COURSE CARE
Winter on the Golf Course: Here's What to Expect December 10, 2019 | LIBERTY CORNER, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

Careful management can prevent course damage during winter. In the end, the weather dictates what is possible. (USGA/Jonathan Ernst)

There is a lot of variety when it comes to winter golf in the United States. In colder parts of the country, courses may close entirely or allow golfers to brave the elements. In warmer areas, winter is often prime golf season. No matter where a course is located, balancing the benefits of winter play against the issues it may create is never easy. Careful management is required to keep winter golf from causing damage to the course that may last into spring and beyond. Whether you’re playing golf all winter or only sneaking out during brief warm spells, here are some things you should know about winter on the golf course:

Traffic control is more important than ever

Throughout the U.S., grass grows more slowly during winter than it does at other times of year, if it’s growing at all. This means that divots and ball marks heal slowly, and concentrated traffic can wear grass down to nothing. To limit the wear and tear caused by winter play, superintendents redirect cart and golfer traffic on a regular basis. Carts are also restricted to paths more frequently. Tee markers may be shifted to locations that aren’t used as often to protect primary teeing areas and prevent concentrations of fairway divots.

Putting greens may need a timeout

Protecting putting greens during winter is always a priority. Courses in cold climates may cover their greens until spring to protect them from harsh winter weather. Southern courses with bermudagrass putting greens will only cover their greens during short periods of very cold temperatures, keeping them available for play otherwise. Some courses shift all winter play to temporary greens to protect their putting surfaces, while others use them only when the risk of damage is especially high. Temporary greens may not be popular, but using them can prevent serious issues.

Some courses cover putting greens all winter, while others only use covers during very cold weather. (USGA/Chris Keane)    

A little moisture can lead to a lot of damage

Rainfall, melting snow or thawing soil can leave golf courses soft and wet during winter. Cool temperatures and limited sunlight mean that courses dry much more slowly during winter than they would in other seasons, and frozen soil does not drain well. If traffic is not managed carefully, footsteps and vehicle tires can leave wet playing surfaces rutted and bumpy. A sudden stop or slip may also shear the grass away from its roots, causing damage that will be visible into spring.

There is more than one way to keep a course green

The grasses used on many southern golf courses typically go dormant for part of the winter, taking on a pale straw color. While dormant playing surfaces can provide excellent playability, their natural appearance isn’t always popular. Some courses address this issue by overseeding with grasses that continue growing during the winter. Overseeding can create good playing conditions and aesthetics, but it also involves considerable cost and disruption. An increasingly popular alternative is applying turf colorants during the winter to give dormant grass a green color without the costs and turf issues that come with overseeding.

RELATED VIDEO: Using Turf Colorants on Golf Courses

While golf courses can take various steps to help us get the most from winter play, such as reducing shade on playing surfaces or improving drainage, nothing changes the fact that less sunlight and cooler temperatures limit how well a course can recover. While winter may be prime golf season for some, in most areas it’s important for us to temper our expectations during winter and enjoy whatever golf the weather allows. 

George Waters is the USGA's manager of Green Section education. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.