Noel Mackenzie: Prepare the course now for winter, so it can be prepared for next summer

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 09:17

While all players would love the summer condition of putting surfaces to be retained in the UK and northern Europe, there is an inevitable and inescapable impact from changing seasons. As the sun gets lower in the sky and daylight hours shorten so the plants on the golf green receive less light and heat reducing the ability of the grass to maintain condition under low cutting heights.

The grass, left to its natural state, has for millennia gone through its life cycle in response to changing seasons and the weather conditions that these bring. It has an inbuilt reaction to changing environmental conditions and its own built-in ‘clock’ which allows it to respond and react to the environment by knowing what ‘time’ of year it is.

For greenkeepers and their clubs there is little that can be done to offset the seasons, but careful management applied to the turf can allow playing surfaces to be presented to meet some elements of client / player needs. We should understand that we already put the grass into a very unnatural situation with cutting down to leave just two to four millimeters of leaf on the surface of the greens under good growing conditions. Under bad growing conditions we cannot demand as much from the turf as it will become overstressed and die. Therefore, golf in the extremes of the seasons, and especially winter in temperate regions, must accept the limitations that the environment imposes on greenkeepers and the courses they manage.

To minimise the disruptive impact of the winter on play, greenkeepers manage turf to prepare it for the coming seasons’ hardships and then institute a maintenance regime to supplement the ground work carried out in advance of winter.

The summer itself has usually taken quite a lot out of the grass. Heat alone may have reduced sward density and lead to some of the older plants or weaker species being eliminated by either drought or heat stress, or a combination of both. The plants may not have been killed directly, it may have been the case that their immune systems were weakened sufficiently for diseases like anthracnose or dollar spot to move in and kill the weakened plant. At the end of the summer months a playing surface may therefore be weakened by:

1. Primary environmental stress to the sward that directly kills the plants.

2. Indirect mortality to individuals or sub-populations of grass species / cultivars as a result of secondary infection exploiting environmentally stressed plants.

3. Direct and indirect mortality arising from wear and tear from playing and machinery activity.

The surface may therefore not support a sufficiently dense sward to provide consistent putting surfaces with reasonable pace. Even if good plant density is present within the sward overall there may be localised areas of weakness or disease damage that detract both from the playing and aesthetic quality of the playing surfaces.

This does not simply reflect on greens but all the playing surfaces that are on the course.

The losses from individual and sub-populations of different grasses within the sward need to be replaced to prevent loss of playing surface. Renovations to remove senescent growth are a key part of this and the majority of courses will be involved in renovations at some point during the August and September period to introduce grass seed to the greens to hasten this recovery.

The choice of grass species and the cultivars within that species are very important as the seed represents an investment in the quality of grass that will be in place in the next one to three years. Good quality grass helps to reduce disease incidence as some cultivars have markedly improved performance over others. This can, of course, help to reduce the requirement for expensive fungicide applications thereby helping to reduce the overall budget for course maintenance.

However, it is not enough for the seed to simply be thrown on the soil for a magic carpet of perfect turf to appear in the wake of this activity. The ground must be prepared through harsh verti-cutting and scarifying to open it up and bring about contact of seed to soil for any chance of good germination and establishment to be achieved. Similarly, the problems of soil compaction that hinder grass establishment and development must also be tended to through aeration.

Aeration of the greens can take many forms and there are now more choices than ever before to restore soil structure. The majority of these involve the creation of an intensively spaced series of holes in the turf using a spiking machine which may or may not extract cores (hollow tining) or lift the turf (spike and heave or ‘Verti-Draining*’). Of all the operations undertaken these tend to disrupt the surfaces the most and cause the most inconsistency in putting surface conditions for a short period after renovation. The choice of the most appropriate device would be contingent on the situation and conditions on the course.

Provided renovations are carried out quickly and during periods when growth is unlikely to be hampered, the disruption to playing surfaces should be kept to a minimum and certainly after about a week only the most severe of renovations should be noticeable.

As summer slowly becomes autumn so the renovation work will bear fruit with new grasses emerging to fill in the sward. At this time the greenkeeper will begin raising the height of cut. This allows the grass to survive better by keeping a greater leaf area under low light conditions and photosynthesis-limiting temperatures. The downside of this is that the putting surface will not be so smooth or consistent as it might otherwise be in summer. Furthermore, if the grass is not growing there is scope for wear to occur without rapid and sudden loss of the putting surface which would occur if the grass had less substance to it. The actual increase in the amount of grass on the greens is usually quite small amounting to no more than an extra one to two millimeters of grass.

With increasing wetter weather the benefits of aeration throughout the year should be felt as surface water will escape the surface (infiltrate) to drain away through the soil or rootzone constructions. Although aeration is carried out through most of the year, spring and autumn give advantages in that the grass generally heals over again after treatment more quickly.

One area which is often neglected is the preparation of temporary or winter greens (and even teeing grounds on some courses). A small spend on some basic feeding, drill seeding and fertiliser inputs is all that is required to turn a small patch of weak and exhausted turf from last year’s winter play into something more presentable with decent grass cover. Whilst some courses shun these features there are good reasons to consider their use in winter and autumn when conditions are wet or semi-frosty and main greens may be damaged by use in such circumstances.

Temporary greens (and tees) may not be all we would want but they do provide a means to protect the course under the worst of conditions and allow some form of ‘compromise’ golf to be played. Without this compromise what is a club faced with? If it opens to maintain revenue stream the course is damaged and it may take a long time to re-condition surfaces, especially greens. This can be very subtle and, for certain, a player who goes out on a saturated course in November is unlikely to notice in May that the clubs greens are a month behind neighbouring courses greens in conditioning up the next spring!

The club will very likely have an increased maintenance spend to undo wet and frost condition damage. Alternatively the club may close the course under unfavourable conditions and have to face lost income and political agitation in taking that decision. Temporary greens (and tees) may allow some mitigation of course damage (provided appropriate trolley and buggy rules prevail) and allow ‘compromise’ golf to be enjoyed by the player whilst still protecting the clubs interests.

Winter preparation therefore covers a range of actions. Planning work, and renovations in particular, is very important. And the ways these slot into the wider maintenance regime at the club is important. Clubs themselves need to be economically viable in the winter and yet maintain a view to the next spring / summer and ensure the course does not suffer to its detriment by winter play. Temporary surfaces may, for some clubs, offer a good opportunity to permit use and protect the course through presenting ‘compromise’ golf. Players need to accept that summer surfaces cannot be produced in a sustainable way in winter but if they accept less fine tuned surfaces then ‘compromise’ golf may be played and their skills still honed during the winter months.

* ‘Verti-Draining’ is a popular term for the undertaking of spike and heave aeration techniques although the Verti-Drain machine is not the sole machine for completing this type of work. Soil Relievers and TerraSpike machines have a similar mode of action.

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 09:17
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