Agronomy Golf Course Water Management
Overview of Colbert Hills Golf Course

How Matt Gourlay is maintaining Colbert Hills GC during COVID-19

Matthew Gourlay, a Certified Golf Course Superintendent, and Master Greenskeeper at Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan, Kansas shared insight on how he’s using his agronomic and water management skills to operate safely and efficiently during the COVID-19 pandemic. The golf industry isn’t insulated from the current challenges but Spiio sensors and careful nutrient management are helping Gourlay navigate this new territory.

Colbert Hills, like other courses, has implemented policies to reflect the CDC health recommendations on social distancing: they closed the clubhouse, restaurant and pro shop to the public; pushed tee times out to every 15 or 20 minutes; limited golf carts to 1 person; removed bunker rakes; inverted hole cups.

While the changes allow the course to stay open, it hasn’t come without direct impacts on Gourlay. Maintaining a golf course is no easy feat, one that requires a lot of manpower. Impact number one — he had to forego hiring seasonal workers and the hours of his regular staff have been cut. Maintaining a golf course is also expensive. Impact number two — travel restrictions mean fewer golfers are coming from Kansas City, Wichita, and Lincoln, decreasing course revenue.

So Matt is facing the dynamic challenge of maintaining high-quality turf standards while running a reduced crew and trying to cut operating costs wherever possible. He admitted it “has been challenging for sure” but he’s up for the task.

Listening to his background, it’s evident that golf is deeply embedded in his genetics. From distant family members making golf balls in the 1800s, to early photos of him on the course when he was 6-months old, it’s no surprise to hear he’s a third-generation golf course superintendent with impressive accolades and awards.

Matt was hired onto the Colbert Hills’ staff at the age of 14 and has worked his way up from a member of their first cart-boy crew to be named Superintendent in 2007. When faced shortly thereafter with the 2008 Financial Crisis it spurred him to implement some big management changes that are proving even more helpful now.

High priority was put towards increasing the course’s environmental sustainability to reduce overall water consumption and lower operating costs. More than 100 acres of native areas on the course were added, including switching the greens from cool-season to warm-season grasses. Colbert Hills’ water consumption went from 90-110 million gallons of water annually to approximately 50 million gallons a year. That’s an incredible financial savings of $200,000 to $280,000 yearly!

In a continuous effort to improve sustainability and water conservation, two wireless Spiio sensors were installed on the course In October of 2019 to monitor soil moisture levels and temperature. While they proved themselves immediately useful in helping with winter irrigation decisions, they’ve been invaluable the last month as Matt is “managing water use carefully as of today”.

According to Matt, a great benefit of the sensors during the COVID-19 pandemic is the ability to check conditions from his phone, regardless of where he’s working. Before their installation crew members would physically take measurements on the course to determine irrigation scheduling. The mobile app allows precise soil moisture management while maintaining social distancing, facilitating “minimal exposure between crew members and golfers”.

Over the last 7 to 9 years he’s also integrated a management approach known as minimum levels for sustainable nutrition or MLSN. Soil nutrients levels are managed to decrease fertilizer inputs and costs while maintaining turf quality. Matt has been able to drop soil phosphorus levels to slow plant growth, without negatively affecting the health or quality. Slower growth equates to lower water needs and reduced mowings.

Combining MLSN practices and Spiio sensor technology has given him a sound solution for running a reduced crew while implementing social distancing. Nutrient and water management plans can be dialed in for efficient, cost-effective maintenance.

Much uncertainty for Colbert Hills, and Matt himself, still lies ahead but he believes the golf industry will see positive effects of the pandemic. Golfers will find increased joy in the sport during this slower pace of life. They can get outside to exercise, enjoy the outdoors, and benefit from the mental release of a round of golf.

Perhaps too, maintenance standards will decrease slightly because of reduced crews and correspond to lower green fees, opening-up golf to a wider audience.