Cart conversations: Agronomics

Features - Cover Story

Across the country, more turf professionals are adapting to — and even embracing — the maintenance challenges provided by more vehicles on the course.

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July 2, 2020

Amid regional mandates, rules, suggestions and regulations, agronomists and superintendents across the country are rolling with the days of COVID-19.

Literally.

As an understandable means to either enforce or enact social distancing measures on the course, single-rider carts are common these days. Basic math is seeing riding groups now using four carts in lieu of the traditional two-per-foursome and with golf open — or reopened — across all 50 states, pent-up demand for outdoor activity has seen a surge in play during the late spring and early summer seasons. More play, more carts, more wear and more tear has course managers — like so many industries — adapting to life during the days of virus.

“Nearly everywhere I’ve gone, rounds are through the roof,” USGA Green Section West Region agronomist Brian Whitlark says. “In April and May, some courses I visited set records for those months. Just as an example, one course told me they typically do a half million in revenue for April. I was there in the last few days of that month and they’d already done $700,000. And a part of that is with more carts-per-foursome, they’re charging for each cart.”

Price pivot-to-profit aside, the biggest green issues Whitlark sees in his travels involve turf, not dollars.

“The most high-profile areas of damage are occurring where carts leave the path and enter the grass after the teeing grounds,” he says of single-rider ingress and egress areas. “And then re-entering the path before the green. So, we’re talking about potentially 200 carts a day going through those same areas.”

Techniques working to assuage or control the damage, are myriad.

“To combat that, a lot of courses are using the gate system, which is something fairly simple to operate for the course staff, and they can shift the gates around on a daily basis,” Whitlark says. “One course I was just at painted a yellow line about 70 yards in front of the green. No signage, but the line told players they couldn’t cross, and carts had to exit the fairway before the yellow, even though that still found players mostly exiting the same area. But that system actually worked pretty well, better than signs, actually; people tend to do the opposite of whatever a sign says.”

Courses skipping overt signage? Get a rope.

“I’ve also seen a course lay a yellow rope on the ground, again, about 70 yards before the green,” Whitlark adds. “But it’s funny, that anywhere there’s coyotes, the ropes are a pain in the butt because the coyotes eat them. And given the risks of touching the rope — even for the maintenance staff — I’ve generally seen many people remove a stake-and-rope system, maybe 50 percent are still using that.”

Agronomy practices such as spot-aeration and working with linear decompaction methods are also seeing an uptick.

“There’s ShockWave and other linear tools, or even just pull-behind slicers,” Whitlark says. “Something that’s fast, non-disruptive and not labor intensive — tools that superintendents can use to get out in front of play. I’m definitely seeing a trend of using these kind of tools more frequently, especially in these high-traffic zones.”

Swinging across the map to central Indiana, the aims are the same with rising rounds and single riders.

“The round counts I’ve seen from mid-May into mid-June just blow last year out of the water,” says Brent Downs, director of agronomy at Otter Creek Golf Course, a popular 27-hole facility in Columbus, Indiana. “Especially since Memorial Day, when we received word from the Indiana Golf Association that, providing certain protocols were met, we could run two-person carts. But preceding that, we ran single-rider carts for a while.”

Heading into late June, Downs says that even with graduated protocols in play, single-rider requests still comprised half of the course’s groups. Slightly advancing aerification schedules and, moreover, a revised roping scheme are a big part of Otter Creek’s strategy.

“We had to be very proactive with our roping scheme, as we don’t use a geo-fence or anything like that,” Downs says. “I know where those traffic patterns are, where they wear out, and, typically, I’ll let those go just a bit before I rope them. So, basically what I did was implement summer traffic patterns in springtime — that was the first thing we did.”

Signage is one way to alert golfers of how to properly drive carts throughout the course.
© guy cipriano

In addition, communicating the need for communal turf care has become a gig in itself.

“I’m in constant communication with our regular players,” Downs continues. “And, believe it or not, they’re just so happy to be out there playing that I’ve had really good luck with them. I won’t tell you we didn’t see some damage — we did — but I’d like to think we were forward-thinking with both communication and roping, so we didn’t see as much damage as I initially thought we’d see. That’s a testament to a lot of people wanting to protect the course and do things the right way.”

While Otter Creek’s players were receptive to signage, in-person social distancing communication and online communiques also proved valuable tools.

“I went and talked personally to a lot of the regulars, and was just very frank with them to keep in mind that single-rider carts doubles the amount of tire tracks,” Downs says. “And they were very willing to help. It’s the best I’ve ever seen here for scattering carts. We also used e-mail blasts, and I really communicated to the regulars that this needed to be a group effort to avoid issues as we head into summer.”

Akin to most, if not all, superintendents and agronomists, Downs is no fan of continual course signage. Nonetheless, posting namely clubhouse signs to get the word across has proved an added layer in the communicating chain.

One scatter pattern that seems to be benefiting superintendents is the growing trend of players using legs instead of wheels.

Akin to both Whitlark and Downs, Bob Farren, vice president of golf course maintenance at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, has seen the times of COVID-19 enhance walking traffic.

“Starting to reflect on this, it’s interesting that the trend for the past two or three years has been for people to walk and carry their own bag or use a pushcart,” says Farren, noting that pushcarts are now available on all nine of Pinehurst’s championship courses. “There had once been some hesitation to allow the pushcarts, though I’ve been a big advocate for them. With the redesign last year of No. 4, it seemed liked more and more people wanted to use pushcarts. So, the enhanced walking was even happening before the virus and now it’s even more so. And I love this aspect. If anything good has come of this (pandemic) for golf, it’s to see more people walking the courses. It’s just wonderful. That’s really the message I take away from all of this.”

Previously presented with single-rider rule protocols as a COVID-19 guideline and best practice by the Carolinas Golf Association and its PGA Section — shared carts are again allowed — Farren never saw solo carts as a primary concern.

“In the scope of things, it wasn’t our biggest issue. I mean, it was kind of selfish, I thought, to complain about that, because we were just happy to have the play that we had,” he says. “So, we didn’t want to be squeaky wheels about the carts.”

From ropes to stripes to signage, the most effective means of enacting course care would still seem to come via direct communication to one’s own golf community — while ensuring six feet of distance along the talk or type chain.

“I feel like I’ve seen every kind of attempt, and nothing seems to work perfectly. There’s not just one way, one answer,” Whitlark says. “I know that many supers write a weekly update or send e-mail blasts or a newsletter, and I know that social media has also been a popular way to try and get the word out regarding guidelines. Signage in the clubhouse, maybe above the urinals, placards through the club, maybe signage on the first tee.”

Ultimately, a culture of individual onus and course or club pride seems to bear the greatest fruit.

“Most effective, from what I see, is the peer-to-peer governance that seems to work best,” Whitlark says. “When golfers govern themselves, that seems to be the best way.”

Judd Spicer is a Palm Desert-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.