Girding for the Aftermath of Winter's Wrath

If you’re living most anywhere in the Eastern US, chances are good the winter of 2014 has been a long, cold and entirely forgettable stretch.  The Mid-South has also endured more than it’s share of snow, ice and record-cold temps.  The Upper Midwest and much of the Northeast have been nothing less than arctic, hence our new familiarity with the meteorologically scary term - Polar Vortex.

Now, with all that (or most of it) in the rearview mirror and with spring on the doorstep, you would think golf course managers would be jumping with excitement for warmer temps to prevail.

Um, no.

I think it’s safe to say the good men and women who tend to your favorite golf courses are experiencing trepidation toward spring that borders on dread, especially those with greens made up of predominantly poa annua (annual bluegrass) turf.

Unlike most varieties of bentgrass, poa annua is extremely susceptible to extreme cold, long periods of snow cover and ICE.  Ice is really the silent, deadly killer of poa.  Snow falls, melts, then freezes – poa annua simply cannot withstand this scenario in extremes.  (For more on this subject, see this article from the USGA)

Maybe you’ve been witness at some point this winter to maintenance staff clearing snow from greens – or digging into the greens?  Wonder what they’re doing?  By any means necessary, they’re trying to keep the snow load off the greens and, when impossible to keep up, they’re taking core samples from the most susceptible greens, or spots within certain greens.  After a few weeks of acclimating to indoor temps, the samples should start to show some life, i.e. active, green tissue.  If not, it’s a turf manager’s version of receiving news of a malignant tumor or terminal illness.

At way too many courses this spring, when the snow and ice finally fade, there is potential for some serious and widespread death – what we in the turf trade call “winter kill”.

I’ve monitored this concern for much of the winter and watched as superintendents consider the inevitable.  In many cases, we’ll find that Mother Nature will have been too relentless.  After each winter storm, subsequent thaw and ensuing bitter cold, many greens simply did not have chance to recover – nor did the crews slaving away on behalf of their long-term health.

Greens that are predominantly made up of bentgrass will tend to better withstand the Winter of ’14, but there are more than a few courses out their with predominantly poa annua greens.  They tend to be the older, classic courses.  Those are the one’s where concern should be the greatest.

Another concern: In the Mid South, many courses have converted, or plan to convert their greens from bentgrass to the more heat-tolerant ultra-dwarf bermuda varieties.  What seemed like a no-brainer, given the trending temperature rises in recent years, is now something of a head-scratching, wait-and-see prospect — especially in the most northern reaches of the Mid-South (Kentucky, for example).  It will be interesting to see how these ultradwarfs manage the sort of winter we’ve seen this year.

So, a note to the discriminating golfer world out there: Don’t be surprised if your club or favorite course limps its way into the upcoming season.  I’m betting there will be plenty of greens showing the ill effects of ice.  Please be patient and supportive with your course superintendent while greens are overseeded and nurtured back to health. Just like your local meteorologist, he/she can’t control the weather either.


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