Bob Brame does not claim to carry a crystal ball. But as director of the USGA Green Section's North Central Region, he's been around the game enough to know that he doesn't need one to predict issues that will affect golf course superintendents from year to year. Taking a look at the past often provides enough clues to get a glimpse into the future.
By John Reitman •
Setting the standard
"Looking at the past is the key to previewing the future," Brame said at the recent Ohio Turf Foundation Spring Tee Off held at Ohio State University. "Where you've bumped your head on an issue in the past, you want to avoid that in the future."
Recent challenges to plague golf courses and superintendents, such as extreme heat, too much rain, too little rain and disease outbreaks associated with mowing too low during times of stress, Brame said, reaffirm the need for an established set of golf course maintenance standards. Such a guide, he said, can provide superintendents with a template for how to react to a host of issues, from establishing acceptable levels of disease outbreak to dealing with prolonged drought conditions, as well as work proactively day to day to avoid them as much as possible in the first place.
In other words, it is easier to respond to golfers' rants about dormant fairways in 100-degree heat in September when a superintendent has published maintenance standards that spell out a drought-response plan - that does not include a new irrigation system.
"Control what you can and create the best foundation possible and realize that things are going to get through even when you're doing everything right," Brame said. "But when you're doing things right and you have a good foundation, those incidents are going to be reduced."
"Control what you can and create the best foundation possible and realize that things are going to get through even when you're doing everything right..."
Recent playing seasons throughout the Midwest, Northeast and transition zone have been highlighted by extremely hot summers that are too wet one year and too dry the next. Throw in a virtually non-existent winter a year ago and that meant no offseason for a lot of golf courses that desperately needed one. Golf courses throughout many parts of the country ran critically short of water last summer thanks to an extended playing season coupled with droughtlike conditions. Many of those same courses in the Midwest and even into the Southeast haven't seen their irrigation ponds recharge to acceptable levels heading into this golf season.
Brame said he has visited many clubs in the past year that had to spend a portion of their 2012 seasonal labor budget before the season ever was expected to begin thanks to abnormally warm conditions that kept golf courses across the Midwest open almost year-round. For some, that tapped budget meant compromising on agronomic practices late in the season. Maintenance standards can spell out where such concessions, if any, can be made or how to pay for surprise expenses like seasonal labor in the offseason.
"Last winter forced guys to do maintenance in March that they weren't planning on doing and bringing in help they weren't planning on bringing in," Brame said. "That has quite and impact on the budget. If we start early and end early, then you can catch up, but the last few years we've been running pretty long into the fall. All of a sudden, you're faced with how you're going to balance that out. Do you just stop spending, or are less things going to get done?"
Maintenance standards also can help guide a superintendent through more of the day-to-day tasks of managing a golf course.
Among the most important aspects of the game to core golfers are firm, fast greens. What most of them don't know is that there are ways to coax speed out of greens during the summer that do not include dangerously low mowing heights that can make cool-season turf more susceptible to summer stress.
Brame noted how a program of light, frequent topdressing coupled with a slight increase in height of cut can, over time, result in green speeds consistent with a lower height of cut. Several research studies also show that a program of lightweight rolling, reduced mowing frequency and higher height of cut can produce firm and fast greens and a healthier plant even in July and August.
Brame acknowledges that it can be difficult to get buy-in for maintenance standards from club stakeholders. The key to starting the process and ultimately getting standards approved is education, he said. That's where Brame and his colleagues, or university extension specialists can help. The Green Section is adding a service, due to be implemented this year, that will include helping clubs established maintenance guidelines.
"It can be difficult to get buy-in for maintenance standards from club stakeholders. The key to starting the process and ultimately getting standards approved is education..."
Any set of maintenance standards also should include an aerification schedule and information about why it is a critical tool in maintaining long-term turf health.
"That's one of those practices that golfers are never going to like, but it's never going to go away," said Brame.
He's heard golfers ask during a site visit: "You did it three times last year, why do you need to do it this year?" he said.
"As soon as you are done (aerifying), you start losing the value of it."
Maintenance standards can help in other ways as well, he said.
Throughout his many site visits, Brame often is vexed by how many courses have inferior or outdated irrigation system, lack a full-time (or maybe even part-time) irrigation tech but have members who become irritated when they see club employees hand-watering in August and September.
Demonstrating the benefits of an irrigation tech, up-to-date irrigation system and the need for hand-watering can help get all included into a set of maintenance standards, he said.
"The politics and economics are always going to be there," Brame said. "But in my mind that further illustrates the importance (of maintenance standards)."