Preparing the Course for Spring

Golf course

As dark winter days start to recede and the annual Turf Trade shows wind down, turfgrass managers start looking forward to the beginning of a new season. 

How best to prepare for the upcoming season will vary widely with geographic location. In Ireland and the UK, weather conditions usually allow golf to be played right through the winter, so spring preparation is not as dramatic compared with courses in parts of the US and Canada, which can be closed and under snow cover for months at a time.

In temperate areas, the transition to spring is a matter of throwing off the drab, damp, soft playing conditions of winter and giving the course a ‘polish up’, kick starting it into the new season. On these courses a check list of all that needs to be done would include:

  • Checking for and clearing the facility of winter damage, such as broken tree branches and debris.
  • Ensuring course furniture is in good order.
  • Setting out new pins, flags, cups etc.
  • Applying the first nutrient treatments of the season and begin lowering heights of cut.

As the ground begins to dry, turf managers in these areas love to see the course definition reappear -fairways, tees and approaches start to look like a golf course again.

Golf course

The transition to spring in less temperate climates is much more dramatic and it’s often the case that damage from severe winter conditions must be dealt with.

Many courses are snow covered and closed for the winter and turf managers will not always know what they’ll see when the snow and ice melts. Hopefully come spring, fall preparations have paid off and the course reappears from the snow with little visible damage.

Some damage always occurs over winter, so inspect and repair damaged areas. Plug out damaged spots, hand top dress small areas with blemishes and blow off all the debris. On greens, it’s always good practice to roll at the start of the season. Greens in spring can be uneven and soft, rolling will smooth out uneven spots from frost heaving, help firm the surface and increase green speed.

Problems can still appear from winter diseases such as various snow molds.  These are usually easy to spot but sometimes areas that are not greening up compared to surrounding turf would need investigation for any underlying causes. Identifying the cause of turf damage is the first step toward solving an unidentified problem. Any significant turf loss may require overseeding or even sodding.

Once there is a sustained warm period in late February or early March, agronomic practices can begin to get into the seasonal routine. Mowing can commence (at a reduced schedule), heights of cut begin to lower. Basic agronomic principles, such as soil management, mowing, fertility & nutrition and pest management should always be followed considering the local climate and conditions.

Spring is when cool season turfgrasses grow the root systems they need to last the entire summer. Initial low heights of cut can have a long-term impact on both greens health and playability; too low, too soon can stress the turf. Start high and gradually reduce, while also alternating between mowing and rolling. 

Nutritional inputs can begin but don’t force leaf growth by over-fertilizing with Nitrogen. Minimal Nitrogen in early spring will allow turfgrass to green-up and recover using its stored energy. Nutritional programs should be based on results of soil analyses and geared to the turf species being managed. 

Maintaining a minimal but balanced nutritional program is crucial for healthy turfgrass, but remember the ‘added benefits’ elements and compounds, such as Silica and Phosphite can have as a component of successful turf management program.

Spring startup should also be the time for initial surfactant treatments, these will ensure consistent moisture management but also can contribute to enhanced turfgrass quality.

For Poa annua-dominant greens, seedhead suppressants need to be scheduled using GDD methods to ensure best application timing.

Golf course winter

Key points for spring start up:

  • Check and repair any winter damage.
  • Ensure all course fittings, pins, flags etc. are in great condition.
  • Have your machinery and equipment fully serviced and ready to roll.
  • Begin rolling greens and set mowers initial heights of cut, reducing gradually.
  • Ensure winter diseases are controlled, and turf is fully recovered.
  • Begin the seasons agronomic program: aeration, fertilization, mowing, surfactants, and plant protectant products.
  • Communicate to the members and owners!

The pressure on turf managers to remedy any damage, get the course in playable condition and open as early as possible can be intense! Most golfers, committees and owners do not understand the long-term damage that can occur from exposing turf for play too early in the season.

Opening too early can give rise to significant injury to the turf as it comes out of winter dormancy. Promotion of growth at the beginning of spring where non-uniform temperature fluctuations can be experienced can lead to green-up, only to get burned by a quick decrease in temperature. Actively growing turf is not acclimated to a sudden change in temperature and/or moisture and is highly susceptible to direct low temperature injury.

Communication and an understanding of expectations are crucial to ensuring the best overall result, balancing turf health and finances is one of the ongoing decisions turf managers have to make. One point that should always be remembered is that preparing the course and making the decision to open should always be up to the superintendent, they have the knowledge and experience to know the turf and soil conditions in their facility. 

Golf course

Dr. John Dempsey
Independent Turfgrass Research

Email: [email protected]

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