Winter play in a time of heavy play
Courtesy of Dan Francis

Winter play in a time of heavy play

More golf during COVID-19 means more activity than usual on colder days. Learn how a few cool-weather veterans are handling the situation.

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December 14, 2020

Many golf facilities experienced a surge in play this season. That trend has continued with the approach of the holiday season and the end of 2020.
 
But the increase in play has potential consequences for the turf, particularly in northern latitudes where superintendents must balance concern for the health of the turf against employer/member desire to accommodate as many rounds as possible.
 
Dave Oatis spent two decades overseeing the USGA Green Section’s Northeast Region before retiring in 2019. He’s now a turf consultant, who worked with around 60 golf facilities this past year. He notes that while increased cold-weather play puts turf at risk, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out more golfers. 
 
“We can socially distance and play quite nicely,” he says, “so most of the facilities I’ve worked with this year have experienced a significant increase in play. On average, I think it’s around 30 percent, some definitely lower, some considerably more. Some literally doubled the number of rounds they have in the past.”
 
Oatis says one of his chief turf-related concerns is increased cart traffic. “Some golfers are insisting on taking their own golf cart, which is certainly their right,” he adds. “So when you see a foursome go out with four carts, that’s double normal traffic. There is significant concern for the effects of extra traffic on turf.”
 
Oatis, who is based near Bethlehem in eastern Pennsylvania, also recommends that superintendents utilize temporary greens and tees in the winter.
 
Russell Harris is the director of maintenance operations for three public facilities in Union County, New Jersey, a little over a half-hour west of midtown Manhattan.
 
The county’s crown jewel is Galloping Hill, which regularly hosts more than 60,000 rounds each year. Harris is also responsible for Ash Brook, an 18-hole facility, and Scotch Plains, a 9-holer. Between them, the three courses regularly host more than 100,000 annual rounds. The total for 2020 will likely be within 5,000 rounds of that, despite the courses being closed for seven weeks in the spring and having to restrict tee times for an additional three weeks. The three course are open year-round, unless they are snow covered.
 
“We tend to stay fairly busy throughout the winter,” Harris says. “We’re surrounded by a bunch of higher-end (private clubs) that probably close down for the winter. So, we do we some steady play even in normal winters.”
 
And heading into December, when the weather was still mild, Harris was busier than ever. He told Golf Course Industry that revenue in November of 2020 was double what it was for November of 2019. From a maintenance standpoint, Harris’s chief concerns during the winter months are divots on the tee boxes and cart traffic.
 
“We tend to go cart-path only usually from December 1 through the whole winter,” he says. “We also limit our teeing grounds, we go from four sets of tees to two. And they’re usually kept in the same spots all winter. It’s easier to come out in the spring and fix (divots).”
 
Harris and his team continue to topdress tees and greens through the winter when conditions allow. When he spoke with Golf Course Industry, he had recently completed his last chemical application for the year (for winter snow mold).
 
Because of the volume of play, Harris’s seasonal staff was still on duty as the calendar turned to the winter season. His in-season workforce numbers approximately 20. During the winter months, it is customary for a full-time staff of a dozen to remain on duty to maintain all three courses in the county system. But things are different this season.
 
“The weather for the most part has been pretty good, so we’re still trying to out and change tees and move pins when we can, and rake bunkers,” Harris says. “We’re still booked from morning until the afternoon. We definitely have kept staff on longer.
 
The Union County courses are managed by Kemper Sports, which Harris credits for providing him with the resources necessary to maintain the golf courses year-round.
 
“They understand how differently their courses across the country need to operate,” he says. “From a budgetary standpoint, and trying to keep our staff, knowing we have to maintain the golf course. They allow us to operate and stay open.”
 
Dan Francis is the superintendent at Wildwood Golf Club, a private facility in Middletown Ohio, about a half-hour north of Cincinnati. The club typically hosts 11,000 to 12,000 rounds each year. This year that figure was expected to be around 13,000 rounds, in part because of mild fall weather. 
 
One of Francis’s chief concerns is frost. The golf course is open through the winter on days when the temperature exceeds 38 degrees. But frost delays are not uncommon. Francis’s reference point is Wildwood’s second green, which is often in shade
 
“Standing at my clubhouse, looking at the putting green, you might not see any frost,” he says, “but No. 2 green is covered in shade and will be frosted for a very long time, so that will extend our frost delay perhaps another 30 minutes to an hour.”
 
On days when delays occur, the club will offer breakfast in the clubhouse until the frost dissipates. Members are understanding about the need for frost delays. “They trust my decision,” Francis.
 
Trust works both ways at the club. On winter mornings when frost is a possibility, a member of the club staff will often drive out to the second green to determine if play should be delayed, and, perhaps, allow Francis extra time at home with his family.
 
“I trust the (clubhouse staff),” Francis says. “They’ll make the decision for me.”
 
Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.