Living things need oxygen to breath. Seems obvious enough, but … when the greens on our home course get a spring or fall treatment known as “aerification,” many of us lose perspective. We watch TV and know what tour courses look like and think, “Our course should look like that, too.” What goes unsaid, however, is that the tour course has been closed for weeks prior to the event in order to produce those pristine yet often temporary conditions.
Let not your heart be troubled. Your golf course, too, will return to its original state, if not better. Granted, it will take two to three weeks before everything is “normal” again. But as with most improvements, no pain, no gain. The layer of sand and those little holes may disturb your putting; however, this short-term disruption is a long-term gain for your golf course.
A quality green requires deep and healthy roots. From the surface, it may sound like an exaggeration, those blades of grass, just longer than an 1/8 of an inch (in California usually a type of bent grass), have roots that are several inches deep (and the deeper the better). In order to maintain a quality plant and healthy roots, the roots need oxygen.
Thousands of rounds a year and millions of foot steps (if you think this is an exaggeration, do some quick math; how many steps do you take on a green? Multiplied by 40,000 rounds a year?) will contribute to a compaction of the greens. When compacted, the small pockets of air in the soil are crushed. With a wee bit of drama, this will leave the roots suffocating and gasping for air.
Routine preparation of the golf course will contribute to an accumulation of thatch. Thatch is a layer of grass stems, roots, clippings and debris that settles on the ground and either slowly decomposes and/or accumulates over time. An excessive thatch layer can restrict the movement of air, water, fertilizer and other materials to the roots. It can also harbor bad guys (fungi), which can cause turf diseases. Then, when temperature and moisture conditions are right, a disease infestation can kill the already weakened turf. This is not good.
In the spring and fall, your often unheralded golf course maintenance crew will take a machine out to each green. The machine rapidly inserts a collection of tines (generally between 3/8 inches and 5/8 inches in diameter) into the turf that extract cores about 3 inches in length. After the cores have been removed, a measure of sand is distributed across the entire green. Finally, the sand is spread out to fill the holes and leave a fairly level playing surface.
The schedule is chosen for the seasonally mild temperatures. Grass doesn’t grow as well in cooler temperatures, and extreme heat can stress the turf. So when it’s spring and everything is in full bloom, it’s the perfect time for them to recover more quickly.
Also known as “plugging,” this process will accomplish at least three things: relieve soil compaction, improve the soil mixture (by adding sand) to the highest part of the plant’s root and reduce the accumulation of excess thatch. For a few weeks of less-than-perfect conditions, there is a huge long-term benefit.
Now, one key question for we golf purists: Is there a provision in the Rules of Golf to help me during this temporary condition? I’m not running for political office, but I can say without a doubt the answer is “no” … and “yes.” You see, the Rules of Golf do not provide relief. However, a course or committee could develop a local rule that would allow players to avoid the little holes on the greens, yet you won’t see that very often.
The process is certainly worth it, but it means that local courses will be “under construction” for a couple of weeks. They are certainly still playable, yet for those who would prefer a better surface, give your golf course a call and ask it when it will aerify so you can plan accordingly.
John Renslow is general manager and director of golf at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.