By Mike Jiggens
LAST season’s harsh winter, which negatively impacted golf courses from Chicago to Detroit to Toronto and beyond, “was a reminder for a lot of courses as to just how painful winter injury is,” said the USGA green section’s Adam Moeller.
Speaking in February at the Canadian International Turfgrass Conference and Trade Show in Calgary, Moeller said the 2013-14 winter was so severe that there was little that could be done to prevent winter injury to poa annua greens.
Of the various golf courses he visited within his geographic territory, damage patterns were consistent with ice encasement, he said, adding there were four trends of note which contributed to the degree of damage at affected courses. They included greens grown to poa annua, poor surface drainage, abundant shade and fall mowing height and frequency of cut.
With regard to mowing height, Moeller said a good strategy to adopt before going into winter is to raise the cut of height in the fall. Many courses, he said, will raise their mowing heights from .110 inches to .125 or .130 and think that’s enough, “and that’s probably not a realistic number to shoot for.”
Significant adjustments to mowing height may be easier said than done at many courses because members wish to finish their playing season with consistent green speeds.
More damage was observed at golf courses which maintained lower fall mowing heights as well as at courses which continued to mow frequently through the fall season, Moeller said.
“We’ve got to get the turf ready for winter.”
He said the various “mom and pop” golf courses in the path of the polar vortex weren’t as badly affected because they couldn’t afford to mow so low.
“As a result, the turf was healthier going into winter. They also couldn’t remove snow or ice because they didn’t have the labour to do so.”
Snow and ice removal isn’t as easy as one might think, Moeller said.
He asked rhetorically what could have been done to prevent such winter damage, noting the subsequent spring season in southern Ontario and parts of upstate New York didn’t bring about the best conditions for recovery.
“It was cool and it was wet. Sadly, I think people forgot about the value of certified seed.”
Moeller said golf courses with poa annua greens which contemplated a switch to bentgrass surfaces may have realized that bent might not be perfect, but is a stronger cover than poa.
“Bentgrass doesn’t come without challenges, but it’s a far superior grass.”
One successful recovery story he noted was the Burlington Golf & Country Club’s decision to regrass with bentgrass. The club worked on improving its internal drainage and addressed surface drainage issues to achieve the best of both worlds.
Moeller warned if golf courses wish to convert their greens to bentgrass, they’re also going to have to deal with sunlight issues. Bentgrass subjected to an abundance of shade will not work. He said he talked some golf courses out of a greens rebuilding or regrassing initiative because they were unable to remove trees that were positioned in unfriendly locations.
“It’s just going to be a failure if you don’t get those trees out.”
Moeller referenced a couple of Toronto-area golf courses—St. George’s and Islington—which went through reconstruction programs. Both wondered how much slope to put back into their greens. Originally, they had some significant slope in their putting surfaces.
Both courses were able to continue with their theme of providing some slope, yet ensured there would be no places for “bird baths” to form, thereby minimizing the chance of ice formation on the greens in the future.
Slopes of 21/2 to 3 per cent was fairly common at both courses.
“It does make putting hole locations more challenging in some cases, but at the same time you don’t have to work as hard to get green speeds up.”
Moeller said he visited some courses which were looking to regrass either for agronomic reasons or to contend with older architecture which provided few pinning options when slopes were at 4 to 6 per cent. Maintaining green speeds of 10 or 11-plus feet greatly reduces the availability of possible pin locations. He argued golf courses would be better off to maintain greens at slower speeds as opposed to rebuilding them. He added the combination of regrassing and recontouring has become a recent trend.
Regrassing isn’t as easy as simply stripping the existing turf and throwing bentgrass in its place, Moeller emphasized. Shade issues must also be addressed.
“If you don’t do that, the bentgrass just isn’t going to work.”
Switching to bentgrass isn’t just a winter issue, he added. There are several summer concerns to be considered such as pesticide and water use. More money will also be spent on such cultural programs as aeration and topdressing.
But, he added, conversion to bentgrass will improve a golf course’s long-term infrastructure.
Tree management programs have become increasingly popular in recent years on golf courses, Moeller said. Clubs have had time to plant trees, remove some and plant some more. At Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, Pa., site of the 2016 U.S. Open, for example, trees were taken out in the late 1990s and early 2000s to improve its architecture and recapture the essence of the golf course.
“It’s really made a big impact, and you see more and more courses starting to adopt these tree management programs.”
Full sunlight is best for agronomic reasons, and it makes for a more sustainable system for maintenance, Moeller said.
He warned, however, that although a greens committee or board of directors might understand the need for tree removal, a continual turnover of personnel on such committees may prompt the need for a superintendent to make further sales pitches.
The USGA has in recent years conducted tree management program preventative visits to golf courses in its region, looking at virtually every tree on the course, assessing their long-term impact and making long-term recommendations which often involve removal.
Trees impact a golf course’s rating and slope rating, but Moeller said it’s actually rather minor.
“Most people think it’s going to have a big impact. It’s going to have a very, very minor impact, if any, if you take down a couple of trees on your golf course.”
The course rating and slope rating, he said, are based on the games of the bogey and scratch golfer who don’t repeatedly spray the ball into the woods.
The presence of unnecessary trees can add to maintenance costs as well, Moeller said. Wind or ice storms which break off branches require extensive cleanup, and mats of fallen leaves on greens in the fall often need round-the-clock attention.
“There are a lot of hidden costs with trees.”
Trees will also restrict air movement in some settings. Courses unable to remove such culprit trees are apt to experience challenges in the summer when temperatures might reach 30 to 35 degrees Celsius and there is no air movement.
“Stuff just peters out on you.”
Several courses will install fans in such circumstances, even if it’s only for a few weeks at a time. They are a valuable alternative when culprit trees cannot be removed, Moeller said.
Some golf courses endeavour to seek less than 3 per cent organic matter in the top inch of soil and wind up overaerifying, overtopdressing and oververticutting their greens. Moeller said the end result is the greens become unstable and can’t tolerate a lot of mowing, rolling or foot traffic.
He said he recommends removing cores over breaking them up and returning them.
The value of topdressing cannot be overemphasized, he said, noting the practice improves surface firmness, modifies the soil and protects the crowns of the plant.
“It’s important to understand topdressing volumes. If you’re only topdressing at an ultralight level and you never have to brush it in and never have to irrigate it in, you have to ask yourself if you’re topdressing enough to have a big impact.”
A golf course may topdress 25 times in a season, but may not be leaving a big enough impact.
Drill-and-fill aeration earned Moeller’s stamp of approval.
“I see a lot of value in this if you can’t afford to rebuild of if you have an issue with only one or two greens or if you have heavier textured soils, then this is a good option.”
The method is not a one-time solution, he said, but is rather a program. He said it can be done seven to 10 times before re-evaluating it and deciding whether or not to continue with the program.
Anthracnose remains one of the more common diseases, but by fertilizing more with a tenth of a pound of nitrogen every seven to 10 days and with regular topdressing, a lot of anthracnose issues will go away, Moeller said. Maintaining moderate to high levels of potassium will also help.
More and more golf courses are utilizing the “Australian” bunker raking method in which the sand immediately adjacent to the outer edges of the bunker are smoothed either by a paint roller or the back of a rake, leaving only the bunker’s central area raked in the traditional manner. The technique ensures the portion of the bunker closest to the edges remain smooth, allowing the ball to roll down into the raked part of the bunker or about 75 per cent of the total area.
The technique not only saves on bunker maintenance, but gives golfers a better chance to escape the bunker while leaving most of the sand inside the hazard.
“I don’t know if it makes a huge difference or not, but a lot of superintendents say they think it helps.”
Moeller said some superintendents are almost wishing for a return to the days of metal spikes in golf shoes, claiming it’s a better alternative to newer, more “aggressive” golf footwear available on the market today. The aggressive shoes, which he admitted is more of a golfer issue, are causing more damage to turf than metal spikes ever did.
“It’s a pretty scary issue.”