When I attended college almost 30 years ago, I don’t remember any classes on how to manage a golf course without any golfers. And something tells me this type of class has not been added in the last three decades. My point? There is no rulebook for where we currently find ourselves. This is definitely uncharted territory.
As of late April, there are different situations across the country regarding golf courses being open, closed, or open and restricted. I live in Washington, where golf courses were closed but minimal maintenance permitted.
Like everyone else managing a golf course in 2020, I have no experience with how to maintain turfgrass without golfers (or a significant reduction in golfers) or without the normal amount of money we’re used to having in our budgets. This year’s budget, for the most part, has been chucked out the window.
Less money to spend means a lot of things for golf course superintendents. Two big things have jumped out in our operation: significantly reduced labor hours and fewer dollars to spend on plant protectants.
I reached out to a few experts for some direction on how we can all proceed with turfgrass maintenance through this unique time in our lives.
“Everybody’s in a different boat right now,” says Matt Giese, a technical services representative for Syngenta. “I just talked to a superintendent who had to lay off his entire crew, so it’s just him, alone, managing over 100 acres of turf, and this is just as he is coming into the peak growing season. I consider the mowing of golf course turfgrass an essential activity, so when you have a skeleton crew or it’s just you, it’s extremely challenging. When you have 35 to 40 acres of fairway turf alone, how do you it?”
Plant growth regulators are the first tool that occurred to me for superintendents in this situation. Giese agrees and says PGRs can not only reduce mowing maintenance on greens, tees and fairways, but also rough and surrounds.
Along with a solid PGR plan, raising mowing heights can help superintendents endure staffing shortages. “It is the simplest thing a super can do to reduce the turf’s growth rate, reduce stress and increase the plant’s natural ability to compete against pest pressures,” PBI-Gordon product manager Jim Goodrich says.
I also asked Goodrich if he thought plant health concessions will have to be made because of the obvious economic troubles many golf courses are dealing with through this period.
“I don’t believe health concessions will need to be made,” he says. “But I do think the approach to turfgrass management will have to be adjusted as the result of less play and less stress on the turf. Supers really need to utilize the fact that we have less golfers present to implement some cultural strategies that may have been prohibitive due to golfer expectations. Reduce mowing frequency, increase rolling frequency and increase verticutting frequency. Look at cultural practices you can do this time of year that normally would be next to impossible to accomplish in-season.”
Although money might be tight for maintenance departments this spring, University of Wisconsin professor Dr. Doug Soldat agrees it’s important to not neglect fertility needs.
“From over a decade of doing fertilizer trials,” he says, “I can tell you that low-cost products like urea and ammonium sulfate are two of the best products on the market, and they happen to be two of the lowest cost products. This might be a good time to reevaluate your fertilizer sources. But it’s not a good time to think about making plant health concessions related to fertilizer use.”
I asked Soldat if he had any other advice for superintendents during this unique time.
“I think the primary function of a golf course superintendent is to grow grass at the right rate,” he says. “That hasn’t changed this spring. And there is an art to doing that. Regularly monitoring clipping yield from greens can help you achieve the right growth rate. Your fertilizer and PGR programs both alter grass growth in different directions. Sometimes it makes sense to be putting down PGRs and nitrogen simultaneously, but if your growth rate is out of whack, you should be focusing on only one of those products.”
Giese agrees that superintendents should be putting a little extra thought into their PGR program this season. “I’m recommending, in various areas, to do kind of a myriad or a buffet of PGR options,” he says. “Growing degree days is a way a lot of supers manage PGRs already. But even taking that to a different level this season is something to explore.“Let’s take Primo use as an example in cool-season turf management. You’re probably getting about 20 percent growth suppression range, and if you’re looking at a certain interval, I think it’s around a 200 growing degree day interval. You can actually do what we call stacking, which is where you come in and make an application, then when you’ve reached half of that growing degree day threshold come back with another application. That way you accumulate some of that PGR in the plant, and if you start with 20 percent, and then you’ve stacked another 20 percent on top of that it gives you about 40 percent suppression and you suddenly have the ability to have a little bit longer residual growth suppression rather than just hanging on to that original growing degree day interval.”
Goodrich summarizes golf course management in 2020 this way: “Let’s face it,” he says, “no one is playing golf right now to improve their game. Anyone playing (if you can play) is doing so to get outside for self-care and to soak in some sun for that essential Vitamin D, as well as taking care of themselves mentally.”