Keeping Fairways Fair and Greens Green

Rolling hills, miles of perfectly manicured, green, green grass views of crystal blue waters…sound like the perfect vacation? Well, if you consider 18 holes a vacation, then you are in luck. Door County’s golf courses contain some of most beautiful landscapes, and landscaping, in our area. Whether you are walking or riding it is inevitable that you will see and hear the gentle hum of a riding mower keeping the fairways fair and the greens green. But it takes much more than a vigilant mower to maintain the beauty of a golf course. It requires aeration, disease prevention, fertilization, and the education and expertise to organize it all.

The actual term is ‘agronomy,’ which the dictionary describes as “the science of soil management, land cultivation and crop production.” In a general sense, it is what the superintendent of a golf course must know; but, of course, there is a lot more to it than that. I spoke with Superintendent (or ‘agronomist’) Brian Ferrie and Assistant Superintendent Mike Becker from Horseshoe Bay Golf Club and was astounded at the amount of work and attention to detail it takes to run a course.

For the 200-plus acres comprising the golf course at Horseshoe Bay, there is one superintendent, two assistant superintendents, one mechanic, and 20 employees and they are very busy every day. More than 90,000 pounds of fertilizer are used per season (and that’s not including the greens and tees!). Extensive soil testing is done all season to ensure that the proper amount of fertilization is applied to alleviate any environmental concerns. The greens are mowed every day, the fairways are mowed to three-eighths of an inch five to six times a week and the tee boxes are mowed every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That’s just the mowing schedule. Preparing the course in the spring and putting it to bed in the fall is a major process as is troubleshooting throughout the season.

Due to our beloved Niagara Escarpment, water and its proper application are the main concerns during the season. “Rock wins during stress times,” Ferrie comments. Dry spots can pop up when the rock robs the soil of its moisture. “There are telltale areas,” says Ferrie. “Every year when it gets dry the same areas are the first to be affected.” Using that information, preventative measures are taken to head off the dry spots. They use either what is called a “wetting agent” or plain old hand-watering to avoid the problem. Great care is taken not to over water any areas of the course. “The best case scenario is a sunny day and rain at night,” says Becker. It is the best of both worlds as golfers enjoy the course during the day (along with the added benefits that the sun brings to any growing thing) and the rain comes at night to give the grasses a healthy drink.

With over 9,000 species of grass out there, the selection of which to use on a course is obviously vital. The grasses chosen for local courses are used widely throughout our region due to their adaptability to our climate. At Horseshoe Bay, Bent grass was selected to cover both the greens and the fairways. Bent grass is a slim, delicate grass that is native to cooler climates. In the “rough” they use Kentucky Blue Grass, which, due to its intolerance for low mowing heights, is perfect for the longer areas of the course. Horseshoe Bay also incorporates Fescue grass, a tall, willowy grass providing natural borders for out-of-bounds areas. In southern and warmer climates, Zoysia and Bermuda grasses are most common.

When asked what the sometimes brutal Wisconsin winters can do to our courses, Becker explains that ice damage is the principal concern. “This year was bad,” Mike laments. “When we have as many freezes and thaws as we did this year, pockets of water collect in the low spots and literally suffocate the grass.” Chemical sprays are used to treat the affected areas but Becker clarifies that most of the chemical treatments used are preventative, not curative. “We don’t have too many problems that take us by surprise.”

Along Horseshoe Bay’s sixth fairway, regional grasses like Bent grass, Kentucky Blue grass, and Fescue grass make the course lush for golfers to enjoy. Photo by Paul Huntley.

“Hurry up and wait” is what Brian Ferrie says characterizes springtime. Our springs are painfully slow to arrive so until the mowing schedule can begin, minutiae such as replacing the ball washers, painting tee box markers, and fixing benches keep everyone as busy as it can until the warmer weather arrives.

Contrary to spring, the last tee time of the season does not mean the end of the work season for the staff of a golf course. Getting the course ready for our long (long, long) winters is an important part of the job as well. There is a continuing fertility schedule with the aeration of the greens being a crucial element. Aerating a green is much like aerating your own lawn, literally poking holes in the surface in order to allow new seed in for a thicker, more luxurious carpet of grass. Late in the season is when the Bent grass produces its seedpods. Waiting until the grass is seeding before aerating allows for the maximum amount of seed dispersion.

“Top dressing” the greens is also important. A fine layer of sand is spread on the green to fill in ball marks and damaged areas. Fairways and tee boxes are also aerated and all areas are chemically treated to prevent turf diseases such as “snow mold.” Snow mold is a fungal disease that appears in spring when the snow starts to melt. It appears as a small, brown circle and continues to grow larger. It is a very unwelcome guest but preventative measures ensure that, come spring, all the grass comes back healthy and strong.

As a golfer, “repair your divots and hallmarks” is a phrase that is commonly heard and too often ignored. After a short crash course in golf course maintenance, I hope we will all realize the hard work and long hours it takes to maintain the beauty of our local courses. I always mutter a “sorry guys!” as I replace my divot on a particularly bad shot. A little help from conscientious golfers can make a big difference to the people whose job it is to make our “18 hole vacations” a lovely escape.