The mental side of golf is a mega-business. Books and videos designed to help players shave strokes saturate the market. Tour pros often laud their mental skills coach as often as a swing or short game instructor.
Now consider the mental side of golf course maintenance. How a superintendent and crew handle clutch moments can shape careers. Ever try to keep greens alive, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith from complaining about them in Chicago, Pittsburgh or the Capital Beltway during a sticky August? Unlike the millionaire on TV trying to sink 4-footers, you most likely don’t lean on a psychologist who specializes in superintendent behavior when times get tough.
Of all the mentally taxing maintenance moments, managing Poa annua greens ranks among the trickiest. No matter what new product or research emerges, the grass variety tests the fortitude of those who work closely with it.
“I guess the way you can visualize it that most people can relate is that managing Poa annua is a lot like being a doctor or a nurse in an intensive care unit,” says Dan Dinelli, a third-generation superintendent who manages bentgrass-Poa greens at North Shore Country Club in suburban Chicago. “You are on call constantly. And there are some doctors and nurses that you run into that are in the intensive care ward that thrive at it and they love it. They love that pressure. If not, they don’t last very long. They don’t stick it out.”
Dinelli calls managing Poa greens “a love-hate relationship,” and uses words such as “addictive” and “consuming” when trying to get it to perform at a high level. He compares managing Poa during extreme weather swings to babysitting. The best babysitters never become complacent.
“You have a bentgrass green if you are in the middle of the summer where stress is fairly high and usage is high and expectations are high, you might be able to go home at 4 o’clock or 3:30,” he says. “With Poa annua that happens far less. It demands your attention.”
USGA Green Section agronomist Adam Moeller describes Poa as “unforgiving to the point where if you miss a syringe by about 30 minutes or an hour that can be the difference between that grass dying and surviving.” Big challenges also exist in the winter.
Moeller, though, works in the USGA’s Northeast Region, meaning he visits numerous courses that successfully maintain the variety, including past and future U.S. Open sites. Superintendents who endure the grind produced by Poa greens display some shared characteristics.
“It definitely takes good communication with their membership, because they know there are ups and downs with the grass, with the seedheads, with potential winter injury and with just how hard you can push it in the summer,” Moeller says. “It’s communicating to their members and golfers that it can’t be maintained at an ultra-high level the whole season. There are going to be some peaks and valleys.
“Hard-working is probably one of the easiest descriptive words for superintendents that are managing high-quality Poa greens,” he adds. “Hard-working and well-staffed, because it’s not a grass that you can kind of rest easy and rest on your laurels even for a little bit. One superintendent isn’t going to be able to manage this grass at a high level on their own. They are going to need a strong support system to make sure it’s not going to check out under the tough weather conditions.”
And Poa just doesn’t pester the head superintendent. Few things are as deflating as watching crew members spend entire shifts hand watering and finessing a grass variety with shallow roots while member are trying to play the course, Dinelli says.
John Alexander, the superintendent at Fircrest Golf Club in Fircrest, Wash., has spent his entire career managing Poa at Pacific Northwest courses. He says he’s fortunate to be working in the ideal climate for the variety and at a facility with reasonable expectations. But that doesn’t mean he’s operating in Poa-topia. A dry spring and summer in 2015 tested Alexander, assistant superintendent Ryan Fink and the rest of the Fircrest crew.
“There’s no doubt that when you have a summer like that you will be dragging hoses,” Alexander says. “And by the time September came around, I was more than happy to put my hose down every once in a while. It can be a drag. That’s the mental drag of it. Every day, the little bad spots, the little dry spots.”
Fostering a team atmosphere helped Alexander handle 2015. Everybody on the Fircrest crew, including Alexander and Fink, hand watered greens. When determining assignments, Alexander says Fink dispersed hand-watering responsibilities.
Making himself visible to the membership during stressful periods also helps Alexander handle the mental side of maintaining Poa greens. The more members know about Poa’s challenges, the more they understand what a superintendent and crew experience when it becomes temperamental.
“Just being out there on the course, playing a little bit of golf with the members helps,” Alexander says. “Being an old codger, I don’t blog and do a lot of that stuff, but I put a lot of thought into my newsletter articles each month. We have bulletin boards in the locker rooms. I try to change out some articles about it. We have 10, 15, 20 percent bent in our Poa. That’s one of the bigger questions I get, ‘What’s this grass here that just doesn’t blend in perfectly?’”
Demands for firmness represent one of the biggest changes in Poa management, and Alexander says those can be met by believing in your agronomic and irrigations programs. He concedes it would be less stressful to turn up the irrigation system, but hand watering and “liberal” use of wetting agents provide firmer surfaces at Fircrest.
Poa can limit promoting firmness in certain areas, Moeller says, although courses such as Winged Foot, where a greens reconstruction improved the root-zone mixture, provide evidence that Poa can play firm. Dinelli views the demands for firmness – which he tries to meet at North Shore – as part of the evolving mental game involving superintendents, golfers and Poa annua.
“I guess we have satisfied the golfers’ need with the speed issue and they have moved on to firmness,” Dinelli says. “You are always trying to raise the bar in some category. Now there’s a lot of pressure to keep things firm and much of firmness relates to how dry the surface is, and that becomes really challenging when you have primarily Poa annua in the middle of the summer and the roots are extremely shallow and you are trying to maintain a firm surface. That can be a nightmare. It takes a ton of babysitting.”