The USGA’s GS3 tool is ready for action

The long-awaited data-gathering system is already performing well for early adopters


GS3 ball on a golf course
The USGA's GS3 ball is a data-gathering tool that helps superintendents quickly collect and analyze conditions on the course. Photos courtesy of the USGA

Editor's note: The following article was created in partnership with the USGA. All product claims, research cited and other information is directly from the company.

Chad Allen, GCSAA Class A Superintendent at The Club at Chatham Hills in Westfield, Ind., has always been a data guy. When he first heard rumors of the GS3, the USGA’s new data-gathering apparatus, he volunteered for the PGA Tour’s Match Play event, down at Austin Country Club, just to get in on the beta testing. “I butted my way in, basically, to get a feel for it,” Allen says. “In general, data helps me in my decision-making, makes it more tangible for me. Not just using my hands and my eyes but using data to correlate and tie things together.”

The GS3 is now available from the USGA for $2,750, all in. Once activated, the data is gathered automatically in DEACON, the GS3’s associated app. The USGA is full-bore behind this data-gathering and -interpretation effort. All the superintendents consulted for this story spoke about how easily the system operates, and how strongly the USGA stands behind it. They are determined to make it work, for enthusiasts, the tech-curious and skeptics alike.

“I prefer to think of the GS3 as providing instant data feedback every day — and you’re seeing that data change day to day, with real numbers attached,” Lukus Harvey, director of agronomy at Atlanta Athletic Club and 23-year GCSAA member, says. The GS3 has been in use for two years at Atlanta AAC. “Our USGA agronomist, Jordan Booth, hasn’t gone anywhere. But the GS3 allows me to see the trends. When laying out an agronomic plan for next year, or even next quarter, that’s huge.

“We knew a lot of this information already, and how we knew it remains part of the art form: walking the greens every day, looking at the size of the leaf blade, rolling putts. We still do all that. You’ve got to smell, touch and breath it. But now there’s a data set that validates or makes us pay attention to something maybe we didn’t realize.”

Check out the basics of the system here: the GS3 ball itself, the firmness tool and the next-gen Stimpmeter. Once the DEACON app (named for Arnold Palmer’s Dad) is live, just tap the ball to connect it. On the outside, the GS3, which is exactly the size of a golf ball, is specially coated. Inside there’s a package of sensors capable of recording and relaying some 15,000 data points.

For now, the GS3 tool’s green speed function works on greens only, but users can take firmness numbers anywhere, including bunkers and fairways. Allen estimates he can take all the readings he requires in six minutes, compared to the 15 he might spend stimping a single green in analog fashion. Multiply that by 18 greens and you get significant time savings. “In the old days I’d put all that into a spread sheet. The GS3 simplifies the data-harvesting process,” Allen says. “I’m in the office and here I am looking at all that data right now, from this morning. All those extra steps are eliminated.”

The GS3 and DEACON attach reliable data to:

  • Green speed, measuring the velocity decay versus actual ball roll distance
  • Smoothness, meaning the ball’s up and down movement as it rolls off the stimpmeter
  • Trueness, meaning the amount the ball moves side to side, or “chatters”, along the roll line
  • Firmness, which requires a different tool, where the ball is dropped from a specific height and measures the resulting dent

Allen need not go back to the office to view his harvested data. As soon as the ball stops rolling, or makes that little dent in the green, the associated data is all there on his phone.

Superintendent using GS3 ball and DEACON
The USGA's GS3 ball is a data-gathering tool that helps superintendents quickly collect and analyze conditions on the course.

A customizable measurement tool

“Every morning, we send out our assistant superintendents directly behind our mowers and rollers,” explains Jesus Martinez, a seven-year GCSAA member and superintendent at Atlanta AC working under Harvey. The assistant superintendents take readings three times daily, always at the same time every day.

“We work our way through the courses that way, three greens per course, each day, because they’re all in specific microclimates,” Martinez says. “We’ll do the roll test. We’ll section off the drop test on 9 quadrants, then a soil temp/moisture test. We’ll also measure clipping levels and put that into Deacon, along with PGR rates. That stuff is not part of the GS3 capability, but we input via Deacon.

“It lays it all out for you, the big picture. Week by week you can see the trends. When we fertilize or apply a PGR, you can see the trends days before the PGR starts to take effect. Right now, we’ll start our PGRs on a Tuesday, to get speed and performance we want for the weekend.”

Another example of how the GS3 helps out the crew at Atlanta AC: topdressing. “You see and can measure the immediate effect: what it does to trueness and smoothness,” Martinez says. “We’ll see more of that this summer when we start verticutting. We’ll see what the effects are by the numbers, not tied to any metric. We’ll find our own baseline to achieve how we want our greens to roll.”

“I can say to any peer: You can’t get this system quick enough. It helps us. We’re only in year two and we’ve doubled the amount of data and metric points we’re tracking. Now we’re starting to layer-in soil moisture and temperature. I would recommend guys just wade in and start with the easy stuff. In a way, the exciting part about the ball and DEACON is that we’re all just scratching the surface. We’re going to get the 110% efficiencies for three or four years, which is really cool.”

It’s clear the GS3’s system plays well with others, but every superintendent still brings his or her own existing systems, predilections and priorities to the equation.

“Moisture management is a big one for us,” Allen says. “It’s so easy to overwater. I like things firm. With this tool, and by tying in a moisture-meter reading, I can find a reliable wilting point for the grass — that moment when moisture in the soil is on the edge of being depleted, where the grass loses rigidity and turns purple.”

Here’s where the data eases customization, because wilting points are uniform. It’s different for every green, Allen says, because each one is in its own micro-climate, and the data reflects this reality.

“We can really go for getting the greens firm and tight with minimal moisture. Hand watering is very labor intensive. The less we have to do that, and the more confident we are in that number, in that firmness, the better.

“So, I will go out and do firmness testing. I know that, at certain firmness number, it’s going to be hard for water to infiltrate through that surface, because it’s so tight. I use a Pogo, and I can input that moisture reading into DEACON. I know that, at a certain point, we’ll get to the wilt point. In my case, when I get to .300 firmness reading via GS3, and when I get to a moisture meter reading of 15 percent, that’s the wilt point. In response, maybe some solid-tine venting, alleviating some of that tightness. That allows [the soil profile] to out-gas, from roots to the surface, and for water to penetrate.”

Allen says his crew used the GS3 to help prepare for hosting the three-day, 54-hole Mid-American Conference golf championship. The results were, in his words, “phenomenal.”

“The course has never been better. Firm and consistent greens for three days. Not only was I able to use this tool to help me achieve those conditions, now I have the numbers that I know work for us,” Allen says. “I also know what we did for MAC is not sustainable all year. You can’t run that razor’s edge every week — your grass will die. And the hotter it gets, the more difficult it gets. But I have data targets that work here, for us. And I’m coming to find out, smoothness is more important than trueness. Speed is a number, but smoothness trumps trueness and you’ll get the speed when you get the smoothness.”

GS3 ball on a stimp meter
One measurement feature of the GS3 ball is smoothness, or the ball's up and down movement as it rolls off the stimpmeter.

Communicating results

Part of the point of all this data-gathering is to communicate the results to staff, peers, bosses and even club members and daily-fee customers. How and when to share that information differs from superintendent to superintendent.

“It’s a nice component to communicate to members,” Harvey says. “We don’t issue reports. What we do talk about is what our standards are. We also tell them what our targets are for each season. We don’t send that to the general membership but to the grounds and golf committees, the board. We let them disseminate to the general membership. We hit our standards 87.2% of the time last year. Hard to argue with that.

“I can I count the emails I’ve received from members about the greens this year: zero. The data has taken the questions out of it. No more ‘Hey, when are you gonna make ‘em faster?’ They know what to expect now, because we have this tool that validates what the data is.”

John Jeffreys, GCSAA Class A superintendent and director of agronomy at Pinehurst No. 2, is another early adopter. Folks will see the GS3 and DEACON in action at Pinehurst No. 2 during this month’s U.S. Open Championship.

Scan the QR code below to purchase the GS3.

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At a resort facility, even a complex of resort courses, the need to communicate with paying customers is perhaps less acute compared to a private club. Still, there remain plenty of productive ways to share this data.

“As a multi-course facility, expectations vary from course to course. This tool gives us the ability measure, record and respond,” Jeffreys says. “Internally, it has shown us that sometimes we don’t have do as much, which means we can reallocate time and resources elsewhere. We had always speculated that solid pencil-tine aeration was worthwhile. Now we have the data. Communicating that reality to the pro shop means they will give us the time to get it done.

“Overall, I find the system so user-friendly. I’m a bit surprised that only a couple people have called me about using it themselves. I’m trying to work with small groups of supers to get a useful data set going. The tool is only as good as how many people are using it. For me, the more bermudagrass growers are sharing data, the better off we all are. I can’t necessarily compare my cultural practices to someone in the Mid-Atlantic. I need to focus on people growing similar grass in a similar climate.”

To any peers considering the GS3 but hesitating because they aren’t technically inclined, Allen offers this: “The support from the USGA has been so great. I have run into the issues along the way, but they have been nothing but awesome. My regional agronomists are so behind this product, and the more questions you ask, the more involved they get. When I’ve had a question, they’ve pulled together a meeting that day or next day.”