The Value of Turfgrass Research

via USGA

The USGA currently invests approximately $2 million annually into turfgrass and environmental research. Since 1983, the total investment is nearly $50 million. But how do you measure the impact of that research?

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The USGAs substantial investment in turfgrass and environmental research projects has a significant and measurable benefit for the golf industry.

October 20, 2023

Cole Thompson, Ph.D., director, USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research
Don Kridel, Ph.D., associate professor, University of Missouri at St. Louis
Mike Kenna, Ph.D., former director, USGA Green Section Research

Key Takeaways

- We surveyed more than 600 golf course superintendents from a diverse range of courses to understand the use and benefits of six research-based management strategies across the golf course maintenance industry.

- The strategies included in this study have been directly advanced by university research with USGA funding.

- Based on this data, we estimate that these research-based management practices save the U.S. golf industry approximately $1.9 billion per year. 

- Labor was reported as the primary component of savings, showing that even highly technical agronomic research eventually helps golf courses complete daily tasks more efficiently. 

Most of the tools and techniques that golf course superintendents rely on to manage their courses can be traced back to a research program of one kind or another. Whether these studies are performed by university scientists, industry researchers or individual practitioners, the time and resources invested have improved golf course maintenance in countless ways ’ and will continue to do so in the future. 

The USGA Green Section has a long history of supporting turfgrass and environmental research ’ its the primary reason the Green Section was founded in 1920 and it remains one of our key focus areas today. Since 1983, the Mike Davis Program for Advancing Golf Course Management has invested around $50 million in approximately 800 university-led projects. The current annual research investment is $2 million ’ largely driven by solicited proposals from university scientists. 

Setting research priorities, selecting and funding research that advances priorities, and sharing results with stakeholders are obvious key steps for a successful research program. However, its also critical (and difficult) to neatly demonstrate the real-world benefits of segmented and incremental research gains stretched over long periods of time. To better explain what the USGAs research funding has meant to the golf industry, we surveyed golf course superintendents about their use of what we feel have been the biggest milestones of our research efforts (USGA, 2013). That data allowed us to estimate the annual financial impact of our research program on the golf industry. The results might surprise you!

Research Areas of Interest and Overall Research Strategy

Although USGA-funded research has impacted nearly all aspects of golf course management, the most progress has likely been made in the following areas:

1.  Improved turfgrass cultivars
2.  Putting green construction and management techniques
3.  Evapotranspiration (ET)-based irrigation scheduling
4.  Use of soil moisture sensors
5.  Best management practices (BMPs) for pesticide and fertilizer use ’ namely, to reduce nonpoint source pollution (Kenna & Snow, 2002)
6.  Using naturalized rough to conserve resources and provide habitat

To estimate the economic value of the progress made in these research areas, we worked with the firm FleishmanHillard to survey golf course superintendents about their familiarity, use and valuation of these practices. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) distributed the survey, and we received 610 complete responses. Respondents were only asked about their experiences with adopting a particular strategy if they reported a high familiarity with the research area. Further, they were only asked about cost savings from a strategy if they reported using it. 

The survey data helped us develop multiple models to estimate the probability that a facility would be familiar with a strategy, the probability that a facility had adopted a strategy and the associated cost savings. We then used that information to create an industry-wide estimate of annual savings from advances in the key research areas.

Respondent Profile

Superintendents from member-owned facilities were the majority of survey respondents at 34% and superintendents from single-owner and municipally owned facilities made up half of all respondents. Approximately 70% of respondents had annual maintenance budgets under $1 million, and each of the four defined U.S. regions were represented (Figure 1). Seventy-one percent of the respondents were from 18-hole facilities with the remaining 29% evenly split among 9-, 27-, 36- and more than 36-hole facilities. Approximately 40% of responding facilities were between 100 and 150 acres with 80% falling between 50 and 200 acres. Rounds played were fewer than 30,000 for 65% of responding facilities and 18% reported more than 40,000 rounds annually. Only 32% of respondents knew of the USGA's involvement in research for the areas of interest, but approximately 90% were familiar with the six management areas listed above.

Figure 1. The ownership model, annual maintenance budget, and geographic region of the courses where the 610 survey respondents worked.

When asked to identify their primary turfgrass management challenges, respondents ranked the lack of qualified/skilled labor, weather/climate, and budget limitations as the top three. Meeting golfer expectations was fourth (Figure 2). When asked to rank golf course conditions, golfer experience, fiscal responsibility, and environmental sustainability in terms of their importance in decision-making for turfgrass management, 45% of respondents selected golf course conditions as most important. Fiscal responsibility, golfer experience, and environmental sustainability were selected as most important 33%, 16%, and 6% of the time, respectively (data not shown). In this case, the values indicate what percentage of respondents picked each choice as most important.

The relative importance of environmentalism in everyday decision-making should not be underestimated based on these results ’ overall, 78% of respondents considered environmental sustainability an important part of turfgrass management at their golf course. This ranking simply shows that golf course superintendents are most concerned with economically and pragmatically providing a course that golfers enjoy playing.

Figure 2. Superintendents at 610 facilities were asked to pick their top three turfgrass management challenges. Values indicate the frequency each challenge was selected out of 1,830 total responses.

Modeling Familiarity, Adoption and Cost Savings of the Research Areas

Modeling is a statistical method that allows researchers to dig deeper into survey data. Rather than simply reporting the proportion of adopters or cost savings for a strategy, modeling allowed us to identify important predictors of the familiarity, adoption or cost savings of a strategy across the industry.

Our models revealed that familiarity with and adoption of the research-based management practices in this study tended to increase with facility budgets. Certain strategies were also more likely to be used in certain regions. For example, familiarity and adoption of ET-based irrigation increased if a facility was in the Southwest, but other regions did not share this relationship with ET-based irrigation (Thompson et al., 2021). This is not surprising given water availability concerns in the Southwest. Familiarity with ET-based irrigation, soil moisture meters, fertilizer and pesticide BMPs, and putting green construction techniques increased when facilities reported the USGA as a source of information. The Green Section has widely promoted each of these strategies, so this is not surprising. Adoption of most strategies increased with maintenance budget, and facility size and ownership model were important predictors for cost savings models.

Estimating Adoption and Cost Savings

After the models were finalized, we scored individual facility respondents by inserting their responses for each variable from the survey data. These estimates were then averaged for the entire sample and each management practice. We also determined 25th- and 75th-percentile responses to create a range around the average to show where 50% of responses would be expected to fall. Using industry data and estimated annual savings from our survey, we estimated annual dollar savings per facility (Figure 3) and total annual industry savings for each management strategy (data not shown).

Figure 3. Model predictions and average survey response for annual cost savings per course that used one of the six research-based management practices included in this study. Model (low) and Model (high) represent the 25th and 75th percentiles, respectively.

We estimate that approximately 4,500 to 8,200 facilities have adopted some of these practices. ET-based irrigation has the lowest industry adoption at 30% while USGA putting green construction techniques have the highest industry adoption at 55%. Our cost savings models indicate that adopters of these strategies save an average of 3% to 8% on annual maintenance expenditures, depending on the strategy. Using one of these research-based management practices translated to average facility savings of $26,000 to $71,000 per year and an average industry savings of $175 million to $530 million per year. Although installing naturalized rough was estimated to save facilities the most in maintenance expenditures, the broader adoption of soil moisture meters appears to deliver the greatest total annual industry savings. Improved turfgrass cultivars were estimated to provide the smallest annual savings, which we believe reflects the need for courses to continue refining management practices ’ such as irrigating less or making less-frequent pesticide applications ’ after converting to an improved cultivar. 

"Using one of these research-based management practices translated to average facility savings of $26,000 to $71,000 per year and an average industry savings of $175 million to $530 million per year."

We asked respondents to allocate their reported savings for each management practice over seven different areas. Labor was the largest savings component for all management practices and ranged from 52% of savings for improved turfgrass cultivars up to 71% of savings for soil moisture sensors. This highlights that even very technical agronomic research eventually helps golf courses through more-efficient completion of daily tasks. For example, using soil moisture meters can make hand watering more efficient and establishing a disease-resistant fairway grass can reduce the time spent scouting and spraying. The next highest apportionment of savings was reported for water use from ET-based irrigation (26% of savings) or soil moisture meters (18% of savings), followed closely by pesticide and water savings for improved turfgrass cultivars.

Golfer Satisfaction and Playing Conditions

Survey respondents also answered questions about how these management practices affected the condition of their golf course and the satisfaction level of golfers (Figure 4). All six of the management practices in the survey reportedly improved playing conditions and golfer satisfaction. Although on the lower end of financial savings, using USGA putting green construction techniques and improved turfgrass cultivars reportedly had the highest and second-highest improvement in playing conditions and golfer satisfaction (Thompson et al., 2022). Soil moisture sensors and ET-based irrigation scheduling appear to add comparable value to course conditioning and golfer satisfaction.


The research-based management practices in this study have been widely adopted and return an estimated $1.9 billion annually to the U.S. golf industry. The highest reported savings for each strategy was labor, the superintendents' number one management concern from our data. In addition to financial savings and labor efficiency improvements, our respondents also noticed changes in golfer satisfaction following adoption. There is also room for more adoption and impact, as the most commonly used strategy was USGA putting green construction techniques at only 55% of facilities. 

"The research-based management practices in this study have been widely adopted and return an estimated $1.9 billion annually to the U.S. golf industry."

The most important takeaway from this study is that turfgrass and environmental research has a massive impact in terms of maintenance efficiency, sustainability and overall golfer satisfaction. While investing in this research may not produce frequent and dramatic breakthroughs, the cumulative effect of the knowledge gained has changed golf for the better and will continue to do so as long as we continue to fund and support this important work.

Kenna, M. P., & Snow, J. T. (2002). Environmental research: Past and future. USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research Online. 1(3), 1-25.

Thompson, C. S., Kridel, D. J., & Kenna, M. P. (2021). Economic and sustainability benefits of the United States Golf Associations investment in water, fertilizer, and pesticide management research, International Turfgrass Society Research Journal, 14, 47-57. doi:10.1002/its2.91

Thompson, C. S., Kridel, D. J., & Kenna, M. P. (2022). Economic and sustainability benefits of the United States Golf Associations research investment in putting green construction, naturalized rough, and turfgrass breeding. Crop, Forage, & Turfgrass Management, 8, e20188. doi: 10.1002/cft2.20188

United States Golf Association (USGA). (2013). Milestones of the USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research Program. USGA Green Section Record, 51(9), 1-5.