Drought forces course superintendents to rethink routine
BY BILL BROTHERTON
It’s a sunny, slightly windy morning at Tedesco Country Club in Marblehead, the kind of day that puts an extra bounce in most golfers’ step. But Peter Hasak, the longtime course superintendent, isn’t smiling. After a practically rain-free summer, keeping courses lush and green has been a challenge.
“It’s been a battle all year long. All of my peers are starved for water right now,” Hasak said.
Over at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Kip Tyler is equally worried. Tyler, course superintendent since 1982, has the added stress of getting his track in shape for next year’s U.S. Senior Open Championship, set for June 26 to July 2.
“It’s the hottest August in history.It’s been the driest June, July and August in history. Water use has been a major issue, and we’ve been monitoring its use since the spring. We don’t want to run out.
“A lot of the days this summer were ideal for golfing and going to the beach. For the golf course, not so great. The weekends have been great for everything but turf. Wind and sun sucks moisture out of the turf and greens. Day after day of no rain dries everything out,” Tyler added.
But these guys have it relatively easy compared to John Sadowski at the Golf Club at Turner Hill in Ipswich. At least Hasak and Tyler have access to water. Since spring, Sadowski and his staff of miracle workers have somehow kept the course in playing shape.
Sadowski has two wells and a holding area in a lake but his access to water is much more restricted than that of his counterparts at Tedesco and Salem. “There’s no water coming in. There’s not enough water,” he said matter-of-factly.
Sadowski said Turner Hill enacted a cart-paths-only edict before July 4. He’s had “fairly limited” water since the spring, and stopped watering the rough and fairways in mid-June. Tees and the bentgrass greens have received the most babying.
An additional challenge, Tyler, Hasak and Sadowski’s courses are among the area’s busiest: Salem gets 25,000 rounds a year; Tedesco 21,000-plus; and Turner Hill 22,000 in 2015, a few less this year.
This is the driest summer on record, according to the National Weather Service. The North Shore received 1.18 inches of rain in June, 0.87 in July and 1.84 in August. Historically, the average rainfall locally for those three months is 10.05 inches. More than 72 percent of the state was in severe to extreme drought conditions, with Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk counties the hardest impacted.
It’s put local golf course superintendents on the hot seat.
Hasak, in his 29th year as Tedesco’s grounds superintendent, says the 1993 drought might have been worse. “We dealt with the same water supply, but couldn’t move it as easily as we can today.” Hasak said Tedesco is fortunate that it has access to more water than many area courses, though he’s ever mindful to conserve water.
In the mid-’80s all golf courses had to register its water usage, he said. ”We’re limited to 18 million gallons … it seems like a lot, but it’s not. We’re very conservative with its use,to carry us through the end of the year. The river that supplies our well is so low. We’re down to our last four million gallons; we have to be careful to not run out. I have to get to Oct. 15. I need to know I have enough.”
Hasak said about 70 percent of Tedesco’s grass is annual bluegrass “the weakest of northern grasses.” But that’s not unusual on older courses in New England. Tedesco’s greens are more than a century old; they were built by laborers with picks and shovels.
“How we manage the turf means a lot. The lusher we keep it, the more water it needs. Wetting agents help. It allows the water to penetrate more.”
The bulk of the watering is done at night, from 8 p.m. on. The greens are done first; they are hot at the end of the day. Wind promotes the transfer of heat and speeds up drying, with moisture evaporating quickly. Hasak and his crew often syringe greens in the morning and during the day to cool them down. Syringing is the practice of applying small amounts of water to reduce temperatures and wash the grass. It applies water to the canopy, but is not intended to restore soil moisture, as is typical irrigation.
Bob Green, Tedesco’s head professional for 36 years, said members are more aware of seeing brown patches of grass, on the course and in their own backyards. Green and Hasak agree that brown isn’t necessarily bad. The Augusta Syndrome, in which every blade of grass during the Masters tournament is a vibrant green, has colored many players expectations of what a golf course should always look like.
“First things first. People have to drink water,farmers need it to grow crops,” said Hasak. “We had a hard rain a couple of days ago. People think, ‘Oh good. We’re out of the danger zone.’ … It bought us a day; everything is so dry.”
“We’re still in this challenge. We don’t know how long it’s going to last,” said Sadowski on Aug. 30, taking a break in his office at Turner Hill. “But they’re calling for a hot and dry fall.”
Sadowski’s greens are bentgrass, and he said “day in and day out, they’ve never been better.” But he admits there are “some horror stories out there,” namely the fairways on holes 7, 12 and 14.
A warm, dry fall will make recovery tougher, Sadowski, who has been at Turner Hill since its 2004 founding, says. The best-case scenario: “a half-inch or three-quarters-inch of rain every other day, followed by a good, steady tropical depression and sun,” he said. What about the winter? “It’s two or three months away, and we still don’t know what to expect, what the fall will be like.
“Personally, I hope it snows like hell … cause I like to ski,” he said with a smile. “For the course, give me snow, keep it coming all winter.
“Ice isn’t good for anybody, but our bentgrass can withstand it better than poa.” Sadowski said he “doesn’t cover anything” during the winter months; Hasak, Tyler and other superintendents with annual bluegrass greens (poa annua) don’t have that option. Ice can be a silent killer, wreaking havoc during the winter months.
“Golf courses were invented without irrigation way back when … still, this season has been mentally challenging,” added Sadowski.
Salem Country Club’s Tyler said the winter of 2001 was one of the most damaging for the golf course, just before that summer’s U.S. Senior Open. “That was the most challenging. We had a lot of dead grass before the tournament. In 2014, we had winter kill on the greens. It was bad.” Tyler and his staff overcame those potential disasters, and he’s confident the course will survive this brutal summer of 2016, too.
Tyler communicates with his staff by walkie-talkie. He sits in his cart near the clubhouse, his border collie Molly nudging him for a little attention. It’s a cloudy morning, and Tyler is hoping – in vain, it turns out – for a little rain, About 10 of his guys are doing it old-school, pulling hoses and stationary sprinklers out to hand-water fairways and spots that are exceptionally dry. Forget the sophisticated irrigation system. Water conservation is key. “Mother Nature’s nectar” he calls it. “Mother
Nature’s nectar rejuvenates things. Mother Nature has not been accommodating,” he said. “We’re managing. There is dead grass in the rough in places, and there are spots in fairways that are not coming back (on their own). But, hey, considering what some other guys have for water, we’re OK.”
“Everybody is aware of (the drought). I get texts from members ‘It’s raining in Andover. Hopefully you’re getting something.’”
Tyler says some water from Proctor Creek in West Peabody flows into the course’s well fields, while some continues into the North River and the ocean. It’s not the cleanest water, he adds, it’s high in sodium and chlorides. “It’s our only source. We could really use a good downpour.” The water is pumped from the wells into a holding pond near the fourth hole. “The water levels are so low, when we open the main valve it’s 10 to 12 feet below the pipe.”
“We can pump 12,000 gallons a minute” from the wells, said Tyler. Water trucks are an expensive, unrealistic option for many course superintendents. The typical truck holds 3,000 to 6,000 gallons at a cost of $400 or more. Tyler and his staff quit watering the rough weeks ago. And carts are prohibited from riding on grass. “The members have been great, abiding by the cart-paths-only rule” he said.
“We’ll do some overseeding of areas, then wait for rainfall and cooler temperatures.
“We’ll hope for a gradual cooling down of temperature, allowing the grass to sleep and go dormant. A cool ground and some snow cover, and no pesky rains that turn into ice beneath the snow.
“We have poa annua on the greens. Bentgrass survives longer, but older courses like ours have poa annua. Is it going to make it through the winter? That’s always a concern. Getting a healthy poa annua plant going into the winter is key. A weak poa annua going into the fall coupled with ice would be a double-whammy.”
His wish list for the winter? Snow and no ice. “It’ll be business as usual,” Tyler said. Greens will be covered with an impermeable material to thwart ice from forming, speed up germination of grass and foster stronger roots. Greens are monitored for ice-buildup.“Brown and dormant is good. Brown and dead is bad. We have to aerify and seed; the grass won’t come back on its own.
“We just finished aerification of greens, tees and fairways. It went extremely well,” Tyler added. Golfers might get aggravated having to putt over those “holes,” but without aerification the grass on the greens will die.
“Clouds are great. It’s not watering the grass, but at least the sun’s heat lamp is not on it.”
A silver lining? One good thing about a dry course, the grasses aren’t susceptible to disease. Another? Fairways are rock hard and bone dry at most courses, meaning they have played firm and fast this summer. Yes, players are getting more distance off the tee, but they’re also finding themselves facing shots in unfamiliar places.
Ironically, the USGA has been actively encouraging its clubs to conserve water. California has been in a drought for five years. What if this summer is the first of many rain-starved months for New England? What if brown becomes the new green in New England.
“Some have said it is the worst dry spell they’ve experienced,” Hearn said, in a statement. “There are clubs that have ample water supply, but an inadequate system for delivery, while others have good delivery systems but are forced to reduce irrigation because their supply has been reduced.”
Jim Skorulski, northeast region senior agronomist with the USGA, added “We ask for the cooperation and patience from golfers as the drought conditions continue. Turf that is brown may appear to be dead, it is actually temporarily dormant and the result of a naturally occurring survival response by the plant.
“The drought offers a unique opportunity to manage golf courses with less water and for golfers to play firm fairway surfaces,” said Skorulski. “Enjoy the extra ball roll and remain patient while hoping normal precipitation patterns return soon.”
Photos: Spenser Hasak