Historic Wet Start to the Golf Season: Impacts on Playability and Agronomy

July, sure does not feel like it as the spring showers seemed to have not yet stopped. The begging of the 2024 golf season has seen almost unprecedented wet conditions. Persistent rainfall has made the region’s start to the season one for the record books, with significant implications for both playability and the agronomic health of golf courses. As we navigate through these wet, soft and at times soggy conditions, you the golfer and my staff in the grounds and greens alike must contend with a range of challenges that come with such an unusually wet golf course.

Southeastern Wisconsin has started the golf season with the second wettest season on record

Impact on Playability: 

The most immediate impact of the heavy rains is on the playability of the golf course. Saturated soils lead to several issues:

  1. Waterlogged Greens: Excessive moisture can make greens extremely soft, regardless of our efforts. This wet start has forced a change in our spray program in an attempt to drive water down and off the surface. However, we must be cautious: when the weather does dry out, we may have to hand-water much more than normal to keep moisture in the soil profile. The wet conditions can also reduce ball roll and make putting surfaces unpredictable at times. Soft and wet surfaces cause the grass to become swollen and full of water, leading to a thicker plant that tends to lay down rather than stand up. This creates more drag or friction on the ball, resulting in a slower surface. This not only affects the quality of playing surface but also leads to more maintenance, as we must brush, groom and even spike much more than normal. This also adds to the issue as every time we take equipment or even walk on these wet surfaces, we create more compaction and reduce soil pore space for oxygen. This will force us to do more solid tine aerification and more than likely the first greens core aeration in many years, to help the turf get through the season.
  2. Waterlogged Fairways & Tees: Excessive moisture can make fairways and tees extremely soft and at time even muddy, as these surfaces for the most part are native soil. The native soils drain well but not as well as the sand-based root zone structure of the Greens. These wet conditions not only affect the quality of play but can also lead to more maintenance issues as heavy machinery used for mowing and upkeep can leave at time tire tracking which can damage the turf, some of which may not be visible initially. This is why we use green and white stakes to direct cart traffic around wet areas or highly concentrated areas of traffic. 
  3. Course Closures and Cart Restrictions: With this persistent rain and what feels like limited dry time between rain events, this can result in temporary course closures or restrictions on golf cart usage. These measures, while necessary to protect the course, can be frustrating, but there are times I must protect the course and the few hours or the day it takes to dry down is necessary for the long-term health of the course.

Bunker Conditions: Wet conditions can turn bunkers into quagmires, making them difficult to maintain and play from. Even though a bunker is a hazard, during the periods of heavy rains, we will spend more time and labor to maintain these bunkers than almost any other part of the course. The running joke right now in the shop is, it feels like ground hogs’ day as we feel like we have to push bunker sand back up every day and move sand around trying to keep the hazard in as good of a playing condition as possible, despite the wet soggy conditions.

These graphs are from a few of our soil meters that record data 24 hrs. a day 7 days a week. These sensors allow me to see when the course may need an irrigation cycle or when the soil moisture is at field capacity. These sensors provide priceless data regardless of whether it is wet or dry.

Agronomic Challenges:

From an agronomic perspective, the wet start poses several challenges that require careful management to ensure the long-term health of the course:

  1. Disease Pressure: Wet conditions are conducive to turf diseases such as Pythium blight or root dysfunction, brown patch, and dollar spot just to name a few. These diseases thrive in moist environments and can spread rapidly, causing damage to turf if not promptly and effectively managed.
  2. Root Health: Constantly saturated soils can lead to poor root development. Turfgrass roots need oxygen to grow and function properly, and waterlogged soils can suffocate roots, leading to weaker plants that are more susceptible to disease and drought stress once the rains subside, this is why I have been applying penetrates on Green to try and drive water deep as possible in root zone.

Localized Dry Spots (LDS): Interestingly, despite the abundance of rain, localized dry spots (LDS) can still occur. LDS are areas of turf that remain dry even when the surrounding soil is adequately moist. This happens because certain soil types, can develop hydrophobic (water-repellent) conditions. This can be exacerbated by organic matter that creates a barrier to water infiltration as well as severe slopes. Please also note that this can happen to soils that are in areas that look as healthy as possible one day and the next they dry out as no water has been accepted by the soil.  As a result, these areas can suffer from drought stress even amid wet conditions, leading to brown, dry patches that require targeted irrigation and soil treatment to manage.

Localized Dry Spot on 9 fairway, soils repels water creating these brown dry sports, this soil will need a wetting agent to allow soils to begin to rewet.

Moving Forward: Strategies for Management

To address the challenges of wet conditions and even at times localized dry spots, we adopt a multifaceted approach to attempt to keep playing conditions in the best possible condition all while balancing and protecting the course for the weeks and months to come:

  1. Aeration and Soil Management: Regular aeration helps improve soil structure, allowing for better air and water movement within the soil profile. Incorporating some different soil amendments and nutrients can help soils and improve water infiltration, but all of these thigs must be balanced with playability in mind.
  2. Targeted Irrigation: Using hand watering and targeted irrigation cycles along with soil moisture sensors to help identify and address localized dry and wet areas. These tools can help deliver more precise amounts of water to areas that need it, reducing water where it is not needed all while trying to keep as uniform soil moisture levels as possible.
  3. Disease Management: Keeping a proactive approach to my disease management program with daily monitoring, fungicide applications timing, and cultural practices can help keep turf diseases at bay, all while attempting to make sure we stay ahead of play, the rain, and the potential disease outbreak.
14 fairway, the small tan spots are a small outbreak of dollar spot.  Even with properly timed application the disease pressure was so high we had a minor breakthrough.

Practical Implementation and Etiquette

As we begin July, the historic wet start to the golf season presents a unique set of challenges for both playability and agronomic health. By understanding the complexities of these issues and employing strategic management practices, we can ensure that the course remains as playable and healthy as possible while providing a quality golfing experience throughout the season, despite the weather’s unpredictable nature.

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