Noel Mackenzie: Things to consider before purchasing course machinery

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 13, 2011 09:24

What is needed to run a course well?

The amount of equipment is usually contingent on key, and normally interlinked, factors such as:

• The number of staff and how they are used

• Technical issues – the problems the course presents in management terms

• Flexibility and versatility of the equipment itself

• Budgets

• Terrain and Ecology

• The standards of presentation required

• Storage space

If you have a lot of staff a course manager may opt to use them to manage the course in a labour intensive manner, for example hand mowing to give the presentation standards that either he/she has or the club demands. This will take a lot longer than the 2.5-3 hours normally associated with triple cutting the greens, possibly in excess of a man/day but it is justifiable because budget, expectation of presentation and an ability to still complete the other essential jobs is not affected. Clubs deciding on this course of action are going to have both triple and pedestrian greens mowers.

Clubs with relatively few greenkeepers, for example three to four people on 18 holes or just one person on a nine-hole course usually need to work very efficiently. The work needs to be done quickly and in the majority of circumstances the best way of achieving that efficiency is to use machines.

At clubs like these the use of pedestrian mowers may be a distant dream or restricted to an infrequent cut in the winter when growth may demand a tidy up to the putting surface but never threatens to overwhelm the greenkeeper(s). In fact, the use of pedestrian units may not be possible because there simply are not enough man hours (even in winter) available for the staffing level and only triple cutting with a ride-on machine would have any prospect of allowing a presentable putting surface to be produced.

Similarly, mowing fairways can be a key area where machinery purchase is dramatically affected. A tractor with gang units can cut fairways more quickly than a dedicated fairway mower making it an attractive option if staff numbers are low. However, presentation is reduced by the poorer manoeuvrability of the tractor and gang combination and there is the tractor tied to mowing operations which may not be the most convenient issue to address if it is wanted for other activities on the course. Thus, we see gang unit cutting on courses with lower staff levels and a tendency to dedicated machines on better staffed courses with bigger budgets.

Technical Issues

There is little point in a club having machinery for which it does not have a use. This might sound blindingly obvious but the frequency that items of some value, but little use to that particular club, can be found in the back of sheds is high. The disadvantage in lost storage space and tied up capital is often overlooked.

The ideal is to have the right tool for the job and the situation at the club. If the club has problems with dry patch then a rootzone injection (RZI) machine may be a suitable tool to help with this problem. Such a machine at a club without dry patch may be a severe waste of resources that could be better spent on other equipment. For example, if thatch build-up is a problem a punch action hollow tining machine or aggressive scarifier capable of working at depth may be the better option than an RZI.

Flexibility and Versatility

The special items of equipment required for a golf course may vary significantly. The course with compacted heavy soils may seek to use a spike and heave compaction relief tool such as a Verti-Drain, Soil Reliever or TerraSpike. Alternatively, they may use an ‘EarthQuake’ type machine or vibrating mole plough. There is, very often, more than one way to skin a soil compaction ‘cat’. Where it becomes interesting is where a club or its course manager is seeking to extend the versatility of the equipment available to him considering the other constraints.

In the scenario suggested above with compacted soil, some clubs will have the wherewithal to accommodate machines of both types and use them at optimal times, that is the best machine for the job is used for the optimum result.

However, where space and budget come into account they may seek to use limited resources to obtain the most flexible equipment that will do several jobs well (though perhaps not at optimum for all of them) rather than a single job, which is only carried out one or two times per annum.

In the case of soil compaction, ‘EarthQuake’ type machines are really a one action item and cannot be ‘diversified’ to other tasks, but they are very effective in reducing compaction under the right conditions.

By contrast spike and heave equipment can be set to work in a straight in and out manner as well as the better known ‘in and kick’ and can have a variety of tines mounted in many instances. This allows this type of machine to be used not only for compaction relief at reasonable depth (200mm+) but also for shallower spiking operations using traditional 100-125mm length tines. The compromise might be that the weight of the machine is greater than would be employed by a specialist shallow spiking machine.


Money inevitably has a big impact on which machines are purchased. Clubs with more money will generally accept the budget required to maintain the standards that are desired.

Course managers at such clubs are expected to know what is required and purchase or hire it in before it is needed in a pro-active management style rather than waiting for a problem to manifest itself.

Such clubs with high machinery budgets are not too common, especially away from the more affluent parts of the country. It should be understood that better-off clubs can usually afford bigger storage facilities for their equipment.

At most clubs, especially the less affluent ones, money availability (or lack of it) influences machinery budgets significantly. For the clubs in these situations the machinery may have to be a skeleton of basic equipment or even second-hand equipment.

What is often pleasing to note though is that still the priority is for greens’ mowers to be new and the other equipment is based on mend and make do much of the time. Often in the more remote areas there is a culture that demands only purchasing new (or second-hand) equipment when repairs to the existing can no longer easily be made.

Terrain and ecology

The landscape may demand special tools, for example steep banks may be mowable only with remote control or specialist ride-on equipment, tractors may require four-wheel drives to maintain traction and control, and so on.

Some landscapes and the habitat or ecology that exists on them may also demand special equipment if they are to be managed effectively. Rich grass land may demand that clippings are removed but low nutrient grassland may require no clipping removal, indeed cutting might only be needed once a month as opposed to once a week on richer soils.

Most ecological systems require some form of management to maintain biodiversity or the habitat that exists already. Occasionally specialist equipment is required, for example a flail scarifier to remove brashy heather and prepare a seedbed for new plants, a reciprocating knife mower for long grass land mowing, and so on.

Thus some purchasing may be affected by requirements outside of technical demands required to provide the golf course but considered sufficiently desirable to improve overall ‘golfer experience’ and/or enhance the environment that some investment in these desired items is well justified.

Standards of presentation

Generally speaking you get what you pay for in most walks of life. Golf course maintenance equipment is equally subject to this rule much of the time and good quality equipment, well maintained, should last well despite the harsh conditions it has to operate in.

Quality of finish can have much to do with the quality of the machine, especially where greens’ mowers are operating to fine tolerances on a daily basis. Better machines have titillating brushes and groomers to ensure the grass is standing as upright as possible before the cutting action of the cylinder arrives.

Even on fairways, the cost of presentation is important to consider as demonstrated by the gang-mower versus dedicated fairway mowing machine comparison.

Even with less exacting machines the quality of finish can be important. Good spikers will pluck a lot less than bad ones for example.


Good storage is essential – there is no point in rows of great machines parked outside to the elements through the year because they will deteriorate. Even the more robust equipment such as slit tine spikers deteriorate fast outside so finer tolerance machines will really suffer.

The investment in machinery must be equally matched by investment in somewhere to store it. The accommodation needs to be dry, light, well ventilated and secure. Where space is limited there is no point in purchasing machines that cannot be protected from the elements or thieves.

The seven factors discussed above are the main elements that will determine the amount and type of machinery that can be usefully held and used by a club and its staff.

As clubs look to the future and especially as they look to develop and improve their courses these factors should be considered by the course managers and the financial budgeting process that goes on within the club management structure.

Some of these factors will alter over time, for example player expectations on the quality of the finished ‘product’, more land purchased for extending the course, and so on, so it does no harm to check these seven factors as machinery budgets are presented to committees by the course manager/head greenkeeper.

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 13, 2011 09:24
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