New technology and weather-detection systems are helping golf course superintendents stay one step ahead of Mother Nature.
Weather issues hang like a cloud over the operations of any golf course maintenance department—but their constant presence doesn’t have to be a black cloud. New technology and weather monitoring systems now give superintendents more options than ever to know what Mother Nature has up her sleeve, and they are learning to use these tools to keep an eye on impending weather-related disruptions, as well as plan their day-to-day maintenance schedules.
|SUMMING IT UP
“I would say we’re pretty obsessive about it,” reports Shelia Finney, Golf Course Superintendent at Gaylord Springs Golf Links in Nashville, Tenn. “Everything we do revolves around the weather.”
Gaylord Springs has a weather station that is linked to its irrigation system, and the property subscribes to a computer-based weather monitoring system. The weather station tracks basic data on the golf course such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed and direction. The subscription service gives the property an overview of the area weather, and allows the maintenance staff to track radar and lightning in addition to getting a forecast.
“One of the added advantages of the subscription service is that we can get it set up to text our phones,” notes Finney.
In addition, she has downloaded various weather and radar apps to her smartphone to try to stay even further ahead of Mother Nature.
Applebrook Golf Club, in Malvern, Pa., receives faxes of daily weather reports, which are based on longitude and latitude, from a tracking service.
“It’s specific to your location and gives weather reports in three-hour intervals for 48 hours,” explains General Manager and Certified Golf Course Superintendent Jared Viarengo. “It’s more detailed than the local forecast.”
Viarengo also uses several weather apps on his smartphone to compare forecasts, and Applebrook has a weather station, which is connected to its irrigation system, that logs data such as temperature and humidity. “It’s really accurate because it’s on our site, but it doesn’t predict,” he notes.
Applebrook has had its weather station for 14 years, and Viarengo says its features have been updated through the years so that the new technology and equipment have gotten smaller, more mobile, and more convenient.
Knickerbocker Country Club, in Tenafly, N.J., also has an on-site weather station that provides basic information such as rainfall amount, temperature and humidity, as well as wind speed, wind chill, and wind direction.
The property also has a lightning-detection system, and Certified Golf Course Superintendent Sam Juliano relies on the Weather Channel to monitor weather patterns in his area. “The radar is what we’re concerned with there,” he says.
Juliano also calls the Internet a lifesaver as far as weather monitoring is concerned. “I can track the radar on the Internet, so I don’t feel the need to pay for a subscription service,” he explains. “We can zoom down to street level and monitor rain intensity on one part of the golf course versus another.”
Although Juliano lives on the property, he still can monitor weather conditions and irrigation needs off-site from a computer. “No matter where I am, I can shut the system down,” he says. “I have computer access from any remote location. You’re constantly connected to something.”
Despite all of the tools that are available, however, superintendents still have to use their discretion to make their final decisions. For example, it is Juliano’s call to delay play if there is frost on the ground, and he tweets the information to the membership.
“We’re given the tools with the Internet and weather station, but you have to make your own judgment,” he says.
Weather monitoring tools are generally the most useful for planning maintenance schedules that preserve the health of turf.
“In the golf course maintenance department, weather affects every single thing we do throughout the entire day,” says Finney. “We check the weather forecast several times a day.”
She tracks rain amounts and forecasts to help decide if, and how much, the golf course should be irrigated during the year, and also to help determine whether or not to proceed with planned maintenance inputs such as fertilizer applications.
Gaylord Links’ MiniVerde Ultra Dwarf Bermuda grass greens also are sensitive to winter temperatures, and maintaining adequate soil moisture during cold months is critical to keeping them from drying out.
“I don’t count on rain that hasn’t fallen,” explains Finney. “If the turf is desperate for water, we will irrigate lightly. If it’s a marginal decision, we wait.
“We use less water because we are irrigating by the turfgrass needs, as opposed to what my gut thinks,” she adds.
Likewise, if the weather is not conducive to putting out products such as fertilizer, the staff delays the input.
At Applebrook GC, Viarengo says, the weather forecast influences every maintenance input, from water usage to spray applications. “It has a huge impact on what we do on a day-to-day basis,” he notes. “We live and die by weather predictions.”
Sometimes, Applebrook’s crew appreciates a light rain to help water a product into the ground—but more often than not, precipitation would be detrimental to an application. “We don’t want water when we use fungicides,” Viarengo explains. “A sudden rainstorm could wash away or diminish a very expensive application.”
Maintaining turf health in the summer heat calls for close monitoring of the weather as well. “It’s getting hotter, and it’s staying hotter longer,” notes Juliano. He constantly monitors the weather to plan the crew’s daily activities, from mowing to irrigation to spraying. “It’s a mind game with the weather. You’re always trying to stay a step ahead,” he says.
Juliano, who has been at Knickerbocker CC since 1986, has learned a few tricks of the trade through his experience. He will instruct his crew to cut wet areas first or, when precipitation is anticipated, send more labor to mow areas that are more sensitive to rainfall. And the crew will get an early start on its mowing schedule to beat the heat during the summer.
Monitoring the weather has helped the Knickerbocker maintenance department conserve time, money and energy as well. “It’s improved overall efficiency with the staff,” notes Juliano. “The weather drives my budget. It’s an important cog in our maintenance operation.”
Knickerbocker replaced its nearly 40-year-old irrigation system in 1998, and the property acquired its weather monitoring systems the same year. “It’s the best thing we’ve done here,” Juliano says of the new irrigation system. “It catapulted the golf course to another level.”
The irrigation pump station is the maintenance department’s biggest power consumer, so shutting down the system when rain is imminent saves energy as well as water. “I know how much water I put out in a year—it’s been consistent, in the 15- to 20-million-gallon range,” Juliano reports.
Information is power, Juliano believes, and monitoring the weather helps him plan each day so there are no surprises. “Every day there’s a [weather-based] decision,” he notes.
Sounding the Alarms
Sometimes, those decisions come into play in serious situations. When threatening weather looms on the radar, superintendents need to effectively communicate with other department heads, to help properties safely ride out pending storms.
The weather monitoring systems at Gaylord Links track lightning for the safety of golfers and employees. The pro shop, which has the same weather tracking systems as the maintenance department, is responsible for getting golfers off the course in inclement weather. The grounds crew retreats to the maintenance building, which is grounded, when lightning is in the area.
Gaylord Links notifies golfers of potential lightning strikes by sounding horns or sending messages through golf cars’ GPS systems. “If they don’t respond to any of that, then we go out and get them,” Finney reports.
The property experienced major flooding in 2010, and the staff has had to evacuate everyone to the clubhouse basement or interior rooms on several occasions when tornadoes have come close to the property.
In addition, Finney says, “We get a lot of thunderstorms in the summer.”
Applebrook GC has a lightning-detection system that starts tracking strikes outside of 15 miles. “If it measures two strikes within a 15-mile range, it sets off an alarm,” notes Viarengo.
The property replaced its lightning system two years ago, and Viarengo says the new version is better integrated with technology. “It will send a text to my phone or an e-mail to my computer if there’s a storm,” he reveals.
The lightning system gives the property a 15-minute warning to clear the course, and golfers are expected to go to the clubhouse or one of the lightning-protected shelters on the golf course. An all-clear siren, with a different sound than the warning, gives the OK to return.
“The system doesn’t require much human intervention,” Viarengo notes.
In addition to thunderstorms, the main weather concerns that affect Applebrook include heat and humidity in the summer and frost in the winter. The weather tracking service also issues frost warnings 24 hours in advance.
Other than a visit from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Juliano says Knickerbocker generally does not have to deal with severe weather events. “We worry about the lack of rainfall, or too much of it, and we get nor’easters that come up the coast and bring a lot of wind and rain,” he reveals.
The Knickerbocker staff is trained to go to the nearest shelter—be it a rain shelter, the clubhouse, pro shop or halfway house—when a siren sounds. All of the buildings are grounded. “It’s a duty to warn. Morally, it’s something we should do,” says Juliano.
Golfers are instructed to leave the property or to seek shelter as well. And where there was once a tendency to ignore sirens, Juliano now feels that’s a thing of the past. Consistent communication about the dangers of lightning has “ingrained it in [golfers’] DNA now” to get off the course in threatening weather, he says.
Sharing the Knowledge
Sometimes, weather decisions affect more than the maintenance department. The maintenance staff at Gaylord Links coordinates with other departments to keep inclement weather from adversely affecting special events at the property. For instance, the maintenance crew is responsible for clearing the parking lot in ice storms, and staff members need to ensure they have enough road salt on hand.
The best way to relay weather reports, and the game plans for dealing with them, among departments is through consistent face-to-face conversation. “I speak with the golf pro and caddiemaster daily, and the weather almost always comes up,” notes Viarengo.
At Applebrook, accurate weather predictions are especially critical for their potential influence on golf-outing plans. “You’re always taking a chance when you look at these things and plan something,” Viarengo says. “You have to go with your best guess. You look at the sum of all the data and learn to interpret the forecast for your property.”
When effectively implemented, intradepartmental communications about the weather become a proactive, two-way street. At Knickerbocker, Juliano says, pro shop staffers now “come to me if they know there is going to be an issue.” The pool staff also has a link to the lightning detector system. “It takes the guesswork out of it,” Juliano notes.
The Art of the Science
Advancing technology has clearly ramped up course maintenance professionals’ ability to stay in front of weather-related disruptions. “The golf industry has moved along with the available technology,” Finney says. “When the information wasn’t available, we limped along without it.
“It’s more real-time now and more at your fingertips, particularly with the smartphones,” adds Finney, who has been at Gaylord Links for 23 years. “Twenty years ago, we had to go home and wait for the news to see what would happen.”
And she expects that weather-monitoring aids will only continue to improve. “I would think that the technology is going to get more geared to site-specific weather monitoring,” she predicts. “We will be able to tailor our agronomic needs to a specific site.”
Still, superintendents know there will always be an element of art to the science of applying weather data. “You always have to keep trying to get better at interpreting the data you have and making better predictions, based on your knowledge of your property,” says Viarengo.