Wow, Mother Nature has really blessed our industry this fall. Above normal temperatures have extended the golf season and forecasts don’t show a transition to winter anytime soon. That being said we are on definitely on the tail end of the season and cold weather will be here sooner than we may like. So without putting a damper on the current weather I wanted to take some time to discuss some challenges the oncoming cold may present for some superintendents.
As winter approaches many superintendents prepare to deal with the unique set of challenges the season presents. Drought, wind exposure, extreme temperatures, and ice are a few of the most obvious challenges. One of the most difficult, however, might be making the decision of whether or not to allow winter play.
The golfer and superintendent often find themselves at odds on this topic. It can become a highly charged conversation with course owners and board members as well. This is understandable though as the effect of winter play is rarely visible in real time. The effects of winter play are subtle, accumulating, and long lasting. Often times the damage incurred over the winter doesn’t become obvious until the next growing season.
A turf plant is actually quite tough and capable of recovery from significant injury when actively growing. During the growing season the plant has the ability to regenerate tissue and recovery from damage in relatively short order. This recuperative ability is lacking, however, when the turf is dormant. The damage caused during winter play will persist until the next growing season. Repeated damage accumulates over time and can severely thin a turf stand.
Soil compaction caused from winter play is even more difficult to visualize or quantify but the effects are real. If soil moisture levels are high, compaction becomes a real issue. Soils rely on a number of processes for drying out during the summer months. Evaporation, evapotranspiration, and water movement through the soil profile are processes that dry soils. All of these processes are significantly hindered in the winter. Cooler temperatures halt evaporation, dormant turf has less need for evapotranspiration and frozen soil profiles prevent water movement and drainage. This leaves partially thawed and saturated soils prone to severe compaction. Again, this is a cumulative problem and one that won’t show symptoms until the next growing season.
Finally, if play is allowed on a partially thawed soil profile, the potential for root shearing becomes greater. When soils are thawed they are, for lack of a better term, flexible. As you walk, the plant and its root zone shifts under your weight. The soil “flexibility” cushions the root and allows it to shift with the soil. When a soil is partially frozen the interface between the frozen and thawed soils can become a shear point. As the thawed soil moves under the weight of a golfer, the frozen soil, which contains the bottom portion of the root system, remains static. This can cause roots to tear at this “frozen/thawed” interface. Once again, this is another issue that isn’t visible and doesn’t show its symptoms until the growing season.
It is easy to assume that superintendents are simply being over protective when they try to curtail winter play, but understand that in most cases, there are legitimate reasons these decisions are made. Do we sometimes err on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to allow winter play? Probably, but that is because it is very difficult to assess winter golf’s effects on turf health. A superintendent must strike a balance between appeasing the customer, generating revenue, and protecting the course during in its most vulnerable time. A superintendent must weigh all these factors, then try and make the best decision for everyone involved.