After another extremely volatile year in the energy markets, superintendents have learned- and implemented-new tricks for protecting properties against fuel-cost spikes.
Golf course superintendents have made great strides in water conservation, but soaring gas, oil and diesel prices have now made fuel an increasingly precious commodity as well. As a result, superintendents spent much of the past season looking for creative ways to trim gas-guzzling habits.
SUMMING IT UP
• By increasing growth regulators on the turf, tee and fairway mowing can be cut from three times a week to twice a week.• Because of increasing fertilizer costs, some courses are reducing fairway fertilizer applications from two times annually to once a year.
• While they wait for hybrid vehicles or biodiesel fuels, some properties are turning to electric equipment.
From restructuring the way their crews get the job done to switching from gasoline-powered to electric vehicles, they proved to be up to the task—and while the end of the year brought some fuel-price relief, many have now adopted new energy-saving practices as permanent parts of their maintenance routines.
Piggy Back to Success
Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club, nestled in the shadow of the Teton Mountain Range in Jackson, Wyo., and owned by Grand Teton Lodge Company, is trying to decrease fuel consumption by 10 percent, as part of a property-wide initiative to go green. “We all work together for sure. It’s actually kind of a race to see who can save the most,” says Golf Course Superintendent Justin Brown.
At the 18-hole resort property, the maintenance staff now uses a piggyback system, by assigning two crew members to each utility cart. When the grounds crew is weed-eating, for example, one staff member drops his partner off at the front of a hole, and continues on to the middle of the hole. Each crew member begins at his starting point, working until they meet in the middle.
“We started shuttling people like this in May, and it’s actually a lot more efficient,” notes Brown.
The superintendent says he had no trouble convincing the crew to buy into the team approach. “It’s part of our culture. Everybody understands that this is a special place,” he explains.
Randolph Golf Complex, a 36-hole public facility in Tucson, Ariz., changed maintenance routines about a year ago, in response to rising fuel costs.
“We’ve adjusted our schedule and mowing patterns, and have established a maintenance order so we can travel less over the golf course,” says Golf Course Superintendent Samuel Orozco. “Instead of going from one to 18, we start on the closest hole to the shop, and try to get everything done that way.”
The crew also concentrates on one course each day to conserve fuel, he adds, and the changes have resulted in a savings of 20 percent or more.
Other fuel-saving measures, such as increasing natural areas, have grown out of initiatives to become more environmentally friendly.
Jackson Hole converted seven acres back to natural areas, and Augustine Golf Club, a privately owned 18-hole public facility in Stafford, Va., converted 15 acres to no-mow zones.
“We’re not mowing the rough as often,” says Golf Course Superintendent John Burns. “”It probably saves about half a day’s worth of fuel.”
Noting that his $40,000 fuel budget has gone up 2-1/2 times in the last five or six years, he adds, “It really puts a pinch in the rest of your budget items.”
Augustine also has increased its use of growth regulators on the turf, a practice that has cut tee and fairway mowing from three times a week to twice a week.
Golf Course Superintendent Doug Ward says Belle Meade Country Club, an 18-hole private property in Nashville, Tenn., has adopted similar practices.
About 5 percent of the course is made up of naturalized areas, and Belle Meade uses growth regulators on the fairways to reduce mowing and to conserve fuel.
“It slows the Bermuda grass plant’s growth down, [by tending] to make it grow more laterally than upright,” Ward says.
The crew now mows the fairways three times a week and the greens five or six times a week in the summer, he reports. Golfers everywhere may have to get used to longer grass in the future, he feels. “The height of the cut of the grass has gone down over the years, but it may go up as you try to conserve fuel,” he predicts.
Still, Ward notes it was business as usual at the property in the fall, even as Hurricanes Gustav and Ike wreaked havoc on gasoline supplies in the Southeast.
Druid Hills Golf Club, an 18-hole private property in Atlanta, also uses growth regulators in the summer, says Golf Course Superintendent Neal Wisdom. As a result, he adds, the crew mows the fairways three times a week, instead of every day.
The property also has some natural areas, but Wisdom says he would like to naturalize at least two more out-of-play areas, which are mowed twice a week.
Alan Culver, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Mahoney Golf Course, an 18-hole public property in Lincoln, Neb., says his facility has also taken some areas out of play and planted them with native grasses.
However, he adds, “At a golf course, there’s only so much you can do. When people start losing their golf balls, they’ll find another place to play.”
The Randolph facility has converted about five of its 230 acres into natural areas, by removing old trees and running them through a wood chipper. The staff then spreads the chips on the ground to naturalize the areas.
Fighting the Spread of Fertilizer Costs
The ever-increasing cost of fertilizers that are manufactured with petroleum products also has affected golf course maintenance practices. “We’ve had to cut back on fertilizer and chemicals,” Culver says. “Even the delivery costs are going up.”
Mahoney Golf Course has reduced fairway fertilizer applications from two times annually to once a year, and the rough has not been fertilized for two years.
Wisdom says his fertilizer costs have almost doubled in the last year, creating the need to reduce the amount of fertilizer that the maintenance crew uses. In addition, he reports, Druid Hills has eliminated the use of specialty fertilizers on the greens and resorted to less-expensive alternatives.
Orozco says his fertilizer costs have tripled in the last year. As a result, the property has cut back on fertilizer applications and turned to liquid fertilizer injections, using its irrigation system. This practice, which the golf complex started two years ago, has saved money by reducing the use of gasoline-powered equipment to spread fertilizer.
The property has also started using organic and natural fertilizers, Orozco adds—a trend that he expects more superintendents to follow. Not only are organic products more environmentally friendly than gasoline-based fertilizers, he notes, but “the cost of production [of gas-based products] is going through the roof.”
Leading the Charge
Superintendents expect to see the use of hybrid vehicles or biodiesel fuels increase in the coming years. For now, however, some properties are turning to electric equipment.
A marketing manager at a leading equipment manufacturer says about 20 percent of the company’s golf customers now use electric utility vehicles.
“We saw the trend in the electric golf cars really start to gain some traction in the mid ’90s,” he says. “Vehicles are a logical place for electrical technology to enter in the golf industry.”
Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) Resort Golf Course got electric utility carts four years ago. “The owner doesn’t want any gas-powered vehicles on the course during the day,” reveals Golf Course Superintendent Kevin Hicks.
While minimizing noise was the driving factor behind using electric carts, he adds, they have also helped to conserve fuel.
However, since the batteries need to be recharged, Hicks notes that the vehicles are more practical for job-specific tasks than for all-day use. His staff is also split into morning and night crews to keep off the course during play, which maximizes the efficiency of the electric vehicles.
Druid Hills has leased electric utility carts for four years. Wisdom says the property, which is surrounded by houses, also turned to electric carts because of the noise factor. However, he reveals, the use of the electric carts has helped to conserve gasoline as well. “If we had gas (utility carts), we would use another 25 to 50 gallons a week,” he notes.
Augustine replaced its gasoline golf cars with electric cars about three years ago, and Burns says the property owner is contemplating the purchase of electric mowers for its greens and tees.
“We are in a neighborhood, and I think that’s a very realistic consideration,” he reports. “They’re quieter, and the carbon footprint is going to be a lot less.”
Ward agrees that more properties might turn to electric equipment in the future. However, he adds, “How well those will be embraced, I don’t know. You’re going to be using some kind of energy to get those things going. They might be more environmentally friendly, but they don’t necessarily save money.”
The Randolph complex uses gas golf cars, notes Orozco, but officials should make a decision by the end of the year about whether or not to switch to electric. He also says the facility might have to use electric maintenance equipment at some point as well. “We’re just spending too much on gasoline,” he notes.
Jackson Hole, which has an annual fuel budget of $60,000, started its fuel-cutting efforts at the beginning of the golf season, in an attempt to meet its budget. “We’re hoping that will offset any rises [in gasoline prices], but it’s not just a one-time initiative,” notes Brown.
The Druid Hills gasoline budget, which was $36,000 in 2007, is $45,000 for next year, reports Wisdom. He expects the property to consider switching to new electric greens mowers or hybrid mowers in about five years.
Gasoline prices have also affected golfers’ spending habits, but the rising costs have had a positive effect at Mahoney Golf Course.
“Our play was up this year,” notes Culver. “We’re seeing a lot of people we haven’t seen before, because they’re staying [closer to] home.”
While the facility has not increased prices, it likely will have to raise fees next year, says Culver. Despite their best efforts, however, their fuel-saving measures have had little effect on the bottom line. “Every time we cut back, gas prices go up,” Culver reports. “We’re just trying to tread water right now.”