So, turf professionals, there’s good news and bad news regarding warmer temperatures in the fall and even into early winter.
Good news first. With the warmer late-season temps being observed in recent years, there is more golf being played later into the season, especially in cool-season climates when golf is normally winding down for the season. This longer golf period no doubt equates into more revenue for many golf courses and a healthier industry for us all.
But that brings us to the bad news. This extended period comes with having to determine how to maintain greens in this late season at a level more consistent with late summer or early fall playability.
Factors to consider are numerous. How low do you mow in the season? Are late summer speeds OK in late fall? How often do you mow? What considerations do you give to mowing heights after a hard frost? Do you increase rolling frequency? Can you use your seasonal PGRs out of season without detriment to the turf? Do you have the staff this late in the year to manage greens like you did when fully staffed in the summer?
I chatted with a few professionals to get their opinions and input on this relatively new problem for golf course superintendents.
“The major challenges superintendents face with this late-season mowing is simply having the labor to do that,” says USGA Green Section director of education Adam Moeller. “Labor challenges are by far and away the biggest obstacles superintendents face on an annual basis.”
Moeller offers a few suggestions that can help superintendents get around this labor shortage problem.
“One way superintendents can deal with the labor problem is more triplex use and less walk mowing as you get into the shoulder seasons and your staff is down,” he says. “The triplex helps compensate for not only the smaller staff, but also the light issues in the morning and not having as much time to mow before play starts.
“The growing degree day models are also helpful, with respect to knowing how long your plant growth regulation products are working,” he adds. “If you know your PGRs are still active, this knowledge might allow superintendents to not mow as often in the shoulder season while still maintaining an acceptable speed. A lot of this can be attributed to growing degree day research that was done at the University of Nebraska and the University of Wisconsin.”
Moeller admits he has seen an increase in superintendents being pressured to produce almost top-quality greens much later into the fall.
“One of the risks in cold-weather areas, if you’re mowing the turf longer in the season but you’re remaining at a summer mowing height, you may not give the turf enough time to acclimate to cold weather and prepare for winter,” Moeller says. “You could see an increased potential for winter injury.”
In addition to PGRs, Moeller shares a few other ways superintendents can offset the potential for damage to the greens by mowing too low in the off-season.
“Make sure you’re consistent with topdressing,” he says. “And, of course, rolling the greens instead of mowing to manage your speeds and smoothness that way. You want to make sure you give the plant enough time to grow up prior to winter.”
Sean Reehoorn is superintendent at the Tom Fazio-designed Aldarra Golf Club in Sammamish, Washington, just east of Seattle. Reehoorn agreed with Moeller about the importance of roller use in the late season.
“The roller has been a huge tool added to our toolbox” he says. “Roller selection is actually vitally important. We move to a solid roller in the winter and away from the grooved roller we use in the summer. This has greatly improved the health of the turf late season.”
Reehoorn stressed not only the importance of the roller selection, but the importance of training employees to properly roll Aldarra’s bentgrass greens. Poa annua-free bentgrass is uncommon in western Washington. “Training employees to roll, or selection roll, is crucial,” he adds. “Our biggest key is we want dry weather so additional moisture isn’t an issue.”
I also talked with Dr. Gregg Munshaw, who is an extension specialist at the University of Kentucky. Munshaw’s concern with this new “season stretching” – maintaining green speeds late season at midseason levels – is making sure the temperatures are warm enough where the greens will accept this type of management.
“Say what you will about global warming,” Munshaw says. “If we are staying warmer longer, I’ve got no problems being out there mowing. If the grass is growing, we need to be out there keeping it playable. But if the grass is slowed, and we’re not getting much growth, there’s not really much reason to keep after it. Other than smoothing the surface and getting rid of cleat marks, etc. The problem I have is if they are sending the triplex out in the cold, when play is down, for no other reason than ‘just because.’ To me, that’s just wear and tear on the machine and wear and tear on the grass, as well as compaction causing and all that entails. I don’t really see a lot of benefit to it in those instances.”
Reehoorn agrees with this assessment, which also fits his situation in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s really a balance for us late-season,” he says. “Mowing enough for playability and not enough to cause any unnecessary wear and tear.”
Munshaw, being in Kentucky, sees the issue from all perspectives: cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses and Transition Zone grasses. “With Bermuda greens, it’s a bit different,” he says. “You’re not going to get top growth after that first hard frost. For them, the only reason to be out there at all with anything is to smooth the surface. Dormant Bermuda greens roll excellent. Most supers paint, just to give them color. But they tend to be a great putting surface, so it’s not as much of an issue for them as their northern counterparts.”
Brian Kearns is golf course maintenance manager at Primland, an upscale resort in Meadows of Dan, Virginia. He agrees that the playing season has definitely expanded at Primland.
“Our season used to be April through October,” he says. “A few years ago, we added a week in November. Then a second week. Then we figured why not go through Thanksgiving to the end of the month?”
Kearns has also found keeping the greens playable in this extra added month has been, with a little common sense, fairly manageable. “Due to slow growth, we are able to raise mowing heights and still get our desired speed,” he says. “We do roll at least three days per week when we don’t mow.”
There’s little denying temperatures are rising across the planet, and in many golf-happy regions across the world, this means an increase in play later into the year than we’ve seen in the past. In this economy, embracing these new rounds is going to be essential for superintendents. Finding a way to manage greens at a higher level than we used to during these months — and to do it without long-term damage — will no doubt be the challenge.
Ron Furlong is the superintendent at Avalon Golf Links in Burlington, Wash., and a frequent GCI contributor.