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Mother Nature can crumble a superintendents hardwork with one swing

Several years ago one of the most experienced and respected golf course superintendents in South Carolina sat back and declared the previous 12 months his “best ever.”

Every time he was forced to make a judgment call, which is pretty much a daily occurrence for any superintendent, he got it right.

Sometimes the risks were minor but often the stakes were very high because the wrong call can kill grass in an instant while it takes weeks to bring it back.

You might have thought that this superintendent from the Upstate was looking forward to the year ahead, now that he finally had the business mastered.

Instead, he was dreading it because if his decades of experience had taught him anything, it was that no superintendent gets it right all the time.

He’d just been lucky for a long stretch and he knew that couldn’t continue.

For golf course superintendents, no factor determines their “luck” more than Mother Nature.

Her might and volatility can make a mockery of the college diplomas hanging on the office wall.

Several Grand Strand superintendents received a sledgehammer reminder of that fact recently.

On May 16 for instance, storms dumped nearly 7.5 inches of rain in just four hours on True Blue Golf Plantation at Pawleys Island.

Superintendent Kevin Thompkins was still cleaning up more than a week later.

“Really, I could have done with a couple of bulldozers,” Thompkins said, referring to the amount of sand that had washed off the slopes of the course’s 30-plus acres of bunkering.

Repair work on the bunkers has put a strain on equipment normally used to keep bunkers in peak condition and lighting also blew out several fuses and solenoids on the irrigation system.

“I’ve never seen so much sand move so far,” Thompkins said. “We pumped 7.5-million gallons of water to get the lakes on the golf course back to proper level after the runoff from the rain had raised the lakes 2.5 feet above their normal level. I wasn’t sure it was going to end. Every time we thought we could get out on the golf course again, down it came.”

It was only weeks earlier that Thompkins was quoted in The Sun News remarking how kind the weather had been through winter to courses – his included – that did not overseed their bermudagrass fairways for the first time.

“She [Mother Nature] didn’t take long to remind us that she has all the power,” Thompkins said, which was exactly what that Upstate superintendent refused to forget.

In truth, the best superintendents can do is the right groundwork to maximize their chance of success, but nothing changes the fact that it’s only ever a “chance.”

Nothing is guaranteed when your work product is a 120-plus-acre living canvas exposed to the elements.

That is why the same procedure from year to year can produce different results.

A cool spell after aerification means greens will be slow to recover and fill in, whereas a little rain mixed with a lot of sun will speed the process.

Trying to project what the weather will do affects myriad decisions superintendents have to make – when to fertilize and how much, when to make applications against pests and disease, when to irrigate and so on.

“Mother Nature can make you look foolish very quickly, no matter how good you are,” said Joel Ratcliff, a long-time former superintendent who now works with Coastal Floratine, supplying products and services to golf courses. “She rules the roost and never lets you go for too long without reminding you of that fact.”