Rounds at most courses were up significantly in 2020. That was great news for the industry. But more carts and foot traffic on the tee boxes, fairways and greens also made maintenance difficult for superintendents. Throw in that some staffs were hit by COVID-19, resulting in less available labor at various points, and you’ve got a lot of restless nights for turfgrass bosses.

Adam Moeller, director of USGA Green Section Education, says he and his colleagues received many calls, emails and texts from superintendents throughout the United States about maintenance challenges resulting from increased play. “The uptick in play was welcomed but some of the side effects, single-rider carts, more carts in general on the course every day, and increased foot traffic on greens, left a lot of superintendents concerned,” Moeller says.

Dr. Mike Richardson, a professor in the department of horticulture at the University of Arkansas, fielded the same questions. “In many cases, my advice was to try and control entry and exit points of carts on and off the fairway areas and then move those points once wear began,” Richardson says. Once moved, additional cultural practices such as cultivation were then recommended.

Brian Buckner, director of agronomy at the 36-hole Golf Club of Houston, in Texas, saw rounds at the club up 25 percent from 2019 to 2020. “I think the rounds themselves were not the issue, as we aren’t seeing foot traffic wear,” Buckner says. “The biggest issue for us has been single-rider carts. In a year where we had 60,000 rounds between two courses, a great majority of those were single-cart play.” Rounds at the courses remained steady well into winter. “Thus, many areas along cart paths and forced pinch points throughout the courses have been worn down tremendously,” he adds. “Many of these areas will need sod this coming spring.”

While rounds increased at Santa Ana Country Club in Southern California, the club actually reduced cart usage from May to October by encouraging members to only take a cart if they were physically unable to walk or use push carts. Prior to COVID-19, the course fielded around the same number of riding and walking rounds, according to director of agronomy Dan Cruse. The split favored walking once the course was permitted to reopen late last April. “As we got into the later part of the year, we saw an increase in cart usage and thin areas developed, especially at entrance and exit points, since we were outside of the optimal growing window,” Cruse says.

Bryan Barrington, co-founder of Alliance Management, which owns or manages four courses in Connecticut, says single-cart use and an increase in rounds played last year “equaled two seasons worth” of cart traffic. “Traffic control was more of a challenge because twice as many carts were out every day,” Barrington adds. “Moving traffic controls around helped in some areas, others we made the decision to basically beat up one area. This was primarily due to the lack of other enter or exit points on particular holes. We also had more cart-path-only days, even on sunny days, to reduce stresses.”

Technology and developing a good starting base

Casey Cunningham, superintendent at the Club at Old Hawthorne in Missouri, says the club installed GPS in its carts that allowed staff to lock out areas for travel. The club also limited cart traffic on some of its “smaller” holes and made them cart path only.

David Beanblossom, director of golf/general manager at Chariot Run Golf Course in southern Indiana, says his club’s new fleet of carts with GPS and cart control “really helped us limit” cart damage. “I would say it’s well worth the $12,000 per year it cost us,” Beanblossom adds. “We also put lime down this winter in all rough areas to help a little.” In 2021, Chariot Run will “probably” move tees forward on the holes to cut down on divots on the boxes.

According to Moeller, winter snow cover will give those courses in northern zones a rest and they should come into spring in good shape. “It will be a bit trickier for those courses that are open year-round because they’re experiencing above average play and their warm-season fairways and rough isn’t growing much during the winter if at all.”

Moeller urges all courses to promote walking, use ropes and signage where necessary to direct carts, implement cart path only on holes that have problems with drainage, and use 90-degree rules for carts on other holes. “You may want to rotate the cart-path-only holes each week to not place too much of a burden on golfers.”

Fixing ball marks, repairing divots, raking bunkers, and operating carts carefully is always something golfers can do to care for the course, and these are especially important now given the above-average rounds. “Doing these simple things not only helps to care for the course,” Moeller says, “but it helps the golfers playing behind you.”

The use of surfactants when turfgrass comes out of dormancy in early spring will help prepare it for another busy season, says Bill Brown, director of brand development/distributor support at AQUA-AID Solutions. “Make early season applications to ensure soil is properly hydrated throughout the season,” says Brown, a former golf course superintendent. “When areas become stressed, go to lighter rates more often.” Linear decompaction will help reduce bulk densities in the soil and allow for proper air and water management and promote proper plant health. Don’t play catch-up. “Once you get behind, increased play compounds any issues and makes it near impossible to catch up,” Brown says.

Frequently moving ropes and signs directing traffic can help disperse wear. “As employees drive by during the day, have them move the ropes and signs,” Brown says. Early in the spring, courses can help protect playing surfaces by going to cart path only until the turfgrass is prepared to handle the wear and tear.

“Soil hydration is vital,” says Brown, adding practice such as light needle tine or surface linear aeration are helpful. He also advises to possibly eliminate cart traffic from certain areas when grass becomes thin and worn.

Controlling entry and exit points of carts on and off the fairway areas and then moving those points once wear begins to show up can further protect turf. Additional cultural practices and added fertility can help encourage recovery in wear areas.

“In our region, we are dealing with warm-season turfgrasses, so limiting traffic during the green-up period by enforcing more cart-path-only days is something to consider,” says the University of Arkansas’ Richardson. “These grasses are especially susceptible to injury during the green-up period.”

Winter traffic can certainly be very damaging to warm-season grasses, so limiting traffic in sensitive areas and spreading traffic around the course as much as possible can help minimize problems. Shaded areas or areas that tend to remain wet in winter should be protected as much as possible. Superintendents should be prepared to give those areas more attention once the grass starts growing in the spring.

“Most of the intense traffic is going to occur in landing areas for tee shots and especially around the green complexes,” Richardson says. “Increasing the no-cart zone around the green complexes should be considered.”

More plotting for 2021

Depending what government restrictions are in place going into spring, Barrington says dividers or charging an extra fee for single-cart use should help with putting two people back in a cart and lessening wear from tires. “We will be repairing the traffic-stressed areas with new sod and seed and soil,” he says. “These areas will be roped off and will be cart path only. We will constantly move traffic into different patterns where we can, and limit traffic on those holes all together.”

Cruse has increased fertility and undertaken solid-tine aerification and topdressing in high-traffic locations at Santa Ana Country Club. “We also increased the amount of ropes and stakes used to guide traffic to different areas on a daily basis,” he says. “As we move into the spring months, select areas will be sodded in order to reestablish damaged areas.”

Cruse plans to also encourage members to walk and take push carts. “Due to a project closure from June to September, we will not be able to have our normal five-day closure in April,” he says. “If we had a continuous cart path system, we would alternate hole closures in order to ease pressure on high traffic areas leading to deteriorating turf quality.”

© courtesy of brian buckner

As much as he dislikes ropes and stakes, “we have put out a tremendous amount of both in an effort to control cart traffic as much as possible,” Buckner says. “We have also designated three holes per course that will be cart path only to limit wear. We rotate these holes as needed based on wear patterns.”

Cunningham plans to aerify high-traffic areas and along cart paths, such as pinch points on holes that funnel carts to one area. “Usually right after the last tee on the hole, carts will shoot into the rough and wear that area out,” he says. “We locked these areas out with our cart GPS and by doing decreased stress and compaction. Around fairway bunkers is also a pinch point that we saw increased wear from cart traffic.”

At Shady Canyon (California) Golf Club, another course where the play never stops, director of agronomy John Nachreiner reports golf cart traffic more than doubled in 2020. “We experienced thin turf in many areas on the golf course,” he says. “We increased aerification, fertility and topdressing, and added cart control measures, such as increased cart traffic stakes and signage. This fall and winter we implemented a program where one hole on each nine is cart path only.”

Shady Canyon will add one full Bermudagrass aerification this April and extend one in mid-May from two days to five days of closure. Each aerification will be followed by two weeks of cart path only. “We hope this will allow the turf to recuperate quicker,” Nachreiner says, “and regain some density lost from excessive cart traffic.”

John Torsiello is a Torrington, Connecticut-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.