A Troubleshooting Checklist for New USGA Greens

by James Francis Moore, Director Construction Education Program Section
No USGA agronomist in their right mind has ever claimed the USGA's recommended method of green construction as perfect or problem-free. Our claim is that this method is what we feel is the best available based on scientific research, historical performance, and common sense. This common sense should tell us all that every method of green construction has it's strengths and weaknesses. Common sense also tells us that there are many other factors that strongly impact the performance of a green regardless of the construction method. When new greens are built, and they perform less than perfect, it is important to objectively examine all the factors that influence the growth of the turf.

The following is a troubleshooting checklist and includes many of the most common problems that are sometimes experienced with new greens. For many of the problems, suggestions are offered to alleviate or reduce the problem. In other instances, it may just take additional time for the green to reach full maturity at which point the problems may dissipate or at least be far more manageable. Regardless, it should be kept in mind that the suggestions offered should serve has starting points for diagnosing the problem rather than being taken as the only possible solution. The best means of determining the problem is to arrange for a visit from your regional Green Section agronomist.

Green is slow to establish

Areas to consider include: Improper Fertilization, Poor Seed or Sprig Quality, Inadequate Light, High Disease Pressure, Poor Water Quality, Overwatering, Cold Temperatures.

Improper Fertilization
  • Overwatering or excessive rainfall can lead to inadequate levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Correct through frequent and light applications of these nutrients. Consider supplementing readily available carriers with slow release, organic-based products. Alter irrigation practices, relying more on light and frequent applications until a good root system is established. However, occasional deep irrigation is still recommended to avoid accumulating excess salts in the rootzone.
  • Micronutrient deficiencies are easily corrected through applications of micronutrient products.
  • Sample the green frequently to determine nutrient levels. Although the results may vary widely for the first years of the green's life, testing is still an important tool for identifying deficiencies and providing insight into the maturing process.
  • As the green matures, CEC (cation exchange capacity should increase steadily. This is an indication that the nutrient-holding capacity of the rootzone is increasing.
  • Soil reaction (pH) strongly affects nutrient availability. Sands vary widely in their pH. Lime or sulfur applications may be necessary to ensure that the nutrients applied are actually available to the plant.
Poor seed or sprig quality
  • The seed may have a low germination percentage due to poor storage conditions or other factors. Reseed to thicken stand.
  • Sprigs may have been harvested or handled improperly. Resprig thin areas.
Inadequate light
  • Photosynthesis is the process by which the plant produces energy to support growth. As light decreases, so too does photosynthesis and growth. Increase light through judicious pruning or complete tree removal.
High disease pressure
  • Reduce disease pressure by decreasing stresses from other sources, including inadequate light and air movement, heavy traffic, poor fertility practices, and improper irrigation.
  • Fungicides are often necessary throughout grow-in, particularly in high disease pressure areas. Use seed treated with a fungicide coating to reduce disease pressure during the first few days of establishment.
  • Check for high nematode activity.
Poor quality water
  • Poor quality water often weakens the turf, increasing disease susceptibility as well as damage severity. Be prepared to apply fungicides as necessary.
  • Consider another source of water, at least through grow-in. Occasionally it is possible to connect to a city water source on a temporary basis. In some cases, the pump station can be modified to use a better source of water during the greens irrigation cycle.
  • Correct poor positioned heads.
  • Check nozzle size and efficiency.
  • Offer additional crew training.
  • Rely more heavily on hand watering if possible.
  • Adjust run time of automatic stations.
  • Consider multiple start times on automatic system to allow deeper irrigation.
  • Consider deep aerification to encourage better penetration of water.
Cold Temperatures Plastic/geotextile covers can be used to provide better growing conditions in spite of low temperatures.

Green grows-in fine but begins to suffer soon after opening

Green opened before reaching maturity
  • Time must be allowed for a 1/4 to 3/8 inch pad (organic matter) to accumulate between the crowns of the turf and the rootzone. Without the pad, the crown is injured when foot and mower traffic grinds the plant crowns against the abrasive rootzone material.
Cultivation practices that are too aggressive
  • Too much cultivation (either vertical mowing or aerification) can remove organic matter to the point that the cushioning pad of organic matter does not develop or is lost between the crown of the plant and the rootzone. Unless the surface is very uneven, vertical mowing should be very light if used at all. Usually, core aerification is unnecessary for at least the first season following construction.
  • Heavy or too frequent topdressing can result in "sandpapering" of the new and tender leaves. This is particularly true when large amounts of sand are applied to level the green. As the sand is dragged over the surface and worked into the green, the sharp edges of the sand injure the turf. Such injury can increase disease susceptibility. Very light topdressing is quite useful but should be so light little if any dragging is necessary.
  • Even the type of mowing equipment can strongly impact the performance of the green. Hand mowing is much preferred to triplexes. Solid rollers are less abrasive on the turf. And eliminating the clean-up pass as much as possible will reduce wear and tear on the perimeter of the green. When the clean-up pass is mowed, use a hand mower equipped with solid rollers. Regardless of the type of mower, the cutting units must be kept extremely sharp at all times.
Poor growing conditions that result in high disease pressure
  • Although preventative and curative fungicide applications may be necessary during grow-in due to the immature nature of the stand of turf, they cannot substitute for good growing conditions. One of the most common reasons for failure of rebuilt greens is that the same limitations in size, light, and air movement that caused the old green to fail are still in place. A well-drained rootzone and new turf cannot completely overcome poor growing conditions.
  • Deciduous trees around the green lack leaves during the fall, winter, and early spring, resulting in only minor limitations in light and air movement. As the spring and summer progress, such limitations may become more severe.
Inadequate cupping space
  • Small greens and those greens that are heavily undulated provide limited cupping area. Traffic is concentrated in a small portion of the green, resulting in excessive wear.
  • Greens that are maintained at very fast speeds also effectively reduce available cupping area.
Traffic concentrated in limited entrance and exit points
  • Another source of excessive wear. Use signs and ropes liberally to spread traffic over larger areas.
  • Change holes daily. Use two hole placements if necessary.

Excessive spike marks

Opened before mature
  • Turf is still in a spreading mode and is easily snagged. Newly planted turf also tends to be prostrate and leafy.
  • Consider spikeless shoes, at least until the green is mature.
Inadequate cupping areas
  • Green speeds may be too high to allow the majority of the cupping area to be used. Raising cutting heights will result in a reduction in speed allowing greater hole selection.
Inadequate entrance and exit points
  • Traffic control measures should be implemented well before damage occurs. It may also be necessary to re-route cart paths, remove trees that funnel traffic into small areas, or even soften mounding in the surrounds to provide a greater number of access points.
Lack of thatch or cushion
  • Increased nitrogen fertility will increase the rate of organic matter production and accumulation.
  • Reduce sand topdressing to allow pad to develop.
  • Reduce vertical mowing and grooming practices to allow pad to develop.

Poor root development

  • Test to identify numbers and types of nematodes. Treat if necessary.
Low phosphorous or potassium levels
  • Easily corrected through supplemental fertilizer applications (granular and/or foliar).
Improper watering practices
  • Although light and frequent watering is necessary immediately following planting, once roots begin to develop irrigation cycles should gradually shift to deeper and less frequent.

Green is excessively droughty and prone to "hot spots"

Inadequate organic matter
  • Add organic matter to the topdressing and/or try to incorporate organic matter into the mix by filling aerifier holes with a topdressing mixture of sand and organic matter.
  • When choosing fertilizers, rely heavily on slow release products that utilize organic material (such as composted manures) as the carrier.
Rootzone material was mixed poorly
  • Little that can be done. As rootzone deepens over time, impact of poor mixing should decline. Deep hollow tine or drill-type aerification should be tried to incorporate properly mixed rootzone material into the profile.
Variation in the depth of the mix
  • Compensate by hand watering to address specific needs of areas.
  • Severe variations should be corrected through partial or complete reconstruction.
Hydrophobic sand
  • Wetting agents can sometimes reduce the severity of the "hot spots".
  • Hydro-ject aerification often is helpful.
  • Water forks useful to inject water directly into trouble area.
  • Spot aerify and incorporate of amendments to retain greater moisture in the immediate area.
  • Fungicides with activity on Basidiomycete (Fairy Ring) organisms are occasionally helpful. However, not all such organisms can be controlled with fungicides.
  • Problem usually diminishes with time.
Excessive thatch
  • Increase vertical mowing, aerification and grooming to remove thatch and prevent further thatch development.
  • Wetting agents can improve water penetration through thatch but should not be viewed as a permanent solution.
  • Reduce nitrogen fertility, if possible, to reduce excess organic matter production.
Poorly designed irrigation system
  • Relocate heads.
  • Change nozzle sizing to achieve better coverage.
  • Consider perimeter irrigation. Use of two sets of heads, one for surrounds and one for green proper.
Extreme contours
  • Soften contours through spot aerification and rolling.
  • Soften contours through partial removal of rootzone mixture.
  • Increase reliance on hand watering.

Rootzone remains wet for extended periods of time - black layer/souring

Excessive organic matter in mix
  • Decrease organic matter through aggressive core aerification (hollow tines) followed by topdressing with a properly sized sand.
  • Solid tine aerification and spiking will speed evaporation of excess moisture in upper 1 to 3 inches of rootzone.
  • Extremely close water management will be necessary - best accomplished through hand watering.
Excessive "fines" in mix
  • Core aerification followed by topdressing to incorporate a properly sized sand into rootzone.
  • Deep tine (core and/or solid) or drill type aerification are the most effective means of incorporating sand more deeply.
  • Correct through redesign of irrigation system, nozzle adjustment, proper programming of run-times on irrigation controllers, and/or greater reliance on hand watering.
Poor irrigation design
  • Determine coverage through use of collection cans. Redesign and/or reposition heads. Change nozzles if necessary.
Excessive variance in depth of rootzone mixture
  • Remove sod and refloat the rootzone mixture to achieve consistent depth plus or minus one inch. If this cannot be done without adversely affecting the design of the green, it will be necessary to completely remove rootzone mixture, adjust depth of gravel (maintaining a minimum gravel depth of four inches), and if necessary, recontour subgrade and surrounds.
Poorly designed drainage tile design
  • Supplemental tile can be installed and connected to existing tile lines.
Blocked drain tiles
  • Lines can be occasionally be cleared with sewage line tools. Blockages can also be located with either a metal plumbers snake and wire tracker or with specialized cameral systems used by plumbers. Once blocked area is pinpointed, that section of drain tile should be exposed and replaced.
Blocked exit point of tile (bunkers, cart paths, irrigation leaks
  • Frequently, the repair of other areas of the course will result in damage of the green's tile system.
  • Exit points should be protected and clearly marked. The terminal point of the tile should be protected with a water meter or valve box when exposed to the surface. Tiles extending into water areas should be protected from animals with a perforated cap or screen wire.
Poor subgrade preparation, resulting in water collecting hollows
Formation of an artificial layer in the rootzone profile. Possible causes include:
  • Migration of fine particles through the profile
  • Excessive accumulation of organic matter (sometimes referred to as a grow-in layer.
  • Poor water quality that is high in suspended solids.
  • Deposits of fine materials from wind or erosion.
Corrective action
  • Aerification to penetrate the layers allowing water to move through the profile more freely.

Green is disease prone

Poor air movement
  • Tree removal must be strongly considered to allow better air movement across the surface of the green.
  • High mounds may have to be softened to allow increased air movement across the surface of the green.
  • Fans are very effective in providing additional air movement when the above suggestions cannot be implemented.
Heavy traffic, resulting in weak turf
Poor quality seed or sprigs
Improper grass selection for climate
Rootzone remaining overly wet for extended periods of time
Too low mowing resulting in weakened turf that is more susceptible to disease injury

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