It’s the lifeblood of every golf course. Not enough and grass dries up and dies. Too much and disease sets in and grass dies.
Those in charge of achieving the correct balance are called golf course superintendents, and this summer has been a tug-of-war between watering or applying fungicides.
Throw in a recession that has course owners pinching pennies and this summer in the Brainerd lakes area has not been a vacation for them.
That would be hard to guess when talking with area superintendents. For all their early mornings, long hours, back-breaking, thankless and often second-guessed work, the people in charge of making things green are anything but blue as the third season of course maintenance nears.
That’s correct — the third season. This area is lucky if the golf season lasts six months, but packed tight within those six months are three seasons: late spring, summer and early fall. All three of those seasons require different course maintenance game plans.
“During the summer we’re just maintaining the course and we don’t do much of anything else,” said Matt McKinnon, head superintendent at Cragun’s Legacy Courses.
McKinnon is on the younger side of resort course superintendents in the area. That’s not to say he is naive. McKinnon played a key role in the construction and reconstruction of the Legacy Courses. He’s also been the lead person during the last five seasons who has fine-tuned both 18-hole tracks into 4.5-star rated courses by Golf Digest.
“No day is the same here,” McKinnon added. “In the fall, there is no routine either, but the temperatures cool down and the turf kind of takes a breather. So then we can back off and mow less, but we also concentrate on different things. Aerating is a big thing for us in the fall. We can also work on smaller projects, like spraying weeds. The work never stops, but your focus changes. We need to get everything ready for the winter. If the courses aren’t going into winter correctly then your spring is going to be really busy.
“Spring, for us, it’s huge to get everything under control.”
With two 18-hole championship courses, plus an extra “Gambler’s” hole along with a nine hole reversible Par 3 course, McKinnon is on one spectrum of the lakes area golf property spectrum.
On another end is Dean Olson. He is the head superintendent at Crosswoods Golf Course in Crosslake. He’s been in the business for 14 seasons, mostly at Crosswoods and Golden Eagle in Fifty Lakes.
At Crosswoods, Olson oversees an 18-hole course along with a par 3. He called August one of the hardest months of the golf season because the turf is at its weakest and courses are at their busiest.
“Now we’re starting to see the wear,” said Olson. “Once August comes around you start noticing things like on our clean-up mow, which is where we do a big loop around the green to pick up any missed cuts, you start to see wear patterns so you have to be careful how often you are doing that. In the spring and fall, the turf is healthy and you’re not getting the rounds you do in the summer so it’s able to recover better. That’s one of the big things. The grass just gets worn down and you start to see more footprints and see the path of those foot draggers out there.”
One saving grace this season has been the amount of rainfall. It’s been enough where McKinnon used half as much irrigation in July as he did last year. Phil Poepping, head superintendent at Eagle’s Landing Golf Club in Fort Ripley, said he’s used half of what he normally uses during a season and he’s been at Eagles Landing since 2001. Last year he used 53 million gallons of water and at the start of August he was at 24 million gallons.
“We’ve had a lot of moisture this year, which is nice,” said Poepping. “Most seasons my biggest problem is dry areas, especially with these huge greens. The sprinklers don’t cover correctly. This year it’s been harder with the heat and humidity so there is a lot of disease pressure. You always have to be ready to spray and everyone is fighting that.”
And that has been the Catch 22 with all the rain. Course maintenance crews have saved money on irrigation, but have had to move any savings toward chemicals. But even the amount of chemicals to use has been a guessing game this season.
A golf course’s most significant feature is the greens. It’s what most golfers talk about concerning a course. “The greens were super slick.” “The greens rolled like a pool table.” “The greens were a little shaggy.” “It was like putting on rumble strips.”
Nobody knows this more than Poepping. He’s in charge of one 18-hole course, but it has arguably the biggest greens in the entire state. Poepping said most 18-hole courses have 100,000 to 125,000 square feet of greens. Eagles Landing’s 18 greens cover 240,000 square feet.
“Because we get so much play you don’t want to put too much nitrogen on the greens so they grow fast because you want to keep the speed up, but you want to give them just enough nitrogen so that they heal,” Poepping said. “You’re constantly spoon-feeding the grass. Maybe you’re just spraying a tenth of a pound or a quarter of a pound at a time. You kind of go by how much clippings you’re getting and all that stuff.
“I spray growth regulators on the greens also, which most courses do, to keep the speed up throughout the day so they aren’t slow in the afternoon.”
Having bigger greens does give Poepping one advantage and that’s options. Because the greens are so big there are many places to put the pin or hole. This prevents the wear and tear found on courses with smaller greens. But there’s a catch to that as well. Larger greens means more fertilizer and more chemicals to cover the area. It also takes Poepping’s crew longer to mow them.
Bill Streiff is the man in charge of the daily setup for both the Dutch and Bobby’s Legacy Courses at Cragun’s. With a larger crew all 36 greens get cut, the cups cut and bunkers racked in four hours. The key is staying ahead of the first group of golfers. Cragun’s grounds crew begins its day at 5:45 a.m.
“When it’s wet out is when we have most of our problems,” said Streiff. “We need to be very careful on how we make our turns and we have ropes out on the course to keep golfers away from the wet areas. We move them around so we don’t get wear patterns in the grass.”
Streiff and Aaron Helmer both started at Cragun’s eight years ago. This year their responsibilities were increased. Helmer is the second assistant and he’s in charge of irrigation, something that’s been pretty easy this year. He’s also the lead spray tech. That hasn’t been easy.
“I don’t know the science part of it, but the humidity has been hurting the turf in some areas,” Helmer said. “We use fungicides and spray to take care of all that. It’s probably been the worst year for that, but we’re keeping on top of it.”
McKinnon said he’s tried to cut back on spraying, but it’s come back to haunt him. It’s a practice that he implemented the last couple of years. Except for on the greens, McKinnon has used fewer chemicals. Some of that has to do with a reduced budget, which most courses are feeling.
At Crosswoods, Olson tries to stretch out the number of days he can get out of his chemicals.
“When you spray fungicides you get X amount of days, usually 10 to 14 days, but with the extremely humid days we’ve been having, you’ll notice fungus a little bit sooner and so you jump on that quickly.
“As far as the rain, that has been helping us quite a bit. You get some rain and you hope to stretch that out three days, maybe four, but you don’t want to stretch it out too much because then you fry the grass and you start seeing the tire tracks from the golf carts. It’s a game we play.”
There are other games superintendents play to make sure their course is looking as beautiful as it can. At Crosswoods and at Fort Ripley the employees who mow the greens, fairways and rough use the same mower each time.
“The reason behind that is because each guy knows how his mower is supposed to sound,” said Olson. “If they hear a click over here or another on the other side they can tell us and we can keep up on the maintenance on our mowers.”
The Crosswoods’ greens cutter starts his day at 4:30 a.m. to stay ahead of the first group. Olson said on average it takes about 15 minutes to mow each green. The fairway and rough mowers start around 5 a.m.
Mowing on a golf course isn’t like mowing at home. At least that’s how Streiff feels. He reminds his crew to constantly be checking for debris like sticks and for any irrigation heads sticking up from the ground.
Helmer said you have to keep checking where you’ve been.
“You have to pay attention to your mower itself, too,” said Helmer. “Any type of fluid leak will kill turf right away. You’re always looking back at your last pass constantly to see if you’re dragging a stick or something. You always have to be concentrating.”
Fluid leaks are a mower’s worst nightmare. Poepping dies all of his oil red so it can be see right away if any is leaking.
“I tell my guys if they see anything that resembles oil to stop immediately and call me,” Poepping added. “It’s bad. I run all biodegradable oils in the machines, but even then the heat from the oil just burns the grass. It will grow back because it’s basically just vegetable oil, but it’s still going to take a long time.”
The season is fast approaching when courses will be bringing out another machine. It’s an aerator and it’s a necessary evil when it comes to golf courses.
“There is just so much play that it creates compaction so your roots on your greens are constantly coming up because you’re getting so much play and the ground is getting harder and harder,” Poepping said. “So you want to relieve the compaction because bent grass doesn’t like compacted soils. You’re also removing thatch. You don’t want that in the soil. It’s just for the health of the plant. If you didn’t aerify it would be bad.”
The life of a golf course superintendent isn’t easy. Every golfer is also a Monday morning quarterback of turf care. To combat that there is a fraternity among them, especially in the lakes area. McKinnon is not afraid to pick up the phone and call Scott Hoffmann at Madden’s Resort down the road if something unusual occurs.
At Grand View Lodge in Nisswa there is a literal brotherhood as Mike Bohnenstingl is the head superintendent, while his brother, Chad, is in charge of The Preserve.
It’s a job where you often don’t hear the compliments of the golfers coming off the course. The pro shop employee receives those accolades. If there is a problem, however, the phone at the maintenance shed rings immediately.
So to all those on mowers or racking a bunker, or trimming that tree near a tee box that keeps clipping someone’s drive, we thank you for making the lakes area a golfing destination. Here is hoping for an easy fall season free of disease and heavy on great weather. It’s doubtful anyone would complain about that.
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5856.