Saturday, July 21, 2018

Driving Through The Drought: Greenkeeper Challenges

The par four 15th at Dromoland Castle
It rained yesterday. Real rain. It didn't last long but it was something few of us had seen in Ireland for over 10 weeks. In this country that's a drought and the hosepipe bans introduced 3-4 weeks ago confirmed it.

People worry about their gardens, washing their car or taking a shower rather than lounging in a bath but what about our golf courses? Carnoustie was playing faster than any course in history, according to the
commentators, and the fact that golfers were driving into the Barry Burn on the 18th hole - some 430 yards away - proved the point. The ground was baked.

I was at Carne last week and they were purchasing water because their municipal supply had all but run out. A tanker was emptying its load into their irrigation reservoir. The cost of hiring such a tanker is eye-watering.

I asked two greenkeepers (one links, one parkland) what is happening to our courses at the moment and how serious the situation is. This article was originally published in the Irish Examiner, on Tuesday, but this is the Director's Cut!

Listening to Met Eireann saying that we haven’t had weather like this since 1976 makes you realise how much we miss hot, dry summers. Most of us recall childhood memories when the summer went on forever and daylight never seemed to fade. It is all part of a remarkable spell of weather that dates back to Storm Ophelia, in October. Rain, wind, snow and now sun and drought. Golf courses that were under three feet of snow in March and April are now burned brown by the endless days of sun. This is especially true on links courses where irrigation systems don’t exist on the fairways… greens and tees, yes, but not on fairways. If you’ve been on social media you’ll have seen an unforgettable image of Ballybunion, which looks more like the Sahara than a golf course. 
And at Ballyliffin, for the Irish Open, it’s hard to imagine the volume of work (and water) needed by the greenkeepers to keep the course looking so green.
Des Smyth tees off on the 4th at Ballyliffin, during the Pro Am
Not surprisingly, golfers have been rushing out to lap up the heat. Spells of weather like this are a boon to a golf course industry which has for years been lamenting our poor summers. 

The trouble is, it’s been going on almost too long at this stage. This is the end of the tenth week without significant rainfall. A splash here or there is hardly sufficient and greenkeepers have their work cut out as the drought continues. Here are the points of view from two head greenkeepers: Paul Coleman (PC), is Golf Course Superintendent at Dromoland Castle; and Dave Edmondson (DE), is Links Superintendent at The Island.
These answers should help golfers everywhere appreciate the difficulties facing our greenkeepers and what it takes to keep courses in the best possible condition.
View to Dromoland Castle over the 17th green... greens and surrounds
are lush, as you'd expect.
1. What are the key challenges facing golf courses in this heatwave? 
(PC) “The main challenges facing parkland coursesare trying to provide good quality playing surfaces in the face of intense and prolonged drought. The golfer’s expectation is still the same no matter the weather and we need to at least offer a product worth the money. As the majority of playing areas are comprised of sand for the purpose of better drainage, they obviously dry much faster and consequently wilt. Also, having staff working in this heat is not ideal as there is prolonged exposure to the sun.”

(DE) “Dormant turfgrass is not growing or recovering from daily wear and tear, such as traffic patterns. Areas of The Island are also becoming hydrophobic (water repellent) due to the lack of precipitation.”

2. Have you ever experienced anything like this in your career? If so, when and where? (PC) “The last time I can remember a similar prolonged period of hot and dry weather was in the summer of ’95. I was working as a seasonal greenkeeper at Woodstock Golf Club, and there was no irrigation on the course. The only method of applying water was through a bulk tanker which drew from a nearby river.”
(DE) In my six years at The Island, 2013 was similar with prolonged dry conditions through the summer. I have also experienced very similar low rainfall years in both France and Belgium, although these were slightly easier to deal with due to lower traffic over the courses.”
Hand watering at The Island during the current drought
(pic courtesy of The Island's Twitter timeline)
3. How are you tackling these issues?(PC) “I guess the main action is irrigation. We do have an automated system on tees and greens but it’s not as simple as just turning them on and forgetting about it. Moisture levels need to be constantly monitored as too much is worse than too little. Some members are amused when they see guys out with hoses watering, knowing we have sprinklers. Without getting too technical some areas on the greens especially become water repellent and will not wet with just water. They need to be treated with wetting agents to re-wet them. Unfortunately it’s a logistics game and we do not have the capacity to water the entire golf course, just tees and greens and the odd approach that we can use a mobile sprinkler on.”

(DE) As water is a valuable resource, we are targeting our water onto key areas: greens, tees, greens surrounds and heavily divot-prone landing zones.As a classic links, based on sand, The Island is prone to drying quickly and we are utilising wetting agents for moisture retention and to avoid water repellancy issues. We are also using traditional watering methods, i.e. hand-watering on putting surfaces, as much as possible. This allows us to target water onto the high parts of greens (slopes) and leave lower lying areas. This method has allowed us more uniformity of moisture throughout our putting surfaces with an improvement in playing characteristics. It also helps with conserving water.With all of our watering practices we utilise soil moisture probes daily to determine the needs of specific areas. This is deemed to be good practice, allows us to micromanage our greens and conserves water. 
“The club recently purchased a pogo moisture meter that allows us to test moisture content in a given GPS location, sends the information to a cloud network, and creates a map which helps the greenkeeper handwatering for the next day to target dry areas or hotspots. Scientific approaches such as this allow us preserve water and improve playing characteristics.
“We use coated seed that was originally developed for re-establishing areas hit by forest fires in low water regions. Such coatings allows quicker germination of seed in divotted areas with minimal water applications needed by greenkeepers for establishment.”   

4. Roughly how much of your/your team’s time is being taken up to deal with the current challenges… and what normal seasonal work is having to be sacrificed as a result?(PC)We have two guys each watering for approximately 50 hours per week. Mowing has decreased and so we can tackle other jobs we normally wouldn’t be able to get done.”
The par three 13th at Dromoland Castle
(DE) “As turfgrass is presently mainly dormant, our mowing has reduced drastically through this dry period. This has allowed us more bodies available for tasks such as hand-watering. I generally have three guys hand-watering areas around the links during the day. One of these will be collecting moisture content data to help us make key decisions with regards to the next day’s watering.Newly turfed areas have been a challenge to keep ticking over during the dry period.”

5. Are your course’s grasses able to cope well with these conditions and, if so, why is that? (PC) “Typically we go by transpiration rates of the grass plant and this can mean approximately 5mm to 10mm of water per night (in or around 8,000 to 12,000 litres).”

(DE) “Native links grasses are Fescue and Browntop bent, and both species are native to links sites and are extremely drought resistant. They can withstand periods of stress. In many areas these species are predominantly dormant at present but will bounce back once the rain returns. From a sustainability perspective, these grasses require little to no pesticides, and limited fertiliser or water inputs.”
The 18th at The Island
(pic courtesy of The Island's Twitter timeline)
6. Where are you getting your water from (wells/springs)… and would this be the same for most courses?(PC) “Our main lake supplies irrigation water. Most parklands would have wells or manmade lakes.”
(DE) “We have well points at The Island, and the majority of links would be in the same situation.”

7. How serious is this situation for courses, and how long before it becomes a real problem?(PC) “It is serious as 90% of the course is burned out and in great water deficit. It will take a few weeks of rainfall to recover. It is a problem when water becomes unavailable: no water means dead grass on greens and tees. This can make the course unplayable/closed/limited play. There will also be a cost down the road in regressing some turf areas lost.”

(DE) “I don’t see it as a major problem as long-term forecasts predict a break in the current weather. If we do get any thinning of turf coming out of the dry weather, we are due to overseed again in August with fescue throughout.”
The opening hole at The Island
(pic courtesy of The Island's Twitter timeline)
8. Finally, what can members/visiting golfers do to help the course and greens staff? (PC) “Members and guests can help by not driving golf buggies carelessly on fairways and where they don’t need to be. The wheel lines are being burned into the grass.”
(DE) “Golfers should understand that greens teams throughout the country are doing there utmost to produce quality products for their members and guests. Patience is required through these challenging periods until we all return to normal weather conditions.”  

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