Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2014

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Artificial turf: Real deal for golf?

As Southern Nevada plunges deeper into drought, Buzz Kyllonen believes he has hit upon an idea that could help the area save its most precious resource: water. And he did it by building a golf course.

In his first attempt at golf course construction, Kyllonen crafted a nine-hole layout in Anchor Point, Alaska, using synthetic turf on the tee boxes, greens and the fringe surrounding the greens. Only the fairways at Fireweed Meadows Golf Course, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, have grass.

Because of the minimal maintenance costs and what Kyllonen figures he saves on his water bill, using synthetic turf on the majority of his course proved to be a chip shot. "I'm surprised more courses haven't tried it ... and I think in your part of the world, this definitely is a no-brainer."

Mention synthetic - or artificial - turf and many people's thoughts turn to that cheesy indoor-outdoor carpet that seems to thrive on putt-putt golf courses and the porches of mobile homes. But technology in the synthetic turf industry has advanced to the point that many professional golfers have installed synthetic putting greens and chipping areas in their back yards. Although the artificial turf of yesteryear was made mostly of nylon, today's turfs are made of polypropylene, polyethylene or nylon or some combination of the three.

Although Kyllonen said player reviews of his course have been overwhelmingly positive, he acknowledged that it might take time to convince golfers - especially low-handicap players and hard-core traditionalists - that artificial turf can provide a realistic golfing experience.

"I think the big hurdle to overcome is just the fact that it's synthetic and not real," he said. "We now accept synthetic or artificial as being OK on soccer and football fields. Perhaps in the golf world, particularly when the environment and water becomes an issue, I think maybe that will kind of trigger a change."

Not everybody is sold on the use of synthetic turf in the golf course industry - primarily because of the prohibitive cost of converting a course from natural to artificial turf. Some estimates place the cost as high as $15 per square foot to install the material for use in a golf setting and a typical 18-hole golf course might have a minimum of 100,000 square feet of greens alone.

Because Kyllonen and his employees did most of the work themselves, he was hard-pressed to estimate the cost of his course, but he said it would cost $40,000 to $60,000 per green for his crew to do the job.

Dan Bjorkman estimates he invested millions of his own money in an attempt to build an 18-hole, all-artificial turf golf course at his Echo Basin Ranch in Mancos, Colo., but gave up his quest because of the cost and other problems.

"You're talking big bucks. You're talking several million dollars to build a golf course," he said. "I've got millions into it and I'm only 60 to 70 percent of the way there on nine holes. But I'm not putting artificial in. I'm trying to convert it now to natural grass."

Synthetic turf could have another drawback that Kyllonen likely won't encounter on his Alaskan course. Because of the dark green color of the turf used for golf, the heat generated by such turf might prove to be unbearable for many players. Bjorkman said on an 80-degree day with full sun, he has measured the temperature of his turf at 150 to 160 degrees.

Although it might make sense for local golf courses to convert some areas to synthetic turf as a way to conserve water, Doug Bennett of the Southern Nevada Water Authority said golf course operators already are among the most efficient users of water. Under Southern Nevada's drought alert, golf courses are allotted 6.3 acre-feet of water per acre of irrigated turf, which works out to 47 gallons per square foot per year. A study by the Water Authority found that residential lawns were getting as much as 73 gallons per square foot per year.

And, Bennett said, 26 of the 48 courses in the Las Vegas Valley have undertaken some type of turf removal and have converted more than 18 million square feet of unnecessary turf to water-saving landscape. Some courses have removed grass from areas that are out of play and others have reduced fairway turf to give holes a "target golf" feel.

The Callaway Golf Center on the Strip, which has artificial greens on its driving range, plans this fall to add nine small, synthetic turf tee boxes - in addition to its existing grass tees - on its nine-hole Divine Nine par-3 course. Other local courses reportedly have explored converting driving range tee lines from grass to synthetic turf.

"We estimate that more than a billion gallons a year are being conserved by the golf industry in the valley through conversion of landscape," Bennett said. "When it comes to water, people like to malign golf as being the big evil, but the reality is those guys have really stepped up and done what we have asked them to do."

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