How do golf courses decide on mowing patterns? It is complicated
Stripes or plain?
A question you might ask while playing pool is akin to the question superintendents ask when considering mowing the fairways. The two most common options are stripes and 50/50. The first calls for intersecting mowing lines to create a verdant checkerboard. The latter involves a 50/50 split, with one half of the fairway mowed towards the tee and the other half mowed towards the green.
The choice often depends on aesthetic preference.
But there are other considerations, including time, labor and fuel costs.
Lawn care is a scientific profession, steeped in its share of popular wisdom. The industry consensus has long held that 50/50 is the most effective route. But that’s based on anecdotal evidence.
Is it correct ?
Recently, the USGA Green Section took a closer look through a study based on the data. What were the results ? Are there any significant implications for golfers? Any lessons for those of us who mow lawns at home?
Here is an overview.
To carry out the study, the green section needed a good test case. He found one at the Contra Costa Country Club in Pleasant Hill, Calif., where golf is played year-round and mowing patterns change with the seasons. From around April to October – the main growth period for cool-season grasses in the region – the club opts for a striped mowing pattern. In winter, however, when turf growth slows and the grass is more susceptible to wear, the maintenance crew switches to 50/50 because it requires fewer turns, especially tight turns, which can cause more stress. Same property. Same staff. Same equipment. A good place, in short, to make comparisons.
You can read more about the methodology here. But the bottom line is this: With GPS loggers — the same devices many courses use to track golfers’ movements and monitor the pace of play — attached to the mowers, maintenance staff went about their business and USGA Green Section collected readings. Data collection took place in two sessions, in September 2021 and again in March 2022.
Conventional industry wisdom was right: data has shown that 50/50 is faster. To mow in a 50/50 pattern, operators took an average of 16 minutes per acre, compared to 18.5 minutes per acre for the striped pattern. In other words, 50/50 was found to be about 13.5% faster per acre per operator on average.
At Contra Costa CC, which has 28.5 acres of fairways, it took 7.5 man hours in the 50/50 pattern and 9.9 man hours in the striped pattern. Of course, not all properties are the same. As the study acknowledges, variables such as profiling, distance between holes and maintenance staff could influence the results. But overall, the study concludes, “courses with more fairway surface would save more time” with the 50/50 approach.
Do golfers have a preference?
The study did not explore this question. But according to George Waters, director of the USGA Green Section Education, social media comments on the study suggest it is a polarizing topic.
“People seem to have very strong opinions on both sides,” Waters says.
Do mowing patterns have a real effect on the game?
For the Masters, Augusta National has been known to mow the entirety of its fairways to the tee, partly because the solid look is nice but also, it has been said, to lengthen the course. The idea being that mowing the grass against the direction of play reduces body roll. But that last part is folk wisdom that seems to stand up to scrutiny.
Although the USGA has not done extensive research on the subject, it has done studies and there is no evidence that mowing patterns have a noticeable impact on bouncing or rolling out in most cases. Any difference is largely in the golfer’s perception, which itself seems potentially significant (it’s just us talking here, not the USGA). We know how golfers are. If you think we’re getting less rollout, we might modify our swings accordingly. This dang game has a way of getting into our heads.
Are mowing habits important at home?
They can, according to David Phipps, northwest regional representative for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Phipps recommends that you vary your mowing direction each time you cut your grass, or at least alternate between two directions.
Just because cutting the grass all over the place is not healthier for the plant. The reason for mixing it up is that it helps you avoid getting ruts in your lawn. “It can also create a nice checkered look,” says Phipps, like the criss-cross patterns you see on stadium infields and, uh, some fairways too.