March 1999

Warm Hat - - Cold Feet:
Winter Play at Higher Elevation Courses

David M. Kopec, Extension Turfgrass Specialist

Way up yonder in the high elevations of Arizona (5000 to 7000 feet), a periodic bout of warm weather brings out itchy golfers. Just because it's warm enough to wear a light sweater or jacket, doesn't mean it's always safe to open the spring golf season. Here are some reasons why you should 'think like a plant' and 'feel like soil'.

The grass on the golf course has already prepared itself for the winter period. Its growth has slowed way down and it's getting ready for new roots to start to expand, as well as forming new root initials. The shoots have 'dried out' somewhat inside, as a special preparation for freezing temperature survival. Even though the soil is 'wet' from a warming rain or melted snow, the turfgrass plant will try to 'resist' soaking up water at this time.

Don't forget that the soil (at high elevations) has a frost line. At the depth below the frost line, the ground is still frozen. Water is slow to penetrate this layer and any irrigation or significant rainfall will cause a water soaked soil line underneath the turf. This will cause (1) rehydration of winter hardened green tissue, (2) low oxygen content in the soil, (3) create potential soil movement from shifting or sliding turf, and (4) assist in plant shifting and root separation. All of these are worse especially when they are coupled with cart traffic or foot traffic on even slightly sloped areas.

Traffic, ball marks and divots all can cause problems by playing during brief warm spells. Divots do not grow back until spring, then open the turf for weeds and make for a poor look on opening day. Ball marks and spikes can push the crowns downward and injure the newly formed root initials. It is important for these tiny 'root nubs' to remain undisturbed. If damaged, they will not elongate as required in the true springtime period.

Likewise, traffic at this time can cause soil compaction (more prone when soils are moist) and direct wear on the turfgrass itself. The turf is very slow to regrow new leaves and shoots until the 'real' spring arrives.

During a golf induced warm spell, the superintendent may be asked to add fertilizer to get the grass going early. If applied during a winter 'warm snap' the nitrogen may weaken the turf. This occurs because the nitrogen increases the water content of the green winter leaves, the crown itself, and softens plant cells too much in the cold.

The bottom line is that there are many risks to consider by playing golf during a warm spell, especially when the weather is sure to return to winter conditions again. To me, it's not worth the risk. A walk on the cart path, or cleaning the garage will show other necessary benefits at this time.

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