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Course Closed ?
by David Stansfield


To date it has been a pretty foul Winter with lots of rain interspersed with spells of hard frost. Keeping the course open in such circumstances will always have something of an adverse effect on its condition next Spring, but the extent of the necessary recovery and repairs required in April and May will vary considerably from course to course. Obviously, those courses on sandy free-draining land will tend to have fewer problems in this respect than will be the case on a clay-based parkland. However, this is more of a truism than an absolute fact. There are still plenty of muddy patches and paths on, for example, heathland courses at the moment.

A better generalisation is that those clubs who have done their spadework, month in and month out, year after year, to minimise wet surfaces, will reap the benefits in these circumstances by having a full course to play whilst causing it the least damage. It is a fundamental precept of agronomy that good courses are well drained, either actually or artificially, and that these drainage characteristics must be sustained by extensive course-wide, year round, aeration.

Trampling under play and the routine traffic of machinery compact the ground, reducing the pore space through which water can move from the surface down to subsoil depth and away. Such damage has to be frequently counteracted even though the primary benefits of such work cannot readily and immediately be seen. Indeed, the implementation of operations such as Vertidraining, hollow tining and slitting are generally regarded as a torment because to be truly effective they have to be done in advance of poorer weather in the majority of cases. However, any water which is encouraged into the soil must then have somewhere to go, and be able to get there at a reasonable rate, otherwise there will be backing up. Those lucky few who have a course with an inherently free-draining soil and a low Winter water table are the exceptions. For the majority, at least part of the course will require (or have) some form of artificial drainage to help remove surplus rainwater and keep the water table low, hence helping to sustain firm surfaces.

Even so, most of this group will not have any idea whatsoever where these drains are, where they go, or what condition they are in. Any Club that has a proper drainage plan for the course is a rarity. This perhaps is excusable in those instances where the drainage system predates the Club, this having been installed around the turn of the last Century or even before that. This accounts for more than a few. However, often even modern drainage is not mapped with an indication of direction, outfall, pipe size and backfilling. This is usually combined with the Club not having a scale drawing of the course !

Copies of a basic 1:2500 plan is a resource every Club should have, not just for drainage works, but to record the general development of the course too. Being able to consult a plan can save many long-term problems by being able to avoid breakage (through direct treatments, construction work, or installing irrigation), blockage due to tree planting (very common) and the fouling of outfalls. Remember too that drainage systems need maintenance more than emergency repairs (especially in bunkers), and ditches need an annual clearing.

Having said all that, solely providing good drainage will not keep courses mud free. As mentioned above, aeration work is the key to unlock its function in all parts of the course. On top of that, to avoid bare and muddy patches, there must be traffic control and worm management. Traffic control can take many forms, not just the obvious of ropes, hoops, white lines and a trolley ban. The volume of play on most courses engenders a requirement for year round planning to limit wear, together with prompt repair, using good mature turf, to stop the inevitable spreading.

Tight courses need good paths away from the line of play which are well built and reasonably attractive in appearance - scattering a few cockleshells or rolling in scrap road planings (roadstone and tarmac) is just not good enough. Bridges need to be on the sides of fairways, not in the middle. Machinery routes to the distant points should be on tracks in the rough wherever possible, with an exit point from the sheds which does not involve churning up the nearest green surround or fairway. None of this happens by accident but involves planning, effort and expenditure.

Other tips can be more immediate. Do not put mats on the main tees; vary Winter tee positions to change walking routes normally taken in Summer and the drive landing areas on fairways; put mats on Par 3 holes behind the main tee to reduce pitch marking; if there has to be trolleys at least ban buggies when the ground conditions are very wet; and if the greens become soft enough to hold a footprint for 10 seconds the play must come off pro tem.

This leaves us with wormcasting, a problem feature which is on the increase, whilst the means to control it are on the decrease. If you have severe wormcasting now, you are stuck with it for this year at least. Chemical control is not always effective but to have the best chance it must be applied in the Autumn. As to cultural control, at best using what is currently available will only have partial benefit, for it is slow acting but has an accumulative effect from repeat treatment.

All in all there is no instant cure-all which will allow Clubs to cope with a wet Winter. Those who manage best encompass the potential within their overall treatment programme and course development strategy. Those who do not, have to regularly repaint the "Course Closed" sign.