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Golfers hate to be in it, superintendents and their crews are in it a lot, because, well, they have to be. It’s the rough areas of the course and they demand a good deal of attention as part of any overall best practices management plan.

Scott Phelps, superintendent at The Golf Club at Newcastle in suburban Seattle, says approximately 10 percent of his department’s labor allocation is spent on rough management each week. That number can reach as high as 20 percent “if we are also focusing on weed control, fertility or heavy clipping removal that week.” And, managing rough areas can be time consuming. “Conditions such as moisture, the amount of players on the course, length and density of the grass, topography, and obstacles (trees, bunkers, ponds) all affect how long it takes,” Phelps adds.

Maintaining roughs properly is a “huge” deal for Michael Fabrizio, superintendent at two private courses at The Daniel Island Club in Charleston, S.C. “During the growing season (April through October), we use 90 to 130 man-hours labor, or more, per week, per course to cut rough and clean up debris in rough on each course,” he says.

Brian Benedict, superintendent at The Seawane Club on Long Island, N.Y, believes rough areas must be classified into mowed rough and native rough areas. Mowed rough areas have become more labor intensive, he says, due to expectations by club members and golfers. “Our bluegrass roughs are maintained at three inches and mowed weekly by three greens crew members, totaling 30 to 35 man-hours of labor,” Benedict says. “Additionally, golfer expectations have increased to the point where 3-inch bluegrass rough has to be weed-free of crabgrass, quackgrass and broadleaf weeds.”

Benedict’s management program has evolved into applying pre-emergent herbicide to 35 acres of his course to now well over 80 acres, combined with broadleaf applications. That’s a considerable increase in labor and resource allocations. “Also, we loop fairways with fungicide to keep it disease-free in the bluegrass roughs,” he adds. “If you combine all these conditions, the expense involved in maintaining roughs has increased exponentially over the past 15 years I’ve been here.”

Now, if you want to talk about native roughs, that’s an entirely different animal. “They are honestly the biggest pain in the (well, you get the idea) in the world,” he says. “While they look awesome when blowing in the wind, golfers want them to be beautiful but not penal. I feel that is the toughest balance to find. We spend more money in the native areas than we do on bluegrass rough. Occasional mowings, use of a full-time sprayer with a 26-gallon herbicide tank, constant weeding and thinning by hand, sweeping of native areas in the fall, pre-emergent applications in the spring, and sand topdressing is all part of the caring for rough areas.”

Zenon Lis, vice president of sales for Burlingham Seeds, points out that weather plays a large part in rough maintenance and playability, while budgets and staffing dictate how roughs are maintained. Public and daily fee courses tend to mow fairways and roughs similarly, in a more open course layout. “Generally, near roughs are mowed at twice to three times the heights of fairway cut,” Lis says. “Far roughs can be maintained bi-weekly or monthly based on budget and weather conditions.”

Scott Phelps says around 10 percent of The Golf Club at Newcastle’s weekly labor allocation is devoted to rough management.
© Guy cipriano

Rough areas of a golf course often constitute the largest span of turf to maintain. It is also typically the area on the course with the most obstructions, such as trees and bunkers to mow around. “Although not typically mowed every day, rough mowing still represents one of the biggest tasks on the job board and requires a significant amount of labor,” says Ben Bruce, product manager for Jacobsen.

Rachel Luken Thompson, global product management and strategy director for Jacobsen, says, “Rough typically represents the largest volume of turf on a golf course, but its maintenance is sometimes the least important to the superintendent because of its lower impact on course aesthetics compared to greens, surrounds, fairways and tees. When sacrifices need to be made due to time, weather, labor, budget or other circumstances, rough areas can be the first to be neglected. As a result, an errant shot into an unkempt rough area can be unfairly penal.”

Rough maintenance can be time consuming due to the acreage of rough the course has and the level of the playing conditions superintendents need to maintain. “For a course that has 60 to 70 acres of rough during the growing season, it can be difficult just to keep it mowed,” says Tracy Lanier, product manager for John Deere Golf. “This depends on the labor budget and weather. With the rough being the largest area to maintain on the course, the superintendent wants to get started in the early morning to stay ahead of play. In early morning, dewy conditions can lead to poor dispersal of grass, which adds another level of labor to the task of sending someone behind the mower to use a blower to clean up.” Also, he says, having a mower that is too large can reduce areas on the course it can reach, requiring a second task of mowing those areas missed by the bigger mower or a mower that is too small, reducing staff productivity.

Cheer up, Dr. Haibo Liu, professor of turfgrass/sports turf at Clemson University’s School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences, says there are ways to reduce costs when it comes to maintaining rough areas. He advises to allow rough to be as natural as possible, and using native grasses and plants in those areas. Also, superintendents may choose to reduce irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide input to limit time spent on roughs, and use plant growth regulators to reduce cutting and overall input of resources. “Superintendents can also educate golfers about accepting less-maintained roughs to allow the maintenance staff to focus more on greens, fairways and tees,” Liu says.

How often the rough should be mowed depends on the time of year and types of grasses that are in those areas, according to Liu. “Cutting the rough once a week seems very time consuming. I believe it would be ideal to cut it every 10 to 14 days, or even less frequently,” he says.

Liu adds that all crew members should all be involved in rough maintenance. “If only certain workers are assigned to take care of roughs that will result in less motivation for the workers,” he says. “It would not be a bad idea to contract rough maintenance with a local lawn care company.”

Rough areas should be cut between one to three inches, he says. “It is very common to change cutting heights,” Liu adds “For example, for warm-season turfgrasses, leave it a quarter- or half-inch higher before the winter and the same for cool-season turfgrasses to help them overcome winterkill and summer stresses, respectively.”

Grass type, course type and member expectations are all factors that dictate rough height, Lanier says. On average, cool-season grasses are usually going to be two inches and above for height of cut. Warm-season grasses are going to be two inches and below. A “resort-type” course that is interested in getting play moving through is going to want their rough maintained low.

Phelps likes his rough to be mowed at 2 to 2.25 inches. “Two-and-a-half to three inches would be the healthiest for the turf, but golfers would not allow this and the length of time it would take to play would not be acceptable,” says Phelps, who manages 36 holes open to the public at Newcastle. “As for private clubs versus daily fee, I think it is more of a question of standards and expectations. If you’re a $200 daily fee club, the standards may be higher than a small private course. You need to manage to expectations.”

Mower selection can help reduce time spent on rough maintenance, Lanier says. Many superintendents look for larger rotary deck mowers “and that can be a solution, basically reduce the mowing time by mowing it quicker with a larger width of cut.” However, larger is not always better for many courses, as quality of cut and dispersal of clippings are key to reducing time in the rough, along with having the proper size machine that can go into more places to reduce the need for additional labor.

The height and condition of rough areas will directly affect customer satisfaction, which, in the end, is what all turf managers should be seeking. Some may want lower grass heights when their golf balls stray off the fairway while others may seek the challenge of higher rough professionals face from tournament to tournament.

Turfgrass variety, course type and customer expectations are key factors to consider when determining how to mow and maintain rough.
© Mike Fabrizio

Fabrizio adds that when rough is too tall, thick and penal, it has a dramatic impact on pace of play and golfer experience. This can be due to lost balls and the difficulty in advancing the ball when in the rough.

“Rough maintenance can have a huge effect on playability and pace of play,” Lanier says. “It can also be strategic for the type of players you have. If the goal is to get as many golfers around as quick as possible, then shorter is better. You may suffer though on density of grass, health of grass and the overall aesthetic view. Longer roughs may also be used to make the golf course more difficult and thus attract better golfers to your club. How each course maintains its rough is generally a question of who you’re trying to attract and how much you’re willing to spend to do it.”

It’s a rough (sorry) job for sure, but your maintenance program for the grass off the fairways, greens and tees needs to be a fine-tuned as it is with any other area of your course.

John Torsiello is a writer from Torrington, Conn., and a frequent GCI contributor.