When is it time to open the Golf Course?

Spring is an exciting time of the year.  There is a buzz and energy throughout the environment.  You sense it from people and pets on warm, sunny days. From an agronomic perspective, plants awaken, triggered by soil temperatures, day length, and other factors. Golf fans can enjoy watching Tour events on the West Coast and through the Southern U.S. and Florida; teasing the upcoming shift from cool and grey to warm and colorful.  For the Agronomic Team here at Weibring Golf club, we are anxious to get back to the servicing the turf, soils, and ornamental components of the golf course. We again look forward to analyzing how weather and people interact with our golf course environment. 

Our first analysis of the season is deciding when to open the golf course. One approach we could use to make this decision is strictly the economic impact. This results in opening and closing the golf course throughout the off-season based on fluctuating weather. When air temperatures reach an acceptable level, the supply-demand ratio favors the golf course financially. Supply is limited with only a few course in the area being open. Demand is increased because of "cabin-fever" and also from a short day length, confining all rounds within a 6-8 hour window. Golf course staffing is reduced considerably, with only key employees being present in the off-season.  The net result is a situation that favors profitability, but provides no consideration to damage of turf.

The opposite approach is to base the decision on the agronomic impacts to the turfgrass ecosystem.  This approach allows the turfgrass to be completely free from any undue stress during the turf's dormant stage. Given that the turf is not actively growing, and thus not able to recover, it makes sense to not injure the turf with foot and cart traffic, divots, ball marks, and all other injurious activities in-acted by playing the game of golf.  Over protection of the golf course occurs, with closure at the first frost development in the soil and isn't lifted until soil moisture and active turf growth resumes resulting in a green golf course (think first time you mow your yard). Profitability is reduced due to missed opportunities to open and generate revenue.

The approach we take here at Weibring Golf Club is what I would term as Turf Agronomy Economics (I totally made that term up... but, I think it accurately describe how we approach decisions).  We strive to find the perfect balance between protection of the turf and profitability.  While no two years are alike, the key factors I analyze are turf moisture and firmness.  Moisture and firmness should be near the averages found during the growing season and the subsurface must allow water to freely peculate through the profile.  If the lower profile is slowed by frozen pore space or drain lines, water will move upward in the profile due to the strong cohesive and adhesive properties of water. Thus keeping the upper portion of the soil profile wet, or in some cases increasing total soil moisture as daytime temperatures rise.  

Moisture and firmness in the top couple inches are key, because in our turf nearly all root mass is within that portion of the profile.   In cool-season plants, like Bentgrass and Kentucky bluegrass, roots are developed during the fall and to some extent spring, but lose mass during the stress of summer. If we allow the golf course to open during a time of the year that is soft and wet, without active growth for recovery, we injure and shear roots, reducing root mass before the upcoming stress of summer.  Because of the standards we set for our golf course, we need to protect our roots.  Mowing height of a green is the single biggest factor impacting greens speeds.  Lower height equals faster green speeds. Like green speeds, rooting is also correlated to mowing height.  It is a direct relationship, meaning that as mowing height decreases, total rooting depth and mass decrease.  In order to allow more winter play we would have to compensate by raising our height of cut to encourage survival of root mass heading into summer, which would most likely slow our greens speeds below our set standards.  A former boss and mentor of mine, summed it up by saying: "If you want great greens in August, keep people off them in the winter."  

As I mentioned, over protection of the course can occur.  At some point the financial impact of opening can offset potential damaged caused by playing golf.  We don't have to wait until the turf has greened up completely and mowing has occurred on a regular basis. Here at Weibring Golf club, we are comfortable opening the golf course when conditions warrant, but will close back down if conditions change. You'll notice the golf course is not "green", but growth and potential recovery are occurring in the crown and roots of the plants.     

As you can see, many factors affect when we open the golf course.  Overall, we hope to find the balance of turf health and a positive financial impact, allowing a win-win for all.  We are very excited for the season and hope you get a chance to enjoy the golf course!  Thanks for reading.

-Travis Williams


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