You know you have had too much water when you see this in your rain gauge.
FROM EL NIÑO TO NOAH’S ARK
10 MAY 2017
By Peter Mumford
Golfers across Southern Ontario are wondering when their golf season is going to start. The cold weather is bad enough but an onslaught of rainy days is keeping everyone indoors and dry – but itching to play.
Unlike some years when wet weather comes in sporadic torrential downpours, this year the rain has just been unrelenting. According to Sean Gunn, Greens Superintendent at The Country Club in Woodbridge, “2017 is the worst start to a golf season I’ve ever seen.”
Golfers are aware that the pristine conditions they’ve come to expect on the course don’t just happen by accident but perhaps don’t know or understand what severe weather can do to the preparations and efforts required to get the fairways and greens into playing shape.
In 2016, most of Canada endured a drought with blistering hot weather for much of the summer. The El Niño conditions were a boon to golfers though as the long dry spell allowed for non-stop golf virtually all season. It was great for guest play, food and beverage sales were up and tournaments ran without worry. Perhaps the only downside was that umbrella sales were down. But that lack of rainfall last year delivered its share of issues for those charged with turf care. Normal weather patterns deliver periodic rainfall that replenishes reservoirs and puts adequate moisture into the ground, which is then supplemented with daily watering.
“Irrigation is supposed to be just a stopgap between rain events,” says Doug Davidson, the Superintendent at Glencairn Golf Club in Milton. He acknowledges that the lack of rain in 2016 put a lot of pressure on him and his staff but the course came through the season better than most.
Heron Point in Ancaster may have been the hardest hit as its primary reservoir ran dry. At several other courses, there was barely enough water to keep the fairways and greens in decent condition but the rough and many areas outside the watering zones browned out. Some scars from last season still remain at many courses and the greens staff had planned to deal with them this spring.
That means re-seeding the damaged areas, which they did earlier this year. However, the cold weather hasn’t allowed the seed to germinate yet so it may be a while before all the scars are healed.
First a drought, now a flood.
It’s causing headaches at some courses while others are dealing with it better. Mark Dawkins, the Superintendent at Blue Springs in Acton, says, “This course is built on a rock pile so we have really good drainage. We started bleeding off water from some of our ponds over a week ago and our fairways are drying out nicely. I expect we’ll be able to let carts out shortly.”
Glencairn’s Davidson, in the understatement of the year, describes his course as moist. “We have some localized ponding,” he says, “and some of our drainage is not performing as well as we’d like. The big problem though is getting the mowers out on the course. Sometimes we go several days without cutting, then we have to play catch-up.”
Gunn adds, “Turf is a living, breathing organism. It needs water and oxygen to survive and nutrients to thrive. When it gets too much or too little, it puts a lot of stress on the plant. At this time of year, we need to build the root structure so it can survive in the hot drier days of July and August. All of this rainfall means the roots are almost floating on the surface which isn’t good.”
“The rain also causes localized flooding that deposits silt on top of the grass making it harder to get oxygen. We have to remove that silt, which is time consuming, but we can’t even start until the rain stops and the ground dries out.”
This run of wet weather through April and into early May has dropped a few more complications into the laps of local superintendents. All of them acknowledge that staff training is a huge issue.
“We bring in a lot of seasonal employees at this time of year that have to be trained,” says Gunn. Not all of them are familiar with golf so we have to teach them about the course, how to stay out of the way of golfers and even where to go. The Country Club is over 300 acres and I can’t be everywhere watching them all.”
“Staff motivation is another issue. It’s tough on these kids when they get sent home. Most of them are working to save money for university and when they’re not getting the hours they expect, they’re not happy.”
Dawkins echoes that sentiment and adds, “It’s hard to be consistent in this kind of weather. You’re one day on, then two days off which makes training difficult.”
Perhaps the only bonus for superintendents and their staff is that the cold, wet weather has kept play to a minimum. At a time when they’re trying to get greens in playing shape and make repairs to bunkers and other areas, not having a lot of traffic is OK.
Presumably that won’t last much longer. The forecast for the next few weeks is for warmer temperatures and less rain – still below seasonal norms but better than it’s been. Golfers will be excited if they can shed the rain gear but should be forewarned there still may be some wet spots and localized Ground Under Repair for a couple of weeks yet.
“I usually think of the real golf season as starting on the May 24 weekend,” says Gunn. “Some years we can produce great conditions earlier in the year but all of the big member events get started around the long weekend so that’s our deadline. This year has been tough but we’ll be ready.”
Hopefully Mother Nature gets the memo too.
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag.