Designing for Maintenance

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer

Vera Green asked about designing for maintenance. I responded with the eloquence of a pastor on Sunday (and nearly as religious in tone) that design affects maintenance greatly, and promised some specific suggestions.

I consider maintenance immediately, in "design programming." This is the first phase of design, where I ask owners nosy questions to establish design parameters, like "How much money do you have?" If I see sweat on their brow, I worry about being budget conscious. If I don't see sweat, sometimes, I worry even more!

In routing, I strive for desirable microclimates and maintenance circulation routes. (One course permanently leaves a mower up on a tee perched high in rocks because the architect didn't consider getting one up there.) As far as practical, I avoid routing holes in deep valleys and dense woods to promote morning sunlight and air movement, which is critical for good turf.

I locate greens, tees and fairways (or leave room for clearing) about 50 feet (or equal to mature tree height) on the south and east side.* Holes running north-south should favor the west side, and holes running east-west should favor the northern edge of the clearing corridor to allow adequate sunlight. Bunkers and cart paths on the south and east sides effectively "push" golf features into the sunlight, and most routings yield a nice blend of bunkers left, right, front and behind greens while doing so.

In feature design, build greens, tees and bunkers with adequate size and circulation patterns to spread traffic, and for mechanized maintenance, while limiting higher maintenance features help create efficient maintenance. Some 1990s courses** used the maintenance "theory of 6s": six men spending six hours daily, six days a week fly mowing steep slopes. In leaner times, annual costs of these high-maintenance features are a source of regret.

Most in the rough, near the edges of the irrigation coverage, rarely get sufficient irrigation. They also look unnatural and cause slower mowing and safety and circulation problems for mowers and carts. If a player is in the rough, is the additional penalty of a side-hill lie justified?

Steep slopes rarely look natural. My R.O.B.O.T. is to limit graded slopes to double the natural slope of an area to approximate nature. While the steepest practical mowing slope for mechanized equipment is about 33 degrees, without specialize mowers, I favor maximum slopes of 10-20 degrees in most cases.

We may debate the strategic virtues of golf features, but it's as sure as the sun rising tomorrow that golfers take the shortest, flattest route to their destination, either walking or in carts. Providing wide access from the cart path to tees, greens and fairways avoids concentrating traffic to a small area and causing wear patterns.

Modern design should minimize sand bunkering. (Hey, they haven't been natural since golf moved away from Scotland's seaside!) Each bunker should serve several functions hazard, aesthetics, targets, framing, and even as "saving" features to speed play to minimize their use and maximize their value.

Bunkers with minimum "lobe" diameters of 18 feet allow machine raking. Flatter slopes (less than 10 degrees) minimize sand washing down slopes in every rain. New fabric bunker liners reduce washing, but require hand raking, which is a delicate trade-off.

Simpler bunker shapes and gentler surrounding contours minimize hand mowing. Bunkers 8 feet from green edges accommodate the turning radius of riding greens mowers.

* Up north, lower sun angles require greater clearing. Frost remains on greens well into the morning in shoulder seasons, so we clear extra distance on early holes in each nine.

** Those who know my work from the 1990s may shake their head at this comment, but to quote Dylan, "The times, they are a changin'."