Advances in mower technology are helping golf course superintendents run their maintenance operations more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Some aspects of golf course maintenance will never change—such as the need to mow turfgrass properly to optimize playability. In fact, good mowing practices, although time-consuming, might be the top contributor to a golf course’s aesthetics and its turfgrass’ longevity.
Through the years, however, changes to mowing equipment have enabled superintendents to reduce labor hours and mowing time without sacrificing course conditions. “We’re trying to stay as current as we can with new technology,” says Chad Mark, Director of Grounds at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.
New mower technology can help superintendents reduce labor when mowing large-acre areas, Mark says, and mowers with a higher frequency of clip have improved mowing practices as well.“That’s been a game changer for those of us looking for [greens] speed,” he says. “We used to double- and triple-cut to get the speed we wanted. [The improvement in frequency of clip] has enhanced our ability to get great speeds without double- or triple-cutting.”
The flex mowers that the Muirfield Village staff uses on the greens are designed to follow the contours and undulations of the putting surfaces. They also help eliminate variability in the quality of cut from operators with different skill levels.
Fairway mowers at the 18-hole Muirfield Village now have 11-blade reels, where in the past, the staff used eight-blade reels. While an eight-blade reel is recommended for a height of cut of at least .500 inch, an 11-blade reel is recommended for a height ranging from .250 to .750 inch. An 11-blade reel is also more desirable for faster-than-average mow speeds.
At Wintergreen (Va.) Resort, the maintenance crew maintains 45 holes on two entirely different types of golf courses. Stoney Creek, a 27-hole course, is open year-round in the Rockfish River valley, and 18-hole Devils Knob—the highest course in Virginia—sits at an elevation of more than 3,800 feet and typically is 12 to 18 degrees cooler than its sister course.
Four-wheel drive mowers, which are safer on the steep slopes of the mountain and valley courses, offer dependable traction on hills and wet terrain. However, says Director of Golf Course Maintenance Fred Biggers, CGCS, “When it’s slippery and wet after it rains, we stay off the slopes a day or two before mowing.”
Other mowers at the property allow for tight maneuvers in trim areas, and some mowers disperse clippings more evenly to provide the cleanest possible cut.
The Wintergreen staff uses triplex mowers on the greens, and while Biggers has a smaller staff now than in the past, grounds crew members can mow the golf courses more efficiently.
Mowing technology will continue to advance, and Mark says a lot of superintendents are eager to learn more about autonomous mowers. “Once they’re reliable, I think they’ll help our industry,” he believes.
Chris Carson, Golf Course Superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., also thinks the business is on the cusp of increasing its reliance on robots. “In the next five years, we’re going to see robotic fairway mowing,” he says. “I think that’s a viable alternative.”
Tyler Bloom, Director of Grounds and Facilities at Sparrows Point Country Club in Baltimore, Md., also expects robotic, GPS mowers to become more prevalent.
“We don’t have any robotics yet, but we will test them out in the future,” says Ryan Cummings, Golf Course Superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Ind. “It could impact our staff needs down the road.”
At this point, however, Matt Schuldt, Golf Course Superintendent at Seattle Golf Club, believes the use of robotic equipment is cost-prohibitive. And Muirfield Village’s Mark agrees. Where operator-driven mowers have a price tag of $60,000 or $70,000, he says, the cost of autonomous mowers could be more than double that amount.
Proven Performance, But Uncertain Availability
Brian Nettz, CGCS, is a superintendent who is sold on autonomous mowers. His golf course maintenance staff at Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco started using five autonomous greens mowers two years ago—long before “social distancing” became part of our everyday lexicon in the wake of concerns about the spread of coronavirus, and restrictions on courses and their staffs were imposed to threaten maintenance operations just as a new golf season was about to begin.
In February, however, Nettz was thrown a pre-coronavirus curve, when Cub Cadet, the manufacturer of the autonomous mowers Presidio uses, informed Nettz and other superintendents that it was pulling out of the market because of technical challenges that would be time-consuming to address.
Currently, Presidio’s maintenance staff is still using its autonomous mowers, but Nettz will eventually have to look into ways to replace them. He is considering using triplex mowers or hand-mowing greens, in addition to exploring the autonomous options that other mower manufacturers have been developing.
Nettz got his first look at robotic mowers when another local golf course was using them on a trial basis. “The machine is heavy, so it was essentially mowing and rolling at the same time, and the guy with the machine was hand-raking the bunkers,” says Nettz. “The mowers are also electric, so that is in our wheelhouse.”
Coupled with the need to replace his greens mowers and San Francisco’s difficult labor market, Nettz made a pitch to property officials to try the mowers. Presidio, which had just finished rehabilitating the golf course in-house at a cost of about $2 million, got the robotic mowers on a four-year lease. While the club’s course-maintenance department purchases most of its equipment, “With this kind of technology, it made no sense to purchase, because it’s going to be outdated,” Nettz explains.
The machines, which weigh about 600 pounds and learn the shape of each green they’re programmed to cut, start with a push button. An underground wire is installed around the perimeter of the greens to guide the mowers, and the operator places multiple beacons around the greens. The beacons send sound waves back to the mowers to orient the machines.
“They operate off of sound and light, so you place beacons out on platforms around the greens,” says Nettz. “If it’s windy or foggy, you can get communication issues.”
The grounds crew members were initially skeptical of the machines, Nettz reports, and didn’t like having to hand-rake the bunkers while the machines mowed the greens. However, he adds, “They learned to appreciate them.”
An autonomous mower is programmed to stop if something obstructs its path, but a human has to restart the machine. In addition, Nettz says, “You have to transport it from green to green on a trailer. It doesn’t know its way around the golf course, but it knows its way around the greens.”
In colder weather, the machines can be set to roll the greens without mowing them, so they won’t stress the grass. In addition, Nettz says, the robotic mowers work well on cool- and warm-season grasses.
The autonomous mowers have some issues with hills, he reports, and there is a limitation to the slope they can handle. “If you have sloping terrain around the greens, sometimes they have issues making turns,” he explains.
To alleviate the problem, the grounds crew can put down boards or tweak the turn-radius programming on the machine to preserve the grass.
While a robotic mower can be used on more than one green, Nettz explains, his staff generally uses the same ones on the same greens. Because they are slow to turn, he notes, it can take them a little longer than it takes to hand-mow greens.
Still, he says, they’re cost-effective, because the labor is offset by other tasks crew members can perform while the machines are mowing the greens. A year’s lease payment equals one staff member’s salary, which has saved him from hiring an additional person. “And they’re not burning gas,” he notes.
“The mowers themselves are super-versatile,” Nettz says. “They got the golf course up to the maximum expectation level right away. The quality of cut was fantastic and so much better [than was previously achieved]. After three days, we had immediate compliments about the putting quality of the turf.
“Anyone who doesn’t give these mowers a hard look,” Nettz adds, “is not doing their club a service.”
Taking advantage of new mower technology is not the only way that superintendents can save costs on mowing practices.
Presidio has no-mow areas, and the staff gang-mows fairways with an 11-gang pull-behind mower. “One person can mow 40 acres in four hours,” Nettz says.
Native areas are not a design feature of Muirfield Village, Mark says, but the maintenance staff uses growth regulators to keep plants from growing excessively and to reduce mowing costs.
At Wintergreen, notes Biggers, grounds crew members “maintain the golf courses with an eye on the budget.” They keep the greens dryer and firmer to enhance the roll, and only water to supplement rainfall or to soak in a chemical application.
The property, which is working on its Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification, increased natural areas from eight acres to a total of 14 acres on its two golf courses last year. “We’ve taken that labor we’ve saved and used it to do more work in the bunkers and other trim work around the golf course,” notes Biggers.
The golf courses have buffer zones around the streams, creeks, and lakes, and the increased natural areas have provided a balance between intensive- and low-maintenance areas. “It’s also speeded up play,” Biggers reports. “People don’t go looking for balls in the native areas.”
Wintergreen’s grounds crew sprays growth regulator on the property’s Bermuda grass twice a month, enabling them to mow the turf only twice a week and eliminate clippings, so they don’t have to blow the fairways. This practice has reduced growth by 60 to 70 percent, Biggers says.
By mowing less frequently, the Wintergreen maintenance staff also saves wear and tear on the equipment, decreases diesel usage, and reduces labor costs.
The proper training of crew members to operate equipment safely and efficiently saves time and labor as well.
“One of our philosophies is to have as many people trained on as many pieces of equipment as possible,” says Mark. “You never know what might happen, and we don’t want to derail plans for an entire day. Our seasonal employees get up at 5 a.m., and that would be hard to do if all they do is rake bunkers.”
By cross-training crew members, he adds, “We can make changes in the mowing schedule any day of the week if needed.”
With 45 people on the grounds crew during the golf season, Muirfield Village relies on teamwork to keep maintenance operations running smoothly. The maintenance staff has several assistants who, along with the equipment technicians, train new crew members initially. They send new employees out with the crew captains their first few times on the golf course. First, however, new crew members learn to mow on the onsite nurseries and practice facilities.
BLENDING SCIENCE AND ART
Superintendents expect to see continued changes in mowing equipment. Biggers and Nettz can even envision a time when golf courses will only be using two or three employees to manage a fleet of autonomous greens mowers. “I can see someone sitting with a control box and managing three mowers. I don’t know that it will ever be completely autonomous,” says Nettz.
In the future, he adds, mowers could also include moisture-sensor or turf health- sensor technology. But the human factor will never be completely eliminated, he believes.
“There’s still an art to greenskeeping,” Nettz says, “and there probably always will be.” C+RB