A Time Of Confusion

By Larry Gilhuly, director, Northwest Region
February 14, 2013

Avoid playing on greens covered in frost as traffic on frosted turf may cause damage (or even turfgrass death) that will be visible for weeks.

How many times have you found yourself on the golf course without the appropriate amount of clothing for the temperature that day? While taking off layers is a simple process of placing each clothing article in your golf bag, what about those times when it suddenly becomes cold and no extra clothes are available? You grit your teeth and try to finish while hoping you will not freeze in the process. The same situation occurs daily with putting greens on golf courses all over the Northwest Region as winter transitions into spring and temperatures can change rapidly. During this time turfgrasses are given conflicting weather signals and, in worst case scenarios, extreme temperature fluctuations can result in turf death.

As spring approaches, the various cool-season turfgrasses found on northern golf course greens will be doing the opposite of their natural preparation for the winter. Instead of hardening off to survive frigid winter conditions, they begin to break dormancy as day and night temperatures rise. Plants sense warmer temperatures and resume growth, but it is during the months of February and March (based on your location) where real damage can occur. Just a few days of warm weather will awaken grass from its winter slumber. In doing so the turf quickly loses its cold hardiness and is now vulnerable to damage should there be a drastic drop in temperature. Some turfgrasses (primarily annual bluegrass) are most susceptible during this time and playing conditions can be set back for several weeks or more in the spring if damage occurs now. This can be especially troublesome for those greens that are surrounded by trees where recovery is slower due to lack of sunlight combined with prolonged frost.

As your facility faces the next five to six weeks of late winter and early spring, understand that putting green turf needs the opportunity to survive during this transition process. To get the best results from your greens this spring, follow these simple suggestions:

  • Don’t lower mowing heights. The more leaf tissue that is present on the putting surface, the healthier and better developed the root system.
  • Don’t push green speeds. If you must have more speed, use target rolling techniques (see Green Speed: Trick or Treat?) as an alternative instead of lowering the height of cut.
  • Don’t push growth with fertilizer. Light and frequent as needed in the spring is the best way to go until aeration is performed.
  • Remove offending trees. Trees to the south and east that block morning sunlight and extend frost should be the first to go.
  • Finally, do not play on greens covered in frost!

Turfgrasses can easily be confused as rapid weather shifts occur. Help get your greens through this critical time by following a more conservative maintenance path. Leave the confusion to players trying to figure out which direction and how much that six-footer will break.

Source: Larry Gilhuly, lgilhuly@usga.org or 253.858.2266

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