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Course Super's Dirt

September 2018

What a wonderful month August was for us on the golf course.  We received only an inch of rain throughout the entire month-most of it in the early part of the month.  Ask most superintendents what they prefer and they will say too little rain over too much.  It felt good to use the irrigation system to its full potential for the first time in about two years-and it is good to know that for the most part the system remains solid and dependable.

I have no fancy pictures for the article this month but I can say that the difference in conditions from last month to this month is really quite dramatic.  I know that it is a good sign when the complaints go from dead grass to slow greens.  Slow greens means that you have a putting surface with grass on it-something that we have been working hard to achieve.  We are now at the point, finally, where we can now switch our focus from recovery to optimal playability.  These two turfgrass maintenance objectives are really not conducive to one another.  When pushing recovery, the growth that results, while pretty, results in a playing surface that is softer and slower that a fine playing golf course should be.  Now that we are pretty much recovered from the damage, we can now focus more on trying to firm things up and try to achieve the “firm and fast” that everyone is always talking about.  Sad to say it is now September when we hit this point, but given the circumstances, I am not surprised.  As I have said before, these things take time-especially in a shortened season like this one has turned out to be.

As I reflect on how this whole process panned out, I can think of a few things that I may have liked to have done differently if we ever have to do this again:

  1. Keep course closed until June 1st. This would have saved much wear on surfaces that simply were not growing yet (soil temperatures too cold) and made a recovery faster.  That being said, May’s weather was fantastic and play was up.
  2. Temporary greens on 7 and 14. This would have helped immensely to minimize traffic on these two most punished greens.  They would likely be fully recovered by now if we had done this.  However, I think that the complaints from being on temporary greens for a few months would have been just as bad, if not worse, than with keeping them open to play.  In addition, where exactly can you put a temporary green on 7?
  3. I think that we could have been more aggressive going after the 7th Green. Looking back, I think that we could have been much more aggressive deep verticutting/aerifying that green.  The resulting mess would have led to more complaints early but I think that the recovery would have ultimately been faster.  Like most things on this list, there are pros and cons either way.
  4. Invest in a non-disruptive seeding attachment and overseed areas with more frequency with less labor. While there were areas on fairways and greens that we seeded 3-4 times throughout the season, I think that we would have done this even more often if we had the proper equipment to do so.  I am going to make it my mission to have something like this on the shelf for these kinds of occasions.  Indeed, I already have something in mind.  We used the overseeding tines that I had purchased in March on many occasions this year and they worked well, but there are other techniques that we could add to increase the efficacy of this process.

As I talk to players about the golf course, most are extremely supportive of what we do and show interest in what is going on.  I enjoy these conversations and get valuable information from them.  For that, I thank you for the support.

See you on the golf course.

VIncent Dodge

August 2018

As we all know, this season has been one of challenges-not just for us but for many facilities in this part of the state that experienced the same long, screwy winter we had.  Sad to say that here we are in August and we still are discussing damage from months ago but it is, simply, what it is.  I have a few photos to share to show a technique we use and how well it works.

The technique is called hex plugging.  We remove hex shaped lugs from our nursery and install them on the damaged part of a putting green to assist in recovery.  The practice is time consuming and requires a great deal of patience to do properly.  Most of this work was and continues to be performed by Danny Hilmas, who has be invaluable in his performance of this chore.  Other crew members have assisted as well.  The results to date are shown in the photos below:

 16 Green 6.26.18 116 Green 6.26.18 216 Green 6.26.18 3

16 Green June 26, 2018

16 Green 7.31.18

16 Green July 31, 2018

To date, we have installed hundreds of these plugs throughout the golf course and will continue to add more as we can around the heavy play we have been receiving of late and when labor permits.  This process has been ongoing and will continue over the next few weeks.

Seeding on damaged fairways has taken hold and continues to establish, like the picture below shows:

18 Fairway 8.3.18

18 Fairway August 3, 2018

Most fairways are showing a similar kind of recovery and should continue to improve on a daily basis.  We had two waves of fairway seeding throughout May and June.  Lots of work.  The seed catch on most was good though there were a few instances, like on 6 fairway, where heavy rains after we seeded washed some of the seed away and slowed establishment.  A little rain is good, heavy rain events not so much.

As a comparison, we intentionally left the driving range fairway alone to function as a control to show the comparison with what this area would look like if we did nothing.  We will seed these weak areas of the fairway later on this season when conditions are optimal for establishment.

Untreated Driving Range 8.3.18

Untreated Driving Range Fairway August 3, 2018

The difference in the areas is striking and shows that what we are doing is working.  There is no overnight solution to this kind of recovery.  Just hard work and patience. 

I had alluded to some heavy rain events earlier.  The later part of June and early part of July were abnormally wet with rain forest like conditions.  On July 11th and 12th we received close to 4” of rain (the usual monthly amount for July).  The result was the following on the 1st fairway:

1 Fairway 7.12.18 11 Fairway 7.12.18 21 Fairway 7.12.18 3

1 Fairway July 12, 2018

This was truly a mess and took all day to cleanup with a group of people including the pictured Assistant Superintendent Trevor Rintala.  A result of this rain event was also the thorough washing out of bunkers that took a crew of 8 two entire days to repair.  Not fun.  I find the picture below useful in showing just how heavy these rains were:

2 Fairway Bunker 7.11.18

2 Fairway Bunker July 11, 2018

The drainage system underneath this lake (about 4’ deep) was simply overwhelmed by the volume.  The rain fell in a short period of time.  The water was gone within a few hours but the damage to the bunker took some doing to make right again.  A tough stretch of time for the crew but in their usual manner, they soldiered on.  I love this group.

On a related note, our crew recently sustained a substantial loss when my assistant Trevor Rintala-the before pictured silt cleanup guy on the washout picture-found a position working at a golf course in Hawaii.  Trevor had been contemplating a change for well over a year, as these winters were taking a psychological toll on him (as they do to many that live here).  I am sure that smoked turf and raking silt off a bentgrass fairway helped him in making a decision to move over 3900 miles away.  We will all miss him greatly.

I hired Trevor over 15 years ago as a seasonal golf course maintenance employee who had never worked on a golf course before in his life.  He had hair then.  Blessed with an inherent competence, intelligence, sense of humor, and ability to work with anyone, Trevor moved up through the ranks, went to turf school in New Jersey, and functioned as my right hand man for over a decade.  Best assistant I have ever had the honor to work with(there have been many over the years) and while the entire group will miss him, I cannot help but feel immensely proud that he was able to put himself in a position to make such an exciting change in his life.  Vaya con Dios Amigo.

Trev and Vince Last photo

Trevor and Vin 8-1-2018

July 2018

As I reflect on the 34 years of golf course maintenance experience on the golf course, I can think of three years where I truly was relieved when they were over.  The first was the summer of 1988 in Aurora, Illinois (I was a crew member then) dealing with a hot and extremely dry summer where we simply could not get enough water on the golf course.  I remember hand watering fairways for days on end.  Tough year.  The next year I remember was the summer of 1995 in Itasca, Illinois (my first Superintendent position).  That summer was hot with extremely high humidity.  Too much rain.  Many lost greens-or came close to doing so-at the height of that summer.  A tougher year.  The final year that makes this list as the toughest year is 2018 in Tower, Minnesota-and not due to a stressful summer but rather a halacious, long winter followed by a brief, cold spring which was immediately followed by a storm producing early summer that washes out bunkers, knocks down trees, scatters debris everywhere, and makes it too wet for us to do much of anything on the golf course.  You do this job long enough, this kind of stuff is going to happen.  All whining aside, I have, in a sick kind of way, enjoyed the challenge of driving a recovery.  This has been a nice break from the humdrum routine of golf course maintenance and while sometimes it gets old dealing with the complaints, I also know that we are almost out of the woods and will be able to put most of this mess behind us in the next few weeks.  Moving on to specifics:

7 Green June 7, 2018

7 Green July 6, 2018

While still not quite there yet, 7 green is, believe it or not, in much better shape now than it was a month ago.  Note how much more grass there is on the playing surface (do not let the green pigments fool you in previous photo).  Believe me when I say that this is not easy to do when we are open for play on an undersized green-as the picture below shows:

July 6, 2018

The area where the flagstick is installed for the first time this year was completely and thoroughly dead 6-7 weeks ago.  The upper tier in the foreground was looking good initially but the inability to distribute the wear on the green to multiple locations has made recovery tough-you can see where we seeded but there is just too much foot traffic to have as good a recovery as we have had on the other greens.  In addition, the design of seven is such that all traffic is funneled to the same side of the green over and over again.  The plan is to use a combination of sod and hex plugs on the weaker areas of this green over the next week to move it along.  Number 7 is and always has been our problematic golf hole.

Most golf courses have one of these.  It could be a green with too much shade.  It could be an area with terrible drainage or poor soils.  In the case of 7, it is an undersized green with a sub-optimal traffic distribution design.  My intention here is not to complain about the design-when building a new course it is often not possible to foresee all problems that may develop over time.  Construction deadlines and budget limitations sometimes make it difficult to do everything perfectly.  What is important is to try to make improvements for the future.  For this reason, in 2014 I asked our original architect-Jeff Brauer-to put together a set of plans to improve this hole’s performance and he came up with this plan:

Making this change would turn a weakness on the golf course into a strength.  The setup options for this hole would be exciting with a great deal of variety.  The ability to distribute wear on a green three times the size of the current one would be very helpful.  While I do not see this happening anytime in the near future, I do think that this is certainly something that deserves some serious consideration.

During this entire golf season, I have made great efforts to be completely honest about our condition.  I have made a point to show the most troubled parts of the course and explain the causes and remedial actions.  Rest assured, most of the golf course is moving rapidly toward tip top conditioning.  I can say with confidence that our condition has improved with the passing of every day.  We are in the process of bringing down our cutting heights to their normal height while improving putting surfaces with sand topdressing.  Already, the trueness and speed on greens is improving and will continue to do so as we move away from growing out of damage and into techniques that improve playability.  As I have mentioned before, this is a process that takes time and requires patience.

The entire crew appreciates the patience you have shown for this recovery.  This season has caused an increased workload for everyone.  We are just as happy as you are to be moving away from this chapter in the golf course’s history and into a time of routine maintenance.

See you on the golf course,

Vincent Dodge

June 2018

Recovery continues on the golf course with a very good seed catch on the 7th green-the one most punished area by our terrible winter.  While the green is certainly not race ready, the recovery is gaining momentum and accelerating.  Before and after pictures from seven are below:

7 Green April 28, 2018

7 Green June 7, 2018

7 Green June 7, 2018

Note the abundance of seedlings on the picture.  This area was completely and thoroughly smoked a month ago.  Considering that the early part of May was quite cold at times (we had a frost on May 20), I am pleased with this kind of progress after really only about three weeks of decent growing weather-with the wear and tear of golfers on the turf.  Temporary greens are not really an option at this facility.  Now that we are moving into some summer-like weather, I expect the recovery to accelerate rather quickly. 

Overall, the golf course on the whole is looking more like its old self with the passing of every day.  Most of the golf course looks much like the picture of 18 below:

Hole 18 June 7, 2018

Other than some low lying parts of fairways that are still in the recovery process, the golf course is actually growing through the damage quite well.  This does not just happen on its own.

We have been continually seeding, fertilizing, and watering to get the course to where it is today.  The work load has been unusually high for this time of the year.  I am just glad that I have such a great crew to work with throughout this whole experience.  The two biggest things to be learned from the recovery process are:

1. Patience.  Grass will only grow as much as temperatures permit-even with the excessively high levels of fertility we are running at the moment.  Waiting for the work to payoff-like it finally is now-is like watching a pot boil.

 2. Balance.  The other work involved with maintaining a golf course does not go away while we sling seed around.  This is always one of the busiest times in a normal year with other types of work as well-such as ornamental plantings, aerification, and bunker maintenance.  We have to be able to focus on everything, not just problematic areas.  I think a lot of supers get in trouble when other work gets neglected due to a single focus on a recovery.

I look forward to these next few weeks as our recovery accelerates and we begin to round into mid-season form.  When we are satisfied that the recovery is virtually complete, we will at that point begin to lean the golf course back and try to shoot for a firmer, faster playing surface.  This is something that is impossible to do while we are recovering-but will be something that we will accomplish as soon as we can.  In the meantime, the golf course remains highly playable and while the course is softer and slower than we would like, it still remains a great test of golf and a great place to be.

Thank you to everyone who has been supportive of our efforts.  I have been very impressed by the understanding shown by almost all customers.  I am stopped almost daily by those who understand just how long this past winter was and how intense our efforts have been to make them happy.  Very encouraging indeed.

See you on the course.

Vince Dodge

May 2018

I always wondered when we would get challenged by a nasty dose of winterkill on the golf course.  We never really have had it before on a widespread basis.  I had a funny feeling around the end of March that this might be the year when the winter, which started a month early, showed no signs of breaking.  I was aware that we had some ice sheets underneath the abundant snowfall that formed in the beginning of December.  Not the first time for sure but normally our bentgrass surfaces will tolerate ice cover for 120 days or more.  This year the time under ice was closer to 160 days.  When we finally did pull covers on April 25 (close to a month later than usual), we found the following:
7 Green 4-25-2018
Seven was the worst of the group though several other greens took a beating.  Cannot say that I was really surprised-in fact, in March I had picked up some specialized equipment for overseeding just this kind of damage.  They are called Job Saver tines.  The name is apt because they probably have saved many Superintendents’ jobs over the years.  These units allow us to overseed putting greens with minimal surface disruption. 
The procedure for recovery on putting greens is/was as follows:
  • Fertilize with an ammonium sulfate fertilizer (performs better in cool temperatures) on April 30.  We did this before we had irrigation available as both the ground and our irrigation lake were still frozen.  We timed this around forecast rainfall.  A little risky but a risk worth taking-we had to get greens charging for a quicker recovery.
  • Run over damaged greens with Job Saver tines.  Done on May 7.
  • Overseed damaged greens with bentgrass seed from a drop seeder.  We chose to introduce a bentgrass variety at this time on some greens that should be better suited for our growing environment.  Done on May 7.
  • Topdress greens with sand and drag in.  Done on May 7
  • Roll greens thoroughly.  Done on May 7.
  • Apply a wetting agent to greens to help retain moisture to assist in seedling germination.  Done on May 8.
  • Apply a turf pigment to darken the putting surface to better collect heat from the sun and thus help in raising soil temperatures.  Done on May 10.
  • Apply a starter fertilizer.  Plan to do on May 14.
  • Fertilize during the month of May and June on a weekly basis with a water soluble fertilizer mix that is applied through a sprayer.  These rates are much lighter than a granular fertilizer but are readily available to the plant.
  • Irrigate as needed to keep seedlings alive.
  • Touch up areas with more seed as needed.
Needless to say, we will be fertilizing greens more than we usually do during this time of the year.  Normally I do not like to drive excessive growth as this creates thatch.  Thatch makes us have to aerify more.  Aerifying makes people angry.  I do not like to make people angry but in this case we will have no choice.  I predict that after this process we will likely have to core aerify greens in spring of 2019.  Another symptom of this recovery process is that greens will likely be running slower than usual for the early part of the year.  No way around it but as we proceed through the recovery, we will back off on our fertility program and get greens dialed in to where they need to be.  My thoughts are that we should be getting close to normal right around June 20 or so but it really is hard to say-so much depends on the weather-particularly temperatures.

Fairways were also damaged somewhat by the glacial conditions this past winter.  Some fairways, such as four, came through unscathed.  Others, like 11, looked like this today:
11 Fairway May 11, 2018
As on greens, ice developed in low areas on fairways and killed grass.  Much of this damage will recover with warmer temperatures.  The procedure here is to wait for consistent growth to resume on fairways and observe.  Once we determine a surface is truly dead and it becomes firm enough to work on, we will then drive growth with seed/fertilizer as needed to facilitate recovery.  Pretty fun stuff. 

One thing that I got a kick out of during this process is the effect that the pigments have on the appearance of some putting greens:
                                     10 green 5-11-2018                                          5 green 5-11-2018
The difference is really remarkable.  I left the 10th green alone in this process because I wanted to have a non-treated control area to determine whether the use of the pigment does indeed assist in the recovery process.  Useful knowledge for the future.  From a visual standpoint, there really is quite a difference.  I mentioned to my wife yesterday that I applied pigments to turf yesterday and the only thing she said was that I was a cheater.  Cheating or not, I kind of think that it looks pretty cool and seems to mask some of the damage and hopefully will continue to do so until we grow out of this.

No doubt about it-winterkill sucks.  The one thing I am enjoying, though, is that this kind of challenge brings out the best-or worst-in the ability of a superintendent to do their job.  Kind of like a grow-in with golfers around. 

On an unrelated note, my Dad passed away on May 4 and I would be remiss to not share the best picture in this article. 
Gordon Dodge USMC circa 1953
I pretty much talked to him every day and helped him to get a nice cushy golf course job mowing intermediate rough down in Chicago.  That man had the strongest work ethic I have ever been around and made everyone around him better with his generosity and sense of humor.  Even now I can imagine him looking at the golf course right now and saying, “What the hell is going on out there!”
I am going to miss him greatly.

Thank you all in advance for your patience and I hope to see you on the golf course.

See you soon.

Vince Dodge