The Retreat at Silvies Valley Ranch is a reversible course in Oregon designed by Dan Hixson.
© photos courtesy of dan hixson

This is a small excerpt from my attempt to write a Golf Architecture book titled “A Good Day for a Mow.” At my current pace, I expect the completion date to be right around 2026 … or 2029 … if at all.

I design and build golf courses. Being self-taught, I am always looking for ways to improve at my profession and hope that my future projects will show this, through thoughtful, creative and practical designs. One of the best continuing education activities for me as a designer was surprisingly found on a mower. Studying classic courses, reading books on the subject or even in-depth discussions with others in the trade is rewarding and enlightening, but I seem to learn more cutting grass.

In my early teens, I occasionally walk mowed putting greens and surrounds or pulled a gang-mower behind a tractor on the small 9-hole course where my father was the professional. Much later, I occasionally mowed some fairways during my career as a club professional, for a change of pace and to get out of the shop.

Eventually, mowing some of my own courses has been very eye-opening and certainly one of the more personally satisfying highlights of being in the profession. It produces pride for getting the project to this point. It is also filled with symbolic meanings and gratitude for having the awesome privilege of being able to fulfill a childhood dream of designing and building golf courses. However, it became impossible to not think about this most prevalent element of maintenance and how the design affects it. I do not mean that in the past I forgot about mowing while designing; I think I gave it a lot of consideration, but the “golf” took precedence in design. When I resumed mowing, my never-ending curiosity of golf course design very quickly took over: the aspect of form follows function and how to make form and function as one is the ultimate.

While the earliest golf courses were groomed by sheep and other livestock, the technology of turf care and agronomic practices has advanced every bit as much as the equipment for playing the game. The mowing that continued education for me happened from the seat of a $60,000 mower full of electronics, hydraulics and some brilliant engineering with blades sharp enough to shave your face.

Here are my top 5 things I have learned on a mower.

1. Before a shovel hits the dirt, the first mow is the most fun and important

On three of my courses, I started the projects by mowing the native vegetation within the future playing corridors. I did this on about half the holes at Bandon Crossings (my first full course) and again recently on six holes on my upcoming project, Callahan Ridge. This is a new 18-hole course I started in March in Roseburg, Oregon. However, 10 years earlier I had far and away the biggest, most fun and thrilling mowing project for me. The project involved starting the process of building reversible Craddock and Hankins courses at the Retreat at Silvies Valley Ranch.

Silvies is a massive 140,000-acre cattle and goat ranch in Eastern Oregon’s beautiful high desert. I had finished a rough routing plan and had staked the tees, turn-points and green locations before I started. Then, pulling a 12-foot-wide brush beater with a John Deere tractor, I spent about five days on the property mowing out about 120 acres. The excitement of designing this project could not have been higher for me than during those five days bumping and feeling around, truly discovering every square foot of the property. The land revealed itself to me from the seat of a tractor, under the 5-foot-tall desert sagebrush. Seeing all these great contours made designing the details of the course relatively easy.

The physical act and time spent mowing the corridors were filled with many stops so I could make quick sketch designs of what I was seeing for eventual course features. In hindsight, this was a huge amount of the process of visualizing each hole that was built to play in both directions. Mow one way and visualize a hole for the Craddock course, turn around and visualize the Hankins course reversed counterpart. That is as fun as it gets on a mower for me!

Self-taught golf course architect Dan Hixson relies on mowing as a form of continuing education.

2. Why not build features easier to mow?

A couple months after the completion of my second course, Wine Valley in Walla Walla, Washington, we went back and built five bunkers we had skipped during construction, in order to get everything seeded on schedule. I would rough shape a bunker with a bulldozer in the morning and then someone else with much more talent than I would add details with an excavator and turn it into a better bunker, adding drainage and laying sod — I’ll do anything to avoid laying sod. I would then sneak away and jump on a mower. Wine Valley used 5-plex lightweight fairway mowers. Over a week of morning shaping and afternoon mowing, we had finished the five bunkers (and I only laid two pieces of sod!) and I had mowed almost everything on the course. A very successful week indeed.

I consistently found things I wish we had slightly changed that would have made the mowing easier and faster. Wine Valley mostly has short grass around the greens, as well as some very large freeform bunkers with dramatic deep edges. Many of the changes I noticed were small areas that required the operator to make too sharp of a turn or multi-point turns in order to mow everything. The changes I noticed would not have taken away anything architecturally or even been noticeable.

Based on those findings, I have a series of bunker ideas that will be much easier and faster to mow and have unique shapes as well. I shaped several on the Silvies project, but they didn’t seem within the natural look of the project that we sought. Building a golf course that is played in both directions, switched daily, was already radical enough. Staying within the minimalism ethos of the project was more practical than also attempting an experimental bunker style. The Roseburg project will definitely have features throughout that are designed and built with this in mind.

3. How to mow during grow-in is vital to quality turf

It is extremely important to mow with a gentle touch during grow-in. At Wine Valley, someone on the crew tried to diagonally stripe mow a few fairways early on, only to rip up infant fescue turf near the fairway bunkers. We built the bunkers to have the fairway cut to the bunker edge. We shaped the edges to be mowed easily, with relatively simple edges that do not require significant turns. Having the operators make multi-point turns up against the bunker put way too much undue stress on the young turf. Soon we were only mowing in straight lines parallel to the bunkers and the turf immediately improved. Obviously, this holds true around greens and tees. I know this is common sense, but it can easily be overlooked — particularly by those who lack grow-in experience or a background of fescue sward.

4. Visually, mowed grass shows contours far differently than brown dirt

One of the more fascinating evolutions of building a golf course for me is seeing the transitions of textures and colors that occur through the entire process. The visual difference of seeing something rough shaped in dirt, then finished smooth, how it looks different once turfed, and finally once it is mowed to its eventual playing height, is a big part of the visualization during construction. Also, the height of cut changes our perception of steepness. A slope with tight mown turf looks much steeper than rough.

Soil and sand tend to be dull and absorbers of light, whereas turfgrass is far more reflective, especially closely mown turf. The shine of sunlight on turf is the reason most of the truly great golf photography is taken in the golden hours early and late each day and somewhat toward the sun. This is also why rough shaped construction photos rarely spark interest in the golfer’s imagination, except for those involved. I know this by wanting to show-off progress of my projects to my friends, only to see them wander off, bored stiff of my dirt photos.

5.Mowing brings it all together

Having golfers tee it up for the first time on a new course is an ending and a beginning. It is the official end of “course building” and the official beginning of life as a sports playing field: a living, growing and changing landscape, built to play a game on.

The last mowings before a course’s grand opening are the culmination of everything that leads to that point. From the owner’s original idea, to mapping, drawing, permitting, staking, clearing, shaping, draining, irrigating, finishing, seeding and finally mowing … it’s when, suddenly, the course comes to life. I have been lucky to have mown at the beginning of a project before it is a course and at the beginning of when it first becomes a golf course. I believe each has helped me improve in my profession of a golf course designer. I think we as designers can never be thankful enough of those superintendents and crew members who work every day to prepare and present our courses for golfers to enjoy this wonderful game.

Bottom line: The more I mow, the better I design. At the end or the beginning.

Dan Hixson is a Pacific Northwest-based golf course architect. Follow him on Instagram @hixsongolfdesign.