The spread of COVID-19 is having a tremendous impact on golf course maintenance across the country. Many superintendents are operating with limited staff and facing resource constraints that could get worse over the coming weeks. Some superintendents are also preparing for the possible suspension of all course maintenance for several weeks, or even longer. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of questions out there about what would happen to a golf course if maintenance was discontinued for various lengths of time. The Green Section staff put their heads together to answer some of the most common questions we’re hearing about maintenance shutdowns.
How long could mowing be skipped before areas would have to be completely replanted to restore normal conditions?
If grass is actively growing, the putting greens, tees and fairways could be left unmown for only a few weeks before aggressive maintenance practices or even regrassing would be needed to restore normal playability. For reference, greens typically need to be mown at a minimum of every three days and tees and fairways at least once a week. While it may be possible to gradually lower the mowing heights of areas that have become overgrown, playing quality would not match normal standards for a long time – if the areas could be brought back into shape at all.
Putting greens would be especially problematic if left unmown because of their extremely low normal mowing heights and the specialized grasses used on most greens. Roughs, on the other hand, could go unmown for a few months and be restored to a playable height fairly quickly once maintenance resumed. However, this process would likely require the use of specialized mowers because the grass would become too tall for traditional mowing equipment.
One thing that is easy to overlook is the fact that mowing helps control weeds. If mowing operations are suspended for a prolonged period of time, it is likely that significant weed issues will have to be addressed once maintenance resumes.
What happens if a golf course isn’t irrigated?
The answer to this question depends on a range of factors – including temperature, rainfall and soil type – but if grass is not supplied with adequate water, large areas can die quickly. However, some grasses are more tolerant of drought than others. Warm-season grasses, such as bermudagrass and zoysiagrass, are more drought tolerant than cool-season grasses like creeping bentgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue and Poa annua. There are even wide differences in drought tolerance among the cool-season grasses. For example, creeping bentgrass is more tolerant of drought than Poa annua, which can experience severe damage from a lack of water very quickly.
Different playing surfaces are also more prone to damage from drought because of their mowing heights. Rough areas are typically the most tolerant of drought and putting greens are usually the least tolerant. In the right conditions, even a day or two without water can result in significant turf loss on a putting green.
Depending on the length of time without water, thinning or even complete turf loss can occur. Any turf loss will require aggressive maintenance practices to restore playing quality and complete renovation and replanting may be necessary in severe situations.
What happens if superintendents can’t apply plant protectants or fertilizers?
Plant protectants are applied at specific times to prevent various diseases, weeds or insects from damaging the grass or disrupting playing conditions. Fertilizers, plant growth regulators, and wetting agents are also commonly applied to ensure the turf is healthy and provides optimal playing conditions for golf. Failure to apply these products would likely lead to turf decline due to disease or insect outbreaks. If herbicides cannot be applied, weed issues are likely to arise which could cause problems with playability for the remainder of the season.
What happens if the bunkers are not maintained?
Routine bunker maintenance is done to create good playing conditions, but it also prevents weeds from growing in the sand. If bunkers are not maintained, weeds will eventually cover the sand. Unmaintained bunkers are also vulnerable to serious decline from sand washouts that go unrepaired. Repeated washouts can eventually result in sand contamination that can’t be fixed without replacing the sand completely. If weed growth is the only issue facing neglected bunkers, it may be possible to replace the first several inches of sand in each bunker and restore normal playability fairly quickly, though at a significant cost. If the bunkers are severely damaged by washouts, some may need to be rebuilt entirely.
While decisions about whether golf course maintenance can proceed in a given area will be dictated by forces outside the superintendent’s control, it’s important for golfers to know that any prolonged stoppage in golf course maintenance will mean a long road to recovery.