6 turf-care challenges that golf courses face — and how the USGA can help

Golf courses, especially in the Northeast, have their hands full managing everything from tree shade and rocky soil to climate swings and elevation changes

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The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass., host of this week’s U.S. Open, is a rarefied place. But in some respects, it’s also emblematic of golf in New England.

Like many courses around the region, it sits on lilting land, flanked by trees and ornamented by granite outcrops — all beautiful features that can double as agronomic challenges. It isn’t always easy to grow and maintain grass on sloping, rocky soil, shaded by oaks and pines. Add seasonal extremes and the distinctive traits of many older Northeast designs, and you start to understand why area superintendents often have their hands full.

Much of The Country Club sits on sloping land.

USGA/Jeff Haynes

As the organization in charge of the U.S. Open, the United States Golf Association has been working with The Country Club to get the course ready for the championship. But the governing body’s turf-care efforts aren’t limited to one property, one week of the year; the commitment is widespread, and it carries out across the calendar.

In his role as an agronomist for the USGA Green Section, in the Northeast, John Daniels consults with scores of courses around New England, New York and eastern Canada. We asked him about the regional issues he and his colleagues frequently encounter, and what it takes to help courses overcome them, whether it’s for a national championship or everyday play.

1. Rocky soil

Granite outcrops are common on courses in the Northeast. And that’s nothing compared to the stuff that you can’t see. Rocky soils can complicate work on underground projects such as upgrades to drainage and irrigation systems.

“You might have to spend time digging rocks up or breaking them up with rock hammers,” Daniels says.

Those same conditions can also be tough on turf, as rocky soils just underneath the surface can cause temperatures to rise, heating up and drying out grasses. Special treatment, like spot-watering, might be required to alleviate drought-like stresses. Bottom line: There’s much more going on than meets the eye. Getting golf grounds into peak condition requires an understanding of what’s happening underground.

Some granite outcroppings are visible on golf courses, but often much more rock is lurking beneath the ground.

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2. Ups and downs

Elevation changes present strategic challenges to golfers and agronomists alike. They affect everything from temperature and drainage to the amount of shade and sun and patch of turf receives. When the land moves up and down, turf-care practices often need to shift as well.

“It might be that an area of the course gets less morning light, so it takes longer to wake up,” Daniels says. “Or it could be that water tends to collect in one area, so it needs less irrigation. You wind up with a lot of unique environments that respond in a very specific way, so your approach has to be site-specific as well.”

3. Season’s beatings

This past winter was a rough one in New England, and while The Country Club escaped largely unscathed, Daniels says, many courses did not. As is often the case come out of winter, much of the damage occurred on greens. Some were hit by flooding. Others suffered from dramatic fluctuations in temperatures — a quick succession of thawing and freezing that causes water absorbed by plants to expand, rupturing cells.

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Poa annua is especially vulnerable to this, and poa annua is a common varietal on greens in the Northeast. Daniels and his colleagues spent considerable time this spring helping courses devise recovery programs. In some cases, that meant keeping greens closed for a period. In others, it involved cultivation tactics, such as inter-seeding, sodding, and plugging.

“The greens that suffered the most were the ones that weren’t able to drain quick enough,” Daniels says. “So that’s something we focus on as well — trying to put them in a better place so that if there’s another tough winter down the line, they can emerge better off.”

4. The idiosyncrasies of age

A lot of courses in the Northeast date to the Golden Age, and their features reflect that vintage. By contemporary standards, many are relatively short, with smaller and more undulated greens than those found on modern layouts. Just as designs were different in those days, so were maintenance practices.

Putting surfaces, for instance, weren’t mown as tight. “When you look at the greens on those older courses, they typically have steeper slopes that weren’t built with today’s green speeds in mind,” Daniels says. “And so, as greens get faster, you reduce the number of hole locations that you can have.”

When you set out to gain speed, you run the risk of losing cool architectural features. The goal is to help courses find the sweet spot in between.

“A lot of times,” Daniels says, “the realization is that having healthy, smooth, true rolling greens rather than necessarily the fastest possible greens — that’s the better approach to focus on.”

5. 50 shades of shade

Tree problems aren’t unique to Northeast courses. But on Northeast courses, those shade problems are often closely tied to age.

“When a lot of these courses were built, they had fewer trees, and smaller trees,” Daniels says.

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Decades later, those sylvan features may no longer fit the course. In some cases, a larger, or recently planted tree might conflict with the architect’s original intent, diminishing the quality of a hole. With its shade or roots, a tree might also be a detriment to the turf. Like all living things, trees also get sick and die. They might grow unsightly. Or pose a safety hazard. All those considerations come into a play when weighing whether to remove or prune a tree.

“It’s not that superintendents have a vendetta against trees,” Daniels says. “It’s that sometimes the problem has gotten so far out of hand, it takes work to get things back in order.”

6. Come tournament time

For a championship as fine-tuned as the U.S. Open, preparations often start years in advance. As part of a restoration by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, many trees have been removed at The Country Club, and a number of greens have been enlarged, recovering old hole locations and bringing bunkers more closely into play. For the tournament, conditions are meant to be firm and fast.

That in mind, the club has also upgraded drainage in the fairway and, with input from the USGA, carried out an aggressive topdressing program, which helps the entire course dry out quickly even after heavy rains. The benefits of change should be in evidence this week, but they’re also intended for the long term.

“We look at courses years ahead and we also work to help as the tournament approaches,” Daniels says. “But everything we do is meant to have a positive impact 365 days a year and be helpful for the membership for years to come.”

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.