“We’re livin’ on the edge.”
Steven Tyler, the renowned rock vocalist, sang/screamed those lyrics in Aerosmith’s 1990s hit “Livin’ on the Edge.” Golf course superintendents could sing harmony vocals on the tune. They, too, are livin’ on the edge … that is, when it comes to their courses’ green speed.
Not every golfer in the world demands fast putting greens, but plenty of them do, especially at private clubs where superintendents may have to ramp up green speeds to 13 or 14 feet on the Stimpmeter to appease their need for speed. But by supping up greens so fast, superintendents realize they’re pushing them, sometimes to the brink. What if the greens die? Well, a superintendent just may find himself out of a job.
Livin’ on the edge? Indeed.
So, the big deal for superintendents is to watch those putting greens like a hawk to make sure they’re not showing signs of stress. What signs? It depends; it all has to do with location, weather, turfgrass variety, soil and other factors.
“How do you know when you’re pushing your greens too far? When they die,” says Mike Osley, certified golf course superintendent of Meadow Hills Golf Course in Aurora, Colorado.
Osley chuckles and quickly says he’s kidding.
“It’s not funny in the real world when it happens,” he says. “But it does answer the question.”
Clearly, there are some things superintendents can do to control pushing their greens too far, such as height of cut, Osley says. And there are some things they can’t control, like weather.
“A good superintendent monitors the health of his course’s greens by daily visual inspection,” Osley says, noting that it’s vital to identify a decline in turf health quickly and act accordingly.
“The key is to visually identify any potential problems before they occur,” he adds.
At Traverse City Golf & Country Club in Traverse City, Michigan, Steve Hammon maintains bentgrass/Poa annua push-up greens that are nearly 100 years old. What tips off Hammon that they could be stressed?
Moisture stress on the right side of the sixth green, the superintendent says. In Hammon’s 17 years as superintendent at the club, he has used the sixth green as a possible indicator of what’s happening on other greens. The green, by the way, is next to the maintenance facility where Hammon sees it often. Hammon has also trained crew members to spot moisture stress on other greens.
“My staff are my eyes and my success,” he says.
David Downing II, vice president and a regional agronomist of the Southeast for Carefree, Arizona-based Golf Maintenance Solutions, says he has managed greens over the edge, but not too much.
“For me, going too far meant the plant wasn’t growing like I wanted it to,” Downing says. “I learned it was always about growing a healthy grass plant.”
Downing, a certified golf course superintendent, advises superintendents to take soil tests on greens to determine deficiencies, such as if the plant is getting the right nutrients it needs at the right levels.
Superintendents can help their cause by understanding all they can about plant physiology, Downing notes.
“I understand the relationship between soil, water, air, temperature, traffic and how all those things impact what I’m trying to do,” he says.
Downing says his philosophy is to stay “two steps back from the edge.” The greens are fast, but not teetering on the edge.
“Because if they’re on the edge, and you miss a watering, syringing or fungicide application, you can get over to the other side pretty quickly,” he says.
Staying two steps back also allows superintendents the ability to ramp up the greens to make them faster temporarily by rolling, grooming or double cutting.
Brian Stiehler, certified golf course superintendent at Highlands Country Club in Highland, North Carolina, says walking the edge is a delicate balance between thinning turf and fast greens.
“When we push the limit on greens, we tend to see some minor thinning, which leads to a host of other issues like moss encroachment,” Stiehler adds.
Highlands’ greens usually run about 11 feet, which requires double cutting daily and rolling three to four times a week. The greens are also lightly groomed daily.
“If there’s a need to get the greens 12 feet or above, an aggressive grooming with thatch-away reels and light topdressing does the trick,” Stiehler adds.
Stiehler’s biggest challenge is rain, as in 96 inches a year on average. And then there’s excess shade and numerous cloudy days. As a result, Stiehler rarely lowers the height of cut on the greens to less than one-eighth of an inch.
“The other challenge we face when we push greens too far is the wear and tear on the collars,” Stiehler adds. “Of course, we’re turning mowers on boards and taking other precautions. However, collars always seem to take the brunt of the damage.”
When hot and humid weather is forecast, Hammon turns off the water to the greens.
“The seasoned people in the business know about high humidity and watching evapotranspiration rates,” he says. “But it’s a great reminder to the rookies not to water your golf course based on the actual air temperature. I can use three times as much water when it’s 74 [degrees Fahrenheit] and sunny than when it is 94 and sunny.”
From June through September, Hammon only applies liquid fertilizers on the course’s greens at two-week intervals. He adjusts rates depending on turf growth, weather, humidity, traffic, tournaments and other factors.
“When I push them with fertility, it’s pushing on the lean side so that last weekend before we spray again the turf looks hungry,” Hammon says. “I just don’t want the greens to get too hungry and get caught over the edge.”
With mild summers, Stiehler says, he can get away with more than most superintendents when it comes to pushing his course’s greens.
“However, if it does get into a warm spell, I will back off topdressing with sand,” he says. “The abrasiveness is too much for the collars, particularly. During very humid periods, I step up our preventive fungicide applications to every 14 days.”
With rounds and revenue declining at many courses the last several years, some superintendents are putting off crucial maintenance practices on their courses’ greens to make up for lost rounds and revenue at other times. If a superintendent doesn’t aerate, topdress and verticut when needed, he’s asking for trouble, Downing says. What will happen is that soil becomes enriched with organic matter and turns anaerobic, causing the plant to weaken, Downing explains.
So if the greens do get pushed, the turf isn’t strong enough to handle it, he adds.
“I ask [superintendents]: Do you change the oil in your car? [When they say yes, I ask]: Can you change the oil while you’re driving your car?” Downing says.
His obvious point is for superintendents to take the time to perform cultural practices on greens, even if it means fewer rounds and less revenue.
Hammon rolls the greens at Traverse City seven days a week, which he says enables him to raise the height of cut.
“I don’t have to push my greens with a low mowing height anymore so I don’t see the stress from mowing them too low for too long,” he says. “That look is a sure sign of stress on the plants. Push, push, push and lower, lower, lower isn’t my recipe anymore for mowing height.”
As Osley notes, “Turfgrass doesn’t want to grow at one-eighth of an inch or lower, so the plant is already stressed because of the standard height of cut today.”
Nothing beats experience when it comes to knowing how far you can push putting greens, Osley adds.
“Maintaining great greens walks a fine line between success and disaster, and nothing is more important than experience and knowing your greens,” he states.
Osley’s parting advice is for superintendents to control what they can to grow healthy turf and to constantly adjust their plans according to what they see and what Mother Nature gives them.
You know how else Hammon is careful about not running the course’s greens into the ground? By being cool to his crew members. There’s a connection between that and knowing when the greens are stressed.
“Employees who show up for work every day at 6 a.m. or earlier are hardworking and dedicated people,” Hammon says. “Tell them how much you rely on their daily observations. If you train them well, respect them and trust them, you’ll get valuable details back from them.”