Rolling forward: revolutionizing golf course maintenance

By all accounts, the robots are coming. The unstoppable force of global capitalism is racing to replace the mundane details of our daily life with the calculating efficiency of automation. Google has its car. Walmart has patented a self-driving shopping cart. In New Zealand, robots will stand in line for you to buy the new iPhone. All the pesky frustrations of ordinary life seem destined to be replaced with the cool, forgiving interface of a digital platform.

But let us not ignore the most important question: What does it mean for the golfer? I’m here to tell you; the robots are coming… and it’s mostly good. Changes already on the horizon today that could make golf better and cheaper. How? Well, if you came to the site today to read about declining labor costs and robotic lawn mowers, this is your lucky day.

 The mowers being used at Cal Club Photo Credit: Javier Campos  @calclimbingsoup

The mowers being used at Cal Club Photo Credit: Javier Campos @calclimbingsoup

Robotic Mowers Mowing is a boring, menial and expensive task. Putting greens, for example, need daily mowing and the resulting labor costs are high. Over time, errors in green mowing do happen and greens slowly shrink. It’s a widespread problem that affects every course from your local muni to the world's most prestigious private clubs. This is a point noted most recently in the podcast with Sean Tully.

Today, a pilot project is underway at Cal Club in San Francisco. Cal Club is experimenting with robotic mowers on four greens. Each green is lined with a small, buried wired that sets the boundary for the green mowers. The wire stakes out a firm, immutable green boundary. The robotic mowers detect the wire and are programmed to mow the entire area automatically at a set height determined by the superintendent.

The golf industry needs the Cal Club project to succeed, and all signs point to it working. The club is currently expanding its pilot from four greens to all 18 and a putting green. Cal Club Superintendent Javier Campos' original impetus for the pilot project was the steep cost of part-time labor. Campos was struggling to find anyone willing to work for less than $25/hour to do detail work on the course. The robotic mowers have allowed Cal Club's Superintendent Javier Campos to use his full-time crew to do that tie in work.

Labor costs constitute at least half of a golf course maintenance budget – so any cost savings are likely to be substantial. Also, just finding skilled labor for these facilities is a growing problem. Recruiting a reliable and qualified maintenance staff is difficult – particularly in a city where the median income needed to buy a home is $303,000. Labor shortages exist throughout the United States – not just San Francisco.

More importantly, robotic mowers can keep greens more reliably sized. Green boundaries are digitally tracked and monitored. The size of the green should remain more closely resemble the architect’s intent – rather than shrinking overtime due to current maintanance practices.

The next, obvious leap for the robotic mower is from the green to the fairway. Regular readers may recognize that I occasionally, sometimes, once-in-a-while, write about the need for more width at US courses. Many US course need to widen their fairways by some hypothetical percentage: call it 25%. Someone has to pay for the 25% more labor to required to mow all 18 holes at most US golf courses. If robots can do it, the marginal costs plunge. You’re down to just gas and maintaining the equipment.

17th approach.jpg

Astute readers will note that the upfront costs will surely rise. These lawn mowers will not be cheap. But the cost of capital goods has fallen staggeringly relative to other costs. As scale increases, costs fall (This, incidentally, is essentially the business model of Tesla). There are few apparent reasons why robotic lawnmowers would be any different.

Conclusion

Living in a panopticon society controlled by robots may have its downsides. The upshot is that with all these robots doing all the (previously) essential tasks of everyday life, you’re going to have more free time. It will give talented superintendents across the world time to do more meaningful tasks than mowing grass. That means more golf. Hopefully, thanks to our new, automated systems, golf will be even better and cheaper.

One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them. The robots will soon be here. And, I, for one, welcome our new robotic mowing overlords….