Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Aeration improves playing conditions, golf experience

By Mary Armstrong – Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News 3/18/2011

“Spring is sprung, the grass has riz’, I wonder where my golf ball is.”  This quote, corny as it is, was always on my coach’s spring newsletter to our golf team.  Unfortunately it has stuck with me.  Regardless of its corniness, it brings to mind our high school golf seasons which always began in early spring in Iowa (at least back then) and nearly always included at least one match that was canceled due to snow.  My excitement for being on the course was hardly ever matched by good playing conditions.  The situation required a serious attitude adjustment about expectations.

Fortunately, here in southern New Mexico, spring golf is a little more hospitable – especially if you can avoid the winds of March.  This week we have been seeing courses in the area begin their spring aeration programs.  Patrons are sometimes disappointed when they realize their course has been recently aerated.  Members may take a break for a week or two and occasionally daily fee players will cancel their tee time.

An attitude adjustment is all that is necessary.  Let me give you a personal example.  This past week, I was playing at a local course that was aerating the greens.  The back nine was closed so that the grounds crew could get the work done effectively and efficiently without being encumbered by players moving through.  I didn’t realize this until I arrived at the course.  Ordinarily, our little group plays 18 holes.  Since I was preparing for an upcoming tournament, I thought, “Ok, I’ll just focus on my tee to green game and whatever happens on the greens, happens.”  I made an attitude adjustment.

When I finished, I had played a wonderful round on a beautiful spring day.  The greens were actually much better than I had expected as the surfaces were well top-dressed with sand, but the key was that I was much less focused on results in my putting and chipping.  I only wanted to maintain good technique.  The result was my best score ever (by 2 strokes) for 18 holes and only 26 putts.  Now, granted the “round” wasn’t a true round since I played the front nine twice, but still, 18 holes are 18 holes. 

I like to look at this period as the beginning of some of the best putting conditions you will see during the year.  After a few weeks and then for months, the putting greens will be better and often much better than they were before the aeration.  But, aeration isn’t so much about short term gains in turf conditions as it is about long term health of the growing medium.

First let’s get our terminology correct.  Many of us old timers call the aeration process aerification and lots of you youngin’s call it “punching”.  As the name implies, aeration is about getting air into the soil profile, but it’s about much more than that.  Aeration falls under a broader description of turf maintenance called cultivation.  If you’ve had any experience with cultivation you know it’s about making the growing environment hospitable for the plant you’re trying to grow. 

Aeration promotes a healthy plant and a healthy plant reduces the need for the use of pesticides.  Among the more direct benefits of aeration are:

  • Maintaining or improving the rate of air and water movement into soils.
  • Removal of organic matter (or thatch) from the upper part of the soil profile.  This is important because grass is constantly creating organic matter.  If left to build up, its sponge-like quality can rob the plant of essential water in the lower profile causing roots to become shallow and the plant susceptible to heat and drought.  Excessive thatch can also lead to greater mechanical damage such as mower scalping.
  • Historically, compaction reduction has often been identified as an important benefit of aeration.  This is true, but compaction isn’t generally a serious problem on properly constructed modern greens or on older greens that have soil profiles that have been aggressively modified with sand.

Aeration is an important element in the Superintendents’ repertoire of tools.  There are many types of aeration.  Here is just a basic introduction so you as a player/patron can better understand what you are seeing on the course:

  • Core aeration – removes a core of the existing soil profile.  The core can be of a range of diameters and depths.  The core is removed mechanically using many tapered hollow metal cylinders mounted on several reciprocating plates holding the cylinders or tines.  Research has shown that it is important to impact 15 – 20 percent of the surface area with aeration to prevent excessive organic matter.
  • Aggressive, deep verticutting.  Verticutting is done using vertical blades which cut into and pull out thatch in grooves.  To be effective, the blades must be set deep enough to penetrate the entire thatch depth.  This is generally considered a more aggressive de-thatching tool and it also is more disruptive to play.  It is rarely used, but is available for severe thatch problems.  You may see a more shallow, less aggressive form of verticutting used as a grooming practice.
  • Solid tine aeration is sometimes used in place of core aeration and without topdressing as a compromise to less disruption of playing conditions.  However, it is a much less effective cultivation technique than core aeration and I believe it actually provides more disruption to play than core aeration with properly applied topdressing.  Solid tine aeration may also cause greater compaction below and laterally to the aeration hole since the solid tine compresses or displaces soil and does not remove it.  In turn, this can cause a more severe variation in the green surface.

Core aeration and topdressing are necessary to meet your expectations for good playing conditions – especially on greens.  Maintaining a healthy, aggressively growing stand of turf makes your game more enjoyable.  In the long run it is also less expensive and disruptive to your play than periodic renovating and/or replanting portions of your course.  Get out there and enjoy our beautiful spring weather.  If you must, make a little attitude adjustment until the greens are fully healed and you’ll enjoy your game as well.

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: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.

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