Whether on the coast of Scotland or near the coast of California, a player on the green cares only for finding the bottom of the cup. Between the player and the hole is a club, the ball and thousands of plants. The green, often considered in the singular, is made up of leaves, stems and roots that have been growing for years and that are maintained to a cutting height as tiny as a tenth of an inch. It’s a phenomenal feat, not appreciated enough, and a science and an art that is evolving.
Cultural practices to provide nourishment and disease management for these plants are orchestrated in a careful symphony but the most consequential task in preparing the green for play is mowing. Choices for mowing the greens are walk mowers or triplex mowers, stirring the quality vs. labor-saving debate since the creation of triplex mowers in the late 1960s. There are now fewer, if any, quality disparities between these methods of tending the green.
Triplex mowers were used on the greens at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the 1977 U.S. Open, won by Hubert Green. The maintenance team was led by superintendent Sonny Faust and triplexing the greens for a major event made some people uneasy. They felt the desired green speed of at least 8 feet, 6 inches couldn’t be reached by using a triplex mower, though the greens were measured at nine and beyond. Still, triplex mowing fell out of favor in the 1970s as it was posing some long-term problems with compaction and triplex ring.
Gordon McKie, course manager for the Old Course at St Andrews Links in St Andrews, Scotland, recently led the team preparing the grounds for the 150th Open. For that tournament — and during most other days — 6.67 acres of greens are cut with Toro electric triplex mowers. Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, McKie says that today’s machines are “more environmentally friendly.”
“Without fuel, electric triplex mowers are better designed, easier to care for and more operator-friendly,” he says, adding that, “the quality in the cutting cylinders (reels) has moved to another level and they’re easier to maintain for longer.”
The St Andrews Links Trust manages a golf academy, three clubhouses and four shops in addition to its seven public courses, including the Old Course. The Home of Golf is powerfully historic, yet the Trust is also a progressive industry leader in furthering environmental sustainability. All of the courses use triplex mowers and the organization is working to add more electric units to the fleet as they become available.
With the electric triplex machines on the greens, “There is no noticeable difference,” McKie says “In fact, I would say that the quality of cut is greater. You only have to manage your perimeter cut mowing and turning with the triplex, which is not a problem.”
David Major, superintendent at Canyon Oaks Country Club in Chico, California, agrees that there are advantages to triplexing the greens and few concerns. “The triplex machines now are lighter, with an improved cut,” he says. “There is no difference to the quality of the greens, short or long-term. The main issue is the cost of the equipment and the potential for developing a wear pattern on the clean-up pass between the collar and the green. We skip the ‘wrap cut’ every other day to make sure we do not have declining turf in these areas.” Alternating between clockwise and counter-clockwise for the direction of the clean-up pass is a good option.
Canyon Oaks is a quiet, thriving private club with a championship layout created by architect Jim Summers. Its bentgrass greens have been maintained for years with triplex mowers. Major acknowledges that some people prefer the aesthetic of the mow pattern using walk mowers, visible at many high-end clubs. “It is a more manicured look but that has nothing to do with putting quality or plant health,” Major says. Canyon Oaks uses one triplex machine for all greens and it gets the job done. The crew at the Old Course uses two triplex machines for their greens to prepare for play, and occasionally will use walk mowers as well.
Unit costs are higher with triplex machines than with push mowers and there is a large variance on prices depending on brands and features. Some greens, due to undulations, are not well-suited for triplexing. Electric units are quieter and there are no concerns about hydraulic leaks. The most significant difference with triplexing greens is labor management.
For Canyon Oaks to maintain its greens, one triplex operator can do what three staff members can accomplish through walk mowing. “We post a 66 percent labor savings in mowing and it is less work for our equipment manager to maintain a triplex than maintain three walking mowers,” Major says.
Major has been with Canyon Oaks for nearly six years and he has been a certified superintendent for more than 30 years. “At some clubs, the main issue with training staff is mowing straight lines and the ability to handle the machine properly,” he adds. “It does take time and effort to walk mow and it is a lot of walking for the staff. Shifting from walk mowing to triplexing is a quick adjustment.” The adjustment isn’t always as easy for the members or players using a facility. Some people notice the different look and may not like it.
At the Old Course, “We have always used a mix of both methods but moved more to triplexing mainly due to staffing resources in recent years, meaning we don’t have the same amount of time available to walk mow,” McKie says. “Six people walk mowing will take approximately 2.5 hours against two triplexing, which takes the same amount of time. Walk mowing would use 15 labor hours against five hours to triplex. This gives us a 10-hour labor saving that can be used elsewhere, which is a significant advantage.”
Not only is the triplex easier for staff directly maintaining the greens, but it’s easier for the equipment manager. For the electric triplex mowers especially, fewer maintenance hours are required. Batteries are easier to maintain than diesel or petrol engines requiring oil changes and work on hydraulic components.
When making a switch to electric triplex units, storage and charging stations are a consideration. Triplex units are much larger than push mowers, though you don’t need as many of them to cover the same ground. At the Old Course, there are chargers in place and the long-term plan is to use solar power at the facility to supplement the charging and to foster even greater sustainability.
Another benefit to the electric units is their low volume and what that means for staff comfort. “The machines are very quiet and you only hear the cylinders cutting the grass,” McKie says. “No ear protection is needed due to the very low noise output which is great for health and safety.”
With the labor shortage it’s especially helpful to highlight the advantages of how the crew is operating. Sustainability is a draw when recruiting. “Through the interview process we always discuss our approach to the environment and sustainability,” McKie says. “This becomes part of training and part of the induction of any new recruit. The crucial thing is to continue the conversation and educate all within and outwith the industry about the benefits a sustainable approach can have for future generations.” When potential employees learn that an organization is working in the most efficient way possible, it creates trust in the management. Younger recruits are also mindful of the environment and want to work for organizations that contribute to the community in ways beyond their primary purpose.
“All our staff are on board with the new methods and there is not really much difference to their day-to-day jobs,” McKie says. “The main learning curve is in and around how to charge the machines between cuts. There aren’t any issues from triplex mowing that aren’t normally managed in a day-to-day turf program supporting over 50,000 golfing rounds and 25,000 caddie rounds annually. Compaction issues will come via this rather than mowers.
“At St Andrews Links, we have been industry leaders for years in managing our course in a more environmentally sustainable way. We have been GEO accredited for many years and were the first Open venue to achieve such an award in 2010. This is a credit to all our staff.”
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