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Irritating to some, top-dressing key to healthy greens

We tend to forgive the din and the dust behind those "Please Pardon Our Progress" signs during the bank renovation or hospital overhaul.

Maybe golf course superintendents should post similar signage next time they top-dress their putting greens. Maybe then golfers will understand.

For now though, many tend towards irritation when they discover a thin layer of sand spread across the putting surface every 10 to 14 days.

Superintendents don't need Dumbo-sized ears to detect the griping: The sand slows the greens. It knocks putts off line. It sticks to the ball and to the club face.

We'll get back to each of those points in due course but for now, these golfers need to consider that all progress comes at a price and top-dressing is undeniably progress.

Without light, but frequent sand applications during the growing season, putting greens would become soft and spongy. Mere footsteps, let alone heavy mower traffic, would leave indentations on a surface that would also be more susceptible to pests and disease.

In contrast, the sand helps provide a firm surface that resists impact scarring and levels any dents that do occur. It provides greater protection to plant crowns in much the same way that mulch protects tree roots.

Golfers would do well to consider that greens are like humans in the sense that without the right diet and exercise, they can soon fall victim to all manner of ailments.

In that context, top-dressing is a little like roughage. It helps combat thatch, a kind of matting of decayed plant material beneath the surface that stops up the essential flow of water, oxygen and other nutrients.

Of course, to be truly effective, any top-dressing regime must be coupled with aerification at least twice a year. If top-dressing is like whole-grains and celery, then aerification is a full-on laxative, if you will.

With aerification, purpose-built machines extract thousands of cores from the green and the resultant shafts are filled with sand.

The procedure is invasive and, depending on the weather, can take a week or more to heal although the greens generally achieve an adequate playability far quicker.

That latter point is significant.

No one can deny that recently aerified greens look terrible. But there is a real case to be made that they rarely putt as badly or for as long as a lot of golfers claim.

Even if there are inconsistencies in the surface that might knock a ball off line, the law of averages suggests that those bumps are as likely to knock a putt towards the hole as away from it.

If that's not enough, consider that Tom Watson once shot a round of 59 on his home course just days after the greens were aerified.

The impact of top-dressing is nowhere as dramatic, either on the eye or the behavior of the golf ball.

As a rule of thumb, superintendents generally spread two to four cubic feet of sand per 1,000 sq. ft. of green. Using a rotary spreader, it takes about five minutes to disburse the sand across an average green of around 6,000 sq. ft.

Superintendents then use a variety of methods to nestle the sand down among the leaf blades. They might use a water spray or a brush for example but regardless of the method, the goal is to work the sand down close to where the plant emerges from the soil.

As for those gripes we heard earlier, the sand - particularly when wet - may indeed slow down putting speeds but that impact is temporary and a small price to pay for the speeds that are possible with a truly healthy surface. As for the sand knocking putts off line, well, let's just say the average 20-handicapper probably has bigger fish to fry if he or she is really serious about draining every putt.

Besides, that same law of averages - you win some, you lose some - applies on top-dressed greens as it does on aerified surfaces.

Finally, yes, sand can cling to your putter face and ball if conditions are damp, say from morning dew. But if you wipe your putter and ball before making the strike, then any impact on ball roll is the same for all players in the group.

So the next time you encounter recently top-dressed greens consider two things - one, any impact on your game really is minimal and will be short-lived; and two, there's a good reason your mother made you eat your vegetables.

Soil microbes decompose the plant debris, but it can accumulate rapidly when the rate of organic matter production exceeds the rate of decomposition.