Superintendent Magazine - January, 2013


The Troublesome Tee Box

It's a source of pride, an element that considerable time and effort goes into to produce. But it has its challenges.
By John C. Fech

The tee box can be the source of great triumph, a gut-wrenching agony or both. This is true for golfers as well as golf course superintendents.

For golfers, the tee is often thought of as the starting point for the round. If they hit a good tee shot on No. 1, it usually sets the tone for the rest of the day's enjoyment.

If, on other hand, they slice it into a nearby pond, the day may not be so enjoyable.

For superintendents, a tee represents several things, one of which is an icon of a quality playing surface. As such, the clear duty is to provide dense, low-cut and weed-free turf as a functional part of the golf course. For the vast majority, a tee is a source of pride, an element that considerable time and effort goes into to produce.

Regardless of which angle the tee is viewed from, the goal is quality. Several design and management strategies can contribute to the success of a tee.

Keys to success

Since the tee box is a high-traffic area, its design and location in terms of how it aligns with the cart path are important. Other things to note are the distance of separation between individual tee boxes in the tee area, and the available choices golfers have for walking up to the area. All these factors will influence the health of the playing surface and the overall aesthetics of the area.

Tee boxes with limited access points contribute to wear.

Regardless of the specific design, a major goal for tees is to arrange them such that traffic is not channeled or forced into a small space. Narrow spaces aren't good for golf courses in general, and especially not for tees from a wear standpoint. This is probably true more for courses with a high number of rounds, but even for certain private courses where members feel entitled to "walking wherever they want, whenever they want, and let the super deal with it."

One way or another, each tee area should have sufficient access. This can be accomplished in several arrangements, providing a long access point or several small ones. Either way, the point is that wear is inevitable and should be planned for. Preventing wear injury is much easier than recovering from it.

Narrow spaces that surround tees are problematic for other reasons as well. They are generally difficult to irrigate without wasting water; prone to compaction injury; hard to fertilize without applying product to paths and/or causing water pollution through runoff; and nearly impossible to aerate, verticut or topdress. As a result, the turf in narrow strips becomes less competitive, which allows weeds that are tolerant of compaction to invade and thrive.

Placing perennials and groundcovers on the opposite side of the tee approach results in aesthetic appeal without contributing to wear injury.

Planting appeal near tees

Unless the overall theme of the course is historic or places a low emphasis on ornamentals, aesthetic appeal is important to many golfers. A common commentary heard in the bar or clubhouse restaurant is that they are looking forward to (or have enjoyed their experience partially because of) four hours of walking and relaxing in a colorful outdoor space free from the hassles of the workday. Generally, this is accomplished by incorporating well-adapted ornamental plantings throughout the property.

Even though vistas and color are important to golfers, that doesn't mean they need to be added in a way that creates additional work for the superintendent. The goal is to create high-quality aesthetics, not problems. A simple but effective way to accomplish this is to plant colorful or evergreen shrubs near or under existing trees to bolster the understory. A planting of this type rarely creates increased maintenance for the superintendent or crew, yet provides color, texture and spatial enhancement for the golfer - one that replicates Mother Nature in the process.

Tee arrangements with sufficient access result in reduced wear.

Designing and planting without forethought, often leads to an undesirable result. Problems with pests, high maintenance and low appeal are common when the approach is: "Let's just get the members off our backs and plant a bunch of flowers."

Instead, the principles of right plant, right place and creating landscape space that allows for high functionality of the game of golf should be utilized.

Many hedges require frequent shearing to keep them at a manageable height, often resulting in exposed dead tissues.

Planting appeal near tees doesn't just happen. The approach that is most sensible is to gather input from the various groups that are connected to the course, sift through them to select the best ideas, write out program statements that focus attention on the goals of providing appeal without excessive maintenance, and making a few simple sketches on tracing paper that identify masses of plant material (in the form of circles or bubbles of space) near tees.

Narrow strips of turf near tees are harder to maintain than solid blocks of turf and ornamentals.

The next step is to take the drawings to a landscape designer or architect that have experience working on golf courses to refine them, and then consult with a horticulturist to choose specific plants that meet the criteria. It's important to select the plant material last, flexibility can be retained throughout the process.

From the basics to going all out

A tee box can be very basic and still function quite well. Just provide the bare necessities: tee markers, a ball washer and perhaps a bench.

Well written and tasteful signage can be effective in communicating with golfers.

If the goal is to provide aesthetic appeal, flower beds, backdrop plants and wall/space definers can provide this. The location of these items is very important. Generally, the best spot is on the opposite side of the approach to the tee, rather than the space between the cart path and tee box. With any of these enhancements, remember to consider whether they will create traffic problems or simply accomplish the goal of improved aesthetics.

Containers can add a high degree of appeal, but they should be used with caution. They can be high- or low-maintenance items, depending on how they're constructed. If they are simple "whiskey barrel" containers and placed in full sun, they will usually require daily hand-watering. Yet, if a drip irrigation line is installed, the daily maintenance requirement is greatly reduced.

There are always exceptions to the goals of high appeal without high maintenance. On signature holes, it may be worth it to bend the rules a bit and create a more elaborate planting area in the tee box.

For example, if the names Ben Hogan or Tom Watson are chiseled into a marker nearby, higher maintenance plantings may be appropriate.

Communicate with the golfer

As golfers line up for their shots, they are very focused on their surroundings, so tees can be utilized to communicate with golfers, reminding them of their part in helping to keep the course looking great and functioning well.

Respectful, well-written messages are well received by the majority of golfers and will usually result in a reduction in trans- gressions.

John C. Fech is a horticulturist, certified arborist and frequent contributor located in Omaha, Neb.