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Robo barbers?! Yes, in US Amateur Four-Ball, they work hard

In preparation for the tournament at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, autonomous mowers have been working hard.

Hosted by Husqvarna

The robots don't come. They have arrived. Some have found jobs in the golf industry.

At the Philadelphia Cricket Club, for example, an array of independent R2-D2s have been helping mow the grass for the 2024 US Amateur Four-Ball Championship, which begins Saturday.

Dan Meersman is the director of grounds and facilities at the club. We asked him about his robot maintenance crew, the jobs they can – and can't – handle, how they worked with the USGA to help prepare for the event, and the roles he sees machines like it playing in the future of the game.

Recruitment process

Like the idea of ​​flying cars, the promise of robotic cutters has been with us for a long time, gaining momentum as machines become lighter, faster, more precise and easier to use. Meersman first saw one in action in 2019 and was impressed enough to get two Philly Cricket units the following year. Meersman, who lives in the area, put one of those mowers to work in his yard. He says: “I had the opportunity to see it work in the rain and in all other types of weather.

A key moment came when Meersman saw the deer standing in the yard, unconcerned as the robot continued its work. “That's when I realized that if the deer didn't care about the robot being near them, the golfers wouldn't be bothered by it,” he said. “I liken it to a squirrel or some other small animal on the side of your game. Quiet, no problem. You don't even see it.” Today, Philly Cricket has a line of 30 robotic mowers, in two different models, all manufactured by Husqvarna.

In preparation for the USGA tournament, which is played on the club's Wissahickon course designed by AW Tillinghast, the rough was mowed by 17 robotic mowers, Meersman said, although some last-minute adjustments were handled by traditional mowers, which have a suction function that helps the grass stand straight. As play unfolds this weekend, robotic cutters will be called in as needed, depending on the weather and any related changes the USGA championship committee may determine are necessary.

Daily activities

Philly Cricket has three courses, and robotic mowers help trim the rough throughout the season, usually to a length of two and a half inches. GPS-guided devices work day and night. “That's one of the really cool things,” Meersman said. “You come in the morning, and most of the work is already done.” In addition, the small robotic models, about the size of push-mowers, are so light, says Meersman, that they can work in rainy and wet conditions without damaging the lawn. Those are the mowers that cut the rough (Meersman uses his giant robotic mowers to help maintain other parts of the property, including the club's 21 lawn tennis courts). By the end of this season, Meersman expects to extend robotic mowing until all problems on the Wisshickon course will be automated.

Workloads and skills

Meersman's robots operate “one-third on, one-quarter,” meaning they mow for three hours and charge for an hour. The smaller models he uses in the rough can mow 2.5 hectares per hour.

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They don't

Robot mowers can cut fairways, too. But Meersman covers his own downside, when he says he gets high rewards for low risk. He also doesn't use his mowers on steep slopes or underground edges, although there are stand-alone mowers on the market designed with those types of tricky terrains in mind. Vegetables are another matter entirely. Meersman robotic mowers have rotary blades, while toppings are cut with more precise reel mowers. Things will definitely change as technology advances. But Meersman says, “when we're talking about unsupervised, independent mowers, I think we're still years away from being able to do greens.”

Costs and savings

Meersman declined to say how much his robotic pitchers cost, in part because prices can vary depending on a range of factors, including the relationship between the club and the manufacturer, and how many machines are part of the deal. (The small robotic mowers used by Philly Cricket are listed online for about $2,600 per unit.) Besides, Meersman's main interest is savings. In many industries, the rise of AI has raised fears of robots taking jobs from humans. But that's not the case for Philly Cricket, where Meersman says the independent mowers have allowed him and his 70-person staff to focus on other course development. “Now we can consider things like, let's not just put sand and dirt in the separation areas, let's use the plugs from our kindergarten,” said Meersman. “It opens up all kinds of possibilities.”

Across the industry, he admits, some course operators and management companies may see robotics as an opportunity to cut staff and save on salaries. But like anything, he says he expects independent mowers to encourage healthy competition between clubs to produce the best conditions.

He says: “You can't look to reduce the maintenance fee. “He'll make sure you don't end up with a course down the road.”

Josh Sens Editor

Golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a contributor to GOLF Magazine since 2004 and now contributes to all areas of GOLF. His work has been honored in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Have Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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