The last four months of the calender year are the beginning of the year for a golf course. I was told this by David Heroian, the Superintendent of the Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where I did my internship in the summer of 1998. The thinking behind this is that everything that you do during the Autumn is in preparation for next summer. For some reason, a large portion of the golfers put away their bags after Labor Day. This may be due to football, the kids going back to school or some other reason, but play really drops in the fall. It shouldn't be the weather, because in my opinion, the fall is the best time to play golf. On many days in September and October, the high temperature will be in the upper sixties or seventies with very few clouds. If we are lucky enough to have this type of weather in April or May, golfers will be lining up to get out on the course. Of course, after a long winter, cooped up inside, I don't blame them for wanting to get outside. During the fall, this same weather will be met with open tee times and discounted rates.
This drop in play gives us an opportunity to perform some maintenance that is disruptive to golfers. The biggest one is the dreaded "aerification." When the greens are aerified, the ball roll can be slowed down and if the holes are not properly filled, the greens can be bumpy. If we can get out and aerify while the grass is still actively growing, this disruption will only be about seven to ten days. When it is put off until later in the year (mid to late October in south-east Michigan) this period can last 2 weeks or more. If the weather does not cooperate, the greens might not fully heal until the spring. Last year, we aerified greens on the 16th and 17th of September. Many times in the month of October, I was asked when we were going to aerify our greens. They had no idea that they were already done, due to us taking advantage of the warm weather.
The tees and fairways are also aerified in the fall. This presents less of a problem for golfers. On the tees, the holes do not come into play because the golfer is allowed to choose where he will hit from and will usually put the ball on a tee. The fairways have longer grass and as with greens, if the holes are filled properly, it should be fully healed in a week or so. Most of the disruption will be one the day that we actually are working on the hole. This will usually only be two or three holes, due to the large areas that we are talking about. Most of our fairways are between one and two acres in size.
Fall is also the time when the summer stress is done with for the most part and the grass will start growing roots again. In Michigan, the predominate grasses used on golf courses are "cool-season" grasses. This includes Kentucky Bluegrass, Creeping Bentgrass, Ryegrass and Fescue. These grasses grow best with the temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees. "Warm-season" grasses such as Zoysia and Bermuda (as well as Crabgrass, which isn't a turfgrass, but a weed) don't start to really grow until the temperature reaches 75 degrees and will thrive until it hits 90 or so. When the temperature gets above 80, cool-season grass begins to shut down and go dormant. This is why areas that don't get irrigation will often turn brown in July and August. When this happens, the grass is just trying to survive and often the roots start to retract. At the end of August, we are lucky to have 2 inches of roots on the greens. By the end of October, I hope to have 4-5 inches of roots. The healthier the grass is going into winter, the better it will be in the spring. Aerification allows the roots a nice , friendly place for new roots to grow. It also allows oxygen to get down into the rootzone.
Fall is also a great time to control weeds. Most of the weeds that we have on the golf course are "winter-annuals." This means that the weeds sprout in the summer and then over-winter and really take-off in the spring and set seed for the next generation. Because of this and the fertilizer needs of the grass (the fertilizer that we put on the fairways in the spring is pretty much gone) right now is a great time for a "weed-and-feed." This is a fertilizer that is coated with a broadleaf herbicide. It makes sense from a couple of standpoints. The first is that we accomplish two goals with one application. The second is that we can save money. If I were to buy a granular herbicide, the manufacturer would have to coat something with the herbicide. This is often ground-up corncobs. If you do a weed and feed, the fertilizer is what is coated with the herbicide. As one salesman has told me, it is like you buy the herbicide and you get the fertilizer for free. Of course, you don't get anything in this world for free, but if you compare prices, if fertilizer costs $20 and herbicide costs $25, the combined product would cost $30. (I am totally making these prices up, don't quote me on any of this.)
During the early winter months, the grass stops growing and we start on preventative maintenance on our equipment. We change the engine oil, hydraulic oil, fuel and air filters on all of the mowers. We also change the oil on the golf carts, as well as check the filters and spark plugs on the carts. The tee, green and fairway mowers all have reels and bedknives that need to be ground and sharpened. The rough mowers have blades that need to be sharpened. We also clean up the shop. During the hectic summer months, it can get quite messy.
These are just a few of the reasons that, as a golf course superintendent, you cannot trust the calender. The New Year starts in September.
P.S. A big thank you to Robb Johnston for the title of this post. Robb works for the City of Ann Arbor's Natural Area Preservation Unit. He also is a childrens author. Check out his blog for The Woodcutter and the Most Beautiful Tree