2016 Fall Recap

Wow! December has brought above average snowfall for Mount Mansfield this year. The skiing and riding is off to a great start. There are smiles all over the mountain. While the snow has everyone excited for early season fun on the slopes, it is a good time to take a look back at the 2016 golfing season and the activity of the grounds staff.

2016 Headline

The headline story for golf course conditions in Vermont and all of New England was the drought. Many golf courses suffered through the last part of the golf season with diminished to depleted irrigation water supplies. This lead to some turf loss due to extreme drought stress. Stowe Mountain Club (SMC) fared well with the drought. Our water supply comes from Peregrine Lake. Peregrine lake was designed for snow making reserves and holds 111 million gallons of water. For comparison, the golf course will only use 10 million on a very dry year. Coupled with a substantial reserve of water, the irrigation system was designed to cover all playing surfaces from the cart path to the edge of the fescue grass. While Stowe Mountain Club is in a good position to handle drought conditions, the situation at Stowe Country Club (SCC) is much different.

SCC Pond Drained and Ready For Winter Dredging
The pond on the ninth hole is the irrigation water source at SCC. This pond has a holding capacity of 1 million gallons. This size pond is a very small storage capacity for a golf course. What makes the pond usable is the fact that it is fed by a stream that enters the property from the first hole. The issue that occurs in the late summer is that the stream dries up and the pond cannot be recharged. This year we began rationing water in late August and continued through the dry September with minimal capacity to irrigate. Thanks to the hard work of Mark Finch and Matt Jung we hung on during these difficult times and the conditions did not suffer greatly. We did have to suspend the washing of equipment in mid-September because the equipment wash pad is fed by irrigation water. This became an operational challenge but we decided it was necessary to conserve the little water that was left in the pond for turf health.  

Strides are being made to eliminate this unfavorable scenario in the future. One very important water conservation tool installed this summer was the replacement of the old irrigation controllers (See prior blog post). The new controllers with centralized control allowed for precise programing of nightly irrigation cycles. This new system ensures very little waste in irrigation water and reduces the overall electrical consumption of the pump station. This winter we will be dredging the pond to regain water storage capacity. The stream that feeds the pond carries sediment that overtime has filled in the pond. The contractor will do this work in late winter to minimize the damage to the golf course. Lastly, we are designing a pumping system that will utilize the water from the West Branch of the Little River that runs along the fourteenth hole. This secondary water source will fill the irrigation pond when the feeder stream dries up. The pumping capacity of this pump is low enough to have no impact on the health of the river. These investments will assist us with providing great golf course conditions while using the latest technologies to conserve and use the water wisely.

Fall Projects

The fall is a great time to do small construction projects on the golf course. By this time of year  the grass has slowed so that mowing frequency has been reduced which frees up labor to be allocated to such projects. The bonus period for construction on the course occurs in November. By this time, the courses have closed and we have completed most of the winterization projects that are crucial for turf survival. November can be hit and miss when it comes to favorable working weather. This year the November weather gave us a small window to be productive on the golf courses.

SMC Hole 7 Curb Removal
13 Bunker Before
The difference in elevation between the two golf courses was very evident this fall. The weather turned cold and snowy much sooner at SMC than at SCC. As an early winter was setting in at SMC a project we were able to complete was the removal of the curb at the seventh tee. The curb was originally installed to manage cart traffic in order to minimize excessive wear to the turf. As time progressed it became clear that this curb was impacting play in a negative way. The ball from a long left tee shot on the sixth hole would end up catching this curb and rolling all the way to the eighth hole. While an errant shot should not be rewarded, a player should have the opportunity to find the ball and attempt a recovery shot. By removing the curb, a ball will now simply roll off the path onto the seventh tee surrounds providing a player with a manageable recovery opportunity.

13 Bunker During
With the weather window staying open for longer at SCC we initiated three projects. A drain line was installed at the practice facility to alleviate various standing water issues. This drainage project fixed a wet area near the closet target green from the upper tee. On this same pipe we connected a line that will capture water from Sinclair Road that would puddle near the newly paved parking lot. This was not a glamorous project but it was necessary to continue to improve our great practice facility. A second drainage project occurred at the fifth hole approach. A chronic wet area existed below the right green-side bunker. A drain line was installed to dry this area and various drainage laterals were installed to provide additional drainage in the approach. The final project was to repair the right side bunker at the thirteenth green. This bunker was one of the bunkers that puddled for a long period after a rain storm. Additionally, the size of the bunker had shrunk over time. To repair this bunker we installed a center drain line, expanded the contour lines, and added better performing bunker sand. This bunker repair is the continuation of our overall goal to provide great playing surfaces continuously across the entire golf course in all weather conditions.

13 Bunker Final
We look forward to presenting these improvements to the players this spring. Until then, enjoy this good old fashion winter weather!

Stowe Mountain Club Approaches

While night time temperatures are dropping and daytime humidity is somewhat disappearing, we know that the seasons are starting to change before our eyes. And even though we've had another tremendous summer, we are always looking to create conditions that provide the best golfing experience possible. This post will help describe how we do that on our "approaches" at Stowe Mountain Club.

My team has two primary focuses, health of turf, and playability for you the golfer. Increasing quality assists in providing exceptional aesthetics and playability helps you better enjoy your good, and maybe not so good, shots.

We have recently been giving added attention to the green approaches at SMC. The "approach" is a commonly overlooked facet of the golf hole because most golfers attempt to have their approach shots land on the putting surface - past the approach. But at SMC, with our small greens and backdrop of the mountains and trees, depth perception can sometimes be thrown off. Since we can't move mountains, we have opted to improve the surface where a great many shots are landing. By maintaining the approach, a greater variety of shots can be played from in front of the green.
At many courses the approach is maintained like a fairway. This means a higher (HOC) and less frequent fertility and turf treatment. While this may seem like an okay idea, in the long-term this frequently played -off turf can start to thin. At SMC, our focus is on providing golfers with many playing options, including putting, from the approach. With shorter cut turf, your approach shots experience no interference from the grass, giving you the ability to create more spin and control. And just like your careful shots around the green, our maintenance practices have to be handled with care. 

A look at the approaches being expanded back to the fairway.

Instead of using a typical triplex machine to mow the approach, we have employed a hand walk-behind mower. With this hand mowing effort, the attention to detail can increase immensely. The walk-behind can bring about it's own concerns, so for that reason we've provided some practices to offset these concerns. Walk-behind mowers require tight frequent turning in order to make the next pass. This tight turning can cause thinning and unnecessary wear on this short-cut turf. To offset this concern, we've started using turning mats for greens mowing and approach mowing. Whether it be for turning on the collars for a green or the primary cut for an approach, the turning mat allows for a firm place to turn. In addition, you may have even noticed that most of the approaches at SMC have been expanded out toward the fairways.

Using turning mats on the green surface while mowing hand mowing approaches.

We have also started topdressing more frequently. Expanding the lower height of cut (HOC), while advantageous for playability challenges the turf plant. The crown (heart) of the turf plant becomes more exposed with a shorter HOC. That is offset  with topdressing sand to insulate this crown. Even though the surface may seem more "sandy" immediately after its completed, with a few nights of overhead water and a day or two of mowing, this sand will settle right down to where it needs to be. However, insulation isn't the only reason to topdress. Topdressing also helps us achieve a decrease in thatch build up and an increase in surface soil porosity. This increase in porosity helps the root system maintain a consistent delivery of water and nutrients.

Ultimately, we are maintaining the approach playing surface more like a green. This new focus on approaches takes a little more effort to maintain, but with the right practices and the right focus in place, you will continue to see exceptional conditions at SMC!

Thanks for your continued support! See you on the course!

Topdressing approaches for crown insulation.

Stowe Country Club Irrigation Update

Twenty-first Century Irrigation... What is it?
Golf course irrigation systems consist of three major infrastructure components.  At Stowe Country Club, we recently completed an overhaul and upgrade of one of these components; the control system.  The pumping system and the delivery system are the other two.  The means to deliver water to the turf is one of the most valuable tools a golf course has.  The superintendent is responsible for managing water usage to yield optimal conditions of playing surfaces.  Executing this simple principle requires that the superintendent relies on all three major components to be flawlessly operable.
A basic approach to appropriate watering practices is simply to not over-water.  This is done for many reasons that include playing conditions, disease management, resource conservation, and more. It is crucial that watering occurs only when necessary and not only when convenient.  This brings to light the importance of the system and its components to be functional during crucial demand periods.
The irrigation system that is in use at Stowe Country Club is over twenty-five years old which poses great concern for possible failure.  We had the opportunity to upgrade the control portion of the system this summer. This is essentially the brain of the system and consists of a series of electrical field controllers that transmit electricity to each of the hundreds of sprinkler valves throughout the golf course to deliver water.  Using the seven former field controllers at SCC as stand-alone programmable controllers is an example of the most basic application of automated irrigation.  Until a week ago our assistant superintendent, Matt Jung, would make a visit to each field controller nearly every day and manually program the watering schedule.  This is analogous to setting 168 alarm clocks each evening but they cannot all go off at once, they have to be spread apart so as not to get so loud it wakes the neighbors.


Previous stand-alone controller on hole 10


Installation in progress


Newly installed controller with new concrete pad and surge grounding
The pumping system has a maximum supply threshold of delivering 450 gallons per minute (GPM).  If there is too much overlap in the number of open valves that are demanding water during the nightly watering schedule, an alarm is activated and the pumps shut off before they are damaged.  The pumps will live to see another day but the irrigation schedule that was interrupted is now incomplete.  Most full watering cycles take 5-10 hours to run which is why an automated night time schedule is the only feasible run time.
The control system that we installed this July incorporates a central controller in the form of a computer that communicates to each of the seven new field controllers via radio frequency.  The central computer uses smart technology to schedule and facilitate the automated watering.  The central component creates a cycle schedule based on our daily parameters that maximizes the efficiency of the pumping system and its electricity consumption.  It monitors theoretical GPM flow in real time and adjusts watering in the field to consolidate running time while also avoiding overuse of the pumps.


burying surge grounding rod


Previous controller on hole 1 in area of play.


Newly located controller site out of play.  
(We anticipated this relocation and dropped a sleeve tube
underground to run wires through prior to cart path paving in May.)
The entire irrigation system benefits from this technology.  Knowing that all three major system components are aging and their reliability is questionable, we concluded that the smart features of the central control will help preserve the longevity of the system as a whole.  By prioritizing the control system upgrade we can confidently rely on the pumps to run at a more consistent speed or RPM, reducing wear and tear and reducing run time hours.  By maintaining a constant pumping speed and maximizing the demand of the available GPM flow, our underground piping system is moving a more steady flow and a holding a more static pressure level. Without central monitoring, water flow in the underground pipe can be variable and sporadic and can cause stress fractures and catastrophic breaks, especially in 25 year old PVC pipe.
Left: the central control computer set up in the maintenance office.  
Right: a screenshot of my cell phone utilizing an app that can communicate
with the central control computer remotely.

The control system is up and running and programming is as simple as a mouse click or as complex as we can fathom.  In an industry where water is a diminishing resource in some regions, it is our responsibility as superintendents to be conservative, efficient, and accurate in our watering practices.  There is an endless amount of data that we have begun uploading to our central control that will make our system operate optimally.  As we build our database we will begin to employ features of the control that communicate with our weather station to maximize water use efficiency.  For example, the watering schedule can be set to pause or end at the detection of rain.  The weather station will also feed data that measures the amount of evapotranspiration (plant moisture loss during day) and determine the amount of irrigation to apply to replenish vapor loss.  These are good examples of technology opening up a whole realm of new ways to increase accuracy and efficiency.  Not to mention, the ability to operate the sprinklers on the golf course remotely from anywhere in the world with our cell phones!

Mark Finch, Golf Course Superintendent

Winter Reflection at Stowe Mountain Club

While snow depths stayed low all winter season, the grounds department was able to prepare and complete some great projects on the golf course. It also halted the stress of true turf management, allowing our team to continue exploring opportunities to improve your golfing experience. Arguably, the winter months are some of the most important months for a golf course maintenance team. On the surface, it may seem like our main priority is only snow removal, but our scope of work extends far beyond. Refining the maintenance operation, analyzing the budget, and most importantly researching our team output on the property allows us to prepare for another successful golf season.
2 tee underbrush
Obstructed view on 18

This particular winter season, we identified 2 particular projects. Tees on holes 2 and 18 needed a facelift. Our goal was to improve turf health and aesthetic value. Like any project on the golf course, there is necessary research that needs to be completed before the start. On top of analyzing the budget, we make sure that the project will benefit the health of the surrounding turf. Most of the time the aesthetic value will also be immediately enhanced, but sometimes it may take a few weeks to a few months for the surrounding turf condition to also improve. As you'll be able to see during your round, our work significantly improves the aesthetic value of the holes. Over time, this work will also improve the health of the surrounding turf. The work on 2 tee opens up views to Peregrine Lake and the work on 18 opens up a view of "The Chin" on Mt. Mansfield and a beautiful rock face. The brush cleared on 18 tee also improves the playability from the black/blue tees (playing a right to left shot).
Cleared view of the "chin"on 18
Cutting brush under 2 tee
Clearing underbrush this winter, particularly from tee surrounds, was an on-course priority. As I mentioned before, this particular act can help health and aesthetic value. By clearing brush, this will
dynamically enhance air flow and circulation. By enhancing these two things, the turf will have more sunlight and oxygen improving its ability to make more food for itself. Organically, the turf plant will also be able to improve its natural defenses, potentially decreasing overall pesticide usage.

Burning brush
We were then able to discard the removed brush by naturally burning. However, you will notice some standing "dead" trees remaining in the cleared areas. We refer to these "dead" trees as"snags." The "snags" are necessary in providing habitat for wildlife such as woodpeckers. The "snags" allow the woodpeckers to create cavities. These cavities allow smaller birds to occupy these spaces to nest called "cavity nesting." During this whole process we were able to partner with the Mountain Operation Team and borrow a tracked vehicle to access the golf course during the winter months. The sharing of assets between resort departments is really proving to be a valuable process for everyone involved. Sharing assets primarily helps the bottom line when analyzing the necessary inputs needed for these capital projects. This on-course winter work is very important because the forest will continue to grow in on the golf course, negatively impacting playability and aesthetic value.
A look at the final product
Thank you for your continued support! We look forward to your feedback regarding these winter projects!

Winter Work at Stowe Country Club

By Mark Finch, SCC Golf Course Superintendent

Winter Work

When we see a golfer or two walking the course course with a couple of irons and a pocket full of golf balls around Thanksgiving, it is a telling sign that winter in coming late. When we see the same people roaming the snow-less property on Christmas Eve is in confirmation that winter is late. Then to see people hitting balls and carrying a shag bag around the practice field after the New Year, we become skeptical of winter's arrival. 

So how does a winter like this affect the golf course in the spring? A quick recap of notable events:
  • 66 degrees, December 24th
  • 1 inch rain, December 30-31st
  • (-10) degrees, January 5th
  • 1 inch rain, January 10th
  • 3 degrees, January 11th
  • 54 degrees, February 3rd
  • (-18) degrees, February 14th
  • 1 inch rain, February 16th
  • 5 degrees, February 18th
  • 0.75 inches rain, February 20th 
Ice formation on the turf is the conditions we are most concerned about in our region as it pertains to the winter turf survival. The other condition is called crown hydration. This is the harmful freeze-thaw pattern that the turf is susceptible to while breaking dormancy in mid-March and early-April. These fluctuating extremes are notable but not that unusual. The sequence in which these events take place is what requires close attention. Basically, the recipe for disaster (in our case, ice formation) is a winter rain event immediately followed by single-digit temperatures. We observed this pattern three times so far this season. Fortunately, in the case of the December rain, the ground had not yet frozen so the rain was absorbed throughout the soil. The subsequent events occurred in mid-January/February and there was a large amount of ice. From a glass half full perspective we had a couple factors on our side at that point; barely any snow and it was already mid-February. Turf can withstand a certain amount of time under ice cover. Creeping bentgrass has an ice tolerance of 90 days and Poa Annua has a tolerance of only 30-60 days. Having a mixed stand of both of these grasses at SCC causes concern for any length of ice cover. This February icing events puts us in the better scenario for survival due to the shorter duration under ice. Turf damage occurs from ice coverage due to the low levels of oxygen and the accumulation of exhausted gasses that can be fatal to turfgrass. 

It is almost inevitable that every winter comes with a January (or February) thaw. As noted, on February third we reached fifty four degrees which typically would have melted a lot of snow. But with hardly any snow on the golf course to melt, it was the ice that was melting. By the end of that week Stowe Country Club was approximately ninety percent void of ice and snow. 

Digging Dry Well On 18 Green
We are not in the clear yet. The scariest days of winter are still to come for golf course superintendents in northern climates. The days and nights of freeze-thaw, or crown hydration potential, occur in mid-March through early-April. Essentially, the plant may begin to take on water during a thaw and then freeze at night. The cell structure of the plant becomes swollen with water and when this water freezes the cells expand to the point of rupturing. This rupture occurs in the crown, or growing point, of the grass so the plant becomes injured. 

We do everything we can throughout the winter as superintendents to intervene and mitigate any conditions that may be conducive to either of these types of winter associated injuries. Timely snow removal to hasten ice melt, drainage improvements to facilitate standing water and plant protectant applications are some examples of countermeasures we routinely execute before winter arrives and as the snow melts. Invariably, there is always the possibility of some amount of turf loss due to the unfavorable winter conditions. As for this year, we are closing in on the point where we can rule out much possibility of significant ice damage due to length of cover.

Adding New Sand at 18 Bunker
Our staff took full advantage of the extended period of mild weather that occurred well into the month of December. This "bonus" time was used to aerate fairways and rough along with facilitate a few drainage projects and bunker improvements that were scheduled to take place in spring 2016. Golf course improvements and repair that began after the golf course closed for the season include:
  • Both greenside bunkers renovated on hole 18 (completed reshaping, new sand and internal drainage)
  • Fairway/Rough internal drainage on hole 13 (piping and surface drains installed and ready for spring regrassing) 
  • Leveling and resodding of back tee on hole 10
There is no question that drainage infrastructure is lacking at SCC but our progress is reaching a  point where noticeable improvement is being made. We plan to continue addressing poorly draining ares of the golf course in the early spring and again in the fall of 2016. Our efforts are focused on fairways and bunkers. Enhancements in our cultural programs on greens has paid great dividends with the drainage performance and playability of the putting surfaces. We will continue to institute new practices to sustain the progression this year. 
Repairing Drainage 18 Bunker

During the month of January we resumed implementing our tree management program. For a period of time we had just enough snow to get on on the course with our tractor to conduct tree work. There are a growing number of tree specimens on our property that are diseased and hazardous. We specifically identified an area between the twelfth and thirteenth holes where spruce trees had matured to the point of die-back and became diseased. The selective removal of these trees will better enable us to safely recapture the beauty in this vast rolling space as a fescue area with desirable trees featured. A similar renovation took place between the fourth and fifth holes. The species here were northern white pines of the "pasture" form. After assessing the unnerving growth habits and health of this stand we prioritized reclaiming this tract as well. The completion of work at this location will introduce expansive views of the golf course as well as the scenic view of Camel's Hump from the fourth tee and green. We are excited to be finalizing the revitalization of the fourth hole through the completion of several projects over the past few years. These efforts include: 
  • Tree removal and fescue grass establishment, left side 2013-14
  • Tree removal and fescue seeding right side 2014-15
  • Cart path relocated and paved, tee to green, 2015
  • Mounded fescue features, right side, 2015
  • Bunker shape restoration, new sand, 2015
  • Tree removal, fescue restoration, right side, 2015-16
Golf Maintenance Staff Re-assembling SMC Tent
At this point in February we feel the golf season fast approaching and there is still a lot to do. There are golf course accessories to refurbish for another season and a fleet of grounds equipment that we overhaul, service and sharpen to be ready for heavy use during the golf season. We are fortunate enough to house all of our equipment under shelter this year for the first time ever with the addition of a temporary structure that we re-purposed from Stowe Mountain Club. We were able to erect the structure ourselves just in time before the first snow. 

When the golf ends for the year our efforts to maintain the course do not end. In fact, some of our most productive work is conducted in the off season. With another winter flying by, we continue to work hard preparing for another great golf season at Stowe Country Club.