“Skinned knees and bruised elbows, but no broken bones” was the clever response provided by Michael Luccini, golf course superintendent at Franklin Country Club in Franklin, Mass., when asked about the condition of the golf course following the brutal stretch of weather experienced in the Northeast region in June and July. Most golf facilities in the region experienced some bumps and bruises and others broken bones during the stretch of hot and humid weather that followed heavy rains – a perfect recipe for cool-season turf failure.
Many parts of the region experienced soil and canopy temperatures well above 90°F during the day without much relief at night. Damage from high temperatures has been common to turf in the Northeast, including scald, wet wilt, Pythium and brown patch disease, foliar anthracnose, dollar spot and summer patch diseases. The inability to topdress during the hot months of June and July resulted in puffy turf conditions on putting greens. As bentgrass turf became more succulent and putting surfaces softer, the turf became more susceptible to mower scalping and traffic damage. Greens located in stagnant environments suffered the most as did poorly drained areas and anywhere flooding occurred. Golf facilities with heavy cart traffic and busy outing schedules in June and July also experienced considerable turf damage. Fairways and roughs with excessive thatch or rough areas composed of creeping bentgrass and annual bluegrass (Poa annua) did not hold up well through this subtropical weather pattern.
What are some things we should learn from the summer of 2013?
- Deferred maintenance is not a formula for long-term success. Just think how much better things might be right now had the drainage project been completed, the trees removed, the fairway and rough aerification programs maintained, poor quality roughs regrassed, and the problematic greens rebuilt? Sometimes it takes the perfect storm of events like those of the summer of 2013 before this message hits home.
- More is not always better. This was especially true with nitrogen applications. High rates of controlled-released granular fertilizers did what they were intended to do in wet soils at a high temperature: they released nitrogen. This was sometimes to the detriment of the turf.
- Fans really work well where they are needed. Obtaining fans in July was like trying to find an air conditioner. Good luck. Seriously though, the new generations of fans are powerful, quiet, effective and a must for areas where natural air circulation is limited.
- Mowing over wet, saturated soils in mid-summer is never good. Sometimes it has to be done, but if a mowing can be skipped it may just allow you to live and fight another day. That can be said for cart traffic as well.
- Large tournaments or outings are best scheduled outside of July if at all possible. Prepping for a big event during extremely stressful weather is asking for problems. It is also much harder for the staff to syringe and take other protective measures during such events or when the golf course is at full play.
- Crabgrass really does well in the heat and preemergence herbicides just do not hold up as long with hot, wet soil conditions.
- Mother Nature remains the boss. We have more tools than ever to manage golf courses and we do it better than ever, most of the time. When the weather becomes truly difficult, the best we might do is to just ride it out. Defense wins championships as the saying goes, and good offense takes the pressure off the defense. It is a balancing act to be sure.
Fortunately, as quickly as the tropical-like rains and heat arrived, they have been displaced with cooler and drier air. The break in the weather has even produced some good overseeding results that did not seem likely several weeks ago. We are certainly not out of the woods yet, especially given the weakened condition of the turf and the possibility that weather patterns could change back to summer heat just as quickly. Nonetheless, we will take this break and hope it continues into mid-August when we all anticipate better growing conditions, shorter days and cooler nights.
So, if you are one of the fortunate ones to only experience some skinned knees and bruises this summer, I would say you are doing a lot of things right. If not, it is time to reevaluate the practices in place and reconsider the investments that will allow the turf to better survive extreme weather conditions without completely sacrificing playing conditions.
Information on the USGA’s Turf Advisory Service
Contact the Green Section Staff