With all eyes on picture perfect Augusta, STRI agronomy operations manager, Steve Gingell, asks you to spare a thought for UK greenkeepers still dealing with the legacy of the 2018 heatwave.
Golf fans across the globe will be tuning in to watch all the action from 2019 Augusta Masters over the next four days. TV coverage is showing the course and the greens looking immaculate, as you’d expect, and the stage is set for another high point of the golfing calendar. Greenkeepers, greens committees and agronomists however will watch the Masters with a mixture of awe and dread.
It is wonderful to enjoy a golfing spectacular, a golf course presented in optimum condition, however, it can generate an unrealistic dream for UK golfers. Leaving aside monumental differences in budgets, staffing numbers, maintenance compounds and machinery fleets, some golf courses are still recovering from the 2018 summer drought which resulted in many areas of non-irrigated turf losing grass cover and golf fairways were badly affected. To make matters worse, the recovery following rainfall has been poor and bare areas are still visible well into 2019.
How the drought affected golf courses
The dry weather followed quickly after a period of heavy rainfall and cool temperatures. This had an effect as growth rates were low and root depth was poor. Any areas without a good aeration strategy prior to the drought suffered early and very quickly.
As the drought progressed the upper soil profile dried out and grass became stressed. Normally this would have resulted in the grasses going dormant. Recovery then occurred as rainfall returned. The summer of 2018 was different as the less heat tolerant grasses, namely meadow grasses and in places the bentgrasses and fescues were killed in the very high temperatures. This led to loss of cover and no recovery. Interestingly ryegrasses seemed to survive the best, probably due to deeper rooting.
In the sandier soil types, such as golf links, the profile also became hydrophobic due to being so dry; even 200mm of rainfall was not able to penetrate it. Again, this significantly affected recovery and even with overseeding little green appeared.
Whilst the grass died the weeds loved the space and developed. The bare soil in the winter resulted in high moss populations and on a health and safety note made it a great deal more slippery underfoot.
What it meant for recovery
Recovery, bizarrely, was dependant on the maintenance undertaken prior to the drought. Grass swards regularly aerated, fed (to an appropriate level to promote the chosen grass) and perhaps the use of surfactants meant areas were not so badly affected or helped aid recovery. Interestingly areas managed to a very basic level and higher grass height survived the best.
The view of “it will come back” could be dubbed ‘fake news’ if any dormant grass was dead, especially if the soils had wetted down. These patches would only recover from slow sideways grass ingress and most likely would revert to weeds. This could be a year-long battle! The rule of thumb is if a patch hasn’t greened up by now then emergency assistance is required.
Recovery is about being active, promote the grass you have through feed and aeration; add more grass via overseeding ensuring the seed is in the soil. The risk was that waiting for recovery left a very narrow window of opportunity for effective seeding recovery last Autumn, particularly with bents and fescues. This was less of an issue with the cooler germinating tetraploid and annual ryegrass types.
Impact on soil
I have seen many areas where the soils were very dry and dusty, aeration surfactant application and if possible, additional irrigation are essential. It is challenging to rewet a very hydrophobic soil and if left will still be dry next spring. Sometimes a thatch cap seals the surface, and this may need action to resolve.
So, what’s the outlook for greenkeepers?
The grass will come back at some point in the future, nature has a way of doing this. However, the strategy of ‘wait and see’ may result in a different surface than you imagined. This could affect the playability/ aesthetics of the surface.
Realistically, greenkeepers should be thinking that the grass won’t recover and be proactive. It’s vital to reflect on the maintenance that should have been completed and get on with it. If our climate is changing, then ideally we need to react now.
These are challenging times, and players with increasingly high expectations are unlikely to be very understanding. So as you watch and enjoy the golf from Augusta this week, spare a thought for the greenkeepers working on your local golf courses and waiting for recovery.
Please get in contact if you are still struggling with recovery on your golf course: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 ()) 1274 565131