It’s early fall and it has barely rained in my hometown of Bellingham, Wash., since April. There may have been a few sprinkles under cover of darkness, but according to weather.com, a grand total of 1.05 inches fell here over a period of 84 days this summer. Daytime temperatures, usually in the mid-70s, have averaged in the mid-80s and occasionally broke into the 90s this summer.
I also just returned from a month in Britain, where similar conditions turned great swathes of once-green grass looking exhausted and brown—you remember Carnoustie at the Open Championship. One of my first rounds upon returning home was at Shuksan Golf Club, 90 minutes north of Seattle and one of my favorite courses in the Pacific Northwest. I arrived expecting its turf to have a Carnoustie-brown look.
Not at all. In fact, the course is wall-to-wall emerald green. There’s barely any run on the fairways and the approaches are so soggy that there’s no chance of hitting bump-and-run shots—you must fly the ball onto every green. Although the golf world seems to have conceded that firm, fast surfaces are significantly more enjoyable to play on than soft and spongey, that’s not the case at Shuksan. So what’s the deal?
I decided to take a photo and tweet my disappointment in the conditions, expressing concern over how much all that water must be costing. I expected a few like-minded souls to register their agreement.
Less than a minute later, however, a superintendent from Michigan—Rob Steger who has been at the historic Saginaw Country Club for the last 11 years and worked at TPC Michigan in Dearborn for seven before that—responded saying I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the conditions, but consider instead what the superintendent at Shuksan, Reg Riddle, has to work with.
“What type of turf does the course have?” asked Steger. “What about the soil, and how big is the budget at a course with a $32 weekday green fee? I understand your frustration, but it’s important to see the big picture. Fast and firm is actually much more expensive than wet.”
Come again? Firm surfaces are “much more expensive” than wet? How on earth does not watering a golf course cost more than watering it?
It turns out for a fairway to be firm, especially in the Pacific Northwest where Poa Annua (Annual Bluegrass) is prevalent, you need to water the turf judiciously, cautiously, and by hand. “And that costs more than just turning the irrigation system on,” says Riddle. “I have two guys hand-watering the greens during summer, but we don’t have the staff (just four to six total) to do the fairways as well.”
Invasive poa, regarded as a nuisance by many/most superintendents, certainly can produce good golf surfaces, but its weak and shallow root-system makes it high maintenance. “Getting poa to the edge, making it firm and fast, is tricky and costly,” says Riddle. “I may do it once a year for a special event, but I wouldn’t want to do it regularly.”
Steger agrees. “Poa doesn’t tolerate drought and high temperatures well and can attract disease, which requires expensive fungicides,” he says. “It’s difficult to maintain in the summer. To be great, it needs to be given just the right amount of water. If you don’t irrigate it at all it dies pretty quickly and you lose turf. And when you lose turf, you lose jobs.”
Riddle, a highly regarded superintendent who has kept his job at Shuksan for the last 28 years, says shaving dollars off the water and manpower bills isn’t the only motivation for widespread watering. “Our customers just prefer green golf courses,” he says echoing many U.S. superintendents. “It’s a competitive market, and we need our customers to keep coming back.” At the end of the day it’s much easier and less costly (in the case of poa annua, at least) to just turn on the irrigation system and let it indiscriminately water the course.
There are myriad reasons why superintendents do what they do, and after we take the time to understand them they usually make a lot of sense. I was quick to grumble about what looked to me like reckless over-watering. I was wrong.