It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The hot, dry summer of 2012 that hit many parts of the country meant plenty of available tee times for golfers who rarely encountered a rainout, but presented plenty of challenges for golf course superintendents trying to maintain turf with heavy play and scant moisture.
Thanks to the drought, dormant fairways were the rule rather than the exception during 2012 at Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan, Kan. Still, playability was excellent, and the club promoted rather than hid from the "firm and fast" conditions, explains superintendent Matthew Gourlay.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF MATTHEW GOURLAY
"I've been working on golf courses for 32 years, and 2012 was the worst year I've seen. I mean it was just brutal," says Scott Schurman, superintendent at Kearney Country Club in Kearney, Neb. "I'm glad I kept my hair short, because if it was any longer I probably would have pulled every bit of it out."
The writing was on the wall early, thanks to a much hotter-than-normal spring.
"We were mowing fairways three days a week in March - we usually don't start mowing until about the middle of April. So we were about six weeks early," Schurman explains.
Things went from bad to worse after the greens were aerated in April, only to be followed immediately by a 95-degree day that desiccated the newly punched putting surfaces. While greens typically heal from the spring aeration in less than two weeks, last year it took about a month.
Schurman spoke with other superintendents in the state, and they all agreed that perhaps the most unforgiving aspect of the record-breaking heat and drought was how quickly it pointed out any deficiencies in a course's irrigation system. The deficiencies at Kearney Country Club were evident by June.
"We actually renozzled all of our fairway heads because we were getting doughnuts around the heads," says Schurman, noting that he'd never seen that previously in his four years at the course, when moisture had been adequate. Heads on the layout's greens were also upgraded to improve coverage.
"None of this was budgeted for, so needless to say our irrigation repair budget went up quite a bit," Schurman points out. The electric bill to run the system also escalated throughout the season.
The drought also meant more hand-watering and other work to keep the course playable.
"We try to keep the overtime down, but probably my biggest budget overrun this year was labor," Schurman says. Fortunately, given the severity of the drought and the obvious need, these expenses were relatively easy to justify to the club, he adds.
Schurman received a lot of support during the trying times, and many golfers commented that the course had never looked better. He says a few members also helped to keep things in perspective.
"Some of them are old enough that they were around during The Dust Bowl, so they reminded me that things could be worse," Schurman says.
The drought didn't require mowing heights to be raised at Kearney, but mowing frequency was reduced.
"We did use plant growth regulators a little more than normal on our tees and fairways this year," Schurman explains. The club also did its best to keep golf cars off fairways in order to minimize stress.
There were some positive developments taken away from the drought experience. For example, because of the lack of moisture, Schurman eliminated nearly all of his granular fertilizer applications.
"We went almost exclusively with foliar this year, and actually I've never seen the fairways and greens look any better," he reveals, noting he plans to continue this approach next season even if moisture levels return to normal.
Schurman wishes he had tried using wetting agents on the fairways.
"I think we're going to try to do that this year," he says. He's talked with other superintendents in the state who saw benefits from wetting agents during the drought.
Craig Moore, superintendent at the 36-hole Marquette (Mich.) Golf Club, says that several years of hotter-and-drier-than-normal weather has caused him to increase the use of wetting agents, particularly on greens and occasionally on tees.
"I think it really helps in getting the water to move down through the soil profile, and it helps with localized dry spots," Moore explains. He's also increased the frequency he spikes the greens and feels that can help boost turf health and prepare it for dry weather.
That's important because hot and dry seems to be the direction the weather has been moving in recent years, Moore notes. "It used to be a rarity that we would get a 90-degree day up here, but now it seems like it's pretty regular."
Moore has also been updating the course's irrigation system.
"We're doing a lot with the heads - replacing full circles with part circles and really going through the whole system to be sure I have the best coverage possible," he explains.
The club has a limited supply of water, so to avoid running out he conserves when he can and prioritizes greens and tees.
Superintendents had to be careful with the timeliness of topdressing during the drought.
PHOTO: BY LARRY AYLWARD
"A lot of times fairways are on their own for a month at a time. It gets firm and dry and the balls bounce and roll," says Moore, noting that golfers there are accustomed to those conditions.
Still, being at the mercy of rain that doesn't come can take a toll on golf course superintendents.
"It can get tough sometimes thinking, 'Oh, I should have gone out and done this, or I should have done that,' but you can do that all day long no matter what the weather conditions are," Moore says.
It's more beneficial, he notes, to continually communicate to everyone at the club what impact the drought is having and what they can expect of the course.
Communication is the key, agrees Matthew Gourlay, superintendent at Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan, Kan. That course was 16 inches below average for rainfall in 2012, receiving less than half of its expected moisture.
"I've been here for 12 years, and I've never seen anything like it," he says.
Colbert Hills hosted a professional mini tour event in early June and the zoysiagrass fairways, which broke dormancy early in March, were already dormant again.
"Our main goal was just to keep the course alive - not green, but just alive," Gourlay says. "That playability was there, it was just the color. So we tried to communicate to golfers that color is not the only thing that makes a golf course. That's something we struggled with: We couldn't quite get that thought into every golfer's mind."
Gourlay and the club made a huge marketing effort to sell golfers on the idea that "brown is the new green," and to promote the links-style firm and fast conditions.
"I have a blog; I'm on Twitter and other social media; I wrote articles to hand out to golfers; we had signs on the first tee and out on the course; we had the local TV station come out and do a story on how the course was doing; we had a sign in the locker room right above the urinals - we tried anything and everything to get that message out," he emphasizes.
Gourlay says it's best to proactively address the impact of a drought rather than pretend it's not affecting the course.
"You can't ever communicate enough," he reiterates. The impact of the drought isn't over yet. For the first time ever, Colbert Hills has instituted a cart paths-only rule for golfers this winter in an effort to reduce wear on the stressed turf.
"Golfers don't understand why, so that's requiring more communication," Gourlay says.
Despite the browning of the fairways, the putting surfaces and surrounds remained green and in prime condition at Colbert Hills. Gourlay says his biggest concern wasn't so much for the health of the turf on the course, but rather the health of his crew in the midst of the drought.
"We had 102-degree days for the entire month of July. We usually average nine days over 100 degrees and this year we had 42 days," he notes. "We made a daily effort to educate the crew about the importance of sunscreen, drinking plenty of water and to let us know if [they started] feeling dehydrated." A similar outreach effort was directed at golfers.
Pat Shaw, superintendent at The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan, Wis., says 2012 was one for the record books in that area.
"We felt the impact right from the day we opened on March 13, which was our earliest opening ever," he says.
Temperatures in the 80s brought golfers and the turfgrass instantly to life.
"Right then I knew we were going to be in trouble," Shaw states. "It's definitely among the top three worst weather seasons in history for this area."
That's coming from a superintendent's perspective; die-hard golfers may disagree. The club was open for 11 months in 2012; in a normal year that number might be eight or nine.
"We did the most rounds since the course opened in 2003," says Shaw, pointing out that an extra 60 to 75 days meant a lot of added wear and tear.
Bumping up the height of cut I did it early in the season because I could see the greens already struggling in May, and I knew the tough months were coming. We also altered our verticutting and topdressing schedules.
- PAT SHAW
It wasn't so much the heat, but the lack of precipitation that caused the most challenges. A dry winter leading up to last year meant there was little snow melt to provide moisture, so the irrigation system was running in April - nearly unheard of in Wisconsin, Shaw says.
"Some years it's June before we run our irrigation," he notes.
Nearby Lake Michigan saw water levels drop and area streams all but dried up. Fortunately, the supply of water from the club's deep well held up, "but we pumped a lot of water," Shaw says.
"It was hardest on the guys who were out doing all the hand-watering on the greens," he adds. "Every day I would try to tell them to hang in there and that it will rain soon and we'll be able to put the hoses away. But the rain never came, so their morale really needed a boost, and I tried to do that every day."
Shaw quickly learned that in drought conditions monitoring of the course becomes more important than ever. That means looking for dry spots, but also checking that all the extra irrigation and hand-watering didn't result in wet spots.
"It was constant monitoring, and you really had to try to keep everything as uniform as possible," he says.
The close monitoring of the course led Shaw to bump up the height of cut on the greens.
"I did it early in the season because I could see the greens already struggling in May, and I knew the tough months were coming," he explains. "We also altered our verticutting and topdressing schedules. We didn't do it nearly as much as we like to because of the heat and the drought."
Shaw also emphasized spoon-feeding the turf with spray applications.
"We actually bumped up our fertility because of the drought," he notes. "We thought, 'If we're going to put the water to the turf, let's make sure it has the nutrients it needs that Mother Nature isn't supplying.' But the extra fertilizing definitely added some costs."
Shaw says that, given the weather conditions, the club's ownership understood the need for these added expenditures.
Shaw had to cut himself a little slack when confronting the realities of the drought.
"Whenever I would think, 'We really need to verticut or topdress, or do this or that,' I had to force myself to realize that we were better off doing nothing than doing something right now," he says.
At no time was his patience tested more than during the several state and club tournaments the course hosted during the season.
"I would have liked to do some things prior to those events, but I talked with our owners to tell them, 'It just doesn't make sense to push the golf course for one event when we have four or five months left to the season,' " he says. "It's tough when you really want to provide championship conditions, but sometimes you just can't. In a year like this you have to remember that tournaments will come and go, but you have to have the course ready to play the day after, too."
In retrospect, there's one change Shaw says he would have made.
"I do wish we had done a really early spring aerification," he reflects.
There wasn't sufficient staff in March to undertake that effort, but Shaw says he would try to find a way to do so if drought conditions look likely in future years.
"I think that would have been very beneficial for the greens," he says. "The superintendents I've talked to who did the really early aerification said they had a little easier time with the weather conditions, especially early in the season."
Shaw feels fortunate that the Colbert Hills course came through 2012 in good shape and that he had the support of the club during some challenging times. He knows other superintendents haven't been so fortunate.
"I would caution every club member and board and owner to try to understand: Superintendents are pretty diligent people, some things are just out of our control," Shaw says. "People need to exercise just a little patience. And thanks to the dry weather, we had our longest golf season ever, so you can't complain about that."
Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. He spent several years working in golf maintenance, and over the past 16 years has served as an editor and writer for numerous regional and national golf publications covering architecture and maintenance issues. He also assists country clubs in publishing history books.