In Their Own Words - SofTrak Greens

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A Conversation with Danny Little
 
VersaSport International, LLC (www.versasport.com) (SofTrak Greens) was originally founded in 1998 by Lance Pierce. At the time the company was founded, Lance was a mechanical engineer with Boeing in Wichita, Kansas. He was an avid golfer and he began looking for alternative ideas for a business he could start. Danny Little was a bank president in a small town in southwest Missouri. Danny was an avid golfer as well. Danny became frustrated losing five dollar bets to his golf buddies and decided he was going to do something about it. Danny started to research synthetic greens and came across SofTrak. Lance personally installed Dannys green and a friendship resulted. Danny became so enthralled with the product that he opened his own SofTrak dealership and hired a couple of people to work for him. Together, Lance and Danny invested in a new building for the home office in Wichita. Soon thereafter, Danny purchased a controlling interest in the company with Lance remaining as the companys president. Danny admits its a corny storyhe liked the product so much he bought the company.
 
SofTrak currently has 70 dealers located across the United States and internationally. They have a dealer in Asia, two dealers in Europe, a dealer in Canada and a dealer was just added in the Virgin Islands.
 
Casey / Q:
Tell me, Danny, about the technology used in your greens system.
 
Softrak Greens
Danny / A:
SofTrak uses a slightly softer version of turf than many of our competitors use. It has certain advantages and certain disadvantages but we think the overall advantages outweigh the disadvantages. It takes a little while longer for the turf itself to get up to speed when it is first installed. It will take a little bit more rolling initially, but, we think the final product is better. We use a 5700 denier yarn - that basically has to do with the thickness of the turf - and that turf has less memory than what a thicker version of the product which is basically a 7600 denier that most of the rest of the industry uses. Again, it takes a longer rolling process to get the tips to lie over and to get the memory to stay in place. If you roll it just once it will tend to pop back up. If you roll it twice it will stay down longer and so on. The other types of yarns might bend over and stay bent over so consequently, over time, the green will roll faster and faster. The 7600 denier greens are easy to roll and get up to speed initially, but, over time, at least with our experience and experiments with that type of turf, eventually, they get too fast. With the 5700 denier product, a softer material that doesnt have quite as much memory, it will tend to be more adjustable. If you want a faster speed you can roll it more often. If you want it to slow up you can brush it and it will tend to keep its speed down a little bit.
 
Casey / Q:
So the speed is adjustable, like on a natural turf green?
 
Danny / A:
The speed is easily adjustable between a nine and eleven on the Stimpmeter. The nice thing about it is you can get it to roll as fast as you want or you can slow it up if you want to. To slow up the green you just run a soft bristle brush against it. You can make it emulate a Bermuda green if you want to. If you want a little more grain in the product you can broom it up a little bit. If you want it to react like a fast Bent grass green you just need to roll it a few time before you putt.
 
Casey / Q:
What are the critical elements to a synthetic green?
 
Danny / A:
The most critical part of green design and green building is the in-fill. To my knowledge, we are the only in-fill putting green vendor in the world that uses a proprietary in-fill product that the dealers are required to use in whatever SofTrak putting green that they install. Many of the companies will allow the dealers to acquire their own in-fill locally so theres no consistency between one green and another. A green installed by a company in California will putt differently and take shots differently than one installed in Minnesota, for example. All of our in-fill material comes out of one plant location in Texas. Its specifically graded to a certain size module so that all the in-fill materials are uniform and clean so it will not pack hard and compress over time. Some companies just use whatever local sand they can put their hands on which tends to be angular in nature and so it will compact and get hard over time. In the early days of the industry that was one of the most common complaints about in-fill greens; that they would be very nice for the first few months but then they would get hard as concrete over time so if you hit a ball in to them the ball would bounce just like it was a concrete surface.
 
Casey / Q:
Whats different about the in-fill material you use?
 
Danny / A:
We use perfect round quartz that is graded to a certain measurement. Its just like a jar of marblesyou know if you stick your hand in a jar of marbles they will all move around and you can get your hand all the way to the bottom of the jar. But, if you had a jar of jagged angular small stones they would tend to compact and you wouldnt be able to put your hand all the way down through it. We also use proprietary topdressing that is an acrylic version of the same in-fill material that we use on the bottom layer. And it creates a lubricated effect so it also adds additional shot acceptance and stability to the green and helps give it that rich, deep green color when the green is finished out.
 
Casey / Q:
What about wear-and-tear on these greens?
 
Danny / A:
We have materials and systems in place to give the greens additional UV protection and restore greens that get aged. We can actually go out and refurbish a green and make it look like a brand new green. We have some very sophisticated techniques for refurbishing greens and our dealers offer that as a service to our customers as well. If a customer doesnt take care of their green the way we suggest, we have a system in place that allows our dealers to go out and put them back in brand new condition. The nice thing about our greens is you can neglect the heck out of it and we can usually revive it to virtually new condition.
 
Casey / Q:
Whats the attraction for golfers and homeowners to get in to synthetic greens?
 
Danny / A:
I think one of the primary reasons is they just make such a beautiful addition to a backyard. But then its very functional also because its something the entire family and your friends can enjoy. The one in my backyard, my wife and my grandkids that live next door to me and even my mother-in-law use it all the time. More than me, in fact. It becomes like a gathering place in summertime on nice warm days. My wife may be out chipping around the green and before you know it the grandkids see her out there and theyre out there with their putters and wedges just having a great time. It can also become the focal point for a whole backyard landscaping scene as well. I had quite a barren backyard. I was a banker and wanted to spend as much time as I could on the golf course, not doing yard work. The next thing I know I put a golf green in and then put in all the beautiful supporting landscaping around it to make the green look as pretty as we could. Its an attraction for serious golfers that want to work on their short games in the ten or fifteen minutes that they have in the evenings or on a weekend. But, its also a great learning tool for youth golfers and golfers just starting out. I know my granddaughter and grandson have seen great improvements in their golf games, especially their short games since I added that green to my backyard. I hear the same story from all over the country from customers.
 
Casey / Q:
What about just a putting green versus creating an entire short game area?
 
Danny / A:
Most of our greens feature a fringe area around the green that people can practice their bump-and-runs. The majority of our dealers also have the ability to install hitting stations anywhere in the yard the customer wants. And also, to install practice bunkers. Youre really only limited by the amount of space you have and your imagination. Weve installed greens all the way from a putting green in a screened-in patio to full-fledged replica greens on large estates. One of my very good friends built a replica of the number 14 hole on the King and The Bear course in St. Augustine thats a 6,500 sq. ft. green that has a lake beside itand hes set up tee boxes around the lake from 80 yards all the way up to 230 yards. He only lives a mile from me and you can bet I go hang out there a lot. On his green, you can back the ball up with a wedge shot and it will also hold a shot with a 3-iron from 200 yards. Its amazing how realistic the greens will take a shot. Weve gone so far as to replace the original Bent grass greens on a small nine-hole course in Branson, Missouri with our SofTrak greens. We did an 8,000 sq. ft. green and a 5,000 sq. ft. green this year for the Payne Stewart Memorial Complex at the First Tee Program in Golden, Missouri. Its a wonderful facility where children can go to camp and learn about golf and this year was the first year of having this facility open.
 
Casey / Q:
What are the economics involved in a synthetic green like SofTrak?
 
Danny / A:
Your upfront costs will be a little higher on a synthetic putting green. But, what most people find is theyre not able to keep up with the financial commitment or the technology commitment to maintain a natural turf putting green and keep it alive and keep it to the quality that they need to enjoy it compared with the small amount of money it takes to maintain a synthetic putting green.
A very wealthy businessman here in Wichita had about an 8,000 sq. ft. natural turf green in his backyard complete with a greens keeper to keep the green alive and rolling smoothly. It got to where he couldnt spend enough time to keep it alive in the summertime so we ended up putting in one of our greens. Thats an example of a guy who had money to burn and even so he couldnt keep up with the demands of a natural turf green.
 
Casey / Q:
What kind of regular maintenance is involved for a home synthetic green?
 
Danny / A:
Typically, once a green is installed, you just need to keep the debris cleaned off of the green. You can clean it with a power blower, and then just an occasional brushing with a broom is all that is required to keep the green looking like new. Every couple of years we do advise that you allow a dealer to come and perform a detailed maintenance on the green. We take one of our special power brooms and clean all the built up dirt and dust off the turf and then we apply a new coat of topdressing.
 
Casey / Q:
Should you winterize synthetic greens?
 
Danny / A:
No, theres no real reason to worry about winterizing these greens. Just let the snow fall as it does naturally and melt away naturally.
 

Casey / Q:
Youve had quite a few PGA Tour stars use your greens.
 
Danny / A:
I recently sponsored an event for some of our customers and contest winners to play a round of golf with Bruce Lietzke in Dallas. And Bruce is a real straight forward, great guy. He had a green at his house from another company that is no longer in the business and Bruces brother Dwayne referred Bruce to us to check out our product. So we went in and replaced his existing green with one of our greens. The reason he put it in initially, I think, was that his son was, at the time, involved with junior golf and he wanted to give his son a better opportunity to get in more short game practice. The comment that I heard Bruce make to the people who were at the outing was that synthetic greens, in his opinion, dont get much better than the one we installed for him. He was also very complimentary about how easy the green was to maintain. He drew a comparison between the way our synthetic green rolled and how a lot of the greens on tour play. Thats a pretty nice thing for him to say. Bruce also referred our product to his own sister who has a son who plays competitive golf. I think that speaks volumes about our product that Bruce would refer it to one of his own family members.
 
We have had a similar experience with Rich Beem. We replaced a green he had with one of our greens. And you know Rich is a pretty funny guy. When we were done he said our green was way sexier. And he has let me know on several occasions how much he and his wife and son enjoy the green. Rich has also told quite a few friends about our product. And this kind of word-of-mouth coming from a top tour player is very encouraging for us.
 
Now, Im not mentioning these guys as endorsers of our product. Im just saying who we have installed greens for. But, we have put in greens for quite a few of the best players in the world and lets face it they can select any green they want. So I look at it like a validation of the quality of our product and the service we give.
 
Casey / Q:
Whats your take on the state of the synthetic green industry?
 
Danny / A:
Im very excited about and optimistic about the future of the synthetic green business across the country. There are many good companies out there; there are many good installers and many good dealers. Of course, Im partial to the product we put out at SofTrak Greens. There are variations in synthetic product just like there are different qualities for every product we use. We have a nylon offering in our line and there are some select situations where a less expensive, lower performance nylon product might make more sense. Of course, I believe strongly in a quality in-fill green, like SofTrak, because I think theyre more realistic, perform better over the long haul, easier to keep cleanjust a better product overall. So much of our business boils down to the quality of your installer. A really good installer can take a lesser quality product and make it look good. A poor installer can take the best product in the world and make it look not so good. I like to think we combine the best materials and technology with the best installation skill.
 
Casey / Q:
Any final words of advice for people considering a synthetic green?
 
Danny / A:
My advice to anyone considering a synthetic green is to do your research, do your homework, when you look at dealers that will be putting in your green. We only allow our greens to be installed by highly trained professionals that have been trained to work with our product. I can assure you, this makes a big difference in the final equation.
 
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