Maintain quality tees

Nearly all superintendents have to deal with problem tees at some point during their career. Tees receive as much wear as any area of the golf course, and the superintendent is responsible for growing grass there faster than golfers wear it out. The success with which he or she can do this depends on several factors. These include tee size, growing environment, construction methods, maintenance practices (including tee-marker rotation) and turfgrass species. A deficiency in one of these areas usually leads to the maintenance problems superintendents commonly experience on tees. Evaluating each of these factors on an individual basis and taking action to correct deficiencies can lead to better tees and fewer headaches for the superintendent.

Tee size Arguably, the most important factor for the successful maintenance of tees is size. Given a large enough area over which to spread wear, superintendents usually can overcome deficiencies in other areas. Unfortunately, tees on most older golf courses (and many new ones) were designed to handle 10,000 to 12,000 rounds per year rather than the 35,000 to 45,000 or more many now endure annually. Designers need to accurately estimate future traffic prior to tee construction, and developers should then build the tees to handle at least that amount of play.

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A good rule of thumb exists to determine the amount of teeing area that should be available on any given hole. It states that a tee should have at least 100 square feet of usable teeing space per 1,000 rounds of golf played annually, with 200 square feet of teeing space per 1,000 rounds where irons are the club of choice on the tee. If a design follows these guidelines, other potential problems usually are less serious. Unfortunately, designers often ignore these guidelines, and the superintendent must try to make up for the shortfall in tee size with more intensive maintenance.

Obstacles interfering with the line of play between the tee and the landing area greatly influence usable teeing area. An overhanging tree on the right side of the hole, for example, will cause players to favor the left side of the tee to avoid interference from the tree. Even if a tree is not actually in the line of play, golfers may perceive it as a possible interference. Potentially, a 5,000-square-foot tee may only have 3,000 to 3,500 square feet of usable area if obstacles exist-or appear to exist-in the line of play. You should consider this fact when you place trees or other obstructions close to the line of play.

Growing environment Growing environment is another limiting factor for many tees. Shade and poor air circulation due to surrounding trees and underbrush are the biggest culprits. Trees provide a nice backdrop while also creating safety barriers between holes. However, too many or poorly placed trees can make good-quality turf difficult or impossible to grow.

Before construction begins, analyze sunlight patterns to determine where shade problems exist. You then can selectively remove trees to improve sunlight penetration. Also, clear out underbrush to allow for better air circulation. This is especially important in low-lying areas where air circulation already is poor due to the topography. With careful attention, removing only a small number of trees could mean the difference between a good tee and a problem tee with respect to growing conditions. Remove only those trees actually causing shade problems and carefully prune the remaining trees. In this manner, you can achieve a good growing environment and still maintain an aesthetically appealing background.

Tree-root encroachment also affects the growing environment. It is easy to forget because it occurs below the surface. However, trees compete with turf for water and nutrients and can greatly increase the need for these inputs. Too often, superintendents ignore tree-root problems and the tee suffers. Tree roots also present a safety concern when they grow just below the surface of a tee: They create the potential for injury if an unsuspecting player strikes a root with the club head.

Root pruning helps eliminate this problem. Cut a 3- to 4-inch-wide trench 2 to 3 feet deep between the trees and the affected tee, and line the tree-side face of the trench with tarpaper or a similar barrier material. This technique should impede tree-root encroachment. You'll have to repeat this process every 3 to 5 years but turf quality will be better as a result.

Tee construction Some tees, even in good growing environments, have problems built in from the start. To keep costs down, developers often construct tees from soil collected on site or from pond-dredge spoils. These materials often have poor properties for turf growth, especially in conditions of heavy play. Also, in the haste of construction, these soils often don't receive proper compaction and settling results in an uneven surface. This situation further reduces usable teeing area. You should take measures as soon as possible to eliminate surface irregularities and maximize usable teeing space. Topdressing applications will correct minor problems, but you should strip the sod and re-grade the tee where severe irregularities occur.

Properly aligning tees to fit the play of the hole is another construction issue that is sometimes overlooked. It is not as crucial from a maintenance standpoint, but a poorly aligned tee can compromise playability.

Use soils that are well-suited for turfgrass growth and construct tees using proper techniques (including attention to aligning the tee in a way that doesn't force golfers to take tee shots from one side). It may cost more initially, but in the long run it will be well worth the added cost from both a maintenance and playability standpoint.

Maintenance Intensifying maintenance practices on tees can help overcome some of the problems of small size, poor growing environment and poor construction.

Insufficient core aeration is a major problem on tees. On forward and middle tees, where play is heaviest, compaction often is a limiting factor for turf growth. Aerate these tees as often as possible so the existing turf has the best chance to recover and you can better incorporate seed. If the soil structure is poor, remove the cores and incorporate topdressing to help improve soil conditions. Conversely, on tees that receive little play, a thatch problem can develop that reduces the effectiveness of agronomic inputs. Physically removing thatch through core aeration and incorporating topdressing to break down thatch also is necessary to prevent a puffy surface from developing. The reasons for aeration in these instances are different, but both are equally important for maintaining high-quality surfaces.

Consider using walk-behind mowers on problem tees during times of high stress. Triplex mowers are fine when turf is growing vigorously but cause increased wear during times of high stress. Changing to these small mowers when practical can drastically improve the quality of tees.

Fertility is a simple factor that superintendents commonly overlook. Tees may need twice the amount of nitrogen as greens to aid in recovery, but superintendents often fertilize them less than greens, leading to slow turf recovery. Maintain fertility with about 0.75 to 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per growing month: the turf will recover more rapidly.

Divots also are a problem, of course. Topdress and seed divots on a regular basis (daily if possible), especially where golfers use irons. A topdressing material containing soil may be better than a straight sand material because the soil in the mix will retain moisture, which aids in seed germination. Divots will fill in more quickly, and the tees will be smoothed in the process. Placing containers filled with a topdressing/seed mixture on tees where golfers use irons also helps. This way, golfers can aid in the maintenance process.

Tee-marker rotation also is a big part of the maintenance process. A properly designed daily rotation schedule spreads wear evenly over the entire teeing surface during the golfing season. Where possible, use only one-half or even one-third of the tee width at any one time to increase the number of areas available for marker placement. Regular rotation maximizes usable teeing area as well as the interval before the same areas are used again.

During the off season, you won't need to rotate markers as often. Some superintendents don't move markers at all when the turf is not actively growing. In this way, you sacrifice a small area of the tee, allowing the rest of the tee to fully recover prior to the new growing season. Off-season tee rotation varies greatly. Find what works best for you and stick with it.

Grassing scheme Proper turfgrass selection can reduce some of the headaches associated with maintaining quality tees. For example, perennial ryegrass often is the grass of choice in Northern areas for undersized, heavily played tees. Perennial ryegrass is tolerant of traffic and also germinates rapidly. Thus, it is a good choice when rapid recovery is a priority.

Don't limit yourself to one turfgrass species for all tees on your golf course. In Southern areas of the transition zone, for example, bermudagrass golf courses are common. Bermudagrass is an excellent performer on tees in sunny, open areas. However, even in slightly shaded areas it can perform poorly. The use of a cool-season grass (such as ryegrass or bentgrass) may be a better choice for these tees.

Avoiding problem tees involves many factors including tee size, maintenance practices, proper construction, growing environment and turfgrass choice. Determine which factors are causing your problems and take proper measures to correct them. Growing high-quality turf on your tees will be much easier as a result.

Darin Bevard is an agronomist for the Mid-Atlantic region with the United States Golf Association Green Section (West Chester, Pa.).

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