This week’s inclement weather has put a crook in our golf games. Enjoying golf year-round is one of the reasons I chose to move to Las Cruces. I wanted the mild weather, but most of all, I wanted to be able to enjoy the outdoors and challenge myself as golf can only do.A recent article in the USGA’s Green Section Record commented on winter golf. From a Superintendent’s point of view, winter golf isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If you’re an avid golfer you probably realize that frost delays are a part of the game. If you’ve ever seen frost damage, you know why. Typically, it appears as footsteps across turf. When you walk across frost-covered turf the grass leaf blades break instead of bend. The damage you see is the bruising and rupturing of the cell walls. Often this can result in the plant being severely damaged or killed. When you consider that the average player takes 60 steps on any given green and you extrapolate that out to a dozen foursomes, some real damage can result.
We don’t see a lot of frost here because we have such a dry climate, but we do see frozen green surfaces. There seems to be a lot of disagreement about the damage that is done in this situation. There is a faction that believes that frozen turf and root zones are blocks of ice – and what can you do to blocks of ice – right? This might be true – at least where the surface and three-to-four inches into the root zone are completely frozen. Even then, the USGA cautions that play should be maintained at very light levels – and how many people would want to play when it’s that cold anyway?
Our usual January and February daily weather cycle here in Cruces is overnight lows in the mid-20s, followed by a fairly quick afternoon warm-up into the 50s and low 60s. When this happens we typically end up with a thin frozen layer. According to the USGA this can present the most damaging conditions since traffic – foot and machines – exert lateral pressure which can sever the plant from its roots at the bottom of the freeze-line.
Since the greens in this area are nearly dormant, the damage isn’t immediately revealed. When temperatures warm enough for the green to start actively growing, those patches that are slow to transition are actually damaged from playing on frozen greens.
Winter greens in this area aren’t too good anyway and if you’ve played early in the morning – before they have thawed – you know it’s not much fun either. Approach-shots won’t hold and pitches and chips are totally unpredictable. Why not just wait until the temperature rises enough for them to thaw completely? I believe you’d give the turf a break and probably improve your handicap as well. If you find yourself on the course and the greens are still frozen, try to stay off the greens as much as possible, and by all means avoid twisting your feet. It’s pretty hard to blame course managers since most courses are struggling and a green fee is a green fee. As long as there is a demand, I imagine they’ll be open.
The weather of the last few days has been horrible for play, but actually not too bad for the courses. The snow acts somewhat as a blanket and there is probably some very slight melting under there which is helping to keep the grass hydrated. The real danger around here is with winter desiccation. If the turf is exposed to lots of wind it can be dried out and the crown killed. That’s why you might see irrigation taking place even on dormant bermudagrass.
Back in New England, the winter they are having is probably scaring the Superintendents half to death. When snow has been on the ground continuously it’s not unusual for an ice layer to form between the snow and the ground. If the ice is in place for more than 60 days, the result can be an anaerobic condition that seriously damages turf by suffocation or anoxia. Poa annua, also known as simply “poa” or annual bluegrass, is generally killed when it is covered by ice for more than 60 days and bentgrass for more than 90 days. Patches of winter kill can result from many factors – including dessication on rises and raised greens, while low ice covered areas can be killed by suffocation. Either way, poa annua can’t generally take the extremes, but it is a prolific seed producer and the seed can remain viable for much longer than most other grasses. This often leads to a vicious winter kill cycle.
It’s easy to forget that the carpet-like surfaces we play on are alive. At this time of year we should think twice about playing during those freeze/thaw cycles – only an extra hour or two wait can spare those greens and result in better putting surfaces earlier this coming Spring.
A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: http://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.