Five Golf Maintenance Practices I Abhor (And Why You Should, Too!)

Best practices in an profession are often the result of years of experience, learning, and in some cases like the Accountancy, pending or past litigation or legislation. Though the golf world often invokes passionate opinion amongst its population, the relative lack of worldly importance in daily golf maintenance means that the drive to truly optimize and critique the efficacy of what is done to the golf course does not exist. However, and quite contradictorily, the power brokers and significant budgets/membership fees/green fees associated with golf clubs demand the highest of golf maintenance standards day in and day out, most of which trickle down to the mainstream institutions of golf from those seen on TV or held at the highest end of some arbitrary magazine ranking. Despite this, there is no set aesthetic standard or generally accepted best practice by which a golf course can or should be measured and most are simply content to accept a standard set elsewhere, under different conditions, with a different budget.

“Augusta Syndrome,” indeed.

What follows is an open critique of five golf maintenance standards that make little to no sense to me for one reason or the other and potential fixes or alternatives that make more sense for simpler operations.

1. Tee Markers

This has nothing to do with the blocks of wood, oversized plastic golf ball-like things, or any number of campy/kitschy items that are used as tee markers, but rather with the concept of tee markers itself.

Tee markers. Plural.

The USGA defines the teeing ground as “…the starting place for the hole to be played. It is a rectangular area two club-lengths in depth, the front and the sides of which are defined by the outside limits of two tee-markers. A ball is outside the teeing ground when all of it lies outside the teeing ground.”

But, why two?

Why not have the rule something to the effect of: “The teeing ground is a circular area two club-lengths in radius, the center of which is defined by a tee marker?”

I usually get a laugh for this one, but I have yet to hear a compelling reason why this wouldn’t work. The idea is especially compelling considering how much it simplifies setup day-in and day-out in addition to allowing the superintendent to more efficiently use free-form areas designed to be utilized as teeing grounds. Chief amongst the challenges of tee maintenance is the efficient utilization of the space, the difficulty of which is compounded by the square/rectangular shape of the teeing ground as defined in the present rules. Free-form corners are under-used while rectangular areas get worn in the middles. A singular tee marker allows the setup to favor the corners and edges of tees on days when the middles could use a break. Furthermore, the simplicity of relocating the tee markers daily, without worrying about aiming them to the middle of the landing area (for whom? I always ask…), cuts down on both time and frustration/annoyance.

I ran this idea by my boss at Streamsong and he bought into it. Unfortunately, our owner did not. I hope some enterprising spirit takes up the mantle and runs with it.

2. Mowing Stripes

Hideous.

This one is definitely a matter of aesthetic taste because I know plenty of golfers who are held in awestruck wonder at a perfectly patterned checkerboard mowing pattern seen from an elevated tee. I am sure they miss the fairway so frequently intentionally, so as not to mar the otherwise pristine playing surface their golf course superintendent has presented to them. Unless, of course, the rough has similarly “complementary” striping patterns in which case I believe most golfers just resign and go home for the day.

All kidding aside, mowing stripes to me have always had an overly complex and attention grabbing aesthetic that seems to emphasize the maintenance over the architecture. In many cases, stripes are the necessary evil of efficient maintenance practices and in many cases are a best practice, especially in walk mowed areas like putting greens, teeing grounds, or approaches. For larger areas cut by riding equipment, however, I much prefer the “up/back” or “two-direction” presentation which, in almost every case, saves time as well as wear.

The other, and perhaps much more critical, reason I loathe striping is that the brightest mowing stripes are caused by the best growing conditions and my specific wrath is incurred when those growing conditions are caused by over-fertilization or irrigation. Too often, the relative magnitude of the mowing patterns is tied directly to the quality of the job done by the golf maintenance staff at any giving golf course, where in my opinion that qualitative measure should be made strictly on playability with a secondary consideration being to how little attention is drawn by daily maintenance practices.

All this being said, I do appreciate a striping patterns that is well done, and have seen many tastefully straight lines on a wide variety of surface which complement, in lieu of draw attention from, the golf course itself.

3. The Rough/Fairway Distinction…

…or something which does not actually exist in the Rules of Golf.

I once asked a Starter from a local course why that course overseeded their fairways. The conversation started because he was keen to point out that the overseeding process had softened the playability of the place. His response alluded to being able to define the fairway from the rough.

Why?

In fairness, this idea stems from an opinion on both golf architecture and maintenance which is supported by, but not necessarily defined in, the Rules of Golf. I do not believe that mowing lines should be a major factor in the architecture or strategy of a golf course. In general, I do not like “corridors” of anything on the golf course and my maintenance ideal is tied around maintaining “areas” instead of “avenues” or “corridors.” I also believe that golfers should be aiming at or toward an area or target as opposed to “down the fairway.”

This is a deep subject worthy of several posts of their own that forms at or near the center of my own opinions on golf architecture. The major point as far as this post is concerned is that an over-emphasize on the edge of the fairway to the view of the golfer takes away from the challenge the golfer has in interpreting the features of the course. Fairway edges presented in this manner serve much as the lanes do on the highway in showing the way for vehicles to go. On the highway this saves in lives, but on the golf course this eliminates a key element of the hunter/marksman distinction which for me define the differences between the sporting and game elements of Golfing.

On courses with longer grass used in conjunction with closely-mown areas, this edge is inevitable since two different heights of cut are involved. However, this does not mean the edge should be used to define features such as mounds in contour mowing, nor does it mean the edge should be used to define the best line of play. In fact, I propose that golf can both be made more difficult, yet more accessible, if the edges of the closely-mown areas are widened and set well away from the best lines of play. This emphasizes a bit of cunning and brain over raw brawn and challenges careless or mediocre play by handing the golfer more rope. Rope by which the golfer may hang themselves.

For me, this is a deep subject but the take away as far as this post is concerned is that golf maintenance practices of over-emphasize the frame at the expense of the picture. The fairway/rough edge is one element of this frame.

4. Rough which isn’t…. rough

If there is to be a distinction between fairway and rough, let it be caused by the likelihood of drawing a workable lie as opposed to the height of cut. Too often, golf maintenance attempts to define absolutes amongst the areas of golf which render ideas like: “Fairway Good/Easy – Rough Bad/Hard.” I propose that rigid accordance with this idea severely detracts from a sporting element of Golfing filed under “Man v. The Elements.” For me, a much more appealing idea is for the fairway/closely-mown areas to contain a reasonable high chance of a good lie (say, 95 out of 100) and the rough areas still “through the green” a significantly lower chance of a good lie (say, 60 out of 100) but with those good lies not very distinctive in terms of difficulty from those found in the fairway.

Aside: The Rules of Golf allow for five distinct “areas” of a golf course subject to their own rules and dictating the privileges of the golfer. Areas called rough/fairway (and the legally non-existent “waste area”) all technically should be referred to as “through the green.”

Rough which is uniformly maintained, at any height, eliminates this key element of chance and probability. Rough which is uniformly high grass either places an overemphasis on strength or forces the player to actually do the right thing and spend a shot positioning the ball better for an attack on the hole. There is little temptation found on a lie in six inch deep grass, and what temptation that does exist is often held for the physically strong. Varying the difficulty in rough areas adds temptation and cunning back to the forefront of golfing mettle.

5. Maintaining bunkers for consistency

Finally, and building upon the last two points, we come to bunker maintenance. I believe bunkers should be maintained strictly for preservation and appearance, and not for consistency.

Adding to the idea I proposed in #4, a ball hit into a bunker should have a significantly lower chance of drawing a good lie than a ball hit into a rough area (under 50 out of 100, but not 0 out of 100). As it stands, daily bunker maintenance at the highest levels all but ensures that balls hit into the bunker will draw a good lie 100% of the time. That is, the ball is sitting on top of the sand with little impeding contact with the club and the sand is at both a consistent depth known to the golfer and of a consistent make up.

If bunkers are maintained such that the golfer knows the exactly type of lie drawn from it while evaluating a shot, where exactly is the hazard? Yes, bunker shots are often difficult, but so are certain shots from the fairway, and so are certain putts. Overcoming difficult shots is something accomplished by practice and is the bailiwick of the marksman. Interpreting and overcoming the uncertainty of hazards is the mark of the hunter and sportsman.

The irony with this, and the prior idea on this list, is that it is almost universally completely understood and embraced by non-golfers. Take a non-golfer on the course and explain that bunkers contain sand because sand creates a variable surface which cannot be predicted, therefore creating a mental as well as a playing hazard for the golfer and the non-golfer will understand accept that idea immediately. In fact, they may hold golf in higher esteem as a sport because of that explanation.

Do the same with a so-called serious golfer or low handicap and the reaction will be much more vehement. Consistent bunkers are something that can be practiced and mastered. As such, they cannot be hazardous. The hazardous nature of the bunker is in presenting the golfer with a situation for which no preparation or practice can overcome. Yes, the golfer may be able to work something out, but the golfer may also not.

The uncertainty is what makes the bunker hazardous.

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4 thoughts on “Five Golf Maintenance Practices I Abhor (And Why You Should, Too!)

Add yours

  1. You are kind of touching on these issues on GCA and I can not respond there but will here if that is ok. I agree with your point of views. With regard for GCA I do believe competition has been the driving force behind the issues you raised. Maybe not initially as these distinctions began to take shape but certainly in time competition has been the primary force behind what is ultimately at the heart of the list you posted on GCA: FAIRNESS. Competition has become so extremely important that its participants are demanding fairness and this has been taken to the extremes.

    In fact, I will go so far as to say that competition has become a poison for many sports. It is hard to imagine playing these sports solely within the spirit of the game, but it is also hard to embrace these sports as the competition factor has driven people to cheat, or at least push boundaries so far as to spoil our love for the games. I think golf is especially well suited to being able to survive without having to provide high level competitive matches.

  2. Kyle

    Yes, the fairway questions is very deep and I woud welcome further comment by yourself.

    I have to ask about bunkers, what is a good lie?

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