Soil Scout - one less thing to worry about for The Hallamshire Golf Club
The Hallamshire in Sheffield has become the first UK golf club to install Soil Scout sensors in all of its greens, and as a result, they are getting exceptional insights.
Writes Blair Ferguson · Pictures James Baylis
The Harry Colt modelled course is ranked as Yorkshire's eighth best by Top 100 and comes in just outside the top 100 in England at 103. Proudly, the club counts 2022 US Open Champion Matt Fitzpatrick among its members, in addition to US Women's Open Champion and Solheim Cup Captain Alison Nicholas,
Keeping the trend of American success running throughout the club is Course Manager Ben Burrill, who brought abundant expertise and experience from his own time in America.
Ben completed his education at Penn State University, spent internships at US Open venues Chambers Bay and Merion, and worked as an assistant manager the Merian 2013 US Open. His management experience was then honed in the UK at Rotherham Golf Club, where he led the greenkeeping team for seven years before joining The Hallamshire in June 2021.
A fresh start allowed himself and the club to approach the course plan with a new outlook. The heathland come parkland course has drifted away from its heathland roots since tree planting in the seventies, and over the next decade, Ben will work to restore the heathland and bring consistency and quality to the greens.
To achieve this, he and club General Manager James Glover wanted to use a data-driven approach. This led to the initial installation of six Soil Scout sensors before Ben wanted to add the value of precision moisture data and all the benefits that brings to the remainder of the course.
"I started looking at Soil Scout before I even started here at The Hallamshire," Ben begins. “Personally, I believe you get better results if you can see the problem before you can see the problem. Because I knew this before getting the job, there was a lot of talk with James and me about how we would go forwards. He wanted a more data-driven management to the course because it's easier to portray to the membership what's going on and why it's going on.
"I'm the same. I find it easier to get better consistent results with data. When I joined, they had no moisture meter, and that was the first thing we looked at. Then very quickly, on top of that, I suggested if we're looking at moisture meters, we should be looking at fixed ones in the ground because they are better than anything. They're not as good at giving an overall picture of a green, but they are fantastic in terms of baseline moisture retention.
"I was starting at a new golf course in the middle of the summer, bang in the middle of July, with no data about how much water these greens need and doing it all by eye. It's not the end of the world to me, but it's not as good if you've not been there for some time to figure it out.
"We started with six of them because that is what Soil Scout recommended, and it's what I felt we could afford. We put those in three greens, one at three inches and one at six inches.
"I moved them at some point because I realised the information I was getting from the six-inch ones wasn't that relevant at this current point because we are a mixture of bent grass and poa, and you need to keep the poa alive, not the bent grass.
"We took three of them out and put them into three more greens which gave me more information, and it was undeniable very quickly that they were good. Therefore, it made sense to see if we could get more installed.
"I spoke to James and said they're doing a great job; they're fantastic. How much would it really cost us to do all 18 greens and the putting green? We did the maths, and it worked out to be a very affordable sum."
With affordability to one side, the next significant factor is the time Ben and his team of six save against using a moisture meter. Whilst a meter is still occasionally used for double data on greens that drop below 17% moisture, the general use is much lower than Ben anticipated.
However, the primary resource being saved is water. This has been through a combination of accelerating Ben's understanding of the greens using the Scout data and live monitoring of the moisture levels.
On more than one occasion, this information has stopped Ben from watering in circumstances he previously would have. By learning the moisture patterns of each green, he has also been able to devise custom irrigation programmes. These are delivered by the valve in head Rain Bird System and constantly refined using the app.
Ben explains: "Every time I set my irrigation, I sit there with my phone, and I look through the moisture and change it depending on the levels in each of the greens. I don't always have to change it because there is some consistency in which ones are wet and dry. My goal is to try and get the wet ones as close as possible to the dry ones. So, not over irrigate them continuously and treat them individually. Last night, only four greens got watered because the rest were over 20%.
"If you'd said to me in the past with the Soil Scouts, what kind of moisture levels are you aiming for, a lot of golf courses would say anywhere from 12% to 20%. But because the Soil Scouts are only measuring at three inches, the moisture level needs to be a bit higher, so the moisture at one and two inches isn't too high.
"The other day, I put a spare one in at one inch right next to another one and surprisingly, it's actually wetter than the one that's lower down, so I think there is a bit of thatch in the green. I have soil samples that show that, but I think I have a bit of layering. It's also the driest green on the golf course, which receives the most irrigation so that one inch gets the water more than the three inches.
"If you had a cooler period, say in April time, you'd hopefully see the one inch one becomes the drier of the two. But, usually, the green needs water before that one dries out.
"The other thing I've noticed is we have approximately a 5% difference between wettest to driest. My goal going forwards is to make the greens more consistent and more playable. Hopefully, at some point, I'm going to start introducing individual aeration programmes, so the wetter ones improve.
"The best green is the driest, but it does need the most water. However, year-round playability is by far the best, and it's happy in the summer as long as you keep the moisture levels correct. So, that's the one I'm aiming to replicate, which means a lot of the other greens will need sand injection, drill and fill or verti-drain and sand top dress to try and reduce the percentage of soil to sand, so they don't hold the moisture.
"It is quite astounding the difference between the 13th being the driest and the 7th being the wettest. I think we're nearly three times as much irrigation on the 13th, so you can see if you were using irrigation as a blanket and doing three minutes on every green how quickly you would get one green too wet and another one nowhere near wet enough. So that's why I've done individual irrigation on every green, so we use the water to its best ability.
"Looking at them, one thing I thought I'd find is the wetter ones don't drain very well. But when you're on the Soil Scout hub and look at the wettest one and the driest one and look at the graphs from the last three months together, the downslope after heavy rain or irrigation is actually relatively similar, which means to me that the infiltration isn't that different.
“What it does mean is that the climate is different, and the soil is holding too much moisture. It doesn't mean the soil is any different, it might be identical, but because the climate is more sheltered or exposed, one is drying out and not holding the water as much.
"So, its baseline start level seems to constantly be less moisture than the wetter one. So, the thought pattern is to use the Soil Scout data to amend the greens and get them to an even closer starting point, so it's only a small difference in irrigation.
"And I suppose you'd argue I'm going to use more water because I'm going to dry them out, but that's the issue with golf 12 months of the year. We need them playable from November through to March, so they need to not hold as much moisture and drain better.
"As a downside, it probably means we'll use more water during the summer, but it will be targeted, and there won't be any waste because we are intensely monitoring it. And with our overall reduction in water I don’t think our usage will vastly change"
After only a year, Ben is making significant differences to the course through irrigation. For example, the 13th green that used to be a problem is now one of the highest performers through moisture regulation alone.
Trying to dial in such precise changes using water is a difficult task, and not without its risks. But with the sensors in place, Ben is confident in his decision-making and can operate with peace of mind away from the course.
Peace of mind away from the course
"I'd definitely say the sensors have given me peace of mind regarding decision making. The difference is at Rotherham, the last thing I'd do on Friday is set the irrigation up for the weekend. You'd try and leave it as late as possible and set it up, guessing what's going to evaporate against what's there and what the weather says – all a lot of guesswork.
"Then I'd go home and maybe not work the weekend, so I'd hope not to need to go into work to check things but sometimes would have to. Then the weather would screw you over, and you come in on the Monday, and you're chasing your tail because things have dried out, and you're now applying more water than necessary to get things happy again.
"Now, I go away at the weekend, and if I'm not sure it needs irrigation, I don't set anything because I've got the Rain Bird app. So, I'll sit at home watching TV, and at half nine, I'll look at Soil Scout, put some water on if we need it, and go to bed happy.
“So, it is a big difference. Some would say it is a luxury, but in today's world, there are a lot of stressful inputs and outputs from golfers, members and committees, and to have one less thing to worry about as much is an absolute blessing.
"But mainly I think you're producing better quality. I haven't had a single Monday I've come in and felt the greens are too dry. The grass is less stressed and getting what it needs."
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