Over the past 16 years, Skip Fitch has seen the worst Mother Nature can throw at course managers while first working in course maintenance at Portland Country Club and currently as superintendent at Point Sebago Golf Resort in Casco.
“I’ve never seen a stretch of hot, humid weather like this,” Fitch said, echoing the thoughts of fellow superintendents in the Greater Portland area. “It is challenging to grow grass when temperatures are in the 70s at night and in the 90s during the day like we’ve had lately.
Heat is wreaking havoc on golf courses nationwide, especially in northern areas, according to a recent statement from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), a national trade group. Prolonged periods of high temperatures and in some cases, excessive rainfall and high humidity have made life uncomfortable for golfers and golf courses alike.
“The simple fact is the cool season turfgrasses such as bentgrass, fescue, bluegrass, annual bluegrass (Poa annua) and others are stressed when temperatures climb and humidity is high,” said GCSAA Director of Research Clark Throssell. “Golf courses in many parts of the country experience this every year. However, what makes the situation so dire this year are the high levels of extended heat and humidity, and the sizable part of the country affected (Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic).”
Much of the Northeast has seen below normal rainfall since April 2010 as well as unusually warm temperatures, especially during July, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center.
While the additional players attracted by the warm weather are welcome at pro shop counters – especially considering the down economy and last year’s extremely rainy summer that hindered play – these hot, humid patches are when Fitch and his fellow superintendents earn every penny of their pay checks.
Brown grass is the most obvious symptom of heat- and humidity-stressed turf. Even though golf’s major associations have endorsed a “brown is beautiful” initiative designed to encourage courses to use less water, most golfers still want the green, manicured Augusta National look they see each week on televised tournaments.
Scott Lancaster, head superintendent at Toddy Brook Golf Course in North Yarmouth, reported some brown grass, particularly on the back nine, where the subsurface has a lot of ledge, roots cannot grow deep and ground temperatures bake nearby soil.
“I can deal with a little brown turf. Brown usually means the ball will roll farther,” Lancaster said.
Fitch has also noticed a bit more brown this season than in past years. But customers have yet to complain.
“We are watering where and when necessary,” he said. “I don’t mind if the grass goes brown in a few spots as long as it still plays well. That does not seem to bother our customers.”
The obvious answer to brown turf is generally, though not always, to apply more irrigation water.
“We have definitely been watering more often this year,” Lancaster said. “There is a bit more disease pressure because of the weather. You need to water more, but not too much. And if you get some disease, you might let it go rather than fight it too aggressively and hurt conditions. It is a balancing act.”
Fitch likewise reported doing more watering than in the past few years. “It is better to feel you are in control than be dictated to by the weather,” he said.
Problems occur when the roots don’t absorb the water or the liquid fails to drain well from grassy areas, water puddles and disease occurs.
“We have seen more take-all patch in areas that are poorly drained,” Lancaster noted of the fungus that causes grass to turn brown. “It is not easily treatable. Fortunately it has shown up in just a few fairways.”
The major fear of course superintendents in this area is a disease called pythium. It spreads rapidly, killing large areas in as little as a day during conditions of high temperatures (80°F to 90°F), high soil moisture, and little air movement over the turf, according to a Cornell University turfgrass fact sheet. By the time the grass starts to turn brown it is usually too late to save it. The condition is difficult and costly to prevent or cure with chemicals.
Neither Lancaster nor Fitch reports any pythium outbreaks, although the fear never goes away. They monitor their facilities carefully for any sign of the disease rather than face applying either a preventive or curative chemical because of both the high cost (which would have to be passed on to golfers eventually) and potential environmental issues.
Another problem keeping grass green during the periods of high heat and humidity Maine has recently experienced is simply keeping workers motivated in those conditions. “I’ve read that the temperatures on riding mower seats can get up to 150 degrees on days like this,” Lancaster said.
The GCSAA listed other maintenance practices golfers may notice superintendents employing during hot, humid stretches such as: raising the mowing heights of playing areas, most notably putting greens; alternating daily practices of mowing and rolling putting greens, with consideration to skipping a day if the schedule of play allows; forgoing double mowing, topdressing, verticutting or grooming greens; hand watering as much as feasible; and monitoring and adjusting golf cart traffic patterns to minimize stress to turf.
“We have stepped up other maintenance practices to give the grass its best chance to survive,” Fitch said.
The goal of all this is to keep playing conditions the best they can be in order to keep golfers happy.
Golfers seem to be responding to superintendents’ efforts. For example, play seems to be steady this year at Point Sebago.
“Last year, we would have a huge influx of players, 200 to 250 a day, on those few days the weather was nice in July.,” Fitch said. “This year, it seems to be a steady 150 to 175 daily.”
And for those who dislike the heat and humidity or simply appreciate Maine golf at its best, fall is on the way.
“Play slows down in mid-September and the turf recovers from any mid-summer stress very quickly,” Fitch concluded. ‘With the return of cooler weather, many consider September and October the best months to play.”
Recent warm weather hasn’t been great news for everyone. Golf courses have been affected.