Whether they’re contending with heat waves and hurricanes or winds and wildfires, golf course superintendents strive to be proactive and stay a step ahead of Mother Nature.
To keep their turf in optimum condition, golf course superintendents are accustomed to sparring with fluctuating weather. It’s all in a day’s work. However, when Mother Nature throws them a curve ball with an extreme-weather event, superintendents have also become adept at finding ways to keep her in line.
This summer, for instance, record-shattering temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and oppressive heat in the Northeast have challenged superintendents from coast to coast. Over a four-day period in late June, daytime high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, which is not used to such extreme heat, soared past 100 degrees and set all-time records at dozens of locations.
At Aldarra Golf Club, an 18-hole property in Sammamish, Wash., the mercury crept past 100 for three days in a row when temperatures climbed to 105 or 106 degrees, breaking a 100-year-old record. The last time the area had temperatures above 100 degrees was in 2015, says Golf Course Superintendent Sean Reehoorn, and “the infrastructure is not necessarily built to deal with that,” he notes.
Normal temperatures in June are in the 80s for the region, and they’re typically in the 90s in July and August. In addition, notes Reehoorn, nighttime temperatures were in the 60s and 70s, instead of in the 50s, during the heat wave.
“The biggest challenge for us is having almost 16 hours of daylight. That makes a big difference,” he says.
Despite a “good snowpack until February,” Ty Patton, Superintendent of Tokatee Golf Club in Blue River, Ore., reports that the property, located about 45 miles east of Eugene, has been under drought conditions since March. In late June, Patton says, temperatures reached as high as 105, 113, and 116 degrees, while average June highs are in the high 70s and the low 80s in July and August.
Tokatee also dodged a major catastrophe last year when the Holiday Farm Fire came within a quarter-mile of the facility (see photo at right), and a loss of power and the closing of a nearby highway due to fire debris shut down the property from September 8 until October 3.
Labor Day brought an historic windstorm with gusts up to 75 mph, which started the wildfire west of Tokatee’s Ted Robinson-designed golf course. While the storm blew east to west away from the club, the wildfire traveled 20 miles in five hours and burned 172,000 acres.
A generator kept golf course sprinklers operational to avoid the loss of the 18 greens and a majority of the fairways. In addition, the generator was available to protect the property if the wildfire had moved any closer.
“We had to come up with a generator to power our irrigation pumps, just to keep the golf course alive,” Patton explains. “That was the third wildfire that had been within five miles of the course in four years. Before that, no one could remember one within 10 miles.”
East as Well as West
Earlier this summer, temperatures climbed well above normal on parts of the East Coast as well. The 27-hole Silvermine Golf Club in Norwalk, Conn., endured uncharacteristically warm temperatures in the 90s in both the early part of June and then again at the end of the month. The city’s average high temperature in June is 79 degrees.
The property also experienced minor flooding issues during Tropical Storm Elsa in July, but Golf Course Superintendent Dave Peterson says his maintenance staff did not have to handle any issues during the storm.
“The biggest thing a storm like that does is highlight areas with poor drainage,” he explains. “We are always trying to minimize the amount and duration of standing water on the golf course. Nothing kills grass faster than standing water and warm temperatures, which we had after the storm.”
However, Peterson adds, identifying areas that hold water for an extended period of time and eventually repairing those areas will increase the crew’s ability to keep grass alive.
Last year Silvermine also felt the wrath of Hurricane Isaias, which brought 60 to 70 mph winds that felled trees and knocked out the power for six days in August.
“The weather ebbs and flows,” says Peterson, who is in his third season at Silvermine. “With every storm that blows through, it seems like we’re right on the cusp of snow or rain.”
Superintendents need to be prepared for every punch that Mother Nature lands, and one of the best ways to be ready for her whims is to have a plan for any circumstances.
At Aldarra GC, Reehoorn emphasizes the need to be proactive by making the proper fungicide and fertilizer applications. Before the extreme heat arrived, the grounds crew sprayed for pithium on the greens and added extra fungicides on the fairways. In addition, extra fertilizer or plant protectants were applied in isolated areas.
The fire season at Aldarra occurs in July and August, notes Reehoorn, and last summer the golf course operated under a smoke warning. Water doesn’t evaporate on smoke-covered days, he adds, when the sun is obscured.
Reehoorn believes it’s important to “get to the other side” of extreme weather and then reassess maintenance inputs. He also stresses the need to communicate the maintenance staff’s objectives to golfers.
Because the McKenzie Valley, where Tokatee GC is located, gets warmer than surrounding areas, Patton says, “We’re used to dealing with heat.”
While the property gets almost 80 inches of rain annually, he notes, the area still gets “Mediterranean weather” in the summer, when it can go 80 days in a row without rain.
While cool-season grasses aren’t supposed to grow in the heat, notes Patton, who has a master’s degree from Oregon State University and has studied the effects of drought, the maintenance staff applies wetting agents more frequently than normal in hot weather. The property has fine fescue in the rough and a mix of annual bluegrass and creeping bentgrass on the rest of the golf course.
To help monitor conditions, the golf course’s weather station is tied into the irrigation system. In addition, Tokatee recently subscribed to the GreenKeeper app, which helps the staff time its growth regulator, fertilizer and spray applications.
The app also keeps track of product efficiency and fertilizer applications; monitors changes in soil- and tissue-test results over time; gives the staff access to hyper-local weather data to help predict pest outbreaks, and allows superintendents to report outbreaks to help other turf managers prepare for potential problems. In addition, it compiles maps showing the relative locations of recently reported pests.
Having worked at Tokatee for eight years—six as superintendent and two as an assistant—Patton has learned from previous experiences. “This year has been very similar to my first year as superintendent in 2015,” he says. “I started trying then to get the wetting agents dialed in. I learned which products work and which don’t.”
When a heat wave occurs, Patton increases the application schedule for wetting agents from every three or four weeks to every two or three weeks. One effect that he can’t control, however, is how new foliage on the property’s evergreen fir trees becomes brown. He also says the heat has dried up the turf beneath the trees, which soak up water, earlier this year. In addition, he says, “I think we’re dealing with different pests than we’ve had before.”
Oregon has not been under drought conditions like neighboring California. However, if the state ever does apply restrictions, Patton says, “we’re in a really good place because of how this golf course was built.”
He credits that to the family that has owned the property since it was established in 1966.
“I have a lot of advantages with how this place was designed to be maintained,” Patton says. “The course is firm and fast; there is no irrigation in the rough; and we only have 21 bunkers. In the summer, our rough goes dormant. It was designed to be maintained with a small crew and to be environmentally friendly.”
The Tokatee owners have a lot of forest land as well, notes Patton, which helps the facility prepare for wildfires.
“We’ve always had a fire-prevention policy that we try to follow,” he adds. “We have hoses in different locations on the golf course.”
Tokatee has even allowed firefighters to set up camp on the property during previous wildfires. “We have a big green space where they can set up tents,” says Patton. “Three years ago, about 1,000 firefighters camped here.”
Staying Out in Front
While weather predictions help for planning purposes, Peterson says they aren’t reliable more than two or three days in advance. Consequently, he also tries to be proactive to keep the turf at Silvermine GC in top condition.
“We try to keep everything as healthy as we can so we can deal with what Mother Nature throws at us,” he says. “We plan for the worst, and know that we probably won’t get to that, and assess as the year goes on.
“It’s all very fluid,” he adds. “You just have to be able to adapt to the weather. You can’t predict it that far out.”
The long-range forecast is useful, though, to help determine whether the Silvermine maintenance staff topdresses, mows or rolls the turf. “Any stresses we add to the course itself, we work around nature’s stresses,” Peterson says.
While crew members mow and roll the turf under normal weather conditions, they likely will only do one or the other under extremely hot or dry conditions. “The greens are obviously our biggest priority,” Peterson says.
Under extreme weather conditions, the Silvermine staff might skip a scheduled mowimg or apply wetting agents. When the weather is hot and wet, the grounds crew will add one or two fungicide applications for the year. However, under cool and dry conditions, crew members decrease fungicide applications and increase the use of wetting agents.
With advance planning last year, the Silvermine staff made spray applications before Hurricane Isaias struck. However, in the aftermath, when the irrigation pumps weren’t running because of the power outage, the crew had to fill 250-gallon totes with pond water to irrigate the greens.
“Aesthetics are not our top priority here,” says Peterson. “Some places expect perfectly manicured greens. For the everyday golfer, it’s pretty unnecessary. We focus on the greens and tees. If the fairways get a little off-color, it really doesn’t affect play at all.”
Silvermine members are accepting of brown turf, he notes, which has become a little more mainstream in the last 15 or 20 years. “The USGA has been a huge part of that,” says Peterson. “It’s unnecessary to be perfectly green all the time. It’s not the way that nature intended grasses to be.”
Taking Care of Staff
As challenging as extreme heat and other adverse weather conditions can be for turf, they have an effect on maintenance staff members as well. “It’s taxing on people to work under those conditions,” Reehoorn says, “especially with everything that happened [during the pandemic]. It modified everything. It completely snowballed.”
During this year’s heat wave, the Aldarra staff members worked shorter days and started earlier in the morning. They worked in shifts and kept water and sports drinks on ice. Aldarra also has an air-conditioned maintenance shop where the crew could take breaks as needed.
“We didn’t want people going out alone. We had a buddy system,” Reehoorn says. “We always have two people together. If someone’s not feeling well, they’re not stuck somewhere by themselves.”
Reehoorn also encourages staff members to speak up if they do not feel well, and COVID has made him much more aware of their needs, on and off the job.
Before COVID, Reehoorn notes, “I never really cared about what my staff did away from work.” Now, however, he wants staff members to reach out to him if they have an issue such as no home air conditioning. Last year, crew members, particularly those who are older or have medical conditions such as asthma, wore masks outside.
“You start to care about people in different ways,” says Reehoorn. “I want people to feel supported.”
Located in a remote area, Tokatee GC owns houses on the edge of its golf course to provide reduced-cost housing options to crew members.
During extreme heat, Peterson encourages Silvermine staff members to stay hydrated, take frequent breaks, and find shade if needed. The grounds crew will also report to work earlier in the morning, so that they’re not working in the heat of the day.
‘What Mother Nature Allows’
The maintenance schedule at Aldarra GC is more consistent in the winter when there is more precipitation, Reehorn says, than in the dry summer months. However, he adds, maintenance inputs are “based on what Mother Nature allows.”
At Tokatee, which is closed in the winter, Patton says, “It’s definitely more challenging in the summer. There are way more decisions to make.”
Silvermine GC has occasional ice damage in cold weather, but Peterson says putting some type of cover on the greens, along with extra help from crew members who don’t work in the winter but live nearby, can help to alleviate any issues. Impermeable covers for greens can be a major expense, though, he notes.
At Aldarra, Reehoorn has found that new technology helps superintendents make better decisions about turf care. They can also turn to each other for help.
“When we have high peaks and valleys, that’s when it’s really hard, regardless of the season,” says Reehoorn.
However, if need be, he believes that the pandemic has shown superintendents that it’s OK to take extreme measures to respond to extreme conditions. “We broke the ‘glass ceiling’ with COVID, so it’s now acceptable that we can shut down if needed,” Reehoorn says.
Regardless of weather conditions, irrigation is one of the most criticall elements of golf course maintenance. And these superintendents make every effort to maximize their water usage.
Aldarra GC, which was built on farmland, has well water, so Reehoorn says the water supply is not an issue. He also says the property has had a good snowpack as well as good spring and fall rains for the last three or four years.
The Aldarra maintenance staff irrigated frequently during the heat wave, using moisture meters to pinpoint areas to water and to determine how much was needed to keep the grass alive from day to day. This year water usage, which is based on rainfall, has been higher than in previous Junes. Nevertheless, grounds crew members have tried to minimize the amount of water they use, so that they don’t create another problem.
“The answer isn’t always more water,” adds Reehoorn, who has worked in the golf industry since he was a teenager and became the superintendent at Aldarra in 2015. “We can be OK with a little bit of brown.”
In addition, grounds crew members at Aldarra constantly monitor the irrigation system, repairing sprinklers when needed so that they can continue to irrigate efficiently.
Tokatee has four on-site springs that flow into two lakes from which the maintenance department draws water, and two well pumps feed water into the lakes.
Because the property only irrigates the middle of the golf course—the tees, greens and fairways—Patton says the club’s water supply is plentiful.
While Tokatee does not have to buy water, the property pays for electricity to pump it. The Tokatee staff also maximizes water usage with the application of wetting agents, to help disperse water through the soil.
“We hand-water greens, tees, and certain fairway locations every day,” notes Patton.
In addition, with no irrigation heads in the rough, the Tokatee maintenance staff lets the rough “brown out.”
“We aren’t watering more,” Patton says. “We’re watering more precisely.”
At Silvermine GC, the course maintenance staff uses collected rainwater to irrigate, and augments its supply by purchasing water from the city in the summer. The grounds crew also uses runoff that flows into irrigation ponds on the property most of the year.
Of the property’s nearly 100 acres of managed turf, Peterson says the seven acres of greens, tees, and approaches are the main focus of the maintenance staff. The property has 50 acres of rough, which are “somewhat irrigated,” and 20 acres of fairways.
Peterson follows a hot-spot program in which the maintenance staff runs sprinkler heads on the driest turf, selects individual heads to run for a certain amount of time, and turns off heads in wetter areas.
On average, the Silvermine staff waters fairway and rough hot spots two or three times during a week without rain. If conditions are really dry, Peterson says, the staff turns on all the heads for a night.
However, he generally relies on deep, infrequent waterings, skipping a day or two in between irrigation inputs.
“Last year we were restricted to some extent. We weren’t quite in full drought mode,” recalls Peterson.
The property could only fill the ponds with water from the city on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. However, Peterson adds, “Once it was in the ponds, we could irrigate as we saw fit.”
The grounds crew typically waters at night, supplementing during the day with hoses or by turning on individual heads.
Silvermine has three pumphouses, and three of its six or seven onsite ponds are used for irrigation. However, Peterson says, “We’re trying to get others online with transfer pumps, to bulk up our ability to irrigate with the water that we have.”
The staff has started an in-house project to run transfer pumps from one of the irrigation ponds to another pond, and Peterson expects the work to be completed this year.
The Silvermine staff also use moisture meters to determine when they need to water the turf, particularly the greens.
“They’re one of the best tools we have,” says Peterson. “We use them in the afternoon when we’re hand-watering and base our night watering on the numbers we get.”
The property also has a few native areas, which alleviate water usage, and Peterson hopes to be able to naturalize more areas, such as buffer strips around the ponds and some slopes on the course.
Planting the Seeds
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. While Mark Twain may or may not have said that, it’s not true, at least where Unclouded, a Montreal, Canada-based weather-engineering company, is concerned. The company is more than willing to do something about the forecast, using weather engineering, a way of modifying rain patterns through the process called cloud seeding.
The technology was invented by General Electric in the 1960s, says Luke Minck, Sales Manager for Unclouded, but the service has never been commercialized and offered to businesses until now.
Cloud seeding depletes rain clouds by adding silver iodide or dry ice to them, and these catalytic particles cause the rain clouds to start precipitating immediately rather than later. While the particles can be delivered in multiple ways, currently Unclouded only delivers them by planes that fly above the cloud line.
“These particles attach to water molecules in the clouds, making them heavier,” Minck says.
With software that meteorologists use, the company can prevent heavy rains by tracking the trajectory of the clouds before they reach the target area. Unclouded has leveraged the experience of older companies that have been performing cloud seeding on government contracts, Minck says, and currently, the company services primarily commercialized business events.
“It’s particularly beneficial to the golf world,” he adds.
While the process is too cost-prohibitive for superintendents to use for day-to-day golf course maintenance, Minck says the company is reaching out to large markets, including the PGA Tour, about the use of the technology.
The company is developing drones that can perform cloud seeding to reduce costs, which are based on the duration of the time the skies need to be clear and on the coverage area of the event. In addition, the drones will use electricity instead of chemicals.
Future plans also include attacking environmental issues such as drought and deforestation, as well as developing hurricane-prevention technology.