‘The course will take a few weeks of rainfall to recover’

Ten weeks of drought posed a major challenge to Irish golf courses. Kevin Markham interviewed two greenkeepers to assess how course conditions have been impacted.

Listening to Met Éireann tell us we haven’t had weather like this since 1976 makes you realise how much we miss hot, dry summers.

Dromoland Castle’s par three 13th with the 14th hole beyond. The effects of the weather are clear to see.

Golf courses that were under three feet of snow in March are now burned brown by the long days of sun. If you’ve been on social media, you’ll have seen an unforgettable image of Ballybunion, which looks more like the Sahara than a golf course.

The heatwave may have cooled but the trouble is, 10 weeks passed without significant rainfall and greenkeepers have had their work cut out to maintain their courses.

Here are the views of two head greenkeepers: Paul Coleman (PC), Golf Course Superintendent at Dromoland Castle; and Dave Edmondson (DE), Links Superintendent at The Island.

What are the key challenges facing golf courses in a heatwave?

PC: “The main challenges facing parkland courses are trying to provide good quality playing surfaces in the face of intense and prolonged drought. The golfer’s expectation is still the same no matter the weather and we need to at least offer a product worth the money.

"As the majority of playing areas are comprised of sand for the purpose of better drainage, they obviously dry much faster and consequently wilt. Also, having staff working in this heat is not ideal as there is prolonged exposure to the sun.”

DE: “Dormant turfgrass is not growing or recovering from daily wear and tear, such as traffic patterns. Areas of The Island are also becoming hydrophobic (water repellent) due to lack of precipitation.”

Have you experienced anything like this in your career?

PC: “The last time I can remember a similar prolonged period of hot and dry weather was in the summer of ’95. I was working as a seasonal greenkeeper at Woodstock Golf Club, and there was no irrigation on the course. The only method of applying water was through a bulk tanker which drew from a nearby river.”

DE: “In my six years at The Island, 2013 was similar with prolonged dry conditions. I have also experienced similar low rainfall years in France and Belgium, although these were slightly easier to deal with due to lower traffic.”

How do you tackle these issues?

PC: “Irrigation. We have an automated system on tees and greens but it’s not as simple as just turning them on and forgetting about it. Moisture levels need to be constantly monitored as too much is worse than too little. Some members are amused when they see us out with hoses, knowing we have sprinklers.

Without getting technical some areas on the greens become water repellent and will not wet with just water. They need to be treated with wetting agents.

“Unfortunately, it’s a logistics game and we do not have the capacity to water the entire golf course.”

DE: “We are targeting our water onto key areas: greens, tees, greens surrounds, and heavily divot-prone landing zones. As a classic links, based on sand, The Island is prone to drying quickly and we are utilising wetting agents for moisture retention and to avoid water repellancy issues. 

We are also using traditional watering methods, i.e. hand-watering on putting surfaces, as much as possible. This allows us to target water onto the high parts of greens (slopes) and leave lower lying areas. This method has allowed us more uniformity of moisture throughout our putting surfaces with an improvement in playing characteristics.

"With all of our watering practices we utilise soil moisture probes daily to determine the needs of specific areas. This is deemed to be good practice, allows us to micromanage our greens and conserves water.

“The club recently purchased a pogo moisture meter that allows us to test moisture content in a given GPS location, sends the information to a cloud network, and creates a map which helps the greenkeeper handwatering for the next day to target dry areas or hotspots.”

Ballybunion Golf course via @cathmoylan on Twitter

How much time is spent dealing with the current challenges?

PC: “We have two guys each watering for approximately 50 hours per week. Mowing has decreased and so we can tackle other jobs we normally wouldn’t be able to get done.”

DE: “As turfgrass is presently mainly dormant, our mowing has reduced drastically so I have three guys hand-watering during the day. One of these will be collecting moisture content data to help us make key decisions regarding the next day’s watering.”

Are the grasses able to cope with these conditions?

PC: “Typically we go by transpiration rates of the grass plant and this can mean approximately 5mm to 10mm of water is required per night (in or around 8,000 to 12,000 litres).”

DE: “Native links grasses are Fescue and Browntop bent, and both species are native to links sites and are extremely drought resistant. They can withstand periods of stress. In many areas these species are predominantly dormant at present but will bounce back once the rain returns. From a sustainability perspective, these grasses require little to no pesticides, and limited fertiliser or water inputs.”

How serious a threat is a prolonged drought to the golf course?

PC: “It is serious as 90% of the course is burned out and in great water deficit. It will take a few weeks of rainfall to recover. No water means dead grass on greens and tees. This can make the course unplayable. There will also be a cost down the road in regressing some turf areas lost.”

DE: “I don’t see it as a major problem as long-term forecasts predict a break in the current weather. If we do get any thinning of turf coming out of the dry weather, we are due to overseed again in August with fescue throughout.”

What can golfers do to help the course and greens staff during these periods?

PC: “Members and guests can help by not driving golf buggies carelessly on fairways and where they don’t need to be. The wheel lines are being burned into the grass.”

DE: “Golfers should understand that greens teams throughout the country are doing there utmost to produce quality products for their members and guests. Patience is required through these challenging periods until we all return to normal weather conditions.”


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