It’s tough to outsmart Mother Nature, but superintendents can use a variety of practices to try to best protect their properties from weather-related trauma.
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it—or so the saying goes. However, golf course superintendents must do their best to try to stay one step ahead of the whims of Mother Nature. And they don’t have to wait for a catastrophic event to try to control the elements. From summer heat and humidity to winter snow and ice, weather is a constant force in the daily life of a superintendent.
“My whole world is Mother Nature-dependent,” reports Thomas Lipscomb, Golf Course Superintendent of River Bend Golf & Country Club in Falls Church, Va.
To handle challenges caused by extreme weather conditions, River Bend, built in 1961, underwent a major $11 million renovation to the golf course in 2010-11. The property shut down for 18 months, redoing its greens, tees, and fairways with cool-season 007 bentgrass and planting tall fescue in the rough.
|Summing It Up
• After a storm, initial cleanup efforts should focus on restoring the playability of a golf course. Superintendents need to develop a game plan and determine if their staffs can clean up the golf courses on their own, or if calling in outside help is needed.
• One of the best ways to prevent turf damage from severe weather is to follow diligent golf course maintenance practices year-round.
• While properties can’t control Mother Nature, they have a number of tools at their disposal, such as lightning detectors and weather tracking systems, to predict potential storms.
“The renovation has helped tremendously,” Lipscomb says. “Six months after the renovation, we had 11 inches of rain in two or three days, and we had zero erosion and zero issues. If we got a quarter-inch of rain on the old golf course, we had 82 new ponds in the bunkers. Now, we can get three inches of rain in one day, and it’s like the bunkers were freshly raked.”
Before the renovation, Lipscomb says, it cost a minimum of $2,400 to pump water out of the bunkers and get them back in shape after a rainstorm. “Now, we can redirect our labor and funds to more important things,” he adds.
As part of the restoration, River Bend also implemented an environmentally friendly wetlands plan to minimize erosion and the effect of sediment flowing downstream to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. A stream restoration project alleviated erosion on the stream banks as well.
Business as Usual
However, a complete golf course overhaul isn’t the only way to cope with weather-related demands. One of the most effective ways to protect against Mother Nature’s challenges is to follow standard maintenance inputs and turf-care procedures. For example, at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass., site of this summer’s U.S. Senior Open, the maintenance staff raises the height of cut in the fall to promote healthy plant growth.
To get ready for winter, the staff also protects some greens, depending on their location on the golf course, with permeable or impermeable covers. “We put impermeable covers on the greens that are prone to the most damage,” states Certified Golf Course Superintendent Kip Tyler.
The covers create a barrier, and the impermeable covers prevent moisture from seeping beneath the surface to surround the plant. Salem’s staff tries to have the covers, which are secured by hundreds of staples, in place by early December, says Tyler. “We have to have enough guys on staff to do it, and we can’t get the staples in the ground if it’s frozen,” he explains. “If we put them down too early and then get warm days, things start to grow underneath. And we can’t go on the grass when it’s covered with frost. Weather dictates everything.”
Salem also “puts down snow-mold disease applications as late as Mother Nature will allow us,” notes Tyler.
Despite the best-laid plans, however, Mother Nature has a way of interfering with the well-being of a golf course. The Washington, D.C., area is prone to violent storms and unpredictable weather, River Bend’s Lipscomb reports, and the area has a lot of older oak and maple trees that are susceptible to storm damage.
|Sounding the Alarms
People need protection from the elements as well, and River Bend Golf & Country Club in Falls Church, Va. has lightning sensors and a weather-tracking system to monitor inclement weather. Live feeds also are available on the property’s website.A siren goes off to warn golfers and maintenance staff members to evacuate the golf course if bad weather or lightning is in the area. The grounds crew also takes golf cars out onto the course to pick up walkers.“If it really comes upon us fast, we immediately ask employees to get off of their equipment and seek shelter in a halfway house,” says Golf Course Superintendent Thomas Lipscomb.Salem (Mass.) Country Club has an onsite weather station to measure objectives such as temperature and humidity. Superintendent Kip Tyler, CGCS, also keeps track of local forecasts from a variety of online sources, as well as media reports. “I look at them all and take an average,” he says.Salem CC expects people to use common sense if a thunderstorm is imminent, and it also has a lightning-detection system that warns golfers and staff members to get off the golf course. “There are four different sirens in different areas of the golf course that go off if lightning is within a 10-mile radius,” Tyler states.If staff members cannot get back to the maintenance shop before a storm strikes, they can take shelter in the cart barn. In addition, notes Tyler, grounds crew members don’t always hear a siren if they are wearing hearing protection devices while they’re mowing the golf course. In those instances, he goes out in a pickup truck to find them.
When staff members at the Country Club of South Carolina in Florence, S.C., know a storm is on the way, they put away equipment and get everyone off the golf course. Typically, Director of Golf Steve Prueter goes onto the course and personally tells golfers to seek shelter, or the property will sound a horn to indicate that people need to leave the course.
However, the golf course has continued to reap the benefits of its restoration project. Last summer the area was dominated by hot, humid weather, notes Lipscomb, but River Bend’s turf held up well during the intense summer heat.
“It’s not necessarily the daytime temperatures that hurt you, it’s the nighttime temperatures,” he explains.
Salem Country Club closed for three days after a microburst storm in 2015. The storm brought down about 50 trees as well as other debris. “We brought in two different tree companies for a couple of weeks,” says Tyler.
However, ice damage is the primary weather concern at the property. The amount of damage caused by ice depends on its thickness and duration on the turf, Tyler explains. “We worry about ice buildup on the bentgrass and poa annua greens all winter,” he adds.
Other winter hazards include snow mold, cold winds, heavy snow, and moisture inside the plant that freezes and then bursts. “Sometimes you don’t even know what killed the grass,” Tyler states.
While Salem CC hardly had any snow last year, he reports, the property got 96 inches of snow during the winter of 2014-15. So far this year, the property has seen average snowfalls.
The golf course usually isn’t affected by high temperatures, notes Tyler, but the summer of 2016 was the hottest on record. In addition, he says, last August was the driest ever. “Normally, we don’t have a long, extended period of high heat and high humidity,” he reports. “There’s no such thing as a normal year.”
When storms are expected, golf courses have a number of ways to minimize property damage. If a rainstorm is imminent, River Bend’s maintenance staff moves golf course accessories such as trash receptacles and coolers to higher ground. When snow is in the forecast, the grounds crew pre-treats roads and walkways. The property has also embraced the white stuff, which has fallen more frequently in recent years, by setting up designated areas where children can use toboggans or saucers. “We put up snow fences and straw bales around the areas, and it creates a family-fun, friendly atmosphere,” notes Lipscomb.
During the winter, River Bend’s golfers play on temporary greens and tees, and they must stay on the cart paths during their rounds. These preventive measures ward off turf damage later.
“We’re not a fair-weather golf membership,” Lipscomb says. “We minimize the winter damage on the golf course because that encourages other problems such as weeds.”
River Bend’s course-and-grounds crew also performs tree maintenance on a regular basis to prevent damage from wind, ice, and snow. “We have our own lift, so we can minimize the number of limbs that blow out of the trees,” reports Lipscomb. “We use a drone with a GoPro camera to inspect trees for damage or insect infestations.”
Lipscomb keeps records of weather incidents, and anecdotally he believes that the magnitude and intensity of storms has increased in recent years. However, he adds, “Since the renovation, we’ve closed the golf course very, very rarely due to rain.”
Salem CC also sets up temporary greens in the fairways each winter after the greens have been covered. Sometimes, however, the grounds crew will cut the holes two or three weeks early, before the ground freezes.
Assessing the Aftermath
After a weather incident, Lipscomb and his assistant superintendent tour the golf course and take photos and shoot video to document damage. If the damage is particularly severe, the general manager will accompany them. “We take notes and keep track of it, so we can turn it in for insurance purposes,” says Lipscomb.
|Water, Wind and Ice
In three years, the Country Club of South Carolina in Florence, S.C., has experienced Hurricane Matthew, a flood and an ice storm. While the other two incidents occurred before he came to the property, Director of Golf Steve Prueter had to deal with the destruction Hurricane Matthew left behind in early October of 2016 after it traveled up the Southeast coast.
When a dam broke, the hurricane caused $180,000 in damages to the golf course, including flooded fairways and compromised bridges. A lake emptied onto the third and fourth holes, leaving them covered with 16 inches of sand. In addition, the natural path of the stormwater created a new creek to the left and in front of No. 3, so the hole had to be redesigned.
Led by Golf Course Superintendent Bo Cooper, the cleanup included clearing downed trees and branches and removing sand from the golf course. The property also leased some equipment to help with cleanup efforts. Insurance covered about half of the damages, and the Country Club of South Carolina held a golf tournament in late January to raise money to help cover the remaining repair costs.
“We had 14 holes open in two weeks,” Prueter says, “but it took another month to redesign the bridge and the third and fourth holes.”
The property had not anticipated any problems from the storm, Prueter adds, because “it wasn’t supposed to come this far.”
The property typically suffers from tree damage after a storm, and Lipscomb tries to contact a tree contractor as soon as possible. “If we have damage, everybody has damage,” he notes.
While he does not include storm cleanup costs in his operating budget, he has a contingency-fund plan to cover costs, which are then submitted for insurance coverage.
Because cleanup often involves taking heavy equipment onto wet turf after a storm, Lipscomb develops a plan for getting the equipment to each location. “It’s all about assessing the damage thoroughly and developing a game plan that causes the least amount of damage to the golf course,” he says. “It’s about logistics and doing things correctly and prioritizing. Sometimes it takes a day or two to come up with the right plan.”
To assess turf damage from ice at Salem CC, Tyler chips through the frozen surface when it starts melting, to pull out a plug of grass. “We can put the plug of turf in a sunny window and find out in a few days if it’s alive or dead,” he explains. “Dying grass has an unmistakable stench.”
It can be challenging to determine when to try to break through the ice, Tyler notes. “If you get a cold night after you try to remove it, it can damage the turf,” he says. “You can also damage the green if you have equipment on it, because you don’t know how soft or firm it is. You can try to remove snow to get to the ice, or let it melt on its own.”
Tyler makes the determination by checking the weather forecast and by talking to other superintendents.
“You have to know how long the ice has been there,” he says. “If it has only been a couple of weeks, it’s no big deal. If there is a warm trend in the forecast, we’ll take the ice off.
“There’s never a 100% right answer,” he notes. “You go with your gut feeling.” In Tyler’s case, that’s a feeling based on 35 years in the golf course maintenance profession.
After a thunderstorm, Tyler goes out onto the golf course to assess damage. Typically, one of the first orders of business is to determine if he needs to call a tree company, or if maintenance staff members can handle the cleanup themselves.
In addition, Salem CC’s irrigation technician checks the irrigation boxes on the golf course, and Tyler runs a report to see if communication with irrigation satellites is still intact. If not, he says, it usually is caused by a blown fuse.
When cleaning up the golf course, notes Tyler, the initial goal is to clear the greens, tees, and fairways to get the golf course playable.
Salem CC does not have a contingency budget for weather disasters. However, notes Tyler, “The longer you’re closed, the less income you have coming in from golf, cart revenue, and lunches. If you have to pay extra for overtime, you just do it.”