Winter work: Crucial for a successful golf season

A common question asked by golfers and non-golfers alike is, "What do you do in the winter?" This question used to annoy me, as I felt the person asking the question was being cynical or critical.  Over time I have come to realize that most people really have no idea what a golf course superintendent and team does in the summer, let alone in the winter. Now, when someone asks me what do we do in the winter, I take the time and explain this unique world of a golf course superintendent and greenkeeping.

Since our golf season in northern Vermont is relatively short -- from early May until late October -- proper preparation leading up to the beginning of the golf season is crucial. We take advantage of winter "down time" to "put the course to bed" properly in November and then spend the balance of the winter and early spring preparing for the intense six month golf season ahead. 

A look at the winter of 2017/18 provides a great example of the work we do.

Our fleet of turf care equipment includes very specialized machines. The cost for one mower can run anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000. The replacement value of an average eighteen hole golf course equipment fleet can easily reach and exceed $1 million. Our goal in the winter is to look over each piece with a fine tooth comb and do all the preventive maintenance necessary to withstand six to eight months of constant use. Without this thorough winter maintenance the risk of a mid-season breakdown becomes much more likely. Avoiding a major mid-season repair is our goal.
Reels are ground and ready to go.
Grinders on the sides of photo. 

Quality of cut is of high importance to us. The majority of our mowing fleet are reel mowers. A reel mower is used because it can mow turf at low heights due to a cutting action like a scissor. A reel with multiple blades spins at high speeds while a stationary bedknife rides along the ground creating a cutting effect. Both reel blades and bedknives need to be precision ground at least once a year during the winter. This precision grinding is done on specialized grinding lathes in our shops. Think of this grinding process like the way skis and snowboards are ground. Sharp edges with proper angles are needed for the equipment to perform properly.

Brush Clearing and Tree Removal
Golf courses in New England are usually built within some type of forested setting. These forested settings, whether interior or exterior, want to grow. Without the occasional cutting back of the wood lines the forest will choke out the golf course.

Rocky hillside at SMC being cleared of brush.
At SMC, the team did great work cutting back the edges on hole seven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen. A huge brush cutting project was also completed between hole sixteen and seventeen. This rocky hillside was cleared in 2004 to prepare for the construction of the course. Since then, all of the first growth species (cherry, birch, and poplar) vigorously grew back. This new look provides incredible views from sixteen tee and gives seventeen green a much better feel.

Cutting, clearing, and burning on fourth tee at SCC
At SCC, the team worked hard to cut back the edges on hole one and three. On the fourth hole the brush was cut back to the left of the teeing area. This cleared area will be the home of a new back tee. The October wind storm created multiple blow downs that needed to be cleaned up. The wooded area behind the fifth green was hit with six hemlocks that blew over due to the storm. After these areas were cleaned up, we continued with the tree removal program. Our efforts were focused on trees near greens and tees. The criteria for removing a tree has been laid out in a previous post SCC TREE REMOVAL PROGRAM . Most of the trees removed are white pine trees. These trees reduce the turf quality because of heavy shading, shallow roots, and copious amounts of tree litter. Along with better playing conditions the removal of white pines allows us to focus man-power on providing great conditions and not spending valuable time picking up pine needles, cones and branches. The added benefit is that previously obstructed mountain views are opened up.

Accessory Refurbishing
Production line of SMC tee markers
The winter months provide us the opportunity to take stock of all the accessories that are used on the golf course. Items like ball washers, bunker rakes, cart signs, and tee markers are refurbished to make look new again. This year it was determined that new tee markers were needed at both courses. In the spirit of good old fashion Yankee ingenuity and frugality we made them ourselves.

Painting SCC tee markers.
Notice the finished water cooler station in background.
At SMC, we made the markers out of white birch logs that came from the property. The logs were dried for several months, cut to size, spikes installed, and then the ends were painted. The natural look will fit in with our mountain golf course setting. At SCC, we used cedar posts cut into blocks for the tee marker. The cedar was stained, the sides painted with the appropriate color, and a spike was installed. Both teams did a great job paying close attention to detail and craftsmanship.

The other big in-house project at SCC was to build new water cooler stations. The old plastic stations were faded and simply had seen their day. These new stations were built by Mark Finch, SCC superintendent. Mark is a great woodworker and put his talents to work with these structures. This new look to the course will be striking.

One of six water cooler stations under construction.
Continuing Education
The "off" season provides us with the opportunity to attend conferences specific to turf and golf course management. At these events, the networking amongst fellow industry professionals and the educational classes are extremely valuable for our professional development. There are two premier conferences that are not to be missed. The Golf Industry Show put on by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America is an incredible educational experience. This year it was held in San Antonio, TX and attended by 12,000 golf course industry professionals from all over the world. The trade show and educational opportunities are exceptional. The second conference is put on by the New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation and is annually held in Providence, RI. This conference and trade show provide a more regional educational experience.

With spring now upon us, we feel confident and ready for the new golf season ahead. It has been a busy few months at both courses. Our good work this winter will soon be available for all to enjoy as opening day is fast approaching. We hope you enjoy our winter work as much as we enjoy doing it. See you soon and have fun out there!

Ice Ice Baby

Laying down special covers before winter.
"Ice, Ice Baby" and I'm not referring to Vanilla Ice. The term "winter kill" usually refers to turf damage caused by ice formation on the playing surfaces. While there are other forms of winter kill (mainly snow mold fungus, crown hydration, and wind damage) the main cause of serious winter damage is ice. In previous posts I have discussed how ice damages turf. In short, the ice forms an impermeable layer that eventually suffocates the turf. Snow on the other hand allows the dormant turf to breath. Simply put, snow is good and ice is bad... Just like the current skiing conditions.

The black cover has melted the ice and is showing through
The agronomy team at Stowe Mountain Club and Stowe Country Club walk the courses multiple times in the winter to assess the snowpack and ice levels. We use this information to predict the spring conditions and properly prepare.  Due to the extreme weather fluctuations at Stowe Mountain Club we have instituted certain practices that mitigate the potential for ice injury. Specialized turf covers are placed on the greens in the fall that help prevent winter kill and then removed in the spring. These covers are used in areas that have historically received a significant amount of damage.  A common example of an unwanted ice formation on greens is caused by collar dams. A collar dam is created due to the turf height of the collar being higher than the height of the putting green. When snow melts, the change in height allows water to pool creating a natural dam blocking water from draining. When the temperatures fall below freezing the pooling water forms  unwanted ice along the perimeter of the green. To assist with the melting process, a section of the sod from the collar around greens is temporarily removed for the winter months and then repaired in the spring.   

Example of  a collar dam creating ice on a green
Proper spring thawing is a very critical step to the survival of turf that has been under ice.  A consistent thaw above freezing can aid in the turf's survival. Unlike the local maple industry, the extreme swings in temperature with severe freeze-thaw cycles are detrimental to the turf. During these cycles, the ice will begin to melt and create puddles on the turf. Then a drastic drop in night time temperatures to below freezing will flash freeze the water and kill the turf.

Notice the water that froze in the collar channel during melt
From mid December on, this winter has been all about the ice and these extreme weather conditions have captured our attention. Multiple icing events have occurred this winter. Some areas of Stowe Mountain Club have been under ice since December. Stowe Country Club has also seen it's share of ice. Rain and thaw events in January and February have only added to ice levels. Are we concerned? Yes. Have we done everything available to us to prevent ice? Yes. Have we seen ice damage before? Yes. Do we know how to recover from ice damage? Yes. Are we certain there will be damage in the spring? No. One never really knows what the outcome will be when the turf finally begins to wake up in the spring. We can only explain the current conditions, compare it to our historical knowledge, and prepare for what may happen. "Prepare for the worst and hope for the best" is a very appropriate saying for this winter's potential impact on our golf courses.

The Year In Pictures

Stowe Country Club 15th Tee Renovation Start to Finish

Looking back from 15 tee

Standing on tee looking toward green

Standing on 14 approach looking at dead white pine trees

More before looks

White pines growing into 14 green

Construction starts with removal of 35 white pine trees

 Hauling pulp wood off course

Burning limbs and stumps was an important part of the project to stay on budget

Mark Finch standing on the location of future blue tee

Looking back at future fescue mound

Start hauling fill for fescue mound

Shaper arrives to start shaping the fescue mound 

Shaper starts shaping tee complex and new cart path

Cart path cut in

SCC crew starts grading tee surfaces

Tee complex rough graded and cart path gravel installed

Mark Finch and crew start irrigation installation

Hydroseed the fescue mound with Sheep and Hard Fescue seed blend

SCC crew hauls asphalt to pavers for cart path installation

Fescue mound waiting for germination

SCC placing tee mix

On-Course Golf Construction arrives to laser level tee surfaces

Sean Hanley working his magic

Tees are level and ready for creeping bentgrass sod

SCC crew starts laying sod on a rainy day

The pursuit of perfection

Almost done, a lot of sore backs

Sodding done, now start finishing edges

hydroseed Kentucky bluegrass rough

Split rail fence installed


Stowe Country Club 2nd and 15th Bunker Renovation

Hole 2 left side before

Left side after
Hole 2 right side before
Hole 2 right side after

SCC crew starts Hole 2 bunker renovation

Plywood is used to minimize damage to existing turf 

Drainage installation

New sand installed
Hole 15 right side before
Right side after

Hole 15 left side before

Left side after

SCC crew starts renovation

New outside contours excavated, bunker had significantly shrunk 

SCC crew fine grading bottom contour

New sand installed

No drainage installed due to pure river gravel being found

Various Other Photos

SCC Fall fescue cutting
SMC 4th hole on a Fall day

SMC fescue cutting

 Annual 5th grade class field trip to SMC, 13 years running!

Nice look at SCC 4th hole

Pine needles are one of many reasons to remove white pine trees

It rained a little bit this year

The day of the Vermont PGA Stroke Play Championship

And it rained a little more

SMC greens aeration

SMC Wildflowers, find the bee...

SCC cart path paving on Hole 15
SCC Irrigation pond dredge
Verticutting greens at SMC

Much deserved crew BBQ

2017 Golf Grounds Team
A Stowe double rainbow
Cheers to a bright 2018!