Mother Nature, it's not nice to fool superintendents

From the winter that wasn't to the seemingly endless summer, extreme season changes have challenged greenkeepers everywhere.

At TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., home of The Players Championship (pictured), a record-setting cold winter two years ago prompted a series of capital improvements and altered maintenance practices to keep the putting greens safe from Mother Nature’s wrath.
Photos courtesy of TPC Sawgrass

By David McPherson
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Mother Nature is certainly cruel. She’s also unpredictable. Just ask any GCSAA member. Weather is a subject never far from their minds. It’s also a topic every greenkeeper could talk about for days — especially the shake-up in the seasons over the past 12 months and how it’s caused them to lose sleep and affected their budgets.

“I hope global warming is a hoax!” one greenkeeper I chatted with joked.

Superintendents in New York State who were cutting fairways in February can relate. So, too, can greenkeepers on the other coast who wished Mother Nature had delivered more snow last winter.

Since March, I’ve written a weekly blog (Turf Talk) for PGATOUR.com. Writing this column has given me the chance to chat with many superintendents. Each week when I asked them to name their biggest challenge, the unanimous reply was Mother Nature. From extreme weather such as Texas tornadoes and Gulf Coast hurricanes to ordinary rainfall (and lack thereof), greenkeepers have had their hands full battling the weather this season; it’s a battle — they all admit — you can’t win.

“Weather is a constant topic of discussion,” says Brad Eshpeter, golf course superintendent at Canada’s RedTail Landing Golf Club in Edmonton, Alberta. “There are many books published on the subject, and a lot of people have opinions on the weather. It’s an element that greatly affects our bottom line, but it is something we can’t control, so we just must deal with it. Give the golfer a good product and then let them decide. I tend to think positively. What is wrong with a good thunder and lightning show every now and again?”

Jim Thomas, CGCS, director of golf course maintenance at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tenn., which hosts the PGA Tour’s St. Jude Classic, has his own take on the subject. “If the weather is good, you can prepare the golf course agronomically and turfwise. It’s a factor I can’t control,” says the 31-year GCSAA member.

Winter wear and tear

Like an unannounced funnel cloud, things started to really spin out of control for superintendents when they were faced with the winter that wasn’t. This lack of snow resulted in a very early spring causing superintendents to put planned winter projects aside and open early. For seasonal golf courses this meant an increase in labor and maintenance costs; staff were hired sooner — more than a month in many cases — resulting in tired and unmotivated crews as the season wore on and on. This is why Scott White, GCSAA Class A golf course and grounds manager at Donalda Club in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, can’t wait for his private course to close this fall.

“There was no impact more dramatic this year than the wear and tear the staff have felt from me on down,” said the 14-year GCSAA member when we chatted in late August as he and his assistant were en route to play golf on a rare day off, after working more than 37 hours in the first three days that week. “I’ve never felt so worn down so early and felt our staff had checked out so early.”

While the summer of 2012 has been mainly hot, humid and dry, a few heavy rainfalls have caused a couple of floods at Donalda. White says these storms were nothing they could not handle. They paled in comparison to the challenge of dealing with his crew’s fatigue — a direct result of Mother Nature’s unpredictability and one of the earliest openings in the club’s 50-year history.

“Guys literally went from zero to overdrive in two weeks as opposed to our normal soft opening rush of golf the first weekend and then it dies off,” White comments. “None of that happened this year. I remember my assistant looking at one of the golf industry websites that talked about guys in New York State cutting their fairways in mid-February. We had had some pretty warm weather by then, but we thought that was excessive. But, sure enough, one week later, we started to wonder how long we could push our own opening off. We knew Mother Nature wasn’t going to save us.”

TPC Sawgrass’s response to weather extremes includes the installation of HVAC units on every green (pictured) and applications of green pigment and black sand to attract sunlight and help heat up the surfaces of the putting greens.

Stress strategies in Florida

Heading south from Toronto to the Sunshine State, still more tales about Mother Nature emerge. For Tom Vlach, CGCS, director of golf maintenance operations at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, it was a winter at the other extreme two years ago that led the home of the The Players Championship to make some dramatic changes.

“We learned from weather in 2010,” the 22-year GCSAA member explains. “We had a tremendously record-setting (cold) winter, and that winter really set in motion the things we did in 2011.”

“We’ve got many tools we can play with. Mother Nature will always win, but this allows us to put our best foot forward.”
— Tom Vlach, CGCS

The TPC Sawgrass maintenance staff covers the bermudagrass greens when temperatures dip below 40 degrees. In 2009, they only covered the greens three times, but in the harsher winter of 2010, this number skyrocketed to 45.

“We are a high-traffic facility that sees lots of golf in the winter,” Vlach says. “We learned to manage our dormant bermudagrass with the following program. Instead of letting the greens go completely dormant, we first apply a green pigment to the putting surfaces. We spray this approximately every two weeks to attract sunlight, and that actually heats up the surface of our greens by 2 degrees.

“Then, instead of topdressing in the wintertime to achieve smooth ball roll, Vlach and his crew put out white sand, but they took this a step further.

“We went to our manufacturer and asked them to dye this sand black, which raised the soil temperatures another two degrees. The combination of the green paint and the black sand resulted in our greens warming up an extra 4 degrees. That doesn’t seem like much, but an extra 4 degrees, on average, every day, certainly helps,” Vlach concludes.

TPC Sawgrass did not stop there, spending significant capital to do something “pretty drastic,” according to Vlach, that most clubs could not do. The course installed HVAC heaters on every green, so now when temperatures dip below 40 degrees they can blow warm air onto their greens throughout the winter months. They can even isolate where the air flows in specific strips to heat specific colder spots on the putting surfaces.

The high cost of salvation

Last winter was a bit warmer in Florida, so TPC Sawgrass didn’t have to cover the greens as much, but Vlach says they definitely used the green pigment, the black sand and the heaters.

“We had an increase of traffic, but the greens handled it because we were putting these other inputs into them,” he explains. “Otherwise, if we go dormant here in north Florida and just pound the traffic through them, we would wear them out to dirt, so we have to try to keep them growing.”

Vlach says these capital improvements were mainly made at the request of the PGA Tour to make sure the Stadium Course was ready for golf’s unofficial fifth major each spring. “This allows us to get firm and fast for The Players,” Vlach adds. “If we overseeded, come May we would have to water the greens and soften the place up. Instead, with the warm-season bermudagrass, we can put these heaters on and get the place cranking.”

Besides the installation costs for this sophisticated heating and cooling system, which was well over $1 million, fuel costs have also risen as a result. Because it was so warm last winter, the veteran greenkeeper estimates they spent an additional $12,000 to $15,000 in fuel since they were mowing much earlier. This technology also cools the greens if they get too hot in the summertime.

“We’ve got many tools now we can play with,” Vlach concludes. “Mother Nature will always win, but this allows us to put our best foot forward.”




It took 12 staff members working full time for several weeks to pull Montreux G&CC in Reno, Nev., out of a disastrously dry and mild winter. But by the time the course opened for the season in April — only one week later than scheduled — the greens were picture perfect.
Photos courtesy of Montreux G&CC

A new normal in Reno

“Just like the rest of the country, the weather certainly affected us,” says Doug Heinrichs, CGCS at Montreux Golf and Country Club in Reno, Nev. “But for us, it was more of a lack of weather.”

“The lack of moisture from November through March, combined with winter winds and humidity that barely reached into the teens, were too much for the turf to handle.”
— Doug Heinrichs, CGCS

While most greenkeepers were happy winter’s embrace was loose, Heinrichs wished Mother Nature had dropped a few more flakes. The superintendent at the host course for the PGA Tour Reno-Tahoe Open says the lack of snow meant spring came early and the grass suffered.

“Normally we get between 6 to 10 feet of snow, and this past year we only had 4 to 5 inches. We lost a lot of turf and had to reseed much of the course,” says the 25-year GCSAA member.

This early spring also caused the greenkeeper to turn on the irrigation taps ahead of schedule. The results were disastrous. “Many pipes and sprinkler heads broke,” Heinrichs says. “We could only do that for a bit before we had to turn the system off again.”

Montreux G&CC sits nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, so water management is an ongoing issue. The course relies on a mountain creek for much of its H2O, and this year the creek is at the lowest levels Heinrichs has ever seen.

“We have gotten a total rainfall of 0.2 inch — note the decimal point — on the course so far this year, and the temperatures have certainly been well above normal,” he says. “That being said, we are getting used to the hot dry summers, but it was definitely the lack of winter that hit us so hard. Typically, in the winter, we sit under several feet of snow since Montreux is at 6,000 feet elevation. Even though our mild winters constantly melt the snow, the Sierras have always provided more.

“This year was definitely the exception. In total, we received about 4 inches of snow over the entire winter. We started our irrigation system back up in December, but the cold nighttime temperatures were wreaking havoc on our irrigation system, and we were forced to shut it back down. The lack of moisture from November through March, combined with winter winds and humidity that barely reached into the teens, were too much for the turf to handle.”

Greens under plastic

In total, Montreux lost about one-third of the turf on its greens and fairways — primarily the Poa annua — due to desiccation. Realizing the damage in early March and knowing they were at least four weeks out before the soil temperatures would allow any seed growth, Heinrichs had some decisions to make.

“I’m not a real patient man,” he admits, “so we immediately ordered 40-feet by 100-feet rolls of clear plastic sheeting for our greens — the largest sheeting we could find without a special order. The clear sheeting creates a greenhouse effect by allowing the sunlight in, trapping the heat and raising the soil temperatures.”

While waiting for the plastic sheeting to arrive, Heinrich’s crew double verticut, double quadratined and spiked the greens in several directions before seeding with Dominant Extreme bentgrass. Then, when the sheeting arrived, all the greens were covered with the help of 3⁄8-inch rebar and sod staples. After the first day, Heinrichs says the soil temperatures went from the low 30s to the mid-50s during the day, but dropped back down at night.

“After a week, the soil temperatures were reaching into the high 70s. It was obvious we were accomplishing our goal as the seed was popping in no time and the existing bentgrass that survived the winter was growing and healthy. The challenge we now faced was managing the existing bentgrass while trying to grow-in the new seedlings all under plastic sheeting.

“Reluctantly, we had to remove all the sheeting at least twice a week, not only to mow the existing turf, but also to irrigate and allow the turf and soil to breathe.”

Recovering from catastrophe

Clear plastic sheeting created a greenhouse effect over Montreux G&CC’s newly seeded bentgrass greens, but the covers had to be removed at least twice a week for mowing and irrigation.

For several weeks, 12 of Heinrichs’ staff members worked full time removing and re-installing covers until the seedlings gained some maturity and the soil temperatures rose enough naturally to allow for some turf growth. As soon as the soil temperatures hit 50 degrees in the fairways, they double-verticut and seeded them with ryegrass before topdressing with humus.

“Of course, Mother Nature wasn’t just going to sit around and watch the seed grow. Instead she gave us a colder March than any of the previous winter months and threw in a bunch of wind to make sure our covers were always on the edge of taking flight.”

“The humus absorbs the sunlight and heats up the soil as well as retains moisture on the surface for seedling growth,” Heinrichs explains. “Of course, Mother Nature wasn’t just going to sit around and watch the seed grow. Instead she gave us a colder March than any of the previous winter months and threw in a bunch of wind to make sure our covers were always on the edge of taking flight!”

Overall, the superintendent says being proactive with the greens covers and seeding Montreux G&CC’s fairways under the proper soil temperatures proved to be a huge success.

“We recovered from catastrophic turf loss with only a one-week delay in our scheduled opening date of April 7. Though I thought we did what we could over the winter months to protect our turf, there were still lessons to learn. Our greens and fairways only recently turned to Poa, and mixing the least tolerant turfgrass with the driest winter ever recorded for us was not a healthy combination.

“After we realized the irrigation system would not be useful due to the cold nights, we watered the greens during the winter by hand with 300-gallon sprayers, but it obviously wasn’t enough. Even dormant, the turf needs moisture, and the dry winter winds were sucking up everything we were putting out. In future dry winters, we will be monitoring our greens with moisture meters and hand-water with water tanks daily if need be.”

David McPherson is a Toronto-based golf writer. He writes a regular blog for PGATOUR.com called Turf Talk. Follow him at @aspen73.