Fresh Cut

Some questions in life are easy. Watch the game or tackle the household “honey-do list?” Go out for wings and beer or stay in for steamed veggies and rice? Other questions may require a little more thought. Get the much-needed new car or put money in the kids' college fund? And then there are the questions you can decide either way and be OK. For instance, you can choose a walk-behind greens mower or a riding triplex greens mower and still have a great golf course. Both categories have their advantages. So who's riding and who's walking the greens these days?

WALKING VS. RIDING

Some courses only use walk-behind greens mowers. Others solely use triplex mowers. And still others may use a combination of both depending on tournament schedules and weather conditions.

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However, if budget is not an issue, most likely you are going to opt to walk mow the greens. “Walking vs. riding is determined mostly by the resources available,” says Jeff Buchko, product manager, Jacobsen. “Walking the greens is perceived to provide a much higher quality of cut and to have fewer compaction issues,” Buchko adds.

According to Pat Sneed, superintendent, Mississippi State University Golf Course, it's purely a monetary issue. “I'm not sure that there's anybody who would choose a triplex greens mower over a walk-behind if they had the budget. We use riding [greens mowers] almost exclusively because we're a public facility that's funded through revenue produced by our greens fees,” says Sneed.

Both Helmut Ullrich, senior marketing manager, greens mowers, Toro, and Buchko note that sales of walk-behind vs. riding units tend to be cyclical and often relate directly to current economics. “Right now we're seeing a rise in sales of walk-behind greens mowers,” says Buchko.

Tracy Lanier, product manager, John Deere Golf and Turf One Source, adds that in tight economic times a course may only buy five or six units vs. the 10 it would normally purchase. “Very seldom do you see a course budget increasing enough to be able to switch over from ride to walk. But sometimes you do.”

Chauncey Nicholson, superintendent, Auburn University Club Golf Course, can attest to both accounts. When the Auburn University Club Golf Course opened in 1999, walk-behind greens mowers were used exclusively for the first two years. “To cut back costs we started using riding greens mowers. We're in better financial shape now and went back to walk-behind units for the 2004 growing season.”

Guy Hollar, director of grounds at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C., notes that back in the early 70s, when riding greens mowers were first introduced, the trend was to use riding mowers. “While some of the higher-end courses never switched, anyone with budget constraints went to riding units,” he says.

“Manpower is the largest part of our budget,” says Robert White, CGCS, Heritage Palms Golf Club in Indio, Calif. “We send out four people on four mowers to cut 20 greens. Each person mows five greens in about two and a half hours, needing both a transport vehicle and trailer. With a riding mower we can send out two operators and finish in much less time.”

“There's probably twice the labor involved, but there are always trade-offs,” White continues. “You have to decide how much your greens are worth to you and your clientele and how important it is to protect them.”

QUALITY VS. QUANTITY

Now ask a superintendent if you can tell the difference in cut quality, and the question is a little harder to answer. It all depends on who answers the question.

“I feel sure you can get a better quality cut with a walking greens mower,” says Sneed. “With a walk-behind you've only got one reel set at one height, so there's not going to be any variation between one pass and the next. And also with a walking greens mower, you've got a large roller on the back which helps smooth the putting surface to a much greater degree than the smaller rollers on the triplex.”

“Walking greens mowers just give a better quality cut and a nicer surface to play on,” says White. “The other good part is that there are no hydraulics on a walking greens mower so it's safer for the greens.”

But for Hollar there isn't a significant difference between walk-behind and triplex mower cut quality. Hollar, who is responsible for two 18-hole courses, primarily uses a walk-behind greens mower for one and uses a triplex mower for the other. “Today the higher-end clubs do tend to walk, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you can't have a fine-quality golf course with a riding mower.”

“I think there are advantages to both [walk-behind and riding] mowers,” Hollar continues. “From a maintenance standpoint, it's easier to maintain one riding mower than it is four or five walk-behind mowers. But the narrow stripe the walk mower produces tends to be more pleasing to the eye.”

Ullrich agrees that the narrow stripe a walk-behind greens mower provides is generally perceived to have a better appearance. “Narrow stripes are what you normally see on TV. People like to imitate that; it adds to the prestige of the course,” he says. “But more importantly, I think the absence of hydraulic leaks and tire marks left behind by riding units is what makes a big difference.”

Ground compaction is also an issue for greens mowing. “A riding greens mower is obviously a heavier machine,” says Lanier. “Even so, you typically only have 10 psi on the turf. A 200-pound person walking across the green is about 9 pounds per square inch.”

“The majority of compaction when using a riding greens mower is from the wheels themselves,” Lanier continues. “The most obvious place to see this is in the cleanup pass. Today's triplex mower with offset cutting unit design can help reduce that compaction.”

GREENS MOWERS TECHNOLOGY

With ever-increasing demands for tournament-quality greens, restrictions on sound levels and the effects of hydraulic leaks on turf, there's no doubt that greens mower technology continues to improve. Manufacturers such as John Deere and Jacobsen now offer hybrid and electric greens mowers and easy-to-maintain bedknife systems.

“Electric reel drive technology is definitely getting much better at being able to bring customers a machine they've been asking about for years,” states Lanier. “The market has been moving this way for several years, but technology hasn't been there until recently.” Lanier notes that the new John Deere 2500E Hybrid Tri-Plex mower, which is the industry's first hybrid greens mower, offers the power and performance superintendents require.

“The 2500E operates on a traditional gas or diesel-powered engine that drives an alternator, which powers electric reel motors to drive the cutting units. This consistent power from the alternator allows the 2500E to be used for verticutting and overseeding operations. It also means no batteries to charge — just a powerful system without the hydraulic leak points,” says Lanier.

Buchko adds that Jacobsen's new MAGKnife technology reduces bedknife changing time to a few minutes and frees staff for other maintenance tasks. “With the MAGKnife, there is no reason why a superintendent can't send out his fleet of greens and fairway mowers with a sharp bedknife every day,” he says. “Because the bedknives can be sharp every time, superintendents will be able to deliver a tournament-level quality of cut virtually every day.”

Sneed agrees that triplex technology has gotten a lot better. “It's certainly closer than we've ever been with cut quality. We're mowing, as most courses are, at a much lower height because of the ultra bents and ultradwarf bermuda-grasses. Now we're able to move these triplexes down to ⅛ or 1/10 inch and get a quality cut. We weren't able to do that with anything but a walking greens mower 5 to 10 years ago.”

Catherine Williams is a freelance writer who resides in Hickory, N.C.

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