January Thaw

By Bob Vavrek, senior agronomist, North-Central Region
January 17, 2013

Simple tools are needed to efficiently remove samples of turf from frozen ground. A battery powered drill with a hole cutter can easily negotiate frozen greens. The hammer drill setting is the best option for drilling into hard ice.


The good old days…when each January you could expect a short period of unseasonably mild weather to remove some, if not all, of the ice and snow from the golf course. The thaw might elicit some anxiety regarding subsequent ice accumulation across low lying areas of greens and fairways, but ice that forms during mid to late January rarely seals off the turf long enough to cause injury before spring. In general, the creepy fear of being impaled through the eye by one of the massive icicles that overhang the entrance to the shop was greater than the fear of losing turf from ice suffocation, especially as you look up and flail away at frozen stalactites with a four iron. It’s then you realize you are part of the generation that watched far too many Jason and Freddie movies. 

The recent run of milder winters across the north central tier of states has definitely altered the scenario described above. By definition, can there really be a January thaw on a course that has no ice, snow or frost in the ground? Instead of icicles, we now fear a throng of hardy golfers who not only want to know if the course is open, but whether or not they can take a cart. Raking bunkers and changing hole locations are not high priorities when the entire winter staff of, at best, two or three employees are buried beneath a dozen or so disassembled mowers that are waiting patiently for winter sharpening and preventative maintenance. 

No doubt, mild winters are a challenge for short-staffed facilities, yet they can be a blessing with respect to an opportunity for significant early season cash flow. However, don’t neglect the important task of sampling high risk areas of turf for winter injury, especially those in low lying, poorly drained areas of the course. Keep in mind that mild winter weather will accelerate the loss of winter hardiness and turf will be more susceptible to cold temperature and thaw/freeze injury. The short, but intense periods of frigid weather we have experienced so far this winter can be particularly stressful to Poa annua and perennial ryegrass playing surfaces. This problem is amplified when there is an absence of insulating snow cover. One day’s worth of rain followed by a rapid freeze can easily cause more turf injury than several months of ice suffocation. 

Courses are finding it tempting to schedule revenue rich outside events earlier and earlier each spring in light of the warm March weather we have experienced during the past few seasons. Yet nothing will be worse than scheduling an outing and then cancelling it due to unanticipated winter injury. As mentioned above, monitoring areas of the course that have a history of winter injury is well worth the effort to provide peace of mind as winter transitions into spring. Visit the link below for a helpful, archived USGA update that describes a simple sampling procedure for frozen turf.

Peace of Mind   

Source:  Bob Vavrek, rvavrek@usga.org or 262-797-8743

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