As demands for top-notch golf course conditions continue to increase, mowing the grass presents new challenges – especially where greens are concerned.
Any way you cut it, keeping a golf course in pristine condition is a difficult challenge. And with increasing demands for lightning-fast greens, regardless of weather or traffic conditions, mowing practices have taken on added significance in recent years. “There’s constant pressure to have greens push the edge of physiological boundaries,” says Ryan Krings, Golf Course Superintendent of the Country Club of Lincoln (Neb.).
“That’s not a negative,” Krings adds. “It’s just another challenge we have in this business. We’re constantly trying to adjust our cultural practices and create healthy turf.”
|SUMMING IT UP
A golf course superintendent can try to increase greens speed by lowering the grass height, or by increasing the frequency of mowing. Of course, any changes in mowing strategies, on any part of the golf course, must weigh a number of factors, ranging from turfgrass variety, to type of terrain, to anything Mother Nature decides to dish out.
Superintendents agree that mowing is one of the most important inputs on the golf course—and that course conditions are all about expectations.
“Expectations have changed, starting with the greens. There is a constant push for speed,” notes Krings. “New varieties of bentgrass allow us to cut lower and do things we couldn’t do in the past.”
The higher the height of cut for the greens, says Krings, the healthier the stand of turf will be. His staff tries to mow greens as high as possible while still maintaining speeds that are acceptable to the membership. However, if the grass is too high, the consistency of the ball roll, and the smoothness of the surface, will be compromised.
In the fairways and rough, the lie of the ball is of greater concern than the roll. “The shorter you can cut it, the better lie the golfers will have,” notes Krings.
If the grass is cut too low, however, it is more prone to disease or traffic stress, he adds. It also hinders the plant’s ability to photosynthesize, causing it to weaken over time. Further, it hurts its ability to root or handle stress.
“Every golf course is different,” says Krings. “A lot of factors determine the height of cut.”
Krings became superintendent at the tree-lined, parkland-type CC of Lincoln, where the crew can cut 100 percent of the rough because the course has few out-of-play or native areas, last fall. Previously, he was superintendent at ArborLinks in Nebraska City, Neb., a private, links-style course that offers a “forgiving environment for growing grass.”
The CC of Lincoln greens were rebuilt in 1995, but Krings says future considerations include improving the quality of grasses on the greens, perhaps with a new variety of bentgrass that would offer a firmer surface, smoother ball roll and better tolerance of the eastern Nebraska heat and humidity. “Mother Nature can push the grass over the edge,” he says.
When 60 days of high humidity and temperatures combine with a lack of air movement, notes Krings, it is especially difficult to mow grass in the summer.
“No matter what, mowing is a stress on grass, and we’re always looking at ways to reduce that stress, whether it’s increasing the height of cut or decreasing the frequency of mowing,” he says. “Mowing is certainly one of the cultural practices we look to adjust to make it through difficult weather. So sometimes, we’ll skip mowing one day and roll the greens instead.”
The CC of Lincoln fairways, normally cut at ½-inch, might be cut at 5/8-inch or 3/4-inch during the most challenging growing conditions.
Krings also adjusts mowing practices for tournaments. Again depending on the time of the year and type of tournament, he’ll push the grass by lowering the height of cut and increasing the frequency of mowing. “The key is to remember that it’s just a short period of time,” he says. “Depending on the time of year, it’s not as stressful for the turf, and weather-wise, we can push these grasses and get away with it.”
More Lows than Highs
Chad Grimm, Golf Course Superintendent at Blackhawk Country Club in Madison, Wis., has also seen greens “heights” get lower through the years, at the same time greens speeds have gone up. Grimm, who has served as Blackhawk’s superintendent for three years, says his golf course crew rolls the greens more frequently now as well.
“We try to mow as little and at as high a cut as we can, and use more rolling to get our greens speeds,” he reports. “We try not to mow too short, to keep the turf as healthy as possible. We try to strike the right balance between offering the best possible conditions and being economically smart.”
At Blackhawk, the maintenance crew mows the greens every day. The staff mows the tees, collars, approaches and intermediate rough three times a week. The fairways are cut three or four times a week, and the rough twice a week.
The mowing schedule for the greens, tees and approaches generally stays the same. “We can mow the rough once a week when it’s dry in the spring or early summer,” Grimm notes.
The Blackhawk maintenance crew also mows more frequently during tournaments, depending on the type of event. However, says Grimm, the mowing schedule depends on whether the event is a fun outing or a serious competition. Either way, the goal is to meet the golfers’ expectations.
The Benefits of Walking
The Blackhawk crew walk-mows greens, tees and approaches. “It takes more time, but the quality of cut and putting surface is better,” Grimm explains. First-year employees and those with little experience usually just mow tees and greens. Once they have been on staff for a year or two, they start mowing fairways, which calls for bigger machines.
“We try not to have the same people do the same thing every day,” he notes. “It helps keep the job interesting and more rewarding, and we’ve had good luck with employee retention.”
The Blackhawk greens are cut at 0.125 inch, collars and tees at 7/16-inch, fairways at ½-inch, intermediate rough at 1¼ inches, and rough at 2½ inches.
Sometimes, to keep disruptions to a minimum, the clock can have as much an effect on mowing schedules as the calendar.
“We try not to affect play, so we mow the high-impact areas such as greens in the morning and the fairways and rough in the afternoon,” explains Tim Youngberg, Golf Course Superintendent at Mira Vista Golf & Country Club in El Cerrito, Calif. “That way, we can avoid the dew in the morning, and it keeps the grass clippings down.”
Mira Vista recently completed a $2 million golf course renovation, which included installation of a new “super bent” blend of Tyee/007 bentgrass on its greens.
Getting More (and Less) from Machines
The Blackhawk CC maintenance staff has to work around a noise ordinance to mow greens in the mornings. On the weekends, the crew uses an electric triplex mower to cut six greens that are next to housing, but can still walk-mow the rest of the greens. Grimm hopes to get an electric walking greens mower that would allow all greens to be walk-mowed on weekends.
When acquiring equipment to help meet his mowing demands, Youngberg looks at the reliability of the machine and how often its parts wear out. “A lot of the [equipment] companies will allow you to demo a mower or machine before you buy it,” he says. “We try to get the entire staff trained on each piece of equipment.”
The first factor Grimm considers when purchasing a new mower is the quality of cut. Other considerations include cost, the user-friendliness of the machine and its history of breakdowns. Preventive maintenance and regular oil changes are the best ways to keep mowers in top working condition, he adds.
“Our greens mowers get backlapped once a week to keep them sharp, and the other mowers as needed,” he reports. “We visually inspect our mowers every day. Our operators are trained to keep an eye out for problems. If they see or hear anything, then our equipment technician checks it out.”
The superintendents have seen many changes in mowing practices during their careers, and expect to see more. When Grimm first arrived at Blackhawk in 1996, fairways were mowed every day. However, he notes, plant growth regulators have allowed the staff to cut back on the mowing frequency of the fairways, which in turn has helped to reduce costs.
“We like to mow as little as possible,” he adds. “The more you mow, the more fuel you burn.”
Youngberg, though, isn’t sure just how much more mowing time could be cut out of the equation. “A lot of people like the grass green and lush,” he notes, “and that requires a lot of mowing.”
A Super Blend
Many established properties are turning to new and improved turfgrass varieties when they renovate their golf courses. As part of a $2 million golf course renovation project last year, Mira Vista Golf & Country Club in El Cerrito, Calif., replaced its original 1920 push-up greens with a Tyee/007 bentgrass blend that meets USGA specifications. The project, which began in May, was finished in late October.
Golf Course Superintendent Tim Youngberg says the staff first started mowing the greens 21 days after seeding them. “At first we mowed the greens one or two times a week,” he says.
By mid-August the grounds crew was cutting nine greens, which were seven to eight weeks old, at a height of 0.160 inch. In December the staff was mowing the greens five days a week at 0.120 inch. Once the golf season is in full swing, Youngberg expects to alternate between mowing and rolling the greens. He says the crew will mow the greens four or five days a week, and roll them two or three days a week.
“We want to get the greens to a playable, fair speed,” he reports.
Mira Vista adopted a 14-week grow-in schedule before allowing golfers to play on the new greens.
Youngberg says the original greens were plagued with heavy thatch and poor drainage, and were prone to disease.
Mira Vista selected the “super bent” turf for its greens on the basis of research, National Turfgrass Evaluation Program trials, and conversations with R.H. Hurley, the Rutgers University professor who developed the turf variety.
In addition, reveals Youngberg, the nearby Olympic Club in Daly City, Calif., which will host the 2012 U.S. Open on its Lake Course, planted the Tyee/007 bentgrass blend on its greens about a year ago.