Winter play from a mat? Why not?

Columns - america’s greenkeeper

© matthew wharton

Winter, the time of year when many of us in the industry are “recharging our batteries,” as they say. Some of you may live up North and your facility is closed for several months, some are open with moderate play if weather is mild, and others are busy with snowbirds playing every day expecting pristine conditions. Regardless of your location and situation, the decisions we make today will have an influence on the course conditions we produce come spring and early summer.

I will share with you a few tips that may help some of you — depending on your location and clientele — alleviate the poor winter conditions that translate into less than desirable spring and summer conditions.

My chapter, Carolinas GCSA, held its annual Winter Meeting in Wilmington, North Carolina, at the famed Country Club of Landfall, where director of golf and grounds Jeff Mack is implementing a cart policy called Blue Line for the second consecutive year.

Throughout most of the Carolinas, the primary turf for fairways and rough is Bermudagrass. With fewer courses overseeding, preserving and protecting the integrity of the dormant canopy over the course of the “off-season” can be quite daunting for a busy facility. All golf cart traffic is limited to the rough. The Blue Line rule allows carts to cross the fairways at one or two designated areas only defined by blue stakes and two blue lines — like a pedestrian crossway at professional tournaments.

According to Jeff, the membership bought into the rule the first year and it translated into better playing conditions throughout that dormant season, as well as a quicker green up the following spring. This is Year 2 of the rule being used on both courses. We abided by this rule during our chapter event and it was quite simple to follow once we understood the premise.

One of the first tips I learned after joining Twitter is the use of “winter wheels” on push carts in the United Kingdom. Contrary to popular belief, not every course over there is a links and some inland facilities are on clay soils and experience dreadful conditions during the wet months of winter. The winter wheel is much wider than the bicycle size tires seen on trolleys today and they’re designed to spread the weight of a full golf bag over a greater footprint in order to reduce and minimize the rutting caused by the narrower tires.

I recall a few winters back we conducted multiple conversations at my facility and even considered restricting push carts to paths only on specific holes as we were experiencing the same unsightly markings and ruts caused by players failing to avoid the wet, lower-lying areas of the fairways with their trolleys. I believe this type of damage is mostly superficial, but the “scars” do persist for a lengthy period.

For all the possible playing conditions one might encounter in winter, playing golf on saturated, dormant Bermudagrass is the absolute worst in my opinion. When we experience above average rainfall in the Southeast, playing conditions really suffer. But there is a way to avoid the dreaded fat shot and subsequent face full of mud. Play from a mat.

Last year, I had the good fortune to play the Old Course at St Andrews with the retired director of greenkeeping Gordon Moir. Did you know St Andrews and other links courses in the U.K. require players to use a small mat during the winter months to preserve and protect the golf course as the turf is not growing and unable to recover from divots?

The small mats fit easily in the front pocket of a caddie bib or side pouch of a carry bag. The rules of use are simple: when playing from the fairway, the ball must be placed on the mat. If your ball lies in the rough, you may play it as it lies. If you’re playing a putter from the fairway, the mat is not required.

Hitting shots from the small mat takes getting used to. Gordon and his neighbor, Alec, were very adept and proficient, while I bladed my first attempt over the Swilcan Burn and first green. I struggled to make clean contact on a few attempts before getting the hang of it.

When Bermudagrass goes dormant, it no longer recovers from divots and the soft conditions caused by excessive rainfall cause much frustration to our players. The mat allows one to hit the ball cleanly and avoid the frustration — and the mud to the face.

I know this may seem odd from a traditionalist like me, but I don’t think the mat cheapened my experience of the Old Course in any way. Besides, if your members are only interested in getting fresh air and having a little fun, maybe there’s merit to it. And, if it’s good enough for the Home of Golf, who are we to disagree?

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina and past president of the Carolinas GCSA. Follow him on Twitter @CGCGreenkeeper.