There’s something in the air that’s changing about golf. It’s hard to verify, but anecdotally it seems that older, long-established patterns are being altered, if not completely overturned. I base this on what I hear and see from superintendents, course architects and folks who operate golf courses.
For one thing, the golf season is getting longer, especially where I live in the Northeast. Golf after Thanksgiving – with regular greens in use - is now commonplace. A few decades ago, it was virtually unheard of.
I also keep hearing about more intense rain events. Even when courses may receive their normal share of rain per year, it seems to hit in the form of greater, massive rain dumps of 2-3 inches interspersed by longer periods of drought.
Call it "extreme weather."
What it means for golf courses is they are forced to handle bigger storm water events while also having to make do with greater water conservation during the in-between phases when they are awaiting the next moderate rain.
High water marks are rising as well, which endangers coastal courses. Even the managers of Trump International Golf Links in Ireland have cited rising sea levels as justification for an application to build protective gabions along the shoreline holes.
It’s a simple matter of thoughtful management to plan for such developments. John Tecklenburg, mayor of Charleston, S.C., has referenced heightened tidal surges and sea levels for the need to build protective mounding along the waterfront holes of Charleston Municipal Golf Course as part of a detailed restoration.
Tidal surges are especially pronounced along the Southeast U.S. - from South Florida up to the Carolinas - where the high tide for the year, commonly known as “king tide,” includes the cumulative affects of rising sea levels, fall supermoons and seasonal winds.
For courses subject to storm surges and saltwater incursion, re-grassing might be the answer. That’s what happened with the Ocean Course at Hammock Beach in Palm Coast, Fla., after Hurricane Matthew inundated the area in the fall of 2016. Recovery included conversion of the tees, fairways and rough to salt-tolerant Seashore paspalum. The turf type needs less water than Bermuda grass, doesn't have to be overseeded, and has excellent playability. It’s also able to withstand storms – as was proven in September 2017, just a few weeks before the course reopened, when Hurricane Irma tore through the area but left the Ocean Course intact.
As average temperatures warm up marginally, species normally adaptive to a region find themselves outside their comfort zone. That’s happening with turf grasses as well as many other plant species. Poison ivy flourishes in temperate climates that are getting warmer, to the point where golfers wearing shorts need to be more careful than ever when entering unmaintained areas in search of golf balls.
Perhaps a more extensive example is seen among those courses accustomed to cool-season grasses that find it advantageous to convert to warm-season grasses.
In the wine country of California’s Central Coast, daily-fee Hunter Ranch Golf Course saw fit to convert from bentgrass/Poa annua to Bermuda grass in order to weather the summers. The process entailed a gradual switch-over. By contrast, The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel, just inland of Monterey, simply shut down for three months to let its new Bermuda grasses replace the cool-season turf.
The broad scope of the climate issue involves serious and sustained scientific debate as to the scope, origins and prescriptions for change on a global level. There’s no need for those in the golf industry to get bogged down in such a conversation. What counts is adapting and managing for the long run, and that means acting responsibly to make sure that golf courses and golfers have the most sustainable conditions – ecologically and economically – possible. If that means changing turf cover, raising mounds, creating holding ponds, managing with less irrigation or allowing nature to take its course, then that’s what the game will have to look like. That might not bode well for links golf or coastal courses. But fighting or denying the altered conditions won’t solve anything.