Pictured: Major spring earthworks were required at Reid Municipal Golf Course in Appleton, Wis., in the spring of 2013. Greens were seeded at that time, but the spring/summer months did not provide any appreciable head start on germination/growth.
If you manage a golf course in America’s northern tier, and your greens are largely poa annua, my heart goes out to you. Perhaps I should say, your greens “were” poa annua. This winter was, of course, a poa-killer for all time and hundreds, if not thousands of superintendents, are still dealing with the aftermath.
Which got me to thinking… Most superintendents who tend to poa greens simply inter-seed in the spring and fight their way back to full coverage — ideally before the prime, high-traffic, high-stress, high-revenue summer months. But the winterkill was so extreme this year, so much turf loss was sustained, in places like Chicago, they were essentially unplayable and remained so well into June.
Here’s something of a radical thought: If your greens require major inter-seeding, and it’s late May or early June, does it make sense to keep on inter-seeding into the summer? Are you better off playing on the winterkilled greens through the summer (or playing temporaries), then shutting the greens down for reseeding along traditional timelines, i.e. at the end of August?
“That’s a tough call. It really is,” said Brian Chalifoux, superintendent at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Country Club, where our firm helped oversee the rebuilding/reseeding of all 18 greens last summer. “Most of the guys that really have problems each spring are up north. They have it every year, and they fight through it. The poa comes back and they’re used to this scenario. But this year? They had so much damage.
“You can look at it both ways. If you open the greens and they’re poor, you're going to have some dissatisfied customers. But at least you’re still playing them, so the loss of revenues during the prime summer months will not be as high as if you closed altogether.”
Chalifoux is right, of course. And it’s very rare for a club to simply throw in the towel, shut down the course and aim for an August reseeding process. Most simply can't afford to do it.
But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment: If you fight your way back to something approaching full coverage over the summer, thereby not losing as much revenue, you still have greens infested with poa annua — poa annua that will die the next time the conditions are ripe for winterkill. It’s the same poa annua, by the way, your competitor down the street (with their pure A-4 bentgrass greens) will be reminding potential members as they recruit them away from your course!
There’s no single rule of thumb when you have a winter like we just experienced here in the Midwest, or a spring with so much rain and such low soil temperatures. But there is one major rule of thumb that doesn’t get fudged, ever: When you’re seeding anything, you have to be proactive in your approach, determining your desired opening date first — then working back from there.
Unfortunately, a bad spring like this past one puts us in a reactive mode, forcing many superintendents and club managers to work forward from their start date. That’s essentially what supers are doing when they spring-seed on the fly after bad instances of winterkill. It's truly a "seed and hope" scenario… hope that weather cooperates, hope that foot traffic is light, hope that owners and members are patient.
Problem is, hope isn't going to solve your poa problems for the long-term.
When the golf industry was more oriented around new construction projects, we moved dirt in the spring and aimed for seeding in the fall. Now that our industry is more oriented around the act of renovation, I think we all see the spring as a time where we SHOULD be more productive — which may explain the latest influx we're seeing in spring renovations projects.
I think our memories are too short. Three springs ago, we had a very dry, mild spring (It was so dry, it led into a period of drought. But never mind that…). I think some superintendents and general managers were emboldened by that mild spring and all the talk of climate change.
What did we get the next two years? The two wettest, coldest springs I can remember — so wet and cold that the spring seeding projects we undertook during that time germinated so slowly, we were probably better off waiting until fall — along the traditional schedule followed by Chalifoux at Fort Wayne CC.
Let me give you some further perspective: Last year at this time, we were seeding the greens at Reid Municipal Golf Course in Appleton, Wis. Because of the major earthworks undertaken, we had shut the whole course down the previous fall, and we were determined to “get ahead” by starting the seeding process in late May, early June 2013. Well, we had torrential rains in June with numerous washouts and seed loss. We ultimately had to cover those greens temporarily (in July) to prevent further erosion and establish some germination.
When all was said and done, the good folks at Reid weren't really much further ahead than if they'd waited to seed until August 2013 — like Chalifoux did at Fort Wayne CC, and like Scott Anthes did at Brown County Golf Course in Oneida, Wis., where we oversaw another greens recontour/reseed last summer. All three golf courses reopened around the same time (May 2014), all at equivalent levels of grow-in, despite the early start at Reid.
Of course, there were some extenuating circumstances as to why the Reid project was scheduled the way it was, namely for purposes of getting the earthwork done in time. Imagine trying to excavate 100,000 cubic yards of dirt during those torrential spring rains. By working back from our proposed opening date (May 2014), we knew the earthwork would have to start the previous winter to be safe. So the spring seeding date naturally followed, and it allowed some cushion to get the overall job done, but it really didn't improve the quality of the grow-in.
This is not to say there aren’t some projects that might be better tackled in the spring. Further, there are persuasive, overriding reasons to handle even traditional fall projects in the spring. Just ask Jason Hill and Tim Throop, the head pro and superintendent at Lake Carroll Golf Course in Lanark, Ill., where we’ve been tackling annual projects for a decade. Most were prosecuted in the fall, but not any more.
“We switched because we had so many outings in the fall,” Hill said. “We couldn’t sacrifice the revenue, so we’ve moved these projects to the spring… Also, with spring projects, my members see what they paid for — this year. They see the benefits in the same season, come the summer and fall. We did some tee tops this spring. One hole was completely open by Memorial Day and another shortly thereafter. They’re seeing the benefit right away, this year. In the fall, you have to wait all winter to see results.”
Of course, Hill also sees both sides of this issue. The last two springs have been horrible for everyone in the turf business, including sod farmers. He loves the fact that spring sodding doesn’t have to be babied like areas seeded the fall before. However, there were delays this spring, he said, because the sod hadn’t matured (on the farm) to the point where it could be cut and shipped. That slowed their progress even further.
Still, Hill, Throop and Lake Carroll are sticking with their spring project schedule.
“Our downfall of late has been the absolutely horrible springs we’ve had,” Hill said.
“We wanted to be fully open by Memorial Day this year, and we didn’t quite make it. But we have no outings in the spring. When we get to the fall months, we’ll have perfect conditions for them.
“I hate to use this term, the 100-year-storm. But it feels like we’ve had two 100-year springs in a row. That’s over with. These were fluke years — I’m hoping. I’m an optimist.”
Bob Lohmann is founder, president, and principal architect of Lohmann Golf Designs and a frequent GCI contributor. Check out his blog at lohmanncompanies.blogspot.com.