For part three of our series of “Golfers’ Grumbles”, I will be looking at the practical issues surrounding course closures and inspections. A significant headache year-on-year, however particularly relevant during the autumn and winter.
If you missed part one of Golfer’s Grumbles, where I discussed top dressing following aeration, it’s still available if you click the link. You can also access part two on bunkers. For now let’s get on with part three.
“The course up the road is open so why aren’t we?”
Managing a golf course throughout the last few years has been a challenge to say the least. Periods of extended closure due to prolonged snow coverage often tests golfers’ patience to the limit, let alone the frustrations and annual debate of whether to use the main greens during frost.
Perhaps the only thing we can conclude from climate change is that the extreme weather patterns witnessed in recent years will become more of a regular occurrence, including unpredictable, localised weather and flash flooding.
Assessing whether the course is fit for play is most commonly in the hands of the course manager or trusted senior staff. They will have a whole range of factors to consider. Most importantly the course should be safe to play. It is rare that a course will be closed for safety reasons other than in poor visibility, lightening or extreme high winds, but conditions should be inspected throughout the course and no judgement calls made from the comforting view of the club house window!
Perhaps the worst scenario for the greenkeeper is when the course has been subjected to heavy rainfall just before dawn and the sun is shining brightly when the golfers pull up at the car park. Yet again the view from the club house presents a wonderful vista, but on-course conditions require a period of closure while surface water drains and greenstaff repair key areas.
Frustrations run high when snow covers the course and as soon as a thaw sets in golfers expect to be out. Remember snow is water and all of that water needs time to drain away. Sub-surface freezing may very well restrict drainage and extend the closure period.
Managing frost conditions is however the most difficult one. Clubs come under increasing pressure when a neighbouring course decides on a policy of playing on main greens during frost. The winter of 2016/17 has seen numerous frosts and several before Christmas, which has been against the norm in recent years. Frost policies have subsequently become a hot topic in Clubhouse and Committee room discussion.
Many Clubs have boxed themselves in to policies using the main greens for longer periods, solely on the basis that this is what the course up the road does. And the course up the road does so because their neighbour does. These policies are driven by business models and financial requirements. It does not necessarily make them correct.
The most common policy seems to be to allow play on greens when frozen solid but to restrict play at times of white frost and when thawing is taking place. The latter situation is when most damage is likely to occur as roots can be sheared under the pressure of feet on a soft surface with frozen soils just below. The trouble is that not all greens will thaw at the same point so returning greens to play is a difficult policy to implement.
Periods of extended frost have caused some concern at courses of late. Especially when the hole cup cannot be moved because the ground is too frozen. Concentrated doughnuts of wear around the hole cup has damaged sward and soils. This will recover but the green could be weaker heading into the spring.
A clear policy needs to be written by the Club and communicated to the members in an understanding manner. The policy also needs to be practical. Just because one green starts to thaw it doesn’t mean that all will. The depth of thaw is also critically important as most damage occurs if play resumes too early and only the surface has thawed.
The course should not be wrapped in cotton wool for the winter. Clubs need to maintain play whenever possible because essential income is generated, but sensible decisions must be taken. The following points therefore need to be considered when formulating a plan for winter play:
- Courses cannot be compared against each other – issues such as construction, and topography will be different
- Understand your ‘economic threshold’ of expected damage (short and long term) when considering opening your course or greens
- Inspections should not be carried out in the dark even with the aid of a torch
- A thorough inspection may take at least 45 mins to an hour to complete
- Consult the weather forecast for the rest of the day
- Policies are there for a reason – communicate them effectively