The Fall Transition And ‘Muddy’ Golf Balls

By John H. Foy, director, Florida Region
November 12, 2013

The solution to organic matter accumulation is dilution with sand. Along with diluting the organic “mud” that is often picked up on golf balls during wet conditions, topdressing of fairways helps maintain drier, firmer and smoother playing conditions.

In recent weeks there has been a noticeable increase in the number of cars with out-of-state license plates. This combined with increasing play at golf facilities throughout the region indicate that the 2013-14 winter golf season has arrived. During on-site visits to golf facilities over the past two to three weeks, it has been found that typical final preparations for the winter season are being completed. In addition to winter overseeding at courses where this is still practiced, bunker sand refurbishment and mulching of landscape beds are some of the more common tasks underway. There is a period of transition from the rainy season to the dry season in the mid-fall to early winter. Golfers need to be aware that it can be difficult to consistently provide dry and firm course conditions during this transition period. 

The Atlantic hurricane season will officially come to an end Nov. 30 and will go down as one of the quietest experienced in many years. While no hurricanes or even tropical storms made landfall this year, it was still a very wet summer in Florida. As reported in several regional updates throughout the summer, frequent and at times heavy rainfall presented additional challenges in accomplishment of routine course maintenance tasks. The extra rainfall was also very favorable for increased weed and insect pest pressure. However, the rainy season abruptly ended in early October and over the past four to six weeks many areas have not received any significant rainfall. 

Coming out of the very wet summer, root system development was shallow and weak. To avoid the rapid onset of drought stress when it abruptly stopped raining, it has been necessary to apply frequent supplemental irrigation. While evapotranspiration (ET) rates are decreasing, relative humidity has remained high. This results in dew and surface moisture not drying off quickly in the mornings and, in turn, the persistence of softer and wetter course conditions. Going forward, turf managers can cut back on supplemental irrigation and gradually re-acclimate the turf to firmer and drier course conditions. 

Golfer complaints about muddy golf balls are also common during the fall transition. This is true in spite of increased attention being given to reducing supplemental irrigation and water use in order to provide firmer and drier course conditions. While there can be other contributing factors, the primary cause of muddy golf balls is the significant rate of thatch/organic matter accumulation that occurs on an annual basis in Florida. With a six- to 10-month growing season, bermudagrass and seashore paspalum both generate a large quantity of organic matter, even with judicious fertilization, irrigation, combined with core aeration and verticutting operations during the summer. When golf balls impact and penetrate the turf canopy, some of the underlying organic material attaches to the ball, and this is the cause of the clumps of “mud” that golfers complain about. 

The availability of core aeration equipment that produces more holes per square foot and at a deeper depth has helped improve the effectiveness of efforts to control organic matter accumulation. Yet, at older golf courses with a 6- to 8-inch organic mat layer, multiple replications for a number of years will be required to make any real reduction in organic content. Topdressing of fairways with sand is being performed at a growing number of golf facilities and greatly helps reduce problems with “mud” on golf balls. Topdressing also helps provide smoother, firmer and drier playing conditions. Unfortunately, this is not an inexpensive practice, and while some benefits will be realized with one or two applications, multiple treatments over a period of several years is required to produce truly permanent and marked improvements. 

Source: John Foy (jfoy@usga.org)

Information on the USGA’s Turf Advisory Service

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