© Curtis harder, Blue Bell CC

Brian Boyer loves Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

He loves the ability they grant him to plug numbers and formulas into cells, he loves how they provide him more options more quickly that he can present to the ownership at Cinnabar Hills Golf Course in San Jose, California, and he loves the visualization of a return on investment.

The superintendent at the 27-hole public Cinnabar Hills for nearly 16 years, Boyer has “pretty good” Excel spreadsheets for Poa and crabgrass, among other challenges. “Nothing fancy,” he says. “But they work for me.”

Big Data swallowed up manufacturing years ago and seems to be creeping ever closer to every facet of golf course maintenance. Boyer, who works near numerous Silicon Valley tech companies, uses data — of the big, little, advanced and everyday varieties — to his advantage whenever he can, even when introducing new plant growth regulator and aquatic control programs at the course. After all, you need to know not only what you’re applying but also how it interacts with the turf, weather and other products. The variables are endless. Control what you can control.

Preaching patience

Boyer introduced SePRO Cutless MEC PGR on the A4 bentgrass greens at Cinnabar Hills a few years ago, switching from another product that provided strong growth regulation but left him with other problems that outweighed the benefit.

The results — the return on investment — were far from immediate.

“That first season, I went every two weeks at 24.6 ounces, the high rate, and I wasn’t happy with the lack of growth regulation,” he says. “I didn’t see a lot of Poa control and my growth was a little more than I would like.”

The second season, he opted for more frequent applications, every week, at lower doses, “and it was great,” he says. “I had some growth regulation and toward the middle of the second season, I started to see results. What I would see was a patch of Poa that’s maybe two inches, three inches, and I would see bentgrass poking through.”

And as for this season? More experimentation. “I’m back to every two weeks and I’m playing around a little more,” he says, adding that he expanded his SePRO PGR suite last season to include Legacy and Musketeer.

© curtis harder

“I know there are clubs out there that can do seven-day applications, but I can’t, and I always figured I was never going to get growth regulation here at Cinnabar because I couldn’t afford to do so,” Boyer says. “I would stress patience. The guy I leaned on didn’t see anything with Cutless for almost two years.”

On the other coast, Curtis Harder enjoyed a far faster return on his PGR investment. Harder is the superintendent at Blue Bell Country Club, a private club in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia.

After a friend recommended Legacy, he tested the PGR on tees and fairways, “to limit how much growth we’re seeing week to week,” he says. “We needed something to carry us to 10, 12 days. Within the first two months of using Legacy, it was helping us minimize mowing frequency.”

Two months, two years — what’s the big-picture difference, really, especially if a product works in such measurable ways?

Harder asked around to superintendent friends at other Philadelphia courses and learned that most were mowing fairways three or four times every week.

“My first year here, we were trying to get out and mow three times a week,” he says. “Every course is handcuffed on how many guys they have. Every year, I put together a budget and it’s difficult to meet what I’d like to see here.” You almost never have “enough guys to go out and mow.”

Being able to cut back one or two days of mowing every week for four months on what are basically 007 bentgrass fairways has allowed Harder to “really concentrate more on the details.” On Fridays, for example, “we’re able to prep the course a little more than if you had to send four guys out to mow. We’re able to detail bunkers for the weekend or concentrate on ramping up green speeds.”

Trusting yourself

After almost five years at Blue Bell and about 17 years total in the industry, Harder has figured out more and more to trust himself and his instincts.

© curtis harder

“We’re always trying to push the envelope to deliver the best conditions,” he says, “but you have to be a strong enough superintendent to know when to do less. That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years. If you can’t get out and mow, maybe because it’s too wet, know when to skip something.

“Knowing to do nothing is sometimes the best practice, because a lot of what we do is self-inflicted injury instead of letting things ride out. You’ll be better on the back end.”

Jon Cockerham trusts himself. He trusts his education, experience and process, too. The longtime director of golf course maintenance at Suntree Country Club, a 36-hole private facility in Melbourne, Florida, is an educated tinkerer. He studied chemistry and microbiology at Mississippi State University and has fiddled toward fine-tuning products and processes ever since. A couple seasons ago, Cockerham applied Legacy to one of the club’s two courses and a competing product on the other course — tank-mixing each with 3 percent iron.

“The visible difference was the maintenance of color,” Cockerham says. “There was definitely growth suppression, but the color of the turf was outstanding.” The competing product, meanwhile, always bronzed. “I wasn’t getting any negative comments from golfers but to me it looked like I sprayed it with a light amount of Roundup or something, and it was suppressing the rough growth as well but it had those bronzed triangles.”

Both courses, the Challenge and the Classic, feature Bermudagrass fairways, with the Challenge described as “a Heinz 57 of Bermudagrass mutations and contaminations” elsewhere atop Tifway 419 parent grass, and the Classic was recently regrassed with Celebration Bermudagrass.

“I don’t have a huge budget here,” Cockerham says. “I have a decent budget, but it’s not unlimited. But if I did have an unlimited budget, I would probably use Legacy all the time, be out spraying it every three weeks. We have 240 acres between two spray techs, so it’s difficult even to stay on that schedule. There are other priorities, between weeds and mole crickets and army worms, and then mowing a lot.”

Like so many clubs across the country, Cockerham has struggled to fill his crew of 28 full-timers and two part-timers this season and is down about 320 crew hours per week. He has relied extensively on his assistants, former golf pro Justin Wasson and recently-promoted-spray tech James Francis, and his spray techs, Ken Moss and Tico Waddington. He trusts them almost as much as he trusts himself.

He trusts PGRs and tinkering, too.

“PGRs are cost-efficient because of the results,” he says. “During the growing season, if you have certain weather conditions, you’re getting a lot of clippings, you’re having to increase your mowing frequency, and then you have to send somebody to clean up those clippings. All that labor is saved if you stay on a relatively regular program throughout the growing season.”

Cockerham sprays PGR every week, even as low as two ounces per acre in the winter. “Invest in them, use them, because they’re economical and cost-effective.”

Even in this digital world, Big Data is still dwarfed — out on the course, at least — by Big Maintenance. ?