Why autumn is so important on the golf course
Think greenkeepers take it easy when the leaves come off the trees? In fact, some of the most crucial months for a course come during the autumn.
While the autumn might be a season of downtime for golfers, it’s actually a very important time for our golf courses.
Leyland Course Manager Scott Reeves explained why.
Why is autumn such an important time for you?
During autumn in the UK, you usually tend to get favourable conditions for working on getting the grass to grow and germinating seed.
The temperature tends to be a little bit kinder and there is some rain around. These are what you’d call classic growth conditions.
It’s a great time if you’ve got areas you need to overseed, or if you need to introduce new species.
It’s also good if you need to carry out work that might be stressful to your greens or tees.
Take scarifying, which you wouldn’t want to do in the early summer, for instance, because it is a very stressful process.
If you can do it at a time when there is less traffic, such as the autumn when the conditions are in your favour, then that is a great opportunity.
What happens when you get an autumn where you don’t get those conditions – if it is really wet or cold, for example?
In that case, you might not be able to carry out any work at all. When you want to carry out deeply invasive maintenance work you have to book it far in advance and so the golf club schedule may mean you’re unable to rearrange the work.
Anything that disrupts that schedule causes a big problem.
If it’s bad weather and breakdowns – then you might miss that opportunity to do something very important altogether.
So if you get that disruption it’s very difficult to catch up?
That’s right, the opportunity has gone.
I’m not an expert on climate change but I would say that, over the last 20 years, our autumns tend to have been very mild. You’ve got a bigger window than you might possibly think.
The knock-on effect of that is clubs have extended their seasons.
Quite naturally people think ‘I’ve paid a lot of money, let’s keep competitions going right the way into October and possibly into November’.
Everybody is fighting for the same period of time.
What work then would you be undertaking during the autumn?
You are carrying out tasks that are stressful operations for the turf, such as hollow coring, scarifying and topdressing – work that might disrupt the surface. You have got your main playing season out of the way so surfaces don’t have to be absolutely perfect.
A lot of people tend to leave what they might class as greens renovations to the end of the season.
Also, people are getting into construction, drainage installations, building tees and bunkers. The theory is that we are not quite into the wettest period where you are going to do damage to your golf course by travelling across it.
You’re moving heavy loads of material, or big machines, before it gets too wet or frozen.
How stressful is this time of year?
It’s as stressful as you make it. I don’t get too stressed because I can only do so much.
With the resources we have, we set a target that is hopefully realistic but as greenkeepers and course managers there are always things that are out of our control.
If something does go wrong, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about it. But if you are in a position where you are really trying to get something absolutely crucial done, it’s very important because we all care passionately about what we do.
When things go wrong, or you have got ongoing issues, it is a struggle.
What happens when you have a good autumn? What can you get done?
You get the opportunity to go out and do some good aeration work, which creates lots of nice pore spaces in your fairways.
That means when the rain does arrive they drain that bit better and you’ll have a drier golf course.
You’ll have a better golf course through the winter, happier golfers and your tills will keep ringing.
A good winter also means the spring will be better because your course will recover quicker from the stresses of winter.
It’s a cycle. Each season feeds into each other. So a good autumn, because we play 52 weeks of the year now, means you can get through the winter in good shape and with the course not too badly damaged.
Need to know more? Stuart Green, BIGGA’s head of member learning, gets into the nitty-gritty of what greenkeeping teams are doing during these crucial autumn months…
Why is the autumn so important?
It’s really crucial for not only repairing any damage that’s been caused during the growing season, but also preparing the golf course so it is ready for the winter.
How is that damage fixed?
You need to do some topdressing, maybe some deep aeration work, relieving some of the compaction in the top surface and removing some thatch.
You want to get your work done before the grass stops growing.
If you don’t do that early enough, you are left with aeration scars going into the winter, which exposes the plant to more disease.
People don’t think that autumn is particularly important but it is certainly among the most important times of the year for greenkeepers.
It’s the changeover. Spring is a changeover into summer and spring renovation work is really important to get the course ready for the growing season.
The autumn is also really important because you need to get the course ready for the winter. You’ve got different stresses that come in that period.
If the summer has seen a lot of traffic, is the autumn a chance for greens and grass to recover?
Absolutely. What we do to a grass plant is unnatural. Grass wants to grow up really tall, wispy, and put seed heads on.
To get courses into top playing condition during summer, what we do is shave it down to below 5mm and we’re putting it under a great deal of stress.
Autumn is a chance to alleviate some of that stress and give it a little bit of a breather.
We think about the winter as a time when construction work takes place on courses. But should we actually think about autumn as the most important time for these?
Yes. When I worked in Scotland we had to get our bunkers turfed before Christmas because, as soon as you hit that time, the really heavy penetrating frost came in and you couldn’t do anything.
If you do a lot of that renovation work early enough, you still have warm soil temperatures and that’s particularly the case on clay.
If you’ve ever eaten a pizza, the cheese is soft and can be stretched or pulled apart easier and clay soil is like that.
It retains its heat and you can do a little bit more renovation work going into the autumn.
If it’s a sandy soil, it tends to cool down a lot quicker. But if you’ve got warmth in the soil, the turf and the grass seed will establish faster.
You get your roots down and the plant can settle itself in and be really ready to go in the spring.
The longer you delay, the longer the start-up time the following year.
This article was first published in Your Course, the twice-yearly magazine from the British & International Golf Greenkeepers Association that aims to inform golfers about what goes in to the maintenance of a modern golf course and the greenkeepers whose job it is to produce the surfaces.