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Synthetic grass is coming soon to a golf course near you

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Imagine arriving at the golf course on the first day of the golf vacation you've been planning for months.

The sky's clear, the air crisp, your swing is fine and as you step up to the first tee, the early-morning dew is glistening brightly on the - synthetic turf.

Coming soon to a club near you: totally synthetic golf courses.

No less an authority than Arnold Palmer believes that day is not far off.

"Do I think there's going to be a lot of them immediately? No. They will start out few and far between," Palmer told the Associated Press. "But it's almost a foregone conclusion that there will be some built."

Of course, Palmer has an interest in saying that; he's a partner with TourTurf, a Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., company that specializes in marketing synthetic turf, and is the official synthetic turf company of the PGA Tour.

Still, it's close to coming to fruition. Already, a Colorado developer has plans to install an all-synthetic golf course there, if he can get the financing for the project.

In Colorado, as in many places out West, water rights have become a hot political issue. There isn't enough water, and what little there is, is expensive and hard to access.

"In an ideal world, I would be for all grass, "Michael Starks, founder of TourTurf, told TravelGolf.com. "But, the day and age we're living in, with the droughts and water issues, if somebody wants to build a golf course and wants to make golf available to people and the only way to do that is synthetic, then that's hard for anybody to argue against."

Starks said he never expects the synthetic to completely replace grass.

"I don't think anybody in this business has a dream that synthetic will replace grass everywhere one day," he said. "I think most of the people in this industry believe that there is a place for it in certain situations and it's meant to enhance the game, not detract from it."

There are already quite a few believers. TourTurf has gone from $800,000 a year in revenue from its launch in 2001 to a projected $6 million in 2004. The company has installed its product in more than 40 course in the United States and Mexico, mostly in tee boxes, practice greens and driving ranges.

The course in Mexico includes synthetic greens and tees, with natural grass fairways.

The attraction is obvious for several different factions of the golf industry. For course owners, synthetic turf is low maintenance, though it costs more to install. Starks said it costs $24,000 to install a 2,000 square-foot green, compared to about $10,000 for a standard green built to USGA specifications.

But annual maintenance costs are roughly $800 compared to about $12,000 for a standard green.

"At any golf course, the primary ongoing operating cost is maintenance, so if you can reduce water and maintenance, the payback on the synthetic is fairly quick," said Starks.

A typical 18-hole course requires as much as a million gallons of water a day during the summer. Much of that water has been drenched with chemicals and leaches into the soil and drains into ponds and lakes.

For the environmentalists, it means less pesticides and chemicals.

For the golfer: well, imagine a turf with no bad lies and never having to bother with divots, brown patches, aeration, sprinklers or mowers.

The stuff itself is a technological marvel, a far cry from when artificial turf first worked its way into the national sporting consciousness years ago. That turf was basically a carpet laid over a pad laid over cement.

The individual blades of synthetic turf are a polyethylene and polypropylene blend designed to look like the real stuff. It's UV resistant and can take heavy traffic for a long time - the life span is anywhere from seven to 15 years, and it can be played 24 hours a day, even right after rain. It's maintained by a tractor with brushes, not blades.

The backing is porous, so that water filters through it easily. In fact, some environmental studies have shown water that filters through synthetic turf is actually cleaner than when it entered. Still, studies are ongoing and far from conclusive.

Another little-known area where synthetic turf may be applied is on cart paths, replacing concrete paths that can send balls flying. Bay Hill in Orlando is experimenting with synthetic paths, for example.

For the rules-conscious, the USGA has no official policy on synthetic turf yet.

Still, for the purists, there is the matter of aesthetics. For many, nothing will ever be able to place real grass.

"I'm sure there are some people who feel that way," Starks said. "My response is always that if it's a question of no golf or synthetic golf, give me synthetic golf."

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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