Image: Dreamstime

With summer here, superintendents are focused on course aesthetics and playability, no matter what weather element, human element or disease is thrown their way.

In cool-season turf states, it is generally peak golf season, and prime time for peak turf stress.

“Basically, what happens, people get excited about playing golf, then it suddenly gets very warm,” says Kyle Miller, senior technical specialist BASF Professional Turf and Ornamentals. “Cool-season grass gets under pressure with the warmer weather and we get more and more foot traffic on the golf course, and we go from bad to worse almost in regard to maintaining the golf course and keeping stress at a minimum.”

An influx of eager players brings a necessary evil to the golf course – foot traffic. Once turfgrass is damaged, it doesn’t return to normal overnight. “Foot traffic, golf cart traffic, it’s high wear. And golfers go to the path of least resistance,” says University of Tennessee distinguished professor of turfgrass science and management Dr. John Sorochan. “Those always make for high stress.”

One way to alleviate turf stress is to direct players to take different paths is by simply cordoning off certain sections when turf stress begins to appear.

“Move where golfers enter a tee or putting green, try to adjust that to minimize wear and tear,” Miller says. “Just the pin placements (superintendents) use, they can alleviate some of that stress. Put a pin where it causes people to move in a certain direction, move them away from areas that don’t tolerate stress as well.”

Dr. Thomas Nikolai advocates customer satisfaction, and that comes with maximizing the playing condition of putting greens. “We can do that during any stressful time,” says Nikolai, associate coordinator of Michigan State University’s two-year golf turfgrass management program. “Most of the focus is on the putting surface. That’s where the basic customer satisfaction (starts). When you get that done, then everything else has to be perfect.”

Add summer heat, and superintendents should adjust how they treat their greens. “Under conditions of high heat/humidity and with greens under stress, don’t mow the green, roll in place of mowing,” Nikolai says. “On cool-season grasses that applies. It helps relieves other stresses like traffic disease stress.”

In addition to rolling, Miller says superintendents can consider raising cutting heights. “During the summer, your root system is going to fall off some,” he says. “Be ready to comprise a bit because the turf is going to be under stress. We are taught, when your turf is under stress, raise your mower height. Rolling your greens routinely to keep the speed where the golfers want it, and the super is helping out those greens. It doesn’t take that much to make a significant difference.”

Dealing with diseases

Depending on your region and turf type, various diseases may pop up during the summer.

Dr. Bruce Clarke, a specialist in turfgrass pathology at Rutgers University, says universities are ready to help superintendents identify diseases that crop up on their courses. “Typically, if they already know what the problem is (or don’t), they send a sample to the Rutgers plant laboratory,” Clarke says. “If it turns out to be a disease, they would tell them how to treat it.”

If there isn’t a university by a superintendent’s golf course, they can find local laboratories to assess possible diseased turf. Although each region in the United States has its own common diseases, there are plenty of diseases potentially popping up. “There are well over 200 diseases, depending on weather, type of grass and how the grass is being maintained,” Clarke says.

Stress on a golf course can also stem from the beauty of the course such as its trees. “Shade is an area of stress,” Sorochan says. “It blocks the sunlight, stops the area from producing energy. Trees are important for aesthetics, bringing challenges to the game and golfer protection (from the heat).”

Superintendents must manage these areas differently than the areas without cover and how much water reaches all areas, no matter if it’s an extremely dry or rainy year. “I prefer the right amount of water,” Sorochan says. “Too much water is more of a burden (than not enough), and it’s a waste. It can cause a socially bad image as well as the waste.”

Water is important, but finding the right balance is key. “If you don’t have enough water, it’s a real bad problem as well,” Sorochan adds. “But grasses don’t need as much water as we really think. Providing enough so it doesn’t wilt is all that you need.”

Rolling and increasing mowing heights are two ways to combat the stress high humidity places on greens, fairways and tees during the peak golf season.
© photo courtesy of Kyle Miller, BASF

The stress for perfection

Building up relationships with other superintendents so they can trade knowledge and bounce ideas and problems off one another is another suggestion of Nikolai.

“(Good superintendents that I know) they first talk to other supers, which is a great place to start,” Nikolai says. “Golf courses have never looked better than they have now. Of course, the closer you get to perfection, the more your imperfections show. Supers are often putting stress on themselves that other people don’t even see.”

When you take care of a course nearly every day, you see things that players, who might only be there for a few hours a couple of times a week, don’t see. Nikolai recommends superintendents don’t fret over every little stress they find.

As an example, Nikolai referenced a superintendent he was trying to help with fairy ring. “It couldn’t have been more than a foot-and-half circle in front of a green,” he says of the problem. “It’s the only problem on all of the 18 holes. When I asked, no one ever mentions it to him.”

Fairy ring can get dry and mushrooms might be appear if not maintained, but that was not the case in this instance. The superintendent simply wanted his course 100 percent perfect, which brings on an internal type of stress. That’s not the only person who wants the course looking perfect. Nikolai says stress on superintendents also originates from ownership and the players. “You have a lot of people that are uninformed of the dangers of stresses,” he says. “I can walk into a maintenance building and can tell in five minutes if there is good or bad management.”

“The way I would try to relive stress is to take time off, get away from the course, allow everyone to get away from the course time to time. This should be one of the most enjoyable places to work. The main reason it isn’t is higher stress.” — Dr. Thomas Nikolai, Michigan State University

A day off now and then may sound crazy to some superintendents, but Nikolai recommends it. “The way I would try to relive stress is to take time off, get away from the course, allow everyone to get away from the course time to time,” he says. “This should be one of the most enjoyable places to work. The main reason it isn’t is higher stress.”

Nikolai adds that he doesn’t think anyone should work more than 13 days in a row. Miller agrees, that if it’s possible, a day away couldn’t hurt a superintendent. “If you can do it, it’s probably not a bad idea,” Miller says. “But as a super, it’s hard to not to get your mind off your golf course.”

Miller suggests a good time for a summer respite might be when a cool front moves in. “Take a day off, step away and get back on it,” he says. “It’s hard a thing to do and feel good about doing it. We’ve had meetings and supers struggle with that even though they might have able-bodied assistants. It’s their baby. They don’t want to lose their job. It’s a tough one.”

Scheduling might be a way to ease the stress of supers and their assistants. “There are supers that have gotten innovated with their scheduling,” Nikolai says. “They have night crews now, and always have at least two people on the course, just in case something goes wrong. This is as opposed to having one or two assistants there all day long, giving people time off.”

In the end, communication, researching and simply taking an occasional breath are three ways superintendents can avoid the agronomic and personal perils of turf stress.