Regrassing projects can give golf courses a much-needed update. But anticipating the proper adjustments in mowing techniques and strategies required by the change is also critical for keeping new turf healthy, long after the renovations are complete.
Anything that starts to show its age can use a makeover every now and then, and golf courses are no exception. Once a makeover has occurred, a property still must be maintained to gain full benefit from the upgrades. And at golf courses that have been regrassed with new turf—which has been a growing trend as properties seek to adapt to changing weather and usage patterns—planning for and making the right adjustments in mowing techniques and strategies is essential for both proper grow-in and long-term health.
“I think proper mowing is the most important thing you can do on the golf course,” says Shawn Emerson, who oversees maintenance operations as Director of Agronomy for the seven golf courses at Desert Mountain Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. “You need the proper frequency and height of cut, and it’s important to select the right turf. The turf selection needs to match up with the mowing practices.”
The Right Grass
Desert Mountain recently regrassed its 32-year-old Renegrade Course as part of a major, $12.8 million renovation project. In a two-year plan to regrass its golf layouts, the property also is regrassing its 20-year-old Chiricahua and Apache courses.
The Renegade Course reopened April 1 after the completion of a full-fledged, 10-month project to update the golf course and give it a new look. Desert Mountain’s 90- to 100-day projects to regrass the Chiricahua and Apache courses are taking place during the summer, when the courses have low play.
“There’s a major goal for regrassing. We wanted to change from warm-season to cool-season turf,” says Emerson, who has been at Desert Mountain for 30 years. “We’re trying to get the right grass at the right time of year when the members play the golf course. We tried to pick grasses that are really good into the wintertime, when our members are playing.”
Desert Mountain also wanted to increase golfing days, lessen the need to overseed, reduce operating costs, decrease the Renegade Course’s 80 playable acres by 10 to 15 acres, and decrease the need to mow the turf as often.
The property previously had Bermudagrass, which was overseeded with perennial rye grass, on all three golf courses. Most of the turf on the Renegade golf course was 419 Bermudagrass. However, its fairways were converted to bentgrass, which also covers the greens on all of the Desert Mountain courses, and its rough was changed to Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue.
On the Apache and Chiricahua courses, the property is switching from Bermuda fairways and rough to Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue.
“The goal was to refresh them and get to the 30-year mark before we had to get to the infrastructure,” says Emerson.
Mending the Mutations
In the summer of 2017, La Cantera Resort & Spa in San Antonio, Texas started regrassing the greens and driving-range fairway of its 18-hole Resort Course, which opened in 1995, as part of an extensive, six-month renovation effort. During the project, the property also regrassed and fraise-mowed the fairways and rough, to remove the thatch and organic matter that had built up through the years.
“We had a number of mutations on the fairways, along with scalping and thatch buildup,” says Director of Agronomy Mark Soto. “It was becoming more of a problem.”
The greens on the Resort Course, where the Valero Texas Open was played from 1995 through 2009, originally were Tifdwarf, but they were replaced with TifEagle. “It’s a turfgrass that peforms well in our region, given our climate, and it’s a quality playing surface,” notes Soto.
La Cantera also has plans to renovate its 18-hole Palmer Course next year. “It will be very similar to what we did on the Resort Course,” Soto states. “It has TifEagle greens, and we will replace them with more TifEagle. We’ve been pleased with the performance of the TifEagle.”
During the grow-in phase of Desert Mountain’s Renegade renovation project, grounds crew members waited 21 days before mowing the golf course. When they did start, they mowed at a higher height of cut, which they then brought down based on density or coverage.
“During grow-in, everything is different,” Emerson explains. “Some fairways are 30 days old, and some are 60 days old. It was hard to get everything scheduled properly.”
If the goal was to have the height of cut be at a half-inch at the end of the grow-in, the staff started mowing at one inch. Grounds crew members started mowing the greens at .250 inch to get to a height of one-eighth inch, and began mowing the fairways and rough at one inch during grow-in. Then, however, they decreased the height of cut for the fairways, while increasing it for the rough.
“It’s a very exciting time to change the grasses,” says Emerson. “I always tell people, ‘Have a good plan and be willing to change it. Don’t be so rigid.’ It’s easy to get frustrated. But if you concentrate on the end goal, it helps you.”
During La Cantera’s renovation project at the Resort Course in San Antonio, the staff watered the surface heavily after fraise-mowing left it bare. Regrowth began to appear in about three weeks, and the the grounds crew started mowing the grass at a height of one inch.
“We slowly began to groom the surface while adding fertilizer inputs and letting leaf and root material develop until it could handle a daily mowing routine,” Soto says. “The golf course was closed during the project, so we didn’t have to push the turf.”
During grow-in, he adds, “Mowing events are based on growth and the stability of the surface itself. You have to let [the turf] grow before you can get any equipment on it.”
Adjusting the Frequency
The new grass has affected the frequency of mowing at Desert Mountain’s Renegade Course. Three people mow the fairways at the golf course, but now, the maintenance staff mows the fairways two or three times a week instead of three or four times a week, saving 10 to 12 manhours per week.
“We’re trying to reduce one mow a week,” notes Emerson. “We want to reduce the mowing frequency without losing the look of the golf course.”
During the season, the maintenance staff for La Cantera’s Resort Course mows the fairways and tees three times a week, and the rough twice a week. The grounds crew mows the greens daily and also rolls them.
“The frequency hasn’t changed, but the quality is certainly visible,” Soto says. “Mowing will certainly get you that quality surface that the players desire. They want the ball to sit up. A lower height of cut will get the quality you’re looking for.”
TifEagle grass is more receptive to aggressive management than other super-dwarfs, superintendents report. Variables to consider when mowing TifEagle include the amount of play, environmental conditions, greens slope and contour, and the health of the grass. Double mowing can add speed and smoothness to TifEagle surfaces, but is not necessary during the spring and fall, when the growth of the grass slows.
At Desert Mountain’s Renegade Course, maintenance staff members mow the primary rough at one inch and the secondary rough at two inches. The property’s 15 acres of secondary rough is mowed every other week. “We mow the primary rough more frequently than the secondary rough,” Emerson says.
New grasses can also help properties reduce water usage, and at Desert Mountain, where 70 percent of the golf course maintenance budget encompasses water and labor, Emerson says the grounds crew now doesn’t have to do as much hand-mowing around the bunkers and rough. The new grass also grows more slowly than the Bermudagrass, and is more resistant to disease.
With the removal of about 10 percent, or about 12 acres, of irrigated turf, and the switch from Bermudagrass to bentgrass, Renegade has become the only course in the Scottsdale area to feature wall-to-wall, cool-season turf. The installation of the bentgrass also eliminates the need to overseed, which in turn reduces water usage and allows the golf course to stay green year-round.
The fairways, tees, and approaches at the Renegade Course have the same grasses, and the only thing about them that changes, Emerson notes, is the mowing heights.
“Instead of having a hodge-podge look to the golf course, it has a homogenous look,” he says. “It makes us look younger than we really are. New grasses can do that. If we can make a 30-year-old golf course look like a 20-year-old golf course because we’ve changed the grass, that was our approach. How do we look younger without breaking the bank?”
Soto agrees that the height of cut is the most important aspect of mowing for creating uniformity on the playing surfaces. After the renovation at La Cantera’s Resort Course, he says, “We’re able to mow the entire golf course without any issue whatsoever. We have a smoother surface and zero mutations, and the water percolation into the soil is better. Fertilizer doesn’t get tied up in the thatch layer. Our other inputs are becoming much more effective and efficient.”
TifEagle can also tolerate closer mows than Tifdwarf, but the grass has its limits. Excessively low mowing reduces root growth and shade tolerance, and increases the potential for disease.
The mowing height should be increased on TifEagle that receives a lot of traffic, superintendents recommend, as well as during extended periods of stress. Raising the mowing height in the fall increases the chances of surviving the winter months as well.
Prior to the regrassing project at La Cantera’s Resort Course, crew members mowed the fairways at .725 to .750 inch. Now, however, they mow them at a height of .500 to .550 inch.
In addition, the Resort Course staff also used solid front rollers on the fairways, to mitigate the effects of scalping before the renovation. However, since the project was completed, the use of growth regulators has given the fairways a better-quality playing surface.
Advancing with Technology
New grasses are not the only technological advantage that have benefited superintendents, however. The upgrades to mowing equipment in recent years have helped them take better care of the new turf varieties as well.
“The ability to change the grasses reset everything we were going to do,” says Emerson. “It was a great time to re-evaluate everything we were doing.”
That re-evaluation also included taking a closer look at the equipment used to maintain Desert Mountain’s Renegade course, and the club got new mowers at the same time it changed its turf.
“We chose models that worked well on the new grasses,” says Emerson. “Each golf course [at Desert Mountain] has the basic equipment that it needs on a daily basis, like greens mowers and fairway mowers. The golf courses share equipment like topdressers and aerification equipment.”
As part of the Renegade Course renovation, Emerson says, “We seeded more acres of fairways, so we can use bigger mowers.”
With the new mowers for the Renegade Course, Desert Mountain is also taking advantage of new technology, such as the GPS feature that helps the maintenance staff determine the best direction to mow the grass.
“I wanted to find out how long it took to mow each direction, and I broke it down by hole,” reports Emerson. “It’s based on how many times you turn because of bunkering.”
By tracking the length of time it takes to mow a hole, the maintenance staff can maintain each hole without disrupting golfers.
GPS offers other benefits as well. The feature helps with equipment care by tracking how many hours the mowers have been used, and when they need service.
“We know how much it costs to run a machine every day,” says Emerson. “GPS tracks where the mowers went each day, [and because] certain holes take a little longer [to mow], we rotate equipment so we don’t put too much stress on any one machine.”
Although the same people generally mow the same parts of the golf course every day, Emerson says the mowers can indicate who mowed a hole and when it was mowed.
He prefers to base pay increases for employees on their productivity rather than their longevity at the golf course, and the GPS feature on the mowers enables him to track their work.
“People don’t want to show up anymore and do the same old job. They’re invested now because we’re tracking it,” states Emerson. “If somebody is struggling with something, we can help them so they can get back on track. We can step in and help employees before there’s an issue.”
In addition to GPS capabilities, the property was looking for quieter electric or hybrid mowers that could handle the varied terrain on the seven golf courses at Desert Mountain.
“Each golf course is unique, so you have to use what works for each one,” says Emerson. “We’re mowing in the hot part of the day in the desert.”
Operator care was an important feature as well, and Emerson says the new mowers required little retraining for the staff. “All the equipment companies use the same parts from mower to mower, and the operator stations are pretty similar,” he says. “Things are switched in some places, and some added features are standard now.”
Desert Mountain leases its equipment based on usage, typically turning over equipment every 48 to 60 months. “We’re getting more usage out of the equipment because of the tracking,” Emerson says.
In addition, he says, mechanics can service the machines more quickly. “It all ties together because you have more information,” reports Emerson. “We have more variance in our mowing. We have better close-cut mowing in the areas where the members play the most. We can track it with technology.”
At La Cantera, the Resort and Palmer golf courses share equipment and operate out of a central maintenance location. The property, which owns all of its equipment, got a new fleet of equipment leading up to and during the renovation, but not as a result of the project.
The staff uses seven-blade reel mowers on the fairways and rotary mowers on the rough.
“All of our greens are mowed with walk-behind reel mowers, because of the quality of cut,” says Soto. “You’re not introducing as much compaction with a heavy piece of equipment on the turf itself, and there are no hydraulic leaks.”
Relying on Experts
Whether they are making changes to their equipment or to their turf, superintendents have plenty of resources to assist them in the decision-making process. To select new grasses for the Desert Mountain golf courses, Emerson turned to researchers at the University of Arizona and the University of California-Riverside. He also paid visits to seed companies as well as to Philadelphia Cricket Club, Medinah (Ill.) Country Club, and The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“I went to my fellow golf course superintendents nationwide, and I went to local superintendents in my neighborhood to see what they were doing,” Emerson says. “My best consultants are my peers.”
In addition, he worked with the Jack Nicklaus Design team. And, in the fashion of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” the new grasses led to the other changes at the golf courses.
“This was a chance to look at everything,” Emerson says.” If we wanted to do something, we did it.”
To select the new turf and new equipment at La Cantera, Soto relied on the team of agronomists at Troon Golf. He also falls back on his own expertise and experience.
“It’s almost like second nature. You want to manage and maintain and see how the turf responds to these inputs,” says Soto. “Once the turf stand is healthy enough to withstand a mow, that’s when we condition it down to a proper height.”
Summing It Up
> The mowing practices at a golf course need to be compatible with its grasses, and new turf varieties can affect the frequency and height of cut.
> During the grow-in of new grasses, mowing is based on growth and the stability of the surface itself.
> Regrassing projects designed to help reduce requirements for watering and
fertilizer inputs can also influence long-range mowing and maintenance practices.