With more educational opportunities at their disposal and a dedication to their craft, equipment managers are proving to be indispensable parts of golf course maintenance operations.
At first glance, spending time indoors as part of a golf course maintenance operation might seem counterproductive. But not for Patrick Drinkard, Equipment Manager at The Clubs at Cordillera Ranch in Boerne, Texas. He knows his place—inside, with the fan running. After all, that’s where Drinkard is most effective when it comes to creating the best conditions possible for the property’s 18-hole golf course. Because if he doesn’t do his job to keep the maintenance equipment at top performance levels, then the grounds crew members can’t do their job to keep the golf course in optimum shape.
“I enjoy knowing that it is my work that makes the golf course look the way it looks,” says Drinkard, who has been in the business since 2007 and came to Cordillera Ranch from a Georgia golf course in October 2016.
Safety, Setup, and Savings
While equipment managers’ work ethic has an outsized influence on golf course maintenance operations, so does the relationship between equipment managers and golf course superintendents.
“It is a very critical relationship, one that sometimes gets overshadowed by the [focus on] agronomy,” notes Anthony Williams, CGCS, CGM, Director of Golf & Landscape Operations at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas.
Williams’ Equipment Manager, Greg Neill, is responsible for the 36-hole TPC property’s $4 million fleet of equipment, with duties that include maintenance and repair of everything from high-end mowers to weed eaters, and that also extend to parts inventory, safety issues, and training of maintenance staff personnel.
“He has to sign off on [equipment] before it is released into the wild,” Williams says. “We need a willing operator and properly maintained pieces of equipment to generate the conditions that members expect.”
Neill’s duties also include setting up the equipment to get the right height and quality of cut. “He has to anticipate which pieces of equipment are critical to do the task,” says Williams. “The machines have to function within their design. He sets up the machines so they operate properly and safely.”
Equipment managers also have to be ready for anything, because priorities can change during the course of the day. Problems such as dead batteries, hydraulic leaks, or a ding to a high-end mower reel inevitably will occur.
Tournaments or other special events can bring added responsibilities as well. The AT&T Byron Nelson was held at the Las Colinas property for 35 years until 2017, and during the tournament and the week preceding the event, the maintenance staff, including Neill, worked 110-hour weeks.
“It was Greg’s responsibility to get the best possible quality of cut,” Williams says. “When they turn the cameras on, there’s nowhere to hide. And the players will tell you if it’s good or bad.”
Neill, who has been at the property for six years, also runs its recycling program, which helps to keep some items out of the landfill and repurposes others, such as tires used to resurface local roads.
From Safety to Bargain Tines
At Cordillera Ranch, Drinkard oversees inventory control, preventive maintenance, and equipment repair. However, he says, his primary duty is the safe operation of the equipment, a responsibility that includes equipment operator training.
To ensure safety, Drinkard says every golf course should have standard operating procedures in place. All crew members should follow the same instructions for safe and proper equipment usage, and they should sign off that they understand proper procedures. On rainy days or during frost delays, the Cordillera Ranch grounds crew watches safety videos about equipment usage.Equipment acquisition is another area where technicians can offer their expertise to enhance maintenance operations. “If you have a good relationship, superintendents will ask for your input,” notes Drinkard.
He has a close working relationship with Superintendent Kris Negley and Director of Agronomy Jeff Eldridge. But when it comes to evaluating machinery, he notes, “We see equipment a little differently.”
Equipment managers consider how much downtime a machine will have in the shop, Drinkard explains. “How many moving parts does it have? Is it overcomplicated?”
He also pays attention to fuel efficiency and how well the equipment gets around the golf course. He prefers multi-use pieces of equipment, which offer more options to the maintenance staff. He wants to know how long it will take equipment to pay for itself and when the need for frequent repairs—which brings increased expenses— will kick in.
“Patrick keeps detailed records about the maintenance and service of equipment,” notes Eldridge. “He knows if a machine starts showing signs that we’ll have to spend a lot of money to keep it running. His ability to track that is vital to helping us make decisions about the proper rotation of equipment.”
In addition, Eldridge says, Drinkard is skilled at fabricating parts for equipment when it might take a day or more to receive a replacement piece from a manufacturer. “He also has a good relationship with local distributors, so he can go local and find parts,” he adds.
In another cost-saving measure, Drinkard compares prices, as he did when the property recently bought 96 tines for fairway aerators. Because he shopped around, Cordillera Ranch was able to purchase the tines for $5 each, rather than $14.
Part of the Process
At the TPC Las Colinas property, equipment acquisition follows a three-pronged process. “Greg does the initial research. The operators have a voice, and then I chime in,” reports Williams. “We’re not looking for the least-expensive equipment. We want to buy the best value that can function at our facility and do the things we ask it to do.”
If equipment doesn’t pass muster with Neill in his initial assessment, however, there’s little chance it will find its way into the Las Colinas fleet. He also demoes units before the property replaces equipment.
“We own all of our equipment, and most of it is significantly beyond the manufacturer’s recommended years of use,” Williams reports. “We have a great stable of mechanics who can get more years out of a piece of equipment.”
Getting six to eight years of use out of a piece of equipment translates into significant savings, he adds. “Greg has never missed a budget,” Williams says. “He puts a good projection together and delivers on it every year.”
A clean, orderly shop also helps equipment managers run an efficient operation. And of course, they can’t do their jobs without proper equipment—and authority—of their own.
Neill’s shop, which was rebuilt several years ago after the roof collapsed, includes a state-of-the-art equipment lift, welding equipment, a private office, and an area for his staff. “Greg is the ‘emperor’ in the shop,” says Williams. “If a piece of equipment has a problem, he puts an ‘out of service’ tag on it. None of us, myself included, has the authority to revoke it.”
Drinkard has similar clout at Cordillera Ranch, and Eldridge says it is important for superintendents to listen to their equipment managers. “Sometimes they have to say ‘no’ if the equipment is down for regular maintenance,” he says. “We have to respect that they have a job to do.”
When Drinkard arrived at Cordillera Ranch, he completely reorganized the shop to make it more efficient. Intangibles such as shop cleanliness and personal appearance matter, he believes, and pride in the golf course appearance is directly related to pride in the shop. “It has to have a flow to it,” he explains. “You need to get rid of extra parts and clutter.”
On the Record
Recordkeeping is another vital aspect of an equipment manager’s job, and Drinkard uses a TV in Cordillera Ranch’s largely paperless shop as a monitor, to keep track of work orders. He also keeps online records with a program that tracks inventory, cost of ownership, parts, manuals, ordering, reel diameter, and wireless hourmeters. This saves him time, he says, because instead of having to go to each piece of equipment individually to record data, he can set the program’s meters to different time-interval “check-ins” for equipment, whether it is used daily or monthly. A blinking red light indicates that the program hasn’t received a signal within a certain timeframe.A task tracker helps Drinkard identify issues by image or text when he rides around the golf course, and also helps him plan ahead for equipment needs or make changes on the fly. The task tracker also lets him know what equipment is in use, who is using it, and the route it is taking. He can track equipment usage and hours spent on maintenance tasks, such as greens or fairway mowing and bunker raking, or notify crew members of mowing directions.
Each piece of equipment in the Las Colinas shop is assigned a number, which includes the year it was purchased and its number in the fleet. Neill monitors maintenance on equipment by its number, tracking items such as usage hours and any issues it might have had. “It gives an accurate assessment of [equipment’s] current status,” Williams says.
Neill loads his hand-written records to the Cloud and tracks data that helps Williams generate reports for ownership and TPC’s corporate offices. “It’s one thing to guess, and it’s another to show the data,” Williams says. “Data allows us to make a decision moving forward.”
Sharpening the Tools
Neill and Drinkard are members of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), which started including a membership classification for course equipment managers in 2015. The GCSAA also offers educational opportunities for equipment managers, and Neill was the first technician in Texas to complete Level 1 in its Turf Equipment Technician Certificate Program, which is in development. Drinkard completed Level 1 and Level 2 of the GCSAA certification program in 2016, becoming the first equipment manager in the United States to finish both levels. Successful completion of these programs will be a prerequisite to entering the certification program.
Drinkard is also a Certified Master Technician through the Equipment & Engine Training Council, a nonprofit that was launched in 1997 to address the shortage of qualified technicians in the outdoor power equipment industry. In addition, he notes, “Each [equipment] manufacturer has trade schools specifically for [their products].”
Social media and Google also have become valuable tools for equipment managers, enabling them to get ideas, keep up with trends and network to solve problems by consulting with other equipment managers, and. They can also watch YouTube videos to learn how to change parts or to discover new tools or techniques.
“It’s been a game-changer,” Williams says of social media. “I don’t think it replaces face-to-face training, but it enhances it considerably.”
Equipment managers also have to stay at the top of their games because new turf varieties, which are denser and have finer blades of grass, are typically mowed at lower heights of cut. The need for continuing education has also been spurred by the wave of course regrassings brought on by changing climatic conditions, and by some varieties coming into greater favor.
One reason Drinkard took the position at Cordillera Ranch, in fact, was the chance to oversee the maintenance shop at a golf course with zoysia tees and fairways. Zoysia is a challenge, he notes, because it can be tough on reels, but it provides a good after-cut appearance.
If equipment managers want to glimpse the future, Drinkard says, they can follow agricultural trends to see where golf course maintenance operations are headed. “Golf is the little brother of ag,” he explains. “Equipment managers can think ahead by seeing what’s happening at farms.”
Drinkard, who is 34 years old, believes current equipment managers also have an obligation to help develop the next generation of technicians. Many clubs have equipment managers who are former auto mechanics or former military personnel, he says, but they are reaching retirement age.
“The way I run my shop is like a training shop, because there’s a real lack of quality technicians,” says Drinkard. “I keep an assistant for about two years and then send them out to get their own golf course.”
He recommends that younger equipment managers find a mentor, and more experienced technicians take an apprentice under their wings. Neill, with three technicians on his staff, takes the same approach. “The value of the tree is evident by the fruit it produces,” says Williams.
Effective equipment managers also extend their influence beyond the walls of their shops, and Williams calls the equipment manager an essential part of the maintenance team.
“That level of partnership will dictate the level of success of golf course operations,” he says. “The margin for error is so small. Errors are so great and so obvious. We raise the bar high for our technicians. They need to put safe equipment out every day. The foundation of excellence on the golf course starts with having the superintendent and the equipment manager on the same page.”
He also says Neill doesn’t hesitate to pitch in with maintenance tasks as needed.
“Greg is very committed to the quality of cut,” says Williams. “He’s out on the course inspecting it. If we need help to finish mowing the rough, he’ll mow for a couple of hours. He’s willing to do anything. If we need him, he’s available.”
North Texas is prone to flash flooding and severe storms, notes Williams, and Neill always helps with cleanup even when the staff won’t be mowing for a couple of weeks.
“At the beginning of spring, he put new chains on all the chainsaws,” Williams says. “We can work quicker and more safely. He’s out verifying that training is sticking. When Greg drives through the golf course, he’s a great pair of eyes. If he sees somebody doing something incorrectly, he corrects them.”
He makes sure grounds crew members wear safety glasses and ear plugs when using weed eaters and chaps and gloves when using chainsaws. He also ensures that the PPE fits properly. “That protective equipment does you no good if it’s sitting in the shop,” says Williams.
Drinkard says equipment managers can be as much a part of the golf course maintenance team as they want to be, as he illustrated in his presentation, “Out of the Cave,” during the 2018 Golf Industry Show in San Antonio.He emphasized the importance of getting out of the shop and driving around the course to make sure the equipment is doing its job and that crew members are operating it safely.
He also encouraged equipment managers to benefit from the experience of their peers by visiting other shops, and he invited 2018 GIS attendees to tour his shop at Cordillera Ranch. In the all-day class, “Shop Evolution,” three groups of 50 people, which included primarily superintendents from other countries and a handful of equipment managers, came to the shop where Drinkard spoke and answered questions.
Good communication is a vital element of teamwork as well.
Every Monday morning the TPC Four Seasons property holds a managers’ meeting that includes Williams, Neill, the golf course superintendents, assistant superintendents, and landscape manager.
“We review what happened the week before and anticipate for the upcoming week,” says Williams. In addition, he says, “Everyone is connected by cell phone and radio.”
He and Neill also get together every afternoon to plan for the next day and decide which equipment the grounds crew members will need.
Drinkard talks to Negley and Eldridge daily to discuss normal operations and immediate equipment needs. “I like to know what’s going out the next day or week so we can be prepared,” says Drinkard.
In addition, he attends meetings for all of the department managers at Cordillera Ranch once a week to discuss the upcoming week or month.
Drinkard also is part of the golf course maintenance staff’s weekly meetings. “He gets the opportunity to give feedback to the staff or get feedback from the staff about equipment and answer any questions the staff might have,” notes Eldridge. “He and I cross paths several times during the course of the day. We both make it a point to keep the lines of communication open.”
As important as communication is, however, it can only go so far.
“You can have the best plans,” says Williams, “but you have to execute the plans.”
Summing It Up
> Equipment managers can be an invaluable asset to superintendents, to help them evaluate equipment for lease or purchase.
> Effective equipment managers get out of the shop and onto the golf course to ensure that equipment operators are using machinery safely and efficiently, and they do not hesitate to pitch in with maintenance tasks as needed.
> To develop the next generation of technicians, experienced equipment managers should find an apprentice, and young technicians should seek out a mentor. C+RB