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Golf course weather risk management allows superintendents to make better decisions

Knowing how to manage weather risks can save lives

May 9, 2024  By  Mike Jiggens

Having some general knowledge about weather forecasting allows golf superintendents to better plan, prepare and perform when weather risks are imminent. Photo: © dlanier/Getty Images

Managing weather risks on a golf course can be impactful in many ways. It can allow tournament organizers to reschedule or delay the start of an event if rain is a certainty. It can also potentially save the lives of grounds maintenance workers and golfers when lightning is in the vicinity.

Golf superintendents aren’t required to be experts in meteorology, but some general knowledge about weather forecasting and how to apply such data for planning, preparing and performing when weather risks are imminent is critical.

Kevin Mahoney, a certified consulting meteorologist and weather risk manager at Minneapolis-based DTN, spoke in February at the Canadian Golf Course Management Conference in Montreal about the means to interpret weather information, such as determining the probability of precipitation, and developing strategic ways to deal with lightning. 

When forecasting the weather, meteorologists gather atmospheric information from such locations as airports and golf courses by observing satellite and radar images and studying air quality models.


If a 20 per cent chance of rain is forecast, it means two of 10 models predict rain at a particular time in a specific location. Mahoney said there are about 1,400 different models, “and some are better than others.” He added meteorologists have their own bias tendencies to certain models for certain situations, admitting he might ignore some models that have a wet or cold bias. A weather app might forecast a 20 per cent chance of rain, but it’s likely closer to zero per cent because it’s running off a model with a particular bias.

Mahoney said a 20 per cent chance of rain at a golf course might suggest a low chance of precipitation occurring, but it could also be a high-impact scenario. A plan is still needed because the rain event could be isolated or more widespread.


“If it’s a high-impact scenario but a low risk, we still need to keep it in the back of our mind.”

Although a 20 per cent chance of rain may not happen, golf superintendents should be mindful that the occurrence of some isolated activity could still present itself at a particular time of the day, potentially requiring the need to move people off the course, he said.

Superintendents can get weather information from such sources as Environment Canada or the National Weather Service in the United States. Mahoney recommends such government-operated sites as the first places to go.

Basic weather apps are models that may be biased toward dry, wet, cold or warm probabilities, and superintendents should be aware of such biases, he said.

Mahoney suggested someone on staff should be tasked with weather monitoring and be ready to inform others if action is necessary. Considerations must be made for the distance it takes to reach safety in the clubhouse from the farthest reaches of the golf course and the amount of time that will take. If it takes 20 minutes to reach safety from the furthest point on the course while on foot, that’s the time frame needed to clear the golf course of everyone when there is a weather risk.

Weather risk planning
Planning for weather risks should be done during the pre-season, Mahoney said, noting it’s especially important in the time leading to an important event involving several participants.

“Start planning and start preparing several days out as soon as you start seeing (weather risk patterns). Once you get to one to three days out, recheck that forecast and keep up to date on the forecast and continue to prepare. As you get to about the day before – depending on the weather scenario – continue your preparations and maybe execute your performance.”

If bad weather appears certain, a decision may be necessary to reschedule the event, he said.

Once preparations are made, it may be time to perform. Preparations might include having carts ready to go out to bring in golfers who are on foot. Mahoney said having everything planned and being prepared avoids confusion and saves everyone from scrambling about.

A charity golf tournament played two years ago in Calgary was suspended when radar detected a growing storm mass that had developed in only minutes. Mahoney showed his audience a picture of the original satellite image that depicted a dark cloud moving toward the golf course, but the image hadn’t showed up on radar because it was still growing and appeared as only a small green blip. A mere six minutes later, the system had grown considerably and showed up on radar with the likelihood of including lightning. Hail had fallen on the north end of the course while the sun shone at its southern end.

Because lightning was imminent, play was suspended, and everyone successfully reached safety because of the golf course’s planning, preparations and performance. Mahoney said there was a low probability of a weather risk that day, but added severe weather can evolve quickly.

“It can go from nothing to full-fledged thunderstorms in 15 minutes. It’s very common.”

Mahoney said thunderstorms develop because of rising hot, moist air where lift or a front is needed. If there is sufficient moisture, clouds will develop and grow larger in size. Big “cotton ball-type” clouds will continue to grow and break through the freezing level, producing rain, hail and lightning.

“If there’s no wind shear, it goes up, it dies, it rains itself out and moves on. If it’s a severe storm, it will continue trucking on maybe for hours and hours and hours.”

Lightning on a golf course is a serious matter, requiring workers and golfers to seek safety immediately.
Photo: © amriphoto/Getty Images

How lightning occurs
Mahoney said what’s known about lightning is that it occurs when there are super-cool water droplets, ice crystals and small hail forming in an area of a cloud in which the temperature at its centre is minus 15 to minus 25 degrees and the cloud is about six kilometres above the earth’s surface. Denser, small hail sinks or stays suspended while ice crystals and super-cooled water continue to rise in an updraft. The updraft carries positively charged ice crystals to the top of the cloud while the negatively charged small hail is either suspended or falls to the bottom, leading to a buildup of charge. As the charge continues to build, a large spark or static discharge occurs.

The lightning produced has both downward and upward leaders and happens in less than half a second. The little leaders come together, and a bolt is produced when one meets.

“It’s wherever those electrical charges want to meet is where it’s going to discharge a lightning bolt.”

Mahoney said when lightning strikes a person, it’s rare that it happens from a direct strike. Most instances occur from indirect strikes. A lightning bolt may hit a tree which acts as a lightning rod. When the ground is wet with rain, there is current and something or someone may be stricken as a result.

A person can be hit through conduction as well. Someone leaning against a metal fence can be struck through conduction, even if the actual strike occurred a mile away.

The primary place of safety during a thunderstorm is in an enclosed building and away from windows, electronics and appliances. Rain shelters and dugouts aren’t necessarily safe from lightning, Mahoney said. A fully enclosed vehicle with a metal roof and sides is safe. Golf carts, however, are not safe because they aren’t enclosed.

Seeking shelter under a tree is unwise, he warned, because not only can lightning “blow up” the tree, causing it to collapse, but a person can be struck by sideways streamers and from a ground current.

“Start to receive that advisory alert if you can with whatever services you might use at that 30 to 50-kilometre mark. Then start seeking shelter at 12 to 19 kilometres. The closer you get to the thunderstorm, your probability of being struck increases. I’ve seen lightning strike from literally 50 kilometres from the main core of the storm that hit an irrigation line.”

Environment Canada has information about setting up weather risk plans, especially during lightning and in high-wind situations. 

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