Most golf courses choose to mow their fairways in either a pattern of crossing stripes or in a “50-50” pattern where half the fairway is mown toward the tee and half toward the green. Aesthetic preferences are often the deciding factor in which pattern is used, but what if data showed that one pattern is more efficient than the other? Given the scarcity and cost of labor, and the high cost of other inputs like fuel and equipment, operating efficiently has never been more important for golf course maintenance teams.
Many in the golf course maintenance industry believe that mowing fairways in a 50-50 pattern is more efficient than a striped pattern, but there is little data to support that theory or quantify the magnitude of any difference. For this reason, the USGA Green Section initiated a study into which pattern is faster and sought to measure the difference in a real-world scenario. Having this information would help courses choose fairway mowing patterns based on objective criteria like the value of time and fuel savings along with the subjective aesthetic considerations.
This study began after we learned that Contra Costa Country Club in Pleasant Hill, California, made an annual switch between mowing fairways in stripes and the 50-50 pattern based on the season. Golf is played year-round in the San Francisco Bay Area, but turf growth and recovery naturally slows with the shorter days and cooler weather in and around winter. During the primary growing season for cool-season grasses in this area – approximately April to October – Contra Costa mows their fairways in a striped pattern. During the shoulder seasons and winter, they switch to mowing 50-50 because this pattern involves less turning overall and fewer sharp turns. It also reduces the amount of turning in the rough, which is especially sensitive to traffic in winter at Contra Costa because the soil outside the fairways holds more moisture. The same operators and fairway units are used throughout the year, which made Contra Costa an excellent site for investigating differences in efficiency between the two patterns.
To measure the mowing time in each pattern, the three fairway mower operators were given GPS trackers at the start of each mowing day. They activated the trackers before leaving the maintenance facility and turned them off when they returned. Two of the operators worked as a pair and one worked as a single in both patterns because this was the normal staffing allocation. For the purposes of this research, the paired operators and the single always worked on separate holes. This arrangement allowed us to study whether a pair was more efficient per operator than a single.