While mowing is the most routine of golf-maintenance practices, superintendents need to remain ever-diligent and open to new approaches that can help to improve productivity for the task, while also enhancing the look and playability of their courses.
Golf course superintendents are charged with maintaining healthy turf on their properties, and a number of cultural practices help them keep their grounds in top condition as cost-effectively as possible. But properly mowing the playing surfaces not only affects the health of the turfgrass, it can also have a dramatic effect on the appearance of a property—and often is the greatest cost factor in golf-course maintenance as well.
|SUMMING IT UP
• Mowing is a vital input in preparing a golf course for daily play, and superintendents must consider the height and frequency of the cut, as well as mowing patterns, to produce optimum turf conditions as efficiently as possible.
The keys to producing optimum results—according to two veteran superintendents with experience in maintaining top-quality turf for classic courses in challenging, wide-ranging climatic conditions—are mowing height, frequency, and pattern.
At Golden Valley (Minn.) Country Club, an 18-hole property near Minneapolis that was established in 1914, the maintenance staff mows the greens daily and the tees and fairways two or three times a week, making seasonal adjustments as necessary. The greens are mowed between 0.1 and 0.125 inch, depending on the season. The tees generally are mowed at 0.375 inch, and the fairways at 0.425 inch.
The maintenance-staff members stripe the greens and tees. On the fairways, however, they use a half-and-half “Zamboni cut,” so named for how the mowing pattern mimics the icemaking and smoothing technique used by the equipment of that name at hockey and skating rinks.
When applied to mowing, the Zamboni cut eliminates the 180-degree turns used for striping, instead starting with passes around the edges of an area, then going down the middle, and then using slightly overlapping oval passes to finish the section. “We started doing [the Zamboni cut] four years ago, to reduce mowing time and wear and tear in the rough where the mowers would turn around for the next pass,” notes Jeff Ische, Golden Valley’s Golf Course Superintendent. “Plus, we like the classic look.”
Ische sends out four mowers at a time for the Zamboni cut. “We can mow our fairways faster,” he explains. “That equates to less labor, less fuel use, and longer life out of our equipment. The condition of our rough along the edges of the fairways has also improved.”
The Golden Valley grounds staff ride-mows the creeping bentgrass/poa annua fairways with lightweight five-plexes, and walk-mows the poa annua greens and the creeping bentgrass tees. The walk mowers provide a finer cut with a better end result, Ische says, and reduce the wear and tear on the turf. “A lot of the greens and bunker complexes are too tight to use a triplex effectively,” he adds. “The walk mowers provide a high-quality cut and eliminate the compaction that can develop under the wheels of heavier mowers, and those are both factors that can improve overall plant health.”
From Up to Down
At Pine Hills Country Club, an 18-hole property with bentgrass greens, tees, and fairways in Sheboygan, Wis., the maintenance staff follows similar mowing practices. The grounds crew mows the greens at 0.125 inch (dropping the height as needed for speed), the tees at 0.375 inch, and the fairways at just under 0.5 inch. “We start at one height and work our way down,” says Rod Johnson, CGCS. “Once you come down, it’s hard to go up.”
The Pine Hills grounds crew also mows the greens daily and the tees and fairways three times a week. Using walk mowers on the greens and tees, the maintenance staff members stripe these surfaces. Using three mowers at a time, they mow the fairways with a classic cut—half light and half dark.
“It fits our look better than stripes,” Johnson says. “We have an old, classic golf course.” (The club was founded in 1905 and opened in its current location, where the Pigeon River runs through the golf course, in 1928, during the Golden Age of course architecture.)
Protection and Productivity
The longevity of the Golden Valley and Pine Hills courses cannot be attributed to happenstance. The maintenance staffs at both properties take great care to safeguard turf from any damage that mowers can cause.
During the summer months at Golden Valley, Ische says it’s necessary to protect the green perimeters and rough bordering the greens, particularly when the mowers don’t have enough room to make a wide turning circle, because of close bunkers. To alleviate this problem, the Golden Valley staff puts down floor-runner carpets on which to turn the mowers.
Because of the limited space between the edge of a green and a bunker, water hazard or steep drop-off, these areas can be difficult to navigate. If maintenance staffs do not take care to protect the grass on the collars, then the condition of this turf, which is integral to the playability and appearance of a golf course, can decline.
At Pine Hills, Johnson reports, staff members lay down lattice on the edge of the greens before mowing to reduce stress on the surface, because turns become more difficult if the turf is under stress. The grounds crew also catches the clippings on the fairways from the first to the last mowing of the season.
In addition to being careful with turns, the Pine Hills crew alters the halves that are mowed for the classic cut, to protect the long-term health of the turf.
And because it can be hard to tell where the mowers have been without striping the golf course, Pine Hills installed foam markers on the outside edges of its mowers six or seven years ago. Using these markers has been a big timesaver, Johnson notes.
Golden Valley has also installed foamers on its fairway mowers. “When there is dew on the ground, it’s easy to see where you have mowed and not mowed,” Ische explains. “With a Zamboni cut, it’s harder to see where you’ve been when the grass is dry. The foamers mark the edge of our last path. When we’re dry-cut mowing, we can reduce the amount of overlap to a minimum, further increasing productivity.”
At Golden Valley, Ische monitors productivity by recording how long crew members are out on the course to perform each mowing operation. Proper staff training is one of the best ways to increase efficiency and decrease the amount of time spent mowing, he adds.
“We do our best to cross-train the majority of our staff to perform most any mowing operation, so we have the flexibility during the day to move people if need be,” Ische notes. “We have specific training documents for each piece of equipment, and we walk through them with any new operator. We start training in the maintenance facility, and it carries out onto the golf course. Training is ongoing.”
At Pine Hills, Johnson reports, many of his crew members are retirees or people who are working on the golf course as a second career. “They like to mow for the exercise. They have a lot of life and mowing experience,” he says. “The same crew members mow the same areas on a daily basis, but may have a different set of greens to mow.”
An assistant superintendent at Pine Hills trains new employees to use the mowers and accompanies them on several mowings as well. Management personnel can use their smartphones as a teaching tool and take photos if someone is performing a task incorrectly, Johnson adds.
Johnson now relies on a digital job board, which Pine Hills got last year, to measure productivity. “We can tell how long they’ve been on the job,” he says. “We keep tabs on each other. If someone is struggling with a mower, someone will mow an extra green that day.”
The job board also documents how labor hours are spent. “We get an end-of-day report on how much time was spent on each area, and tie the hourly rate to it,” Johnson says.
Jobs are listed on a big screen in the breakroom, and Johnson can update crew members about their subsequent assignments on his smartphone while he is out on the golf course.
In addition, he says, “The digital job board saves assistants a lot of time. It’s better than doing time sheets by hand.”
Before daily tasks can be assigned, however, superintendents must work around the elements and upcoming club events to set mowing schedules.
“We’re constantly looking at the golf calendar to plan our mowing schedule,” says Ische. “We try to stay on a definite schedule for weekly mowing, but clearly, golf events and weather play a large role in affecting that.”
Rain affects mowing schedules as well as temperatures. “If it’s too cold or too hot, mowing can lead to turf injury,” says Ische. Growth rates influence the Golden Valley mowing schedule as well. “We’re not going to mow if we don’t have to,” Ische says. “By only mowing when we need to, it reduces wear and tear on the turf.”
Johnson also stays in close contact with Pine Hills’ golf shop about outings, to coordinate mowing schedules beforehand, and tries to be as consistent as upcoming events and the weather will allow.
“Mowing consumes the most staff hours, and labor is the largest budget category,” he notes. “Regular mowing schedules provide consistent playing conditions. Miss a mowing or two due to weather or other situations, and the importance of mowing schedules is evident.”
The Selection Process
Golden Valley owns all of its mowers. Most of the fleet is five years old, with the property making a large purchase in the spring of 2013. The equipment’s lifespan varies according to the type of mower, Ische says. For example, he plans on a 10- to 12-year replacement cycle for reel-type mowers.
Ische considers several features in selecting mowers, such as quality of cut, after-cut appearance of the turf, ease of operation, costs of maintenance and upkeep, and the relationship and support from the equipment vendor.
When selecting mowers for Pine Hills, Johnson primarily looks at quality of cut, ease of operation, and durability. The club has had its current fleet of fairway mowers for 10 years, but Johnson hopes to switch to a three-year deal in a couple of years. “We have four fairway mowers, but only three go out every day,” he notes.
Pine Hills is in the second year of a package for its greens and tee mowers. Under this deal, Pine Hills makes payments on the equipment for three years, with a buyout at the end of that time period.
A good equipment technician, Johnson adds, is key to keeping mowers in top condition. “Our equipment technician takes a ride behind the mowers every day, to be sure they’re doing what he set them to do,” he notes.
With some properties having turned to robotic mowers to complete mowing tasks more safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively, Ische says he is curious to watch the development of the technology, and particularly its effect on labor expenses. “Labor has always been our biggest cost. It takes up the largest percentage of our operating budget,” he says. “I am looking forward to seeing if robotic greens mowers become more mainstream, and if the costs to utilize them come down.”