To get the most out of their maintenance operations, superintendents rely on many lesser-used, but still vital, pieces of equipment.
Mowers might be the machinery backbone of any golf course maintenance operation. However, without the specialty equipment that enhances mowers’ effectiveness, maintenance operations might be as appetizing as a Thanksgiving turkey without sweet potatoes or stuffing. From aerators and verticutters to topdressers and sprayers, implements that are used less frequently play an outsized role in helping superintendents create the best possible playing conditions for golfers, and full appreciation of their properties from all members and guests.
“Any tool that we have in our arsenal in case we need it is good to have,” says T.A. Barker, CGCS, a third-generation superintendent at Fore Lakes Golf Course in Taylorsville, Utah.
A Full Bag of Tricks
Specialty equipment enhances any number of golf course inputs, and aerification, which reduces soil compaction and promotes air and nutrient circulation, might be one of the most essential for the health of the turf.
At Fore Lakes, a family-owned property with a nine-hole executive course and a nine-hole par-3 course, the maintenance staff uses four different types of aerators for various parts of the golf course. Grounds crew members generally aerate at least once a year, but they use a solid-tine aerator to punch small holes every four to six weeks during the growing season. They use a core aerator once a year in the fall to aerify greens and two or three times a year to aerify the tees and the driving range. Staff members also aerate infrequently in the rough and around trees.
SUMMING IT UP
• Specialty equipment such as aerators, verticutters, and topdressers are essential to maintaining the health of the turfgrass on golf courses.
• Grounds crew members should receive proper training to use heavy equipment, which typically is operated by experienced staff members.
• Specialty equipment typically has a longer lifespan than machinery that is used on a regular basis, and the cost of repairs is often the determining factor in replacing it.
“For us, it’s one of the most important things we do, because it gives us the opportunity to grow grass,” says Golf Course Superintendent Dan Kilpatrick, who came to North Jersey CC this fall after 15 years at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., where he spent 12 years as Superintendent of the Lower Course. “It’s essential to aerify and start growing when the weather is conducive to it.”
Throughout the summer, Kilpatrick also expects to needle-tine the greens once a month at North Jersey CC, which has two walk-behind aerifiers and a tractor aerifier, to allow oxygen into the turf. “We will send out our aerifiers quite a bit here,” he states. “With the application of the needle tines, it’s a minor disruption. It doesn’t change the experience of putting. We’ll do the more invasive forms of disruption in March, August, and November.”
Most golfers understand the need for aerification, Kilpatrick says, despite the temporary havoc it wreaks on greens. “Aerification is a necessary evil. Superintendents live and die by it,” he explains. “It’s a small sacrifice for a week, and the benefits last longer than that.”
Because it can be a disruptive process, Sun Valley (Idaho) Resort tries to let golfers know in advance when the greens on its golf courses will be aerified. The property includes the 18-hole Trail Creek championship course, the alpine links-style, nine-hole White Clouds course, the 18-hole, semi-private Elkhorn Golf Club, 18-hole Sawtooth Putting Course, and a 25-acre practice facility.
“We put out an annual calendar at Elkhorn,” notes Tyler Jones, PGA, Sun Valley’s Director of Golf Operations. “The resort staff also has to be tuned in to the schedule when people call, and we let our reservation agents know [the schedule] so there will be no surprises for anyone who comes to the resort.”
Sun Valley has two power takeoff (PTO)-driven aerators that mount onto tractors and two walk-behind aerators. The maintenance staff uses the large, tractor-mount aerators twice a year—once in the spring and once in the fall—to aerate tees, fairways and approaches. The grounds crew uses the walk-behind aerators throughout the season, typically once a month, to needle-tine the greens.
Verticutting, which thins turfgrass by blades or wire tines that cut perpendicularly to the soil to promote grass growth and access of moisture, oxygen, and nutrients to the root zone, is another essential maintenance practice.
Fore Lakes has one set of verticutters that goes on a triplex mower, and the staff verticuts every two or three weeks during the growing season. To keep the greens healthy, the grounds crew then topdresses with sand to dilute thatch and organic matter.
North Jersey CC, which verticuts once a month, has a greens, tees, and approaches verticutter that goes on the back of a triplex mower, and a fairway verticutter. “It’s hard to follow a set schedule, because it depends on heat stress in the middle of the summer and other variables,” notes Kilpatrick.
At Sun Valley, the maintenance department has two dedicated verticutters for greens—one for the Trail Creek and White Cloud courses at Sun Valley, and one for Elkhorn. The three golf courses also share a fairway mounted verticutter and a large PTO-driven verticutter.
Verticutting every three or four weeks, the Sun Valley grounds crew uses verticutters on the greens throughout the season, and on the fairways once in the spring and once in the fall.
Dressed for Success
As another beneficial maintenance input, topdressing dilutes thatch, improves root zones and turf recovery, provides smoother putting surfaces, and increases firmness on the turf.
North Jersey has one fairway topdresser and one greens topdresser. The maintenance staff performs light topdressing duties bi-weekly, primarily during the shoulder seasons. “In the dog days of summer, the stress is at its highest,” says Kilpatrick. “Your timing is dependent on conditions. Heat stress can be aggressive.”
Sun Valley has five topdressers for all three golf courses (three are rotary-type and two are drop brush-type for greens, tees, and fairways), and two large material handlers and topdressers that are pulled behind a tractor. The maintenance staff topdresses the fairways once a year in the spring or fall, and the greens and tees once a month throughout the season.
A Full Belt of Tools
Golf course properties depend on additional pieces of equipment to help them perform less-routine maintenance duties as well. At Fore Lakes, for instance, crew members use a pull-behind broadcast sander when they verticut and aerate. The property also has a spray rig that it uses every two weeks during growing season, to spoon-feed the turf for fertility purposes and to protect against snow mold going into the winter months. A backhoe is also an essential part of its maintenance operations, to dig up turf to repair irrigation breaks and for other purposes.
One of Barker’s favorite tools never touches the turf but is always at his fingertips. “Twitter is a cool tool for superintendents,” he explains. “I use it to get ideas from other superintendents around the country. I can see how someone uses something in Georgia and then try it here.”
North Jersey CC has four tractors, which have several attachments such as seeders, blowers, rakes, a fairway verticutter, and fertilizer spreaders. The property also has a brush hog to mow native areas, including 20 acres of fescue, in the fall. “They are no longer low-maintenance areas,” Kilpatrick says. “They have become an investment, and grounds crews put a lot of time into it. We plant in the spring and hope it turns out, because we don’t know how it will look.”
Smaller implements such as weed whackers and blowers are important to golf course maintenance crews as well. “These detail pieces clean up loose ends,” Kilpatrick explains. “Sometimes those are the most important tools we have in our shed, because those are the finishing products that determine the look and detail of the golf course.”
Sun Valley also has a backhoe, mini-excavator, and six tractors, ranging from 30 to 75 horsepower, for all three golf courses. “Our backhoe and mini-excavator get a fair amount of use to load materials or for special projects,” says Superintendent of Golf Alex Bliss. “There’s usually a tractor running every week for one purpose or another.”
Sun Valley has several different seeders, including slit and spike seeders to re-seed fairways, and the maintenance staff uses a brush mower regularly. “White Cloud has fine fescue in native areas and bunker faces, so we mow it once a month to keep it more playable,” Bliss reports. In the winter the property even attaches tracks to Nordic grooming equipment to create cross-country skiing trails on the Trail Creek and White Cloud courses.
Worth Keeping Around
Another special aspect of specialty equipment is often its longevity. “We’re a small property, so we get a lot of life out of our equipment,” says Barker. “We replace it as needed. We have some pieces of equipment that are 15 to 20 years old and have 1,500 hours on them. Some equipment has been replaced [only] because we couldn’t get parts for it anymore.”
North Jersey CC leases equipment that is used frequently, but the property owns machinery such as its aerifiers, verticutters, and wood chipper. And Kilpatrick tries to demo special equipment before purchasing it. “You really want to know what you’re dealing with,” he explains. “I like to see how the mechanic feels about working on it, because he ultimately has to fix it.”
Sun Valley also owns all of its equipment. “That’s part of our overall company philosophy,” notes Jones. “Sun Valley Resort is part of a larger organization, and a lot of our equipment is handed down to other properties.”
Because specialty equipment has a long lifespan, he adds, properties don’t need to cycle through it every five to eight years. “We have a five-year plan laid out so that our capital expenditures are known well in advance,” he reports. “Adjustments are made as things prioritize themselves.”
Aerators, Jones says, can last five to 10 years, verticutters five to 10-plus years, topdressers 10 to 15 years, backhoes and excavators 20-plus years, tractors 15 to 20 years, and stump grinders and brush mowers 10 to 15 years.
Bliss also likes to demo equipment before making a purchase. “I like to kick the tires and see it firsthand,” he says. “I read articles, see equipment at industry shows, talk to other superintendents, and weigh the pros and cons of everything.
“We make sure we get the most out of our equipment,” he adds. “Once we get to a point where it costs more money to repair something than to get a new one, then it’s time to make a decision. Cost of repair is our determining factor.”
Having specialty equipment in-house, notes Bliss, gives the property quality control and the flexibility to schedule certain tasks at its convenience. And sometimes, properties even find innovative ways to use the tools. At Sun Valley, for instance, the maintenance staff has used topdressers to apply ice-melting materials as well as sand. Aerators also can be used to break up ice layers that have built up on the greens.
“The first winter I was here, we used an aerator on ice,” notes Jones. “Instead of shoveling by hand, we put a plow on the front of a sand pro. The job went much quicker.” C&RB
Cutting Trees Down to Size
Golf course superintendents would be up a tree or two if they didn’t have the means to bring them down. While most golf courses have comprehensive tree-maintenance programs, whether they have the equipment on hand varies from property to property.
“The only equipment we have for tree removal is a chainsaw,” says T.A. Barker, CGCS, of Fore Lakes Golf Course in Taylorsville, Utah. The Fore Lakes staff removes small trees that have fallen victim to infection or severe weather events, but the golf course contracts out services to remove large trees of two feet or more in diameter. “We do it for safety reasons, and we don’t have the equipment to remove exceedingly large trees,” says Barker.
North Jersey Country Club in Wayne, N.J., has gone through an extensive tree program in the last couple of years. The property, which has four chainsaws and a large wood chipper, does a lot of tree-removal work during the winter. “The ability to do it in-house is a huge cost savings, especially when you’re removing multiple trees,” says Golf Course Superintendent Dan Kilpatrick.
But North Jersey hires tree contractors to take down any trees that are unsafe for the staff to remove, or any trees that are more than three feet in diameter. “We can’t just drop larger trees. They need to be taken apart piece by piece,” notes Kilpatrick. “People have to know what they’re doing.”
Tree removal equipment at Sun Valley (Idaho) Resort includes a multi-use, small tractor and a stump grinder. The stump grinder enables the property to save costs and to have it available as soon as trees need to come down. “We want to keep the process as clean and seamless as we can,” says Superintendent of Golf Alex Bliss.