, to be sure, many practice facilities have been built with synthetic surfaces, and on golf courses themselves, relief tees are often constructed with synthetic turf. ‘Mats’, as they are often referred to, have been in use for winter tees for decades, in the UK and elsewhere, but the synthetic turf available today is a different beast from that of ten or twenty years ago. And with practice putting greens now commonly built without real grass, could playable greens on full-sized golf courses soon follow?
Such a suggestion might sound outlandish. But consider the alternatives. The locations in which the game is growing, especially those aimed at holiday golfers, are generally hot and dry; good weather is central to the appeal of tourist golf. Hot and dry, though, isn’t necessarily ideal conditions for growing fine natural grass. Availability of water for irrigation is one of the greatest barriers to the growth of golf in many parts of the world; turf companies are investing large sums of money in breeding new grass strains that can tolerate heat, drought and irrigation with poor quality water.
So what role does synthetic have to play in golf’s future?
Researchers say the answer lays in consistency and quality. It is about guaranteeing a year-round performance. Top golf professionals choose synthetic grass over natural grass because they get consistent high performance throughout the year – which they couldn’t possibly get from natural surfaces. A high proportion of the top professionals practice at home on synthetic surfaces because they say they are better than grass for their purposes. Similarly, a large number of top courses have synthetic somewhere on the course, because they want to provide the best surfaces all year round. But this generally concerns practice facilities (putting greens, ranges and short game areas) and relief tees on golf courses themselves.
Therefore it is fair to say that synthetic is probably not the future of golf in hot climates; not in the immediate future at least. But there seems little doubt that the use of artificial turf in golf will grow fairly dramatically. As the scale and complexity of practice facilities continues to increase, and the demand of ‘realistic’ practice environments grows there will be a lot of golf projects where, without the use of synthetic turf, the cost of maintenance will be impossible to justify. Although it might not be the future, synthetic turf has a big role to play in golf. It will help make golf more available, in city areas for example.