Winter weather patterns change from year to year dependent on where the coldest air is located on the planet. Transient weather patterns in the winter months can be the worst nightmare for turfgrass managers and the best thing for the golfer who wants to pull his clubs out. On a 60⁰ day in the middle of January golfers don’t want to hear that “greens are frozen”, “temporary pins only”, or “carts on the paths”. The region of the golf course will determine the frequency that these statements can be heard. In the northern regions courses remain closed during winter months. Most Midwest courses battle with the tough decisions of whether to open greens or close their course, dependent on the soil conditions. Despite what the high temperature for the day is in the middle of January, golf course operators must make the appropriate decisions for the short-term as well as the long-term impact on course conditions in the spring and summer.
Every course must make decisions about winter play at some point. Species of the plant, location of the region, and seasonal changes are a few examples that directly impact the complexity of the decisions for turf managers. Planning for Mother Nature is one of the most difficult aspects of golf course management. Soil temperature can trigger a lot of physiological effect in turfgrass. Temperature variations change less rapidly in wet soils than in dry soils, because water has a large capacity to resist temperature changes compared to soil particles. This explains why it takes several weeks of persistent cold weather to form an ice layer on your lake and vice versa on warming the lake.
The 60⁰ day that pins are placed in temporary locations.
Previous cold temperatures and moisture in the soils will cause temperatures to rise significantly slower than the ambient temperature of the air. As the frozen green thaws, not only does it become soft, it becomes very “squishy”. Adding traffic during this phenomenon causes a “rutting” effect that takes additional maintenance and wear on the turfgrass that is not needed during non-growth conditions. The other scenario is having a green that has thawed a few inches from the surface, but remains frozen beneath. Bent grass roots are fibrous and have a weak tensile strength when sheered off or pulled. Imagine, taking carpet from a living room and only having tack nails holding it to a sheet of ice underneath. In a short matter of time the carpet will slide on the ice pulling the “tack nails” out as it moves. This is the concern that turf managers have when allowing golf during winter months. The opportunity for immediate turf injury is high in this scenario, but (like most issues with turfgrass) the damage may not be expressed until the spring or during stressful times in summer months. Appropriate aerification and topdressing in the late fall can assist with reducing the moisture held in the top surfaces of the soil but is not a cure for extremely wet and cold conditions.
Living in the transition zone can give golfers a few bonus days in the winter months for golf. However, these bonus days are not always going to be the first day that it turns 60⁰ plus degrees. Turf managers do understand that golfer simply want to enjoy the course on a bonus day in the middle of winter, but must consider their membership needs and expectations for the entire year. Smoothness of greens is the most common discussion among golfers during the season. Maintaining the expectation is a 365 day process