What does Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters Tournament, have in common with the baseball fields for the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies? How about the New England Patriots’ practice field or the Brazilian soccer pitches that hosted the World Cup and the Olympics?
You’ll have to dig deep… as in below the playing surface.
The answer: a SubAir system.
SubAir got its start in the golf industry, founded in 1994 by Marsh Benson, the longtime senior director of golf course and grounds at Augusta National. Providing superior drainage for golf greens is probably what SubAir is still best known for, but the company (which is located just over the Savannah River from Augusta National in Graniteville, South Carolina) in recent years has extended its reach into almost all major sports that are played on turf – among them baseball, football, soccer and cricket.
“(Previous ownership) dabbled with a few sports fields prior to us getting involved, but we pushed for a concerted effort in the sports business and that has worked very well for us,” says Leonard Brooks, who was a former investment banker focusing on corporate finance and private equity before taking the reins at SubAir as Chairman of the Board. “We have not at all slowed down our desire and love of the golf business, in fact we’ve continued to install. But we’ve really made the very concerted effort, that’s beginning to pay off, of moving into the sports business.”
So, what exactly is SubAir? In simplest terms, it’s essentially a giant vacuum cleaner. It can either suck moisture out of the ground or operators can flip the blower in the other direction and push air from below the playing surface.
Both Augusta National and Pebble Beach Golf Links — the host site of this year’s U.S. Open — have SubAir Systems installed, as do almost 50 other U.S. golf courses, among them high-end clubs like Winged Foot, East Lake, Congressional, Quail Hollow and Bellerive.
The system is essential at a place like Augusta National as spring storms can be fickle around the season’s first major, dumping heavy rainfall on the course that can be easily removed by SubAir. That was evident before the start of competitive play this week, when greens were in perfect condition even though lower-lying areas of the course just outside the ropes got muddy after extended foot traffic. For a busy public golf facility like Pebble Beach, using the SubAir System means the overall health of the turf improves due to expedited drainage and, importantly for the bottom line, there’s no disruption of the tee sheet.
SubAir Systems doubled the size of its production facility just under two years ago and is now found in 19 U.S. states and 17 countries.
The system needs two things to work: electricity and underground piping, which is better known in the golf world as USGA spec greens. It’s basically a piping underneath the putting surface that looks like a fancy French drain, with the bottom half looking like a normal pipe and the top half resembling swiss cheese. SubAir then hooks into the piping system under the green and sucks air above the grass through the root zone, pulling excess moisture out of the soil profile.
The problem in golf is that not all courses are built to what’s considered USGA specs, meaning the system could become prohibitively expensive if a facility has to rip up existing greens, put in the piping system and run electricity round the golf course.
“But every single college, professional football fields, soccer pitches in Europe, they all have that, so it’s a little bit of an easier sell to the sports world,” says Brooks. “They already have the piping and electricity. And those are big costs.”
The Mets, for example, installed a SubAir System at Citi Field in November and December of 2018. The Phillies were the first Major League Baseball team to get the new technology in 2017.
While green sizes vary in golf, installing the underground SubAir System with its fans, blowers, vents and a water separator can range from about $21,000 to $24,000 per green.
A small unit is fine for greens that range from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, while the largest unit is typically used for football practice field complexes (2,000 horsepower for 200,000 square feet). It also takes about 10 to 12 work days to install a system at a sports stadium while a putting green requires two workdays to install. This can amount to a major project when considering whether it would be implemented over 18, 27 or even 36 holes.
“We have a lot of courses that start with two to three greens that are most problematic, then they come back and do a couple more, and then a couple more after that,” Brooks said. “We appreciate that part of that is a test and part of it is probably budget.”
That’s one reason why, despite its roots in golf, SubAir is now going deeper throughout the sports world.
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