Putting Greens: Speed Kills

Putting-greens management is the key to being a successful golf course superintendent. The putting greens are your business card and resume. But focusing on greens speed alone can kill your greens and your job. Instead, follow this step-by-step procedure for developing a comprehensive greens management program that will result in great putting greens without scalping them to death.

GREENS SPEED

Speed and stimpmeter readings have no place in greens performance discussions. The stimpmeter was never meant to be, nor should it be used as, a speedometer to compare greens performance at different golf courses. Great greens are firm, smooth and consistent, and should be your primary objective.

EVALUATING PUTTING GREENS

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Assess each of your greens for grass type, rooting depth, overall health and golfer perceptions. This process should include a visual assessment of the soil profiles of each green to compare construction, organic-matter layering and depth, rooting depth and putting-surface consistency. Research over several decades has shown that the best-performing greens need a minimum 12-inch depth of sand consisting of appropriate textural size ranges for adequate porosity to meet the turfgrass root-gas exchange and water requirements. These textural-size construction recommendations are designed to minimize rootzone compaction tendencies over time. The USGA putting-green construction recommendations provide guidelines based on physical parameters that have consistently produced good putting green performance. Using the USGA Green Section Turf Advisory consultative services is an excellent way to get a report card of your greens' condition. For maximum results, couple an onsite consultative visit with lab reports of your greens from one of the many labs throughout the United States. These labs specialize in providing a physical assessment of your putting green rootzone material.

GOLFER EXPECTATION AND ABILITY

Talk with the golfers, including your PGA Professionals, who regularly play your golf course. These discussions provide a good resource for learning how your greens are performing, how they performed in the past, how golfers would like them to perform in the future, which greens perform better than others and what the golfers use to gauge greens performance. The key to the success of these discussions is to develop a two-way communication between your customer golfers and the superintendent hired to meet their golfing play expectations.

TOURNAMENT PLANS

When golfers see the outstanding playing quality of a major tournament on television, they wonder why their course doesn't play like that. A good analogy for comparing tournament golf to regular golf conditions comes from football. Few would expect an injured football player to continue playing a regular season game, especially if doing so might mean permanent player disability. But if the game is for a championship game like the Super Bowl, the player may choose to get the injury taped up, have a special pain-killer injection and get back in the game. Like the injured player, your golf course can only sustain tournament-like conditions during special occasions. Tournament golf-playing conditions are for exceptional circumstances only and should not occur more than two to three times per year. Putting your golf course into severe tournament stress makes it much more susceptible to turf death from any additional stresses that the turfgrass would otherwise easily tolerate. Golf course members who expect tournament-like conditions year round are dooming their golf course to massive and repeated turf death.

DEVELOP YOUR MAINTENANCE PROGRAM

Once you have gathered and analyzed information about your golf course and identified expectations for your greens, you are ready to develop a maintenance program for them. Greens benefit from two distinct maintenance programs that are tailored to the specific needs and conditions of your golf course. The regular maintenance program outlines the primary maintenance procedures that you'll use during most of the year. The tournament maintenance program is one you'll use only for those exceptional circumstances, a maximum of one to three times each year, when golfers expect tournament conditions. For an effective management program, take into account these factors: putting green construction and age; grass species and variety; climate and time of year (soil and air temperature, precipitation amount, growing season, etc.); mowing height; mowing frequency; core aeration diameter, depth and frequency; sand topdressing rate and frequency; vertical mowing depth and frequency; rolling frequency; fertility level and grass succulence; and irrigation practices and root depth. Integrating these factors into a customized maintenance program is another good use of the USGA Turf Advisory Service. Your maintenance program goal should be to get the most from your greens for the best overall performance. Use these guidelines to focus your management program for producing outstanding greens.

  • Mow properly

    You should routinely mow each turfgrass at its physiological optimum, taking into consideration its variety, local climatic factors and expected playing quality. Only under tournament conditions should you mow below this optimum level. For example, creeping bentgrass putting greens mowed at ⅛ inch showed a 40 percent reduction in photosynthates compared to greens mowed at 5/32 inch. The grass mowed lower was significantly less vigorous and not as healthy. Monitoring your turf density is a good way to assess optimum mowing height. Poor turf density is many times the result of excessively low mowing height.

  • Roll regularly

    Rolling will improve putting surface smoothness and firmness. The turf is much healthier when mowed higher and rolled compared to being mowed lower. Research shows that frequent rolling (even five times per week), will not cause compaction or other turf health problems. Rolling is a great way to get fast, smooth greens and still maintain healthy turfgrass.

  • Cultivate frequently

    Putting greens produce the highest quality putting surface when you cultivate them frequently. The best quality putting surfaces develop on greens where you core aerify or deeply vertical mow at least 20 percent of the putting surface area each year. Vertical mowing and sand topdressing in conjunction with core aeration produce the best quality putting surfaces, resulting in firm, smooth, well-drained and fast putting surfaces. Golf courses throughout the Southwest with high standards may core aerify, vertical mow, and topdress weekly during optimal growth periods. Putting greens with adequate routine cultivation maintenance have an unlimited life expectancy.

  • Apply turf growth regulators

    Applications of turf growth regulators are the new magic bullet for high-quality putting greens maintenance. Turf growth regulators that are safe for your putting surface turf species will increase putting surface density and smoothness while also eliminating Poa annua seeding.

  • Water properly

    Reduce putting surface irrigation by implementing deep, infrequent irrigation supplemented by handwatering of hot spots. Ensure green surrounds are watered separately from putting surfaces. These procedures conserve water, increase surface firmness, reduce plant succulence and improve turf health.

  • Fertilize properly

    You should apply fertilizer only to meet the metabolic plant requirements. Excess nitrogen, for example, causes increased plant succulence, decreased drought and wear tolerance, and increased disease incidence and severity. The best putting green fertility programs apply required nutrients as foliar applied fertilizer at low rates to match the growing needs of the plant.

DEVELOP A MAINTENANCE MANUAL

This is the final step of your greens management program. A successful maintenance manual will integrate the maintenance procedures, budget and schedules concerning golfers and golf course event and play. The document will provide a good reference for everyone and synchronize efforts for putting green performance success. It also will serve as a guide to direct you concerning what changes are needed when targets are not being satisfactorily met. Maintenance manuals also serve as great tools for developing realistic expectations, budgets, schedules and procedures to achieve these goals. The combination of good agronomics and effective communications will allow both your putting greens and your golfers to be champions.

David Wienecke, CPAg is the Southwest region agronomist for the USGA Green Section. You can reach him at (714) 542-5766 or by e-mail at dwienecke@usga.org.

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