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Winter Leaves Its Mark

By Jim Skorulski, agronomist, Northeast Region

| Apr 19, 2019

Receding snow cover and warmer temperatures begin to tell the story of a long and difficult winter for many northern golf courses.

The winter has finally receded enough for northern turf managers to evaluate its impact. Facilities in central and southern parts of the Northeast have fared well and are beginning their normal spring activities. Golf courses in northern parts of New York, New England, Ontario and Quebec are not so fortunate as significant turf injury on greens and fairways is becoming apparent.

The extent of damage varies depending on location. Annual bluegrass – as usual – has been impacted most, but there are indications that bentgrass may have suffered some injury as well. It appears the damage in more northern areas is related to 100 days or more of ice encasement and deep layers of snow. The ice created an anoxic or low-oxygen condition that damaged susceptible grasses. Golf courses with injury farther to the south did not experience long periods of ice encasement. Ice formed over playing surfaces there in February, meaning the injury at those locations was likely a result of the flash-freeze event. Many managers reported the telltale “smell of death” when those surfaces were exposed earlier in April. Others reported that greens appeared healthy and uniformly green immediately after snowmelt, but then damaged areas became evident as the turf and soil thawed.    

Greens with cover systems – e.g., impermeable covers and insulation – fared better than uncovered greens, but injury is being observed where water found its way beneath the cover system. This once again shows that no cover system will be 100 percent effective for protecting playing surfaces from winter injury. Damage is just hard to prevent when winter weather conditions are severe.

The spotty nature of winter injury can be perplexing and difficult to explain. That has always been the nature of this type of injury. It is weather dependent and does not become apparent until long after the damage has occurred. We are probably very fortunate that the damage was not more severe and widespread considering the unusually wet fall and its impact on turf acclimation to winter.

It is important to know that if you have winter damage your facility is not alone. The focus now should shift to recovery programs. These will involve the use of covers and darkening agents to elevate soil temperatures, keeping plants hydrated, aggressive seeding programs and the use of sod. Pressure will be felt to open severely damaged greens to play but avoid this at all costs. The traffic from play will set back the recovery efforts and prolong the period to restore surfaces to their normal condition.

This is also a time to evaluate fall management programs and explore what future actions can be taken to reduce the chance of injury occurring again. This might involve eliminating fall shade, improving surface drainage, establishing more creeping bentgrass and utilizing cover protection systems. As always, contact your USGA agronomist or visit the Course Care section of to obtain additional information on management options or to help plan an effective recovery program.


Northeast Region Agronomists:

David A. Oatis, regional director –

Adam Moeller, director, Green Section Education –

James E. Skorulski, agronomist –

Elliott Dowling, agronomist –

Paul Jacobs, agronomist –

Information on the USGA’s Course Consulting Service 

Contact the Green Section Staff

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