It is January 5 and it is 61 F in Ames, Iowa. For those of you not from here, that is very warm. In fact, we are likely to hit an all-time high for the day. This follows one of the driest falls that we have had for a while. We have also experienced some strong northwest winds in the last few days that are ideal for drying out greens.
While superintendents are worried about desiccation, golfers want to take advantage of the warm conditions and play some winter golf. This has been the primary question from golf course superintendents in the last few days. Should I open the course for play, or should we keep it closed?
While I have not done any specific research on the effects of winter play on greens, I have had some experience in this area. In the 1970’s, I was a superintendent in southern Colorado. In the area just east of the mountains, this weather is very common. Drying winds are also a problem. In that area, it is too cold to keep the water on. The soil also freezes, but day-time temperatures are often warm enough to play golf. We never closed. If someone wanted to play golf, we let them on. We had a special cup cutter with a large solid-steel ball on top of it. We would hit the ball with a sledge hammer to drive the cup cutter into the frozen soil on the greens. We had 5 positions on each green where we would rotate the cups during the dormant period of winter. Sometimes play was heavy and I remember a lot of wear around each cup setting by spring. I always worried that this would result in damage after spring greenup, but it never did. I was surprised at how well the greens recovered once the grass started to grow.
You do have to be careful during the few days of spring thaw. If the upper inch is wet and the soil just below is frozen, keep players off. But on frozen soil, you will see the effect of wear on the dormant turf, but it should recover well in the spring. You’re also keeping those few players who want to play happy and if you rely on greens fees, you can make a few dollars for the club.
If you covered greens, leave the covers down. The threat from desiccation this winter is high. Covers are good. If you let the golfers on, let them play to temporary flags ahead of the greens.
I also had a question yesterday from someone who had sand topdressed at the end of the season. The question that brings up is the concern that grinding the sand into the dormant grass with foot traffic may cause additional damage. I have not had experience with that, but I doubt that it will be a major problem unless play is high. If you can, have them play to temporary flags ahead of the greens, but if members insist on playing on the greens, I still think the greens will be fine.
I will want some feedback on this in the spring. The blog provides a permanent record and we can refer back to this in future years when we hit another weather pattern like this. I would also appreciate some feedback from you older superintendents who have lived through this before. Send me an e-mail with your opinion, and I will post it on the blog.
Some trials on winter topdressing are also going out today. Marcus Jones and Nick Dunlap got up early this morning to establish sand topdressing trials on Jewel Golf, north of Ames and in Ankeny south of Ames. We’ll keep you posted on that work during the spring.