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A Stroke of GNSS

Likely the first thing you think about when you hear the storied names of Colonial Country Club, Oakmont Country Club, Muirfield Village Golf Club and Bel-Air Country Club is perfectly manicured fairways, challenging rough and smooth greens—not irrigation systems. But, of course, effective watering practices are a key to making these golf courses look so spectacular.

For Michigan-based Michael Kuhn & Associates, Inc., golf course irrigation is a life’s work. Led by founder Michael Kuhn, this industry leading firm’s expertise in agronomy, engineering and technology is changing the way irrigation systems are designed, managed and updated. 

Two years ago, Kuhn and his team were planning an irrigation project at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh when he got his first look at the small, lightweight Trimble® DA2 GNSS receiver with subscription-based, on-demand Trimble Catalyst™ GNSS positioning service solution. The system has since transformed his golf course maintenance practices and influenced those of course superintendents and contractors across the country.

The Approach Shot

From the earliest days, a core competency of Kuhn and his team is leveraging technology to support golf course irrigation design, repair and replacement. Since the 1990s, Kuhn has relied on solutions such as CAD and GNSS—common technologies in the construction industry, but not so much in golf course management. Yet irrigation systems, which include pump stations, valves, control lines and sprinkler heads across many acres, are easily the most complicated systems on a golf course, and few of them are accurately mapped.

Golf course showing irrigation systems in use

Golf course watering systems are an essential and costly part of golf course maintenance that requires continuous upkeep.

One of Kuhn’s first GNSS units was the Trimble Geo 7X handheld receiver with the Trimble GPS Pathfinder® Office software for post-processing of field data to improve the GNSS accuracy. “It is submeter grade, which allowed us to start creating our base maps in AutoCAD so that we could begin design,” he said. “I quickly became a fan of Trimble.” 

As the company grew, the team started taking on large golf course clients hosting PGA and USGA tournaments. The clubs had a considerable amount of infrastructure in the ground, documented on paper maps but with few or no digital records.

Since most customers were reliant on them to manage their course infrastructure documents and drawings, Kuhn began thinking about how to better deploy his field data gathering solutions, and how these same tools could help superintendents maintain as-built irrigation and other golf course data. He contacted his local distributor in Michigan, Seiler Instruments and Christine Iksic, mapping GIS sales & support for Western Pennsylvania & West Virginia at Precision Laser & Instrument, to see what was available. 

“I knew right away that this was a technology that would greatly improve our disconnected data management practices,” Kuhn said. 

The Trimble DA2 is an RTK-capable GNSS receiver that relies on a simple Bluetooth® connection to Android™ or iOS devices. It’s custom-designed for the Trimble Catalyst subscription-based positioning service. One receiver can be used to achieve 60 cm, 30 cm, 10 cm or 1 cm positioning accuracy. 

Kuhn said, “When I saw that I could manage the system with my phone, I was all in. It’s light and affordable with great functionality. And then there’s the subscription-based positioning accuracy options. I really like the flexibility to adjust my positioning accuracy as needed. If I need centimeter accuracy for a particular job, it’s there. If I need lower, I switch over to decimeter for a project, and then go back to centimeter when the task is done. Investing in the Trimble DA2 was a no brainer.”

He combined the system with Trimble TerraFlex® field software for automated post-processing using the Trimble Offline GNSS Corrections™ service and the Trimble Connect cloud-based common data environment for collaboration. The firm currently has three DA2 units with two annual Catalyst subscriptions for decimeter accuracy with a workflow that is efficient and accurate, coupled with the hourly centimeter grade accuracy hourly subscription when they need to confirm and collect precise equipment or structures.

Streamlined Collaboration

The majority of the firm’s work is the renovation of older golf course irrigation systems. The team is currently developing construction drawings for multiple projects slated for 2025, including the irrigation system of the 36-hole Detroit Golf Club in Detroit, Michigan, established in 1897.

As a first step, Kuhn or a team member will map out out the course features, including tees, fairways, bunkers and cart paths, using the DA2. They also pull property lines from local public entities and structures from aerial resources. The data is captured in TerraFlex and then uploaded into Trimble Connect where it is automatically post-processed and corrected.

Man using a Trimble DA2 to capture irrigation system locations on an under construction golf course

Michael Kuhn uses the DA2 to capture irrigation system locations.

“It’s a seamless workflow—everything is handled through the cloud; no downloads,” he confirmed. “Back in the office, my team can immediately see what I’ve gathered in the field and, if needed, drop it into AutoCAD.”

Field software screenshot showing where sprinklers, valves and pipes are located on golf course

A TerraFlex screen capture from the DA2. The dots indicate sprinklers and valves and the red lines are pipes.

Kuhn’s contractor partners are particularly pleased with the quick turnaround. Kuhn explained, “They used to have to wait days, now they’re getting adjustments within hours. It saves so much time for us that we're not waiting for me to get to a computer or get back to the office. For those customers outside Michigan—such as in Texas, Florida, or California—that turnaround is critical to keeping the contractors moving forward.”

New construction and renovation projects are much more time consuming for Kuhn and his team since the initial designs come from the architect and changes are made quite frequently until the architect is satisfied with the end result. For these projects, he stakes out the key features of the hydraulic network and the distribution system, like sprinkler nozzles. 

“We update the course map as construction proceeds, sometimes multiple times,” he said. “As the contractor completes a piece of the network, we’re back out there with the Trimble DA2 gathering new positions and updating the digital map. It's an ongoing process.”

An Emerging Standard

Kuhn’s streamlined workflow immediately caught the attention of premier golf course builders and irrigation contractors that quickly recognized the benefits of the DA2 technology, in addition to their other survey equipment. 

“While many already have base stations and rovers, the DA2 is so portable, flexible and easy to use that they’re making the investment,” Kuhn said. “It’s been a game changer for them for data collection—and collaboration. At any time, they can easily share data through Trimble Connect when a situation arises, no matter where I am.” 

Even superintendents are investing. “Once I show them how easy it is to use and the ability to purchase centimeter grade accuracy in 10-hour increments,” he said, “they are all in.” 

At the Oakmont Country Club, the club invested in the Trimble Catalyst and Trimble DA2 system in early 2023. The club and maintenance crew are currently undertaking a major renovation project on the golf course with premier architect Gil Hanse, along with replacing the infrastructure for the irrigation with the contractor, as they prepare for the upcoming 2025 US Open. 

“With the DA2, they collect anything the irrigation consultant and golf course builder do not. The ability for them to collect the locations of old drainage systems, potable lines, electrical runs and automatically update their maps is invaluable,” he continued. “Trimble’s ability to create Teams between contractors, consultants, architects and the end user gives all parties the ability to share important data collected and create composite maps of the property.”

Today, more than 50 of Kuhn’s clients have purchased the Catalyst and DA2 system. An added bonus is that within Trimble Connect, they can get access to their digital course irrigation data from Kuhn. 

“I'm going to keep pushing these devices to all my clients and contractor partners,” he said. “I can see every golf course in the country utilizing this in some way. I don't know why they wouldn't."

“It’s a seamless workflow—everything is handled through the cloud; no downloads,” he confirmed. “Back in the office, my team can immediately see what I’ve gathered in the field and, if needed, drop it into AutoCAD.”

— Michael Kuhn, Owner, Michael Kuhn & Associates, Inc.

Learn more about Trimble Catalyst and Trimble DA2 here.

Learn more about Trimble TerraFlex here.