The R&A - Working for Golf

Golf facing a storm of extreme weather

Climate change poses major challenges to course managers.

As far as the climate is concerned, all we seem to hear about these days is record-breaking highs or lows and people around the world facing immense difficulties coping with extremes of weather.  Over the last decade we have seen prolonged drought and serious bush fires in Australia and parts of the USA, Arctic winter conditions in the northern states of the US, damaging floods in Thailand, Italy, Germany and the UK, and months of gale force winds blowing across northern Europe.  Whether you believe in the predictions for climate change or not, there appears to be little argument against the fact that we are all living with uncertainty in so far as weather patterns are concerned; we just do not know what extremes of the natural elements we are going to be facing next.  Yet those managing golf courses have to cope with the consequences of such weather now.

Damaging weather not only hurts the golf course, it also impacts on the finances of the golf facility as it can result in major repair bills and a loss of revenue during periods of course closure.

So, what are we facing and is there anything we can do to limit the damage when combatting the strongest forces of nature?

Ideally, courses in areas prone to drought will have fairways and semi-rough populated by drought-tolerant grasses.  If the need for routine irrigation is limited to the small areas of greens, their surrounds and tees (possibly around 3 hectares) then water needs will be relatively small.  Using alternative sources other than potable supplies may mean you can continue to irrigate whilst not depleting the precious clean water supply that others are wholly dependent upon.  Maintenance practices which reduce plant stress will also reduce the requirement for irrigation.

In addition to the information available on this website, there are excellent resources available for those trying to cope with drought from the Australian Golf Course Superintendents Association (AGCSA), (GEO) Foundation and the United States Golf Association’s (USGA) dedicated microsite on water.

Severe winters
Pre-winter maintenance which hardens the turf and ensures limited depletion of carbohydrate reserves will give the grass the best chance of surviving the winter. A well-timed application of protective fungicide prior to snowfall may reduce snow mould scarring.  The debate on whether or not to clear ice and snow cover is one that depends wholly on individual circumstances and a successful outcome will result from experience of such situations or simply good fortune.  Experience is also needed if covers are to be used on greens, as inappropriate use can result in severe disease scarring coming out of the winter.

Research and guidance on surviving harsh winters is available from the Scandinavian Turfgrass and Environment Research Foundation (STERF), the Turf Research Canada and the USGA.

Unusually mild winters

If you usually experience snow cover and frost for a few months over the winter and are then the recipient of winters with relatively mild temperatures, the issues you have to deal with to ensure decent course conditions coming out of winter are very different to those you are comfortable with.  The main concern will be trying to keep the turf surface dry.  Shade and excessive organic matter will add to inherent drainage issues so, for the sake of year-round healthy turf, manage to negate these influences.

If your course is on a flood plain then there will be little you can do to stop becoming waterlogged after periods of heavy rain or snow melt.  Drainage systems which prevent water flowing back onto the course will stop this source of flood water but both prolonged periods of lying water and the silt and other debris carried by water surges will cause damage to turf.  The urge to clear such debris as soon as water levels drop should be resisted. It must be allowed to dry a little before you can work safely, otherwise traffic on sodden ground may cause more long-lasting harm.

If you are prone to flooding because there has been inadequate investment in drainage or water catchment management by other land users, including governments, then you will need to identify the source of your inherited problem and knock on any door necessary to get them to address the issue.

Falling trees, tidal breaks in coastal defences and debris over the course can be the consequence of the very high winds we seem to be witnessing more and more these days.  A good tree management programme, promoting only strong and healthy trees with adequate room to grow, will reduce branch and even tree fall.  Timely removal of fallen leaves and branches and the removal of any movable course furniture in the autumn will limit the amount of potentially damaging debris that can be blown as storms work their way across the course.  If storms are forecast, be prepared to act fast in their aftermath as rapid repair can reduce any other form of damage from diseases that will take advantage of scarred turf.

Links and other coastal courses are extremely prone to storm damage, which often brings tidal surges.  Unless the powers that be consider your stretch of coastline as a priority for protection, then you will remain at the mercy of the wind and the waves.  Best practice management of beaches and dune systems can deflect some of the impact but coastal areas are subject to evolution of the landscape and planning for this may have to include options to change the layout of the golf course should sections of the coastline suffer damage or even be lost to the sea.

Prepare for the worst
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change.  It provides models and forecasts for climate change, and these may also be available through appropriate national government departments.  It makes sense to be aware of the potential changes in climate that you may have to face so that you can attempt to prepare for them.  Damaging weather events impact everyone, not just golf courses, so investigate to see if there are other sources of guidance on protection and reinstatement of damage in your local area.

If the worst come to the worst, you will have to repair any damage caused by extreme weather and invest in actions to try and combat future events.  Every golf facility would be wise to plan for this and to have a contingency sum available for emergency situations which fall outside the norms of course management.