About 1,700 feet above sea level, along Tennessee’s Walden Ridge, is Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club, an H.H. Barker design that will celebrate its centennial in 2016.

Of the layout, Golf Course Superintendent Pat Rose says, “This is a complicated golf course.”

The soil is shallow, and there’s exposed rock. In areas where it’s not exposed, the rock often is immediately below the playing surface. That leads to issues when trying to keep the turf healthy in the summer and winter.

Still, since arriving in 2012, Rose has been firming up the golf course, and the membership approves, from both playability and budget standpoints.

Signal Mountain’s maintenance crew often drags hoses to hand-water, the preferred method of irrigation.PHOTOS COURTESY OF SIGNAL MOUNTAIN GOLF & COUNTRY CLUB 

Like many superintendents around the country, Rose says, a firm golf course is desired on two fronts. First, it’s more enjoyable for every class of golfers and plays much the way it did when it opened almost 100 years ago. Second, reducing water use is always a goal, especially to save on water costs.

In 2014 Rose spent about 50 percent of the money he was allocated to purchase city water, the sole water source for the Signal Mountain course.

“I haven’t run an irrigation cycle since I’ve been here,” he says.

That means he and his crew drag hoses to hand-water the dry areas rather than running irrigation heads.

Rose says multiple practices are in place to achieve his design of firming the golf course.

“I can’t put it to one thing and say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ ” he explains. “It all works together.”

There is, though, a base that needs to be in place.

“It has to start with the health of the turf,” he says. “If it’s dead, nothing is going to save it.”

So that means reducing shade, increasing airflow as well as solid tining fairways with a core aerifier, which allows water and roots to penetrate deeper into the soil. The healthier the plants, the better the chance to withstand desiccation, a problem at Signal Mountain.

“We push the roots down deeper so we can get through the winter,” Rose says.

One result of the new firmer Signal Mountain is a need to change mowing patterns, especially on fairways. When the course was softer, tee shots would die shortly after landing. Once Rose had his program in place, the same tee shots were rolling out and sometimes coming to rest in the rough. As a result, Rose has widened and shifted fairways.

“You’ve got to adapt the setup to the course,” Rose says.

Staying dry in Texas

In San Antonio, Texas, the 10 municipally owned golf courses (seven are 18 holes) and three driving ranges are operated by the Alamo City Golf Trail. T.J. Arispe Jr. manages the turf on four of the seven 18 holes, two par-3s and one range. He’s in his fifth year with the Trail.

A single-digit player, Arispe says a dry layout is the preferred surface for all levels of golfers.

“A firm golf course plays better than a soft golf course,” he adds.

Arispe had quite a task for himself when he arrived at Alamo City, as most of the layouts were using antiquated hydraulic irrigation systems with no central controls. However, in the last five years, three of the 18 holers were converted to state-of-the-art systems and the fourth, Olmos Basic Golf Course, is scheduled to join them this year.

The new irrigation systems not only allow Arispe to firm up his courses, but also use his labor more judiciously.

Right now one of the driving ranges requires 35 hours a week of hand-watering. When the new system is installed, that worker will be free to take on other tasks.

Arispe says his goal on all the courses is to eliminate soft and lush.

“I keep them as dry as possible,” he says.

Writing programs to tweak the new irrigation systems is always being done, Arispe says, so as to use as little water as he can. It’s an ongoing process since he started from scratch with the new irrigation systems.

“We write a lot of programs so we can be more precise,” he adds.

Complicating his task is the fact that all but one of the facilities is on effluent water. As a result, there are high levels of sodium and bicarbonates. The reused water is expensive, and Arispe’s directive is to keep water bills down.

Milwaukee Country Club was firm and fast when it opened in 1929. That’s the way superintendent Pat Sisk strives to keep it.PHOTOS COURTESY OF MILWAUKEE COUNTRY CLUB 

He has no problem doing that. For one, a firmed-up Olmos could better withstand the 60,000 rounds that were played on it in 2014.

“A dry golf course can hold up to [golf car] traffic better than a wet course,” Arispe states.

When he does irrigate, it’s in the early morning, and then Arispe and his staff keep an eye on the turf for the rest of the day, especially in the San Antonio summer months, hand-watering trouble spots.

“It’s a lot easier to add water than take it away,” Arispe says.

The golfers like how the course plays and don’t grumble about the look that comes with drier turf.

“I’ve heard complaints about it being too wet, not being too dry,” he says. “That’s what I strive for. If [areas] are a little off color, so be it.”

Root pruning is key

At Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Country Club (MCC), Certified Golf Course Superintendent Pat Sisk’s objective is to have the course resemble as close as possible the Hugh Alison-designed layout it was when it opened nearly 90 years ago.

“I want to get it to look and play as it did in 1929 when Mr. Allison handed over the keys,” Sisk says.

MCC hosted the 1969 Walker Cup, the 1988 Senior Open and the 2008 U.S. Mid-Amateur.

In his 15th season at MCC, Sisk aimed to maintain a firm and fast layout as soon as he arrived.

Pat Sisk’s root pruning program has helped save water. With root encroachment, lots of irrigation is needed to keep the plants healthy. Without the roots, the plants are healthier and then watering can be reduced.

“I’ve always tried to keep my golf course as dry as possible,” he says. “I don’t purposely try and save water. My program leads to water savings.”

In addition to the expected practices of topdressing and aerifying, one decision made in his first year at MCC is still paying dividends.

Sisk root pruned trees around all tees that year, and, when it proved successful, expanded the program over the entire layout.

“Root pruning is the best way to eliminate competition,” he says.

By cutting the roots, they stop sucking water and nutrients from the turf, which weakens the plants. With root encroachment, lots of irrigation is needed to keep the plants healthy. Without the roots, the plants are healthier and then watering can be reduced.

Sisk estimates that, within the next year or two, he may have to go back to the first areas and prune again.

MCC also has reduced the number of trees during Sisk’s tenure.

That has improved the quality of the light that the turf receives. On greens that have had shade problems for years, that can cause temporary issues.

“You might have to adjust turf types for the area to be successful. Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do,” Sisk says.

Members have embraced the firm conditions Sisk produces, ironically often after it has rained.

“On marginal days I’m able to let golf cars out where it used to be no cars all day,” he says.

Over the years Sisk has used wetting agents more and more, and he touts their effectiveness.

He also is a convert of moisture censors and the role they play in knowing the turf’s exact irrigation needs.

“It takes the total guesswork out of the equation,” Sisk says.

On the Dry Side

According to a recent survey of 400 golf course superintendents, maintaining a course with firm and fast conditions is a popular way to save water. We asked superintendents: What are you doing to conserve water at your golf course? They answered:

  • 42% – Allowing the course to play firm and fast
  • 28% – Using more wetting agents
  • 15% – Upgrading key parts of the irrigation system
  • 15% – Not watering the rough

No going back

Cole Clark has a bit of guesswork ahead of him. He’s the new superintendent at Yegen Golf Club in Billings, Montana. Clark intends to bring the same style of turf maintenance at the 18-hole Yegen as he did in his previous job as superintendent of the nine-hole Columbus Stillwater Golf Course, about 40 miles west of Billings.

Clark says he expects his role to be much like what it was at Stillwater.

“Just educate the membership that they don’t need the course to be as green and lush as it was,” he says. “I said, ‘Let me try, and if you don’t like it, we can go back.’ “

There was no going back.

“It was amazing how much more they enjoyed the course,” Clark says.

Because he was at Stillwater for only a year, Clark is unsure how much water he saved over previous seasons. But members did tell him that they had rarely seen the irrigation pond full during the summer in past seasons.

Yegen, which opened in 1992, is required to take 12 million gallons of effluent water from Billings annually, about half of what the course needs annually. The rest is pumped in from the Yellowstone River. The region averages 13.6 inches of precipitation a year.

At Stillwater, Clark had an old irrigation system with no central control, along with standalone heads. Clark and two of his crew dragged lots of hose to make sure the areas that needed water received it and to limit use of the irrigation system.

“If you’re not hand-watering, you’re over-watering,” he says.

Clark hasn’t set a plan for Yegen just yet, but he has a firm goal.

“It’s tough to say exactly what we’ll do, but we’ll cut down run times and utilize the end of a hose,” he explains.