The national labor shortage has upended supply chains, cleared store shelves before they were ever stocked and shuttered restaurant seating areas. But who could have imagined a year ago — or even this spring — that it would also spark some golf course superintendents to increase how much plant growth regulator they apply on tees, greens and fairways?
Brian Smoot and Todd Vermillion both lean on PGRs — they have for years — but this year especially, with high school and college students returning to school after a year of classes on their laptop, and with few applicants for full- or part-time work, they are searching for and holding onto every new solution.
A developing PGR schedule is among those solutions.
“I’m probably using more as we see the employee pool changing,” says Smoot, who recently celebrated his 16th anniversary as the superintendent at Crosswinds Golf Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “It’s much, much harder to hire people and I’m probably using more PGRs now than I ever have.”
Each application has the same amount in the tank, Smoot says, but he applies his mixture more frequently. “On greens and approaches, every 14 days. Tees used to be 19, 20, 21 days, now it’s every 14 days. Fairways, every 17 days. We went from cutting fairways three times a week to two times a week and when we cut, we’re not even cutting any grass.” His summer crew of 20 is down to seven full-timers and four high schoolers who work a shift or two most weekends.
“Obviously, as the weather changes, we’ll go to once a week. When we get to November, we’ll cut once a week.”
Vermillion works in a different state and a different time zone — this is his fifth season as the superintendent at Glenview Park Golf Club in the competitive Chicagoland market — but his answer to PGR application schedules is similar.
“I rely so much on the growth regulators to really help us out due to the lack of labor in our market at times,” Vermillion says. “Sometimes I can find a lot of guys, sometimes I can’t.” He worked with a crew of 12 this summer. That total shrunk to below nine by fall.
“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to slow that grass down because it’s hard for me to get back out on the golf course and really put a second mow on stuff,” Vermillion says. “If I’m able to slow the grass down and only have to mow fairways two or three times a week, or less, that’s a benefit for me. Especially in the springtime, I lean on those growth regulators both on my greens and my fairways to really help slow the grass down and to keep it to where I can reduce my mowing schedules.”
Glenview Park averages 38,000 to 46,000 rounds a year, and “if the weather stays good,” Vermillion says, “there’s a chance we’re going to get to 50,000 this year. It’s putting a little bit of stress on the golf course with that many rounds coming through.”
Both Smoot and Vermillion use Cutless in their PGR mix and rotation. Smoot started tank mixing in early 2006, just a few months after he started at Crosswinds.
“I got here in November of ’05 and it was surprising how much Poa was already here on a two-year-old golf course,” he says. “I wanted to prevent more from coming and I wanted to eliminate what was here. That was my No. 1 concern, right from the get-go. If you have this brand-new golf course, what are we doing growing Poa?”
Smoot says he “went after it aggressively” and near the end of the season, “saw the Poa starting to get weaker.” His main concern that first season was developing four or five greens that “were totally lost, down to dirt. My main concern was healthy turf — I didn’t care what kind it was.”
After that first season, there was “no doubt at all” about continuing to use Cutless. He noticed a decrease of Poa on the original 18 holes and none at all on the new nine holes he was growing in. “To this day,” he says, “I still use that chemistry on greens and approaches. My goal is to keep the turf manageable where we’re not going out and chasing clippings all the time.”
After a career at private clubs, Vermillion went not only public but municipal in 2017 when he joined Glenview Park. He does not think about the course as a stereotypical municipal, though. “I look at our club as a private club,” he says. “It’s not just show up, mow and go home.”
The turf selection, for instance, illustrates the commitment to providing a high-quality product. “I have Pure Distinction on all my greens and I have PureFormance — which is a blend of Crystal BlueLinks and PennLinks — on my fairways and my tees,” he says. “That was one of the biggest things I sold when I was hired back in 2017, was really promoting bentgrass growth and reducing that Poa infestation. I have my problem areas, just from foot traffic, that give us a challenge, but it allows me the opportunity to really give our community private club conditions.”
Vermillion will normally “hit it at some pretty high rates” — 16 or 18 ounces per acre — “to cut down the mowing yield, the clipping yield” at the start of the season, “to give us an opportunity to focus on other things that are happening on the golf course. I use Cutless MEC on my greens and come out on pretty high rates there, too. I’ll back off those rates about mid-season, then I’ll dial it way back to just a few ounces an acre, just enough to help maintain some of our mowing schedules.
“That’s my opportunity to really slow that Poa down — really kick it right in the teeth and allow that bent to take off.”
The applications are normally “stretched out to two or three weeks,” Vermillion says. “A lot just depends on my traffic schedule and my events schedule. There’s no one answer throughout my summer.”
Are Smoot or Vermillion’s PGR approaches right for you and your course? They could be, according to SePRO research manager Dr. Kyle Briscoe.
“Every course has an individual environment, so you really can’t make blanket recommendations with PGRs,” says Briscoe, who has been on the road at courses across the country about three weeks every month since May. “When I talk with superintendents, I start with, ‘What’s your objective? Is it Poa conversion? Do you have more Poa than you would like and you’d like to get back to creeping bentgrass? Is it Poa maintenance? Or is it just strictly regulation? There are various ways to look at it.”
Much of Briscoe’s recent research has focused on how various PGRs interact with PoaCure, a pre- and post-emergence grass herbicide for selective control of annual bluegrass and roughstalk bluegrass in golf course turf that was granted EPA registration in December 2019. Even if you apply PoaCure four times over the course of a season, Briscoe says, “What are you going to do after that? You’re still going to have seeds in the seed bank. You’re still going to have Poa germinating. And you’re still going to have to manage that Poa over time. You’re not going to use PoaCure and then not use a PGR — specifically a PGR that’s targeted at Poa suppression.” Research with Dr. Cale Bigelow of Purdue University has indicated that “you really need flurprimidol” — the active ingredient in Cutless — “in the system to keep that Poa suppressed.”
“PGRs are just interesting because you’re using them to manage turf but they’re not required,” Briscoe says. “Fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides, you need those or you’re going to lose turf. That’s not necessarily the case with PGRs. PGRs are beneficial — color, quality, Poa suppression, less mowing, less clipping volume — so there has to be a little bit of a different mindset.”
A different mindset for a different kind of turf problem. Who could have imagined? ?