The art of mowing fairways

A lengthwise mowing pattern is one of the most-popular effects on golf courses. To achieve it, the operator drives the machine along the length of the fairway, mowing parallel strips from the tee to the green and from the green to the tee. As golfers stand on the tee looking toward the green, they see long strips of light and dark turf defining the pathway from tee to green.

While "hitting the fairway" off the tee is an event to be celebrated for many non-professional golfers, the fairways on a golf course are a crucial element for both course aesthetics and playability. Fairways are defined as the part of a golf course covered with short grass and extending from the tee to the putting green. While golfers tend to focus on the speed and playability of the green, they play much of their game on the expanse of fairway. Thus, how you mow that fairway definitely has an impact on their game. Crews face challenges in mowing fairways because of the large area that they need to cover quickly-often under less than ideal mowing conditions-and the need to provide aesthetic appeal combined with a high degree of playability.

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Mowing patterns Two major cutting patterns dominate golf-fairway mowing. The most widely used is the cross-cut pattern, where the operator drives the machine in one direction across the width of the fairway and then drives perpendicular down the length of the fairway. As golfers stand on the tee looking toward the green, they see a checkerboard pattern of light and dark turf.

The pattern emerges as the mower moves across the turf, slightly bending the grass blades in the direction the mower travels. Because of the differential lean of blades of grass in alternating mowing swaths, light reflecting off the blades creates the illusion of light and dark mowing strips. As golfers look across the fairway, the turf appears lighter where the mower traveled away from them, darker where the mower traveled toward them.

To create a lengthwise mowing pattern-the second most-popular effect on golf courses-the operator drives the machine along the length of the fairway, mowing parallel strips from the tee to the green and from the green to the tee. As golfers stand on the tee looking toward the green, they see long strips of light and dark turf defining the pathway from tee to green.

The same bending of the grass blades that produces the pattern effect also can have a slight effect on the roll of the ball. The blades bending toward the ball produce a bit more resistance toward the ball than the blades bending away from the ball.

This leads to a third mowing pattern, which was used at the 1998 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Course crews there used multiple mowers on each fairway, with each operator driving his or her machine from the green to the tee. Golfers standing on the tee looking toward the green saw no discernible pattern, but only a large expanse of turf. The grass blades "bending" toward the tee provided a bit more resistance to the ball as it landed. The intent was to minimize ball roll on the fairway and slightly reduce the advantage of the hard-hitting, long-drive players.

To provide the greatest playability and the greatest vigor of the turf, you should change the direction of the mowing pattern with each mowing so the grass blades remain as upright as possible. If the mower travels from east to west along astrip of turf one day, it should travel from west to east along that strip at the next mowing. You also should adjust the starting point of the first strip a few inches to the right or left so the mower wheels follow a slightly different track at each mowing. This also moves the wheel route for each adjacent strip as you mow it, thus avoiding "paths" of compaction from repetitive travel.

Choosing the pattern Either of the two most widely used patterns enhances the appearance of the course. The key in determining which pattern provides the best look depends on several factors, such as: * The physical features of the course * The equipment and operators available * What makes the most efficient use of time.

The strips created by lengthwise mowing patterns extend the visual perception, making short fairways appear longer. Also, some golfers prefer to aim their shots along these direct lines to the green. Cross-cut patterns also somewhat alter the visual perception, making narrow fairways appear wider. They also tend to tie together the overall look of the course, bringing out striking features in the landscape at the sides of the fairway. Some golfers prefer to gauge their fairway shots to the general area of a horizontal strip near particular features of the course.

You must consider features within the fairway in plotting the mowing pattern, too. The number of bunkers and water hazards and their placement may make cross-cut mowing difficult by forcing operators to make numerous tight turns and spend extra time attempting to "match up" the pattern on one side of the hazard with the pattern on the other side. Lengthwise mowing patterns may be difficult to execute on fairways with overhanging tree limbs.

Plotting the course Like greens mowing, fairway mowing begins early in the day with the goal of getting the machines out on the course and the mowing wrapped up so the golfers can start play. During active growth periods, crews may mow fairways every day or every other day depending on the number of mowing units available, crew levels and the expectations of course users. Flexibility in pre-planning the mowing order can increase efficiency.

For most courses, early morning mowing means contending with heavy dew for much of the year. Therefore, simple economics drives the need for efficient mowing-the more rounds a course can handle, the greater the income it generates. Mower manufacturers understand the increased maintenance demands and have introduced roller and brush options to help keep wet grass from clogging cutting units and to spread clippings more evenly across the turf avoiding scattered, unsightly clumps of clippings.

Close observation of the microclimates on the course can help, too. Moisture lingers in protected spots longer than in open areas and in low spots longer than in higher ones. It isn't mandated that mowing the front nine holes begins at the first fairway and proceeds in order, though you obviously want to reduce transport time whenever possible. But, depending on the course, you may be able to reduce overall mowing time by mowing the fastest-drying fairways first and then heading back to the first hole.

Also, when the course design includes fairways that wrap back adjacent and parallel to the fairways of other holes, you may be able to reduce transport time by mowing the adjacent fairway rather than the next fairway numerically. For example, one crew member may mow the fairways on the first, seventh, sixth and second holes in that order, rather than the fairways of the first, second, third and fourth holes.

The best way to track the most efficient method is to time it. Have the operator note the start and finish time on three separate occasions for each of the mowing sequences, making sure mowing has taken place under similar conditions for each sequence. Then select the best sequence.

When possible, match an operator to a machine and assign them to specific fairways consistently. This gives the operator the opportunity to become familiar with the equipment and with the subtle variations of the turf and terrain. This expertise allows the operator to make minor adjustments in reel or ground speed or in directional patterns to deliver a higher quality of cut.

He or she also is more likely to notice those small changes in machine performance or in turf quality that can help avert major problems. You determine height of cut based on the type of turf, its growth rate and condition, environmental factors impacting the turf and player demands. Minor cutting-height adjustments made to accommodate turf needs can improve overall turf quality and aesthetics of the course. Frequent feedback from mower operators on turf condition based on their observations can help you determine the best cutting height.

Flexibility by design Mower manufacturers have developed equipment features to make choices in mowing patterns easier. Cutting units that lift and shut off the reels with a single touch and lower and re-engage them with another single motion make cross-cutting easier on the operator. Because fairways border the shorter, highly manicured turf of the greens and tees and the longer grasses of the rough, you produce a sight line at the meeting point each time you disengage and re-engage the cutting units. With the one-touch system, the operator must concentrate only on moving the mower into the proper position and lowering the cutting unit at the precise point to begin mowing again.

Cutting units with consistent down-pressure and the ability to follow the terrain allow mowers to deliver an even, high-quality cut in any type of grass despite uneven conditions and undulations across the course.

Manufacturers also have improved operator productivity by making equipment more user-friendly with such amenities as more comfortable seats and easier steering. In addition, easier backlapping and improved accessibility to machine components increase the likelihood that cutting units will be in top condition and that your crews perform routine service and preventive maintenance as recommended by the manufacturer.

The final check Before the machine heads onto the course, the operator needs to review a checklist developed jointly by the service technician and superintendent. Details will vary depending on the course but generally include checking fluid levels, tire pressure and the height-of-cut adjustment.

The few minutes spent here can save expensive maintenance to the machine or damage to the turf. The operator also needs the specific assignment of the fairway mowing sequence to be followed, a good understanding of the quality of the results you expect him or her to produce and the anticipated time it will take to produce the results. Great fairways are an important part of golfers' overall perception of course quality. Equip mower operators to deliver results that meet, or exceed, the expectations of your course's golfers.

Bob Tracinski is the business communications manager for John Deere's Worldwide Commercial & Consumer Equipment Division (Raleigh, N.C.)

*Considering your course, choose from the two most-popular patterns (cross-cut or lengthwise) or use your mowers to create a random pattern that flatters your course. *Plot the course. *Choose the fastest possible schedule for mowing the fairways by timing different possibilities. *Make sure the operator has a clear understanding of the mowing sequence, quality expected and time allotment. *Select the equipment that makes your job easiest. *Look for equipment with such things as single-touch options to lift and shut off, lower and re-engage reels; consistent down pressure; high-cut quality; ergonomic design; and serviceability. *Create a daily maintenance checklist for equipment to avoid downtime. *Include the following on your checklist: monitoring fluid levels, tire pressure and height-of-cut adjustment.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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