Blake Halderman, CGCS - Brae Burn Country Club


As golf course superintendents, it is always our goal to provide the best playing conditions possible at the courses we manage based on our resources, budgets, rounds played, etc. If you know the superintendent at the course where you play, you can probably see it on their face when they pass by, as some days are great and on other days Mother Nature is testing us.

Golf is an amazing game played on finely manicured turf. Most likely as you are teeing off, walking the fairways, or putting on the green, you are not thinking about the fact that you are playing on millions upon millions of tiny living plants. Every day we work to manipulate the plant’s normal growth habit to provide outstanding conditions for you. Most days we achieve that with great success; however, at times Mother Nature is not just testing us, but it actually wins the battle, and we lose a percentage of those plants.


In our business we all remember the tough years. You can ask any superintendent and they will rattle off the years they struggled—whether that was due to major storms, droughts, high heat and humidity, or in a year like this one, winterkill. Like all businesses dealing with living organisms, we have amazing researchers at top universities around the country helping us with new technologies, ideas, and strategies to get our turf to perform at the highest level, but unfortunately winterkill has remained somewhat of a mystery even though it’s been studied for decades.


Winterkill prevention provides a unique challenge for superintendents. Unlike a disease where one pathogen will attack roots or produce specific superficial identifying marks on the surface that can usually be controlled with sound science and cultural practices, winterkill can result from multiple weather-related physiological factors. There is no way of preventing every scenario.


The four main ways plants succumb to Mother Nature over the winter are:


Desiccation: When turf is unprotected by snow cover and is subject to cold winds for extended periods.


Direct Low-Temperature Kill: This can take place in the late fall when the grass has not “hardened off” yet, or in the late winter if the plants “wake up”, start to pull water into the plant to “hydrate” and then temperatures drop for an extreme cold snap.


Ice Encasement (Anoxia): When ice covering an area for an extended period reduces the oxygen levels near the plants and produces a buildup of toxic gasses that literally smother the plants.


Crown Hydration: This is the most common form of abiotic winter injury. It’s similar to low temperature kill in that it is due to plants de-acclimating and crowns becoming hydrated. But the difference is that it typically happens under ice when there are multiple freeze-thaw events. A typical scenario is when there is enough warmth to create water under the ice in the afternoon (not enough for a complete meltdown of the ice) and then it refreezes overnight. Most of the time this will be in the low pockets or areas where water is trying to exit the green.


As you can see, without a crystal ball there is no set of practices that can protect courses from every winterkill scenario. Depending on the weather each winter there can be multiple reasons for plants to die. This year the damage is widespread in the region. I have seen and heard about all four scenarios. I’ve seen it on courses that mow greens at .156” and courses that mow at .100”, on greens that use higher Nitrogen rates due to traffic and greens with low Nitrogen programs, on courses that cover greens in the winter and courses that don’t. The moral of the story here is that this year it didn’t matter if you play at a high-budget course, low-budget course or somewhere in between, the greens you enjoy probably suffered some sort of damage.


As a player you may also wonder why my course has winterkill damage and the course down the street may not? It can be the difference of a few degrees or a microclimate that changed whether they got a meltdown and you got freezing and thawing, a snowstorm vs. ice storm, or wind damage. Maybe it is just slightly warmer because there are more roads, houses, etc. Maybe some courses have more winter shade, greens that slope to the north and don’t melt off like southern facing greens, or multiple greens with low pockets that hold water. Just think about the course you play often. Even the 18+ greens on that course are likely in varied environments. Some are near the clubhouse, some are tucked by houses and roads, some surrounded by trees and others in the wide open. Some face north and some south. A few are elevated while others are in valleys. This variety is what makes golf interesting, but at the same time it’s also the reason why some courses have more damage than others and why certain greens on the property experience injury while others do not.


So, if there is no damage on the greens you enjoy this spring, consider yourself very lucky. For those who do have damage, know that you are not alone and please be kind to the superintendent at your facility. As frustrated as you may be with the current conditions, I can bet the superintendent is more frustrated having to deal with this phenomenon that is out of their control. With a little patience and warm weather to get the turf growing, things will get back to normal in time.






Susan O’Dowd

Executive Secretary