Considering constant concerns over the conditions of a course’s agronomic jewels – greens, green surrounds, bunkers and tee boxes – it’s no wonder fairways have become a red-headed stepchild at some courses.
This is not to say superintendents neglect their fairways, which can comprise significant acreage – up to 40 acres on some 18-hole course. But with budgets, resources and manpower at times stretched thin, fairways may not get enough love.
“Usually, priority of focus goes in this order – greens, tees, fairways, roughs,” says University of Tennessee turfgrass pathologist Dr. Brandon Horvath. “Thus, fairway conditions aren’t as paramount as those areas, and if either of those areas have issues, it isn’t uncommon that fairways can be overlooked.
“I often recommend developing a plan that you would be comfortable using on greens, and then substituting more cost-effective options to reduce the impact of the plan on the budget,” Horvath adds.
There are financial implications for inadequate fairways, and it all boils down to expectations, says Christopher Gray, product manager for Lebanon Turf’s professional fertilizers.
“When golfers and the membership expect a certain level of conditioning, meeting and exceeding those expectations is critical,” he says. “As conditioning starts to deteriorate because of lack of proper maintenance, golfers will likely choose to play elsewhere. If daily play begins to shrink, the entire golf facility will begin to suffer. Less golfers means not only less greens fees but also less food and beverage sales and less pro shop traffic.”
Here are seven keys to keep fairways in championship condition.
Back to basics
It starts with covering the basics, says Dr. Eric Miltner, agronomist, turf and ornamentals at Koch Turf & Ornamental. Get the basics right first then fine tune. “With all of the products, equipment and ‘systems’ out there, it’s not hard to overlook the most important and critical steps,” he says.
Turfgrass management’s primary cultural practices include: mowing, irrigation and fertilization, with Miltner adding soil cultivation to the mix. “Based on that, my five most critical actions to promote health, density, disease resistance, color and playability of fairway turf would be soil testing, nutrient management planning, proper mowing, effective irrigation management and soil cultivation,” he says.
Not maximizing one or more of the basic practices could weaken the turf, making it more susceptible to both biotic and abiotic stresses, says Dr. Zac Reicher of the Bayer Green Solutions Team.
“For instance, missing scheduled aerification could increase thatch and decrease water and air movement, increasing susceptibility to diseases and some insects,” he says.
Establish and follow a soil nutrient testing program, as well as physical testing. The testing program tells a lot about the ability of the soil to support plant growth and play. “Remember that soil, climate, and plant species are the basic building blocks,” Miltner says. “Although you can’t control climate, you can manage the soil and plant species. Keep records of your soil testing program so that you know the long-term trends and whether your fertilization program is moving in the right direction.”
Tissue testing can supplement this monitoring component of soil tests, Miltner says. Fertilize and manage pH and other issues based on those soil test results. “Utilize the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship in your program (right source, right rate, right time, right place) to manage both plant health and environmental stewardship,” he says.
Moderate fertilization maintains health for tolerance to stress and pests as well as encourages recovery from divots and traffic. Proper fairway nutrition should include balanced nutrient availability over time, even with changing conditions, Miltner says. Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers (EEFs), including stabilized nitrogen, slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers can provide balanced nutrition, limit nutrient loss, and manage valuable labor resources.
“Good nutrition helps turf to tolerate diseases and insects, compete with weeds, and tolerate the traffic and injury that comes with constant play,” Miltner says.
A comprehensive fertility strategy is the foundation for promoting fairway turf health, density, disease resistance, color and playability, says Dr. Raymond Snyder, director of agronomy for Harrell’s.
“You need to consider fertility inputs that reflect the turf’s needs relative to the conditions, such as play, geography, and turf type,” he adds. “A properly fertilized fairway turf minimizes weed establishment, resists diseases associated with poorly fertilized or over-fertilized turf and promotes ideal turf color.”
Because irrigation efficiency is so important to turf performance and maintenance costs, superintendents’ water budget should assume a baseline evapotranspiration (ET) of not more than 80 percent of reference ET, says Dr. Larry Stowell, a managing director at PACE Turf. System modifications to improve irrigation efficiency will be needed if current water use exceeds the estimated water budget for the facility.
Moderate irrigation maintains fairway tolerance to stress and pests, as well as encourages turf recovery without adding to soil compaction, Reicher adds.
In arid regions, irrigation distribution, frequency of irrigation, quantity of irrigation water used and the quality of irrigation water are critical factors in fairway management, Stowell says. As drought regulations become more common, irrigation efficiency raises to the top of the management concerns for premier fairway quality. “Without sufficient water, it is not possible to deliver a dense and healthy turfgrass stand,” Stowell says. “The result is voids, weed infestations, and increased susceptibility to diseases and insects, not to mention the negative impact on golf play.”
Get to the root
Superintendents simply must not neglect cultural practices such as topdressing, core cultivation and thatch management. “These practices help maintain firm/fast playing surfaces that players of all abilities appreciate,” Horvath says. “When they aren’t done, the fairways can get puffy, soft and play poorly. Scalping, poor lies, deeper divots from lack of density and other problems occur as a result.”
Aerification controls thatch, enhances air exchange, relieves compaction and improves water movement, which all increases fairway rooting and stress tolerance, Reicher says.
Superintendents with warm-season turf should consider fraze mowing, an intensive cultural management practice that involves harvesting much of the top layer of turf, allowing the turf to re-establish from below ground/soil level stolons (Bermudagrass), and produces a firm/fast playing surface. A phased approach of, for example, six holes per year is recommended to prevent closing the entire course. “This is still a new technique,” Horvath adds, “but one that has potential huge dividends.”
Soil modification or management plays a role in fairway health. “Cultivate the soil and plant canopy as appropriate to maintain favorable growing conditions,” Miltner says. “Think about soil compaction, gas exchange, root development and health, water movement, organic matter and canopy management, and plant growth habit in planning your cultivation practices. All of these things have major impacts on the health of your grass and playability of your golf course. This list might seem elementary, but if you do all of them well, you’ll be 90 percent of the way there and limit the time you spend chasing problems.”
It’s in the tank
Preventative pest control is more effective and efficient than curative applications after pests or damage are detected, Reicher says. Preventative control maximizes density and stress tolerance, and can also limit secondary damage from other pests, like vertebrates foraging for white grubs.
A proactive fungicide program also supports a healthy turf system that is operating under near maximum growing potential, further enabling resistance to stress associated with play and traffic. Traffic management enables recovery from abiotic stress associated with cart traffic.
Get the mow down
The greatest factor affecting the performance and maintenance requirements of fairways is height of cut, Gray says. Different grass species have different HOC ranges that influence fairway quality.
“Of course, superintendents must also take into account the course expectations from membership and golfers as the primary driver of determining fairways HOC,” he says.
In general, the higher the fairway HOC, the easier it is to maintain due to the turf having more leaf blade surface. As the fairway HOC goes down, the amount and intensity of maintenance activities goes up. Finding the HOC “sweet spot” will ultimately drive every other maintenance practice needed to deliver quality fairways, Gray says.
In addition to maximizing photosynthetic potential, mowing at the highest height appropriate for the species also removes dew, which helps control dollar spot, brown patch and other cool-season turf diseases, Reicher says.
Mow properly for your turf and playing conditions, Miltner adds. “Know your grass species and their tolerance and stress characteristics,” he says. “Do your best to keep mowing heights in the ranges of adaptation or consider changing species if player demand dictates that. Always keep mower blades sharp and mowers well-maintained, to limit physical injury to the plant that could result in bigger problems down the road.”