Mowing is one of the most basic jobs of golf course maintenance-but sometimes, less can still be more, to ensure effective execution of this all-important task.
“Grow it and mow it” has long been standard operating procedure for golf course maintenance professionals. But there’s more to this fundamental aspect of superintendents’ jobs than the cliché alludes to. Properly mowed turf not only affects the aesthetics of a facility, it is a key determinant of the playability of a course.
While each property adopts practices and mowing schedules to suit its unique character and needs, many facilities are beginning to change their mowing patterns to save fuel, time and money.
Mowing ‘Em Down
At Baker Hill Golf Club in Newbury, N.H., the maintenance crew mows four days a week during the golf season and rolls the greens three days a week.
SUMMING IT UP
• Superintendents are moving away from the use of mowers with hydraulic lines.
The staff used to mow the greens six days a week, says Golf Course Superintendent Bob Turcotte, but their mowing practices also depend on staffing.
“We hand-mow during the summer months when we have a full staff, and we triplex-mow in the spring and fall when we have a smaller staff,” he explains.
The greens are cut at 1/8-inch, Turcotte says, and it takes four employees about three hours to complete the job in the mornings. Hand mowers ensure that the greens have the best possible putting surfaces. The crew also attaches groomers to the greens mowers to keep grain from developing, and mowing in different directions each day also helps to control the grain.
Baker Hill’s tees, approaches, collars and fairways are generally mowed three times a week, at a height of 7/16-inch to ½-inch. The rough has multiple heights of cut, and the crew uses different machines for different tasks. However, the primary rough mower is a four-wheel drive mower, with five articulating decks.
Turcotte, who posts the daily mowing schedule for the course on the property’s Web site, says Baker Hill’s mowing practices are influenced by another element as well. “You just have to learn how your membership plays,” he says.
The maintenance crew at Lake Valley Golf & Country Club in Camdenton, Mo., mows the course seven days a week, weather permitting, during the season that generally runs from April 1 to November 1. The greens are cut at .120 inches, says Golf Course Superintendent Alex Hultz—but the crew, which mows the greens several times during the winter, raises the height of the greens to .140 inches during the off-season. The staff does not mow the fairways and tees, which are planted with a warm-season grass, from September to April.
|Baker Hill’s tees, approaches, collars and fairways generally are mowed three times a week, at a height of 7⁄16-inch to ½-inch.|
Lake Valley also uses vibratory rollers on its triplex mowers to keep the green speed consistent, Hultz says, and the combination of double-rolling and double-mowing maintains greens speed. This practice also allows the crew to increase the height of the cut during the hot summer months, to avoid stress on the turf.
“We can increase the height of the cut and still get the same ball speeds with healthier plants,” explains Hultz.
The height of fairways and tees are kept at ¾-inch, he adds, and the collars and approaches are cut at 21/4 inches. In July, at the request of the club’s Ladies Golf Association, Lake Valley adjusted the amount of fairway the grounds staff was mowing on four of its par-3 holes. The height of the cut in these areas was lowered from 2.5 inches to the standard fairway height of .70 inches.
The crew mows the greens and primary areas first thing in the morning, notes Hultz, “but the rough mowers will go all day.”
Sean Novotny, Golf Course Superintendent at Kennsington Golf Club in Canfield, Ohio, says his crew mows the greens every day during the season. The front and back fairways are mowed every other day, and the tees and approaches on opposite schedules, three days a week. In the off-season, the grounds crew mows the greens two or three times a month, depending on the ground temperature.
“We also use growth regulators to try to minimize our costs and the wear and tear on our equipment,” adds Novotny.
The Lake Valley crew uses fairway mowers with seven cutting units to maintain 30 acres of turf, and triplex reels for tees and greens.
“There have been constant upgrades and advances on equipment on golf courses—particularly in the last 20 years,” notes Hultz.
The property purchases new tees and greens mowers every five years, and the fairway mowers are on an eight- to 10-year replacement schedule. Price is always a consideration when it is time to replace equipment, says Hultz, but other features are important as well. He looks for spring-loaded action on the bed knives of mowers to keep reels from getting bent, and tries to steer clear of equipment with hydraulic lines that can break and leak clear fluids onto the greens.
Ditto for Novotny. “We have gotten away from all hydraulic lines, so we use all electric equipment,” he explains.
By making the switch, he adds, the property, which leases its machinery, has saved money on oil, reduced maintenance on hoses, and avoided breakages that leak fluids onto the turf. “No one likes to ever see a hydraulic leak anywhere, because it causes so much damage,” Novotny notes.
To maintain the rolling terrain at Baker Hill, Turcotte looks for vehicles with four-wheel drive and good traction “We try to buy equipment that minimizes hand work,” he adds. “We’re always looking for the optimum machinery for climbing.”
Sometimes less is more when it comes to mowing, and natural areas help crews cut back on mowing time and costs.
Kennsington GC, which opened three years ago, boasts 60 to 70 acres of natural areas. Other properties, however, are increasing their natural acreage.
Lake Valley added taller grasses to increase these spaces by about 5 percent. “It helps to separate the holes. It helps the wildlife, and it cuts down on the amount of mowing,” notes Hultz.
Taller grasses were added to one of the areas, to try to keep golfers from cutting corners on the hole, But the golfers have taken the naturalized areas in stride. “Most of them aren’t really in play unless you hit a bad shot,” Hultz reveals.
Baker Hill is another course that’s following the lead of Lee Trevino, who once said, “A rough should have high grass—when you go bowling, they don’t give you anything for landing in the gutter.” The 120-acre golf course at Baker Hill now includes 22 acres of unmowed rough; Turcotte says the property previously had 20 acres of natural areas.
“We have a lot of steep slopes that we’ve converted to unmowed rough, and we’ve let the areas that we used to fly-mow go to tall grass,” he reports.
However, there is more than one way to “go natural” when it comes to maintaining turf. Just ask Kennsington’s Novotny.
This past spring, acting on an idea he first got after spending two years at a course in Ireland where sheep roamed on the property, Novotny bought two goats at an Amish livestock auction for $50 each. The two male goats—Bob and the one-horned Horny—now keep the eco-sensitive landscape along the rough of Kennsington’s course well-trimmed.
After he brought the goats back to the property, Novotny recalls, “I told the owner, ‘Come down to the barn, and I’ll show you our new weedeaters.’ ”
“They eat and eat and eat,” he reports. “They’re low-maintenance and are saving us a ton of time and a ton of money. We feed them grain in the morning and a square of oats, and spend less than $100 a month total on their food and care. They supplement the rest of their ‘diets’ by eating anything in front of them—briars, shingles off their goat house. And they like Coke as a treat.”
Kennsington’s course is bordered by a Boy Scouts of America camp to the south and a large nature preserve to the east, and the crew moves the goats from one natural area to another to “mow” this eco-sensitive terrain. “They maintain a lot of steep areas that are really, really dangerous,” Novotny explains. “We used to tie a rope to somebody and let them down the cliff with weedeaters.”
Although the goats have been known to visit golfers on the greens, Novotny reveals, they generally stay out of players’ way. “In these economic times, you try different things,” he notes. “We thought outside the box.”
For those who prefer more high-tech mowing solutions, GPS-equipped mowers, and robotic mowers that rely on beacons placed in fixed locations to guide them, are now coming onto the scene. But superintendents can be reluctant to try this new equipment.
“I think it needs to prove itself a bit before people jump on it,” says Turcotte. “It’s pretty advanced; if you have a good technician to move and service it, it could be worthwhile. The initial cost is another detriment.”
Crews always could use more equipment to get work done more quickly, Hultz adds—but he too is not yet on board with the idea of robotic mowers. “They probably have their place where there are houses built around the course,” he notes.
Adds Novotny: “You can’t take the human aspect out of golf. You always have to have a pair of eyes there.”
But all of the superintendents appreciate the ongoing efforts to continue to find innovative ways to handle one of their most basic tasks.
“If it works for your golf course, people are going to embrace these new ideas as soon as they get proven and the price comes down,” Turcotte says.