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Course Closed!

Dermot Gilleece investigates whether it is acceptable to play on frosty greens

Posted Dec 13, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

golf snow

It's fascinating the way age changes attitutes.  As with snow, for instance.  Memories remain vivid of those childhood days when tears flowed freely on discovering that our carefully crafted snowman had disappeared in an overnight thaw.  Some decades on, we're more likely to be cursing the disruption the damn snow caused to our winter golf schedule.

But happily, the forecast had turned for the better in my part of the world.  Latest news is that the greenkeepers have done a sufficiently good clearing job to have nine holes playable.  And, who knows, we may have all 18 back in action before the end of the week.

One suspects that in most parts of these islands, the dreaded notice, "Course Closed", has come as a crushing blow to eager practitioners of the royal and ancient game. And after the departure of the recent snow, there is certain to be seething resentment at the seeming reluctance of greenkeepers to reopen courses, because of the fear of damage to frost-affected surfaces.
My own suspicions that certain greenkeepers tend to be over-protective of their cherished terrain, were deepened by a chat with Paul McGinley.  He insisted that Sunningdale, where he and his wife Ally happen to be members, remains open in the severest of frost.  "It never closes," he insisted.  "I'm not an expert on greens, but the only thing that would close it is fog, because of the danger of hitting somebody."

On an occasion when The K Club was closed because of frost, I happened to mention McGinley's observations to their greens superintendent, Gerry Byrne. "Yes," he said, with typical directness, "I know about Sunningdale.  And I know they don't close Wentworth for frost either.  But we do here."  These last words were uttered with the sort of finality which brooked no argument.

Still, my confusion persisted, especially when I remembered the marvellous golf society outings I had enjoyed at Deer Park, just north of Dublin, around this time of year.  Playing on rock-hard greens was not at all unusual.  And when going there in warmer temperatures, I remember noting the splendid, overall quality of the putting surfaces, which didn't seem to be any the worse for our exploits during winter frost. 

Eventually, I sought the expert opinion of Declan Branigan, a leading Irish golf-course designer and agronomist, who possesses a master's degree in soil structure.  Coming out clearly on Byrne's side in this particular argument, his view was:  "Water comprises between 75 and 85 per cent of the total weight of grass.  Among other things, it maintains the turgidity of plant cells, which is where frost becomes a problem."

Warming to the subject - no pun intended - Branigan went on: "Unfortunately, plants have little if any anti-freeze protection, though the ionic properties of the plant solutions create a lower freezing rate than for water. Still, when cut very short as on greens, severe frosts for this country are capable of freezing the water within the grass plant.

"This of itself is rarely severe enough to kill the grass species, which are quite hardy.  However, grasses are left very brittle, causing them to break quite easily. Which means that downward pressure from vehicles or pedestrian traffic is sufficient to fracture the stems which have a high water content.  And when broken completely, the grass plant dies.

"In some cases, traffic does not completely kill the grass which turns brown or blackish in the shape of foot prints or tyre-marks and which recovers as soon as growth returns.  But in other cases, the plant is shattered irreversibly.

"Golfers may claim to have played frozen greens where no damage has occurred.  Since basic science doesn't lie, this can be attributed simply to luck.  The fact is that a few hours' golf could do sufficient, serious damage to put greens out of play for months."

Branigan concluded:  "Members who think they are taking a harmless walk on a frost-affected course, could find their footprints still visible in a week or two.  In my opinion, they should be warned to this effect in a club newsletter every autumn."

- Dermot Gilleece

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