At Home on the Range

Over the last decade, the founder and owner of NuTec Soil, a precision turf management company, has sought to apply lessons learned from working on his family’s farm to the golf course industry. From comprehensive soil sampling and golf course mapping to auto steering and automated tip controls, his ideas, inventions and partnerships are effectively taking the guesswork out of turf management, delivering more sustainable, healthier soils, reducing product waste and improving operator accuracy.

To date, he’s attracted the attention of golf course owners and superintendents at some of the industry’s most recognizable venues including Quail Hollow, home to the 2017 PGA Championship.

Here’s an inside look at how Thigpen’s NuTec is transforming golf course management—one GPS system at a time.

From Farms to Fairways

Creating repeatable data is one of the many advantages to GPS spraying using RTK navigation. When GPS first came out for commercial use in the 1990s, Thigpen saw it as a possible competitive advantage to grow higher yields on the family farm. He recalls, “Of course, there was no off-the-shelf navigation system available. But, with a little help from a NovAtel® dealer in the area, I was able to piece one together.”

He tuned his GPS to the U.S. Coast Guard Beacon to map the land. He combined the GPS data with infrared sensors and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data.

He explains, “My specialty is soil fertility. I do precision applications of fertilizer—in other words, I only put product where it needs to be based on soil conditions. Our farm won an award for state yield.”

When one of his relatives suggested that he put his soil fertility ideas to work as a business, he looked to the golf course industry.

He adds, “In my opinion, the golf course management industry does not pull enough data from the soil to match the soil potential. They do one sample per hole. That’s not enough data to maximize the soil potential. In most cases, we’re taking 10-15 samples per acre. We’ve turned turf management into a science.”

Once the soil samples are analyzed, Thigpen would map the fertilizer requirements for the course for the greens, fairways and tee boxes. After seeing the results, superintendents at some of the industry’s top golf courses bought in.

In 2005, Thigpen was contracted to apply fertilization to Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C., in advance of the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open Championship and then again at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa. in advance of the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open Championship. In both cases he utilized WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) GNSS corrections while mapping the course which enabled sub-metre accuracy positioning. The results were great, but he saw some potential shortcomings.

He says, “I watched the operator spray the fertilizer on the first hole and knew I had a potential problem. As the operator sprayed the green, he’d spray into the sand trap and at every turn. My first thought was, here I am doing my thing to improve soil conditions, and all the superintendent will see are inconsistent results from bad spraying.”

The next day, he called a friend to talk about building a sprayer with auto steering and tip control to eliminate overlap. He recalls, “I knew enough about how to use GPS in farming to know that we could easily build a simplified auto steer system that could guide the operator.”

He did an informal survey of about 100 superintendents to see if there was interest in an auto steer sprayer with a tip that turns on and off automatically, and if so, determine the necessary accuracy.

“Turns out, they were all for the idea and wanted sub-inch (less than 3 cm) accuracy,” continued Thigpen. 

He set out to build an auto steer system with tip control that would automatically spray liquid fertilizer in designated areas, eliminating the over application, overlap, spray drift and application gaps of manual fertilization. Of course, to build an auto steer sprayer with tip control, Thigpen would need to step up his positioning and golf course mapping capabilities.