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LBWA -- Keep Players Coming Back

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / yykkaa

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Ask any golf course owner, manager, or course superintendent what the most important approach to encourage players to play and stay is, and the majority will probably say the condition of the course.

Maintaining a course in tip-top condition takes time, patience, the proper equipment, and a trained staff.

Location, terrain features, climate, and a host of other elements make each golf course unique, so the type of equipment needed to maintain courses may vary from place to place.

Reel Mowers

The most basic pieces of equipment every course must have are reel mowers, also known as cylinder mowers.

“Reel mowers are essential to properly mow greens and fairways,” says Stephen Tucker, CEO of the International Golf Course Equipment Managers Association ( www.igcema.org ), an online resource for golf-course equipment managers.

“They cost $45,000 or $55,000 each, and typically an 18-hole golf course has at least two of them. So right off the bat you have a $100,000 investment, and that doesn’t account for maintenance, fuel, putting an operator on them, and sharpening the blades frequently,” notes Tucker, who is the head equipment manager at the Four Seasons Resort in Dallas, Texas. He also observes that as the equipment gets older, maintenance costs increase.

Reel mower blades rotate on a horizontal axis, as opposed to standard rotary mowers where the blades rotate on a vertical axis. Rotary mowers, which are far less costly, cannot be set low enough to properly manicure greens or fairways, Tucker says.

Rotary mower blades also tend to tear the grass leaf because they create an impact cut similar to a scythe or axe, according to the United States Golf Association ( www.usga.org ). Rotary mowers are normally used to mow the rough.

A reel mower has between nine and 15 blades on a single reel that spins horizontally using a scissor action against a stationary knife to cut the grass. It snips the grass leaf very cleanly to a precise height. This is also healthier for the grass.

Walk-behind reel mowers are used on greens for highest-quality cuts. The height of cut varies with the season, climate, type of turf grass, and other factors, but can be at an average of 3/16 of an inch to as low as 1/10 of an inch. This low cut can put stress on turf grass and must be carefully monitored. If a golf course has collars around a putting green, a second reel mower is likely required because the height of the cut will be higher than that of the green, generally around 3/10 of an inch, according to the USGA.

However, using walk-behind mowers demands a great deal of time, and course managers may not have ample staff or equipment to dedicate to that task. So, larger, multiple-deck riding reel mowers are often used; the drawback is that setting precise mowing heights consistently on the separate decks is painstaking, and experienced equipment technicians are required.

Reel-mower blades must be kept razor-sharp frequently in order to maintain the best playability on greens and fairways; it takes special equipment and skill to properly hone them.

“A golf-course equipment technician has to be a jack-of-all-trades,” explains Tucker, who supervises three technicians on the two golf courses he manages. “They have to know how to sharpen blades, but also how to maintain and troubleshoot all the equipment, such as fleets of golf carts, electrical systems, engines, power tools, hand tools, and sometimes even facility maintenance,” says Tucker, who describes himself as a working supervisor, meaning he gets his hands greasy too.

Technically Speaking

With budgets being tight, having enough technicians is a challenge. “The quality our customers demand drives how many techs we have,” Tucker says. “Most 18-hole courses employ one technician to care for 80 or more pieces of equipment. It is difficult for one person to properly see and maintain all that equipment, and as you add hours on the machines, it gets more challenging.”

While some equipment technicians are specifically trained for golf courses, most are hired from other industries, such as parks and recreation, automotive, farm equipment, boating, or heavy industrial, Tucker says. “I’d say a majority of technicians in golf come from other industries and get on-the-job training in golf equipment.” He adds that parks and recreation facilities maintenance technicians have many of the skill sets that golf courses seek.

Despite the recent flat growth in the golf-course industry, Tucker asserts there is a high demand for experienced equipment technicians.

“The reason is the lack of qualified technicians in the business because so few people know about golf courses,” he insists. “All the surveys we’ve done in our association tell us that in spite of the economy, salaries for golf facilities technicians have gone up.” Tucker says that a technician with 1 or 2 years’ experience can expect to start at around $45,000 annually.

Formal training for golf-course equipment technicians is available, but is becoming rarer, according to John Piersol, Director of Golf and Landscape Operations in the Turf Equipment Management program of Florida Gateway College in Lake City, Fla. He has conducted such a training course since 1974 with great success, graduating 30 or more students annually in that field. However, he recently had to cancel the class due to a lack of students, and is in the process of re-inventing it.

“The problem is that when you try to tell young people about the turf-equipment technician, they don’t know what that is,” Pierson explains. “I have course superintendents frequently calling me, asking if I know where they can get a golf-course equipment tech.”

He tells them they may have to grow their own. “Go to their local high school vocational-technical program, work with the teacher there, and find students who have the mechanical aptitude for the field,” he suggests. “Bring them to your golf course, show them what the golf industry has for them, maybe let them work part-time, and train them in-house.”

Piersol acknowledges that experienced parks and recreation maintenance techs have an advantage if they seek employment in the golf industry. “There is definitely a market out there, and the golf industry would embrace them,” he maintains.

He also notes that assistant golf-course equipment managers may be a good staffing source for parks and recreation departments in need of experienced technicians or managers. “There are assistant managers out there with 5 or 6 years’ experience who are having a hard time moving up because there aren’t any positions available. They are good candidates because they have managed people, turf, and budgets.”

The course that Piersol conducted formally trained students in equipment preventive-maintenance, shop management, care and sharpening of reel mower blades, budgeting, and other related specialties. He says that other colleges have similar 2- or 4-year courses, but are dropping them for the same reasons.

“It started dropping off 5 to 7 years ago,” he notes, pointing out the simultaneous drop in the economy and the flattening of golf-course patronage. “The golf industry is not in a growth mode, but it still needs trained, experienced turf-equipment managers, and they are hard to find.”

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net .

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For More Information

For those who are tasked with caring for a golf course’s most prized asset, there are other resources that can provide helpful and contemporary ideas and advice:

TurfNet ( www.turfnet.com )

This is an online resource for a wide range of information, from job listings and equipment sales to webinars and “TurfNetTV.” TurfNet was founded in 1994 as a place for golf-course superintendents to share experiences and opinions, avoid problems, save money, help others, obtain help when needed, and “have a little fun in the process.”

The Turf Equipment Technicians Association (TETA)

Founded in 1985, it is a voluntary, nonprofit national organization headquartered in Illinois, but available internationally via its website at www.tetaonline.org . The website offers insights, information, and on-site training opportunities from people who work directly with golf-maintenance equipment.

Parks & Rec Business ( PRB )

Another method of sharing information about this field is right here at PRB . If you have helpful information, contacts, tips, or comments about golf-course equipment technicians or related equipment topics, share it by contacting me or the PRB editor.

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