By James Moore, U.S. Golf Association
This is one of the most important questions that can be asked regarding every golf course. Usually this question is followed by questions such as:
Do greens wear out over time?
Why is it some greens last for over 50 years and other are rebuilt within 10 years?
How long will it take?
How much will it cost? (Which is often followed with a repeat of the first question – do they really need to be rebuilt?)
At first, these questions would seem to be relatively easy to answer. But the person asking such questions will quickly find that they will receive many different answers to the same question- depending largely on the perspective of the person being asked.
There are at least four distinct perspectives that come into play.
The agronomic aspects of the existing and proposed greens involve the greatest amount of science and technical considerations. The following procedure is recommended to determine whether or not the greens should be rebuilt.
Arrange for a Turfgrass Advisory Service visit from the Green Section agronomist in your area. The agronomic staff of the Green Section can provide an unbiased assessment of the ability of the greens to perform up to expectations. This assessment will based on formal agronomic training and invaluable experienced gained from visiting a wide variety of golf courses and green construction techniques.
Please do not assume the Green Section agronomist will recommend the reconstruction of any green simply because that green is not currently built to the USGA Guidelines for Green Construction. (The USGA Green Section’s Guideline for the Construction of Greens can be found at USGA Guidelines.) The USGA agronomists fully realize that there are many greens that perform extremely well that are far from being Spec greens as they are often referred to in the industry. In fact, the agronomist will make every effort to determine whether or not the existing greens can be improved through modifications to the maintenance programs.
Improve the growing conditions of the existing greens as much as possible. Often greens that are performing poorly can be greatly improved with practices including a more aggressive aerification program (including various types of aerification), adjustments to the fertility and/or fungicide programs, the provision of additional light and air movement to better support turfgrass growth, the raising of cutting heights to create a stronger plant, the acquisition of better quality water, or even something as simple as increasing traffic control efforts to distribute traffic over a larger portion of the green. The Green Section agronomist can be very helpful not only in helping the golf course superintendent identify such steps, but also in documenting the need for such work in a written report to the course leadership.
Please note! Seldom do greens fail solely because they are poorly built. More often, there are many stresses on a green that cause it to fail. While reconstruction may well be justified, unless the other conditions that contributed to the turf’s failure are not corrected as well, the new green is unlikely to perform up to expectations. One good method of ensuring all aspects of the current growing conditions of the greens have been considered is to complete a USGA Report Card for each of the greens.
Remove samples from the existing greens and submit them to an accredited, physical soils laboratory for analysis. Provide your Green Section agronomist with the results of the testing. The golf course superintendent and the agronomist can then evaluate the impact of the root zone on the overall performance of the green and determine if corrective maintenance practices are in order – or if complete reconstruction is necessary.
Once you have completed the steps listed above, you will have a very good idea of the agronomic strengths and weaknesses of your greens. However, the most difficult part of the assessment process remains. That is, to determine at what level of maintenance the limitations in the greens will become apparent in terms of lost or damaged turf.
For example, a golfing membership that expects near championship putting quality on a daily basis (an unrealistic goal in most parts of the country) will need greens that are much better constructed and subject to very few other stresses. Predictably, the low cutting heights necessary to produce very fast greens place a great deal of additional stress on the greens. Such greens are invariably be less able to tolerate heavy play, limited light, poor air movement, or extremes in temperatures. Those golfers desiring the ultimate in playing conditions will also need to provide the ultimate in growing conditions for the turf. The reverse is true as well. On those courses where the majority of the players can be kept happy (assuming golfers can ever be kept happy) with moderately paced greens and the greens “enjoy” otherwise good growing conditions, limitations in the construction of the greens will be far less influential on their overall performance.
Another example how the construction of greens impacts courses differently can be found in areas of varying water quality. In many communities the quality of the water can vary widely from one part of town to another. While all greens should be irrigated with good quality water, those that receive water high in salts, sodium, and bicarbonates are under a great deal more stress. Such greens must have good internal drainage to allow leaching of these components out of the upper portion of the root zone and away from the plant.
Often golfers have a hard time understanding the interrelationships between the various stress factors the greens must endure. There is a tendency to look for one thing that needs correcting in an effort to simplify the problem (the problem being poor turf performance). The reality is that all greens are exposed to a wide variety of stresses. Just a few examples include heavy play, low cutting heights, poor air movement, limited light, tree root competition, inadequate cupping area, limited entrance and exit points to and from the green, compaction of the root zone, poor quality water, and bentgrass grown too far south – and bermudagrass grown to far north. And of course – poorly constructed greens. Again, prior to making the decision to rebuild the greens, every superintendent and representatives of the course leadership are urged to complete the Report Card to get a better idea of the “big picture”.
Most often, greens are targeted for reconstruction because of their agronomic limitations. However, poor or inappropriate architecture is every bit as good a reason to rebuild as a root zone that does not drain.
Architecture has a tremendous impact on the overall performance of a putting green. Consider a green design that includes severe contouring of the putting surface. Although the green may measure 6000 square feet in surface area, from an agronomic standpoint the area that is usable for hole locations is the more important measurement. Even though the green may be large, if the contours are so severe that they limit hole locations to just a few areas the concentrated player traffic will wear the turf thin.
The design of the green obviously impacts it’s ability to withstand traffic. The architect that designs small, heavily contoured greens for a course that receives heavy play does a disservice to all concerned. However, this seldom happens. What does happen is that many times the amount of play a course receives today is much greater than what the course received during the first few years after construction. This is exactly what has happened on many older courses. Golf has never experienced the popularity it now enjoys. While this has been good for the game and those who enjoy it, many older courses still have greens that were designed for much less play. The same “push-up”, 50 years old greens that might withstand 15,000 round per year, may fail completely under 30,000 rounds.
Changes in the way golfers want the greens to be maintained have also impacted the design of the greens and the ability of the turf to withstand traffic. Greens that only 20 years ago were mowed at 3/16 of an inch and perhaps measured 6 feet on the stimpmeter (a device used to measure the speed of greens) may today be mowed at 1/8th of an inch and measure 9 feet. The low cutting heights necessary to produce fast greens greatly reduce the ability of the turf to withstand traffic. The faster speeds likewise “amplify” the contouring of the greens. Hole locations that were considered reasonable at 7 feet on the stimpmeter are often out of the question at 9 feet. This effectively makes the usable area of the green much smaller.
Obviously, the combination of lower cutting heights, faster putting surfaces, and more play will have a strong negative influence on the green’s architecture as well as it’s agronomic performance. As a result, the original architecture of a many courses is often inappropriate to today’s conditions.
When the greens on a beautiful old course cannot withstand the amount of play they receive because they are just too small, a change in architecture is necessary. Often this is an extremely difficult decision for the golfers and leadership of the course. This is particularly true for courses with architecture of historical significance to the game of golf. No one wants to lose the artistic touch of Tillinghast, Mackenzie, Ross, McDonald, Maxwell, or many other great architects that have done so much for the game. For this reason, perhaps the greatest test of today’s architects is to be able to preserve the “flavor” and strategic value of a historical architectural style while at the same time incorporating design characteristics that will allow the green to better withstand today’s pressures.
Needs of the Golfers
As discussed above, many of today’s golfers expect greens for daily play that far exceed the quality that was expected for major championships just 20 years ago. Many golfers expect daily course conditions comparable to what they see on television on the weekend. Unfortunately, very few of these same golfers have any idea how much preparation goes into peaking a course for a championship. With very few exceptions, the course that is seen on television has undergone weeks and even months of extra preparation for the event. The main point of this discussion is that golfers should realize that rebuilding greens to USGA guidelines does not mean those greens will be able to support championship conditions on a daily basis.
There is another major factor regarding the needs of the golfer’s that must be considered whenever the need for greens reconstruction is evaluated. Some golfer’s greatly desire smooth, firm, and very fast greens, and are willing to pay whatever it takes to obtain such greens. However, many other golfers find greens that are softer and slower more in keeping with their games. Predictably, these different needs can lead to sometimes bitter disagreements within a golfing membership. And often, the split is well defined by age. Many seniors simply do not strike the ball as hard as their younger counterparts. As a result, their shots are seldom as high nor does the ball have as much backspin. Firm, fast greens are therefore more difficult for most seniors and many women golfers.
More importantly (from a construction standpoint), while the greens may need to be rebuilt in order to sustain the very low cutting heights necessary for very fast putting surfaces, their construction may be adequate for a less strenuous maintenance regime. In other words, a green that fails miserably when mowed at 1/8 of an inch for weeks at a time may perform quite well when maintained at 3/16 of an inch for the season. When faced with the cost of reconstruction and the fact that the greens may be closed for as much as 10 months for reconstruction and grow-in, many golfers will chose slower, softer greens mowed at the higher height. Please note – not all greens construction problems can be solved simply by raising cutting heights of the mowers. There are many greens that are so poorly built that regardless of the setting on the mower the greens will frequently fail.
Needs of the Ownership or Leadership of the Course
When the conflict arises between those golfers that want new greens and those that find the existing greens satisfactory, the leadership and/or ownership of the course is caught in the middle. Which group should be appeased? Much depends on the need to attract new golfers and/or members. Courses located near other good courses must remain competitive. They cannot afford to offer playing conditions (or club facilities of any type) that are significantly inferior to their competition. The leadership must also consider the need to constantly attract new players. Attrition is an undeniable and inevitable occurrence at almost every course or club.
In at least one respect, it is a shame greens are not depreciated over time. A very general rule for the life expectancy of greens is that the construction should last at least 20 years. Over that 20 year period there are likely to be major changes in the golfer’s expectations for how the greens should be maintained. There could very well be major changes in the amount of play the courses receives. After 20 years the greens will probably not drain well internally. Without question there will continue to be major changes in the legal and environmental aspects of golf course maintenance. And, like almost everything else, there will be major improvements in grasses over any 20 year period. All of these factors will favor the periodic reconstruction of the greens. It is the responsibility of the course leadership to prepare for such work well ahead of time. Good preparation often makes the difference between a project that is accepted by the golfers and one that is not. Equally important, good preparation almost always makes the difference between a project that is successful and one that fails.
As you can see, there is much more to determining whether or not the greens need to be rebuilt than simply sending a soil sample to the laboratory. Again, one of the best steps you can take early on in this entire evaluation process is to involve your local Green Section agronomist.