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On Course Management | Grand Strand superintendents are having to deal with drought

As a rule, golf course superintendents prefer less rain than too much.

Being able to manage the amount of moisture in the soil affords them a rare degree of control in the constant battle of wits with Mother Nature.

Too much rain leads to a host of problems from disease and pest pressures to increased turf damage from cart traffic, mowing, pitch marks and divots.

But when “less rain” becomes not enough then superintendents face a whole new set of concerns and some along the Grand Strand are coming nose to nose with that scenario right now.

Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension shows North Myrtle Beach to be more than nine inches behind average rainfall to this point of the year.

More generally, the South Carolina Drought Monitor indicates that all of the Grand Strand is experiencing moderate drought.

When water storages are not being replenished by rainfall superintendents have to prioritize, effectively budgeting demand against what their best guess is in terms of future supply.

Even at the River Club and Willbrook Plantation where golf course superintendent, Barry Barthelman, can pull water from the Waccamaw River, the golf course is beginning to bake around the perimeters.

“We are starting to hurt a little here and there, around the edges,” Barthelman said. “But compared to some of the courses without the access to the river like we have, we’re really in pretty good shape.”

To conserve water, he has suspended irrigation in the roughs concentrating instead on tees, fairways and greens.

Even so, his 47 acres of ponds are down as much as 10 inches and with little rain in the immediate forecast he doesn’t see improvement any time soon.

Sometimes, the impact of drought can be harsher on some parts of a course compared to others.

For all the technological advancements in irrigation, few courses have the latest and greatest and their existing systems may not reach every spot that needs a drink.

“What’s important for golfers to realize though is that brown turf can play just as good as green turf,” Barthelman said. “It’s not how it looks that has any impact on your golf game. It’s all about how it plays.

“Dry, stressed bermudagrass goes into a kind of dormancy and loses color but the grass is still there.”

There is no doubt that golfers in many parts of the country are beginning to see more browned out areas on their golf courses.

Drought is only one reason.

More broadly, the golf industry is working to bring the game back to a less contrived playing surface, more like that often witnessed in Britain where course irrigation is limited and the ground game is more common.

The USGA is a prominent advocate of the trend and has the support of influential outlets such as “Golf Digest” magazine which now encourages its ratings panel members to value “firm and fast” conditions over “mere cosmetics” like color.

But changing the appetite of a golfing population that has grown up on telecasts of professional events where courses are primed for exposure one week a year is no overnight fix.

Yet industry economics are forcing that shift even in a market like Myrtle Beach where throngs of Northerners arrive each fall looking for the kind of green that has disappeared under snow at home.

More and more Myrtle Beach courses are doing away with overseeding their fairways and even greens in the cooler months, reducing the need for costly irrigation, mowing, fertilization and more.

Similar factors are at play behind the demise of bentgrass as a putting surface in the area.

Only a handful of courses still use the cool season grass that is a wonderful surface when the weather cooperates but often rides the edge of failure by late summer.

Last year, the River Club and Willbrook joined the growing list of courses converting to one of the ultradwarf bermudagrasses and in the recent heat, Barthelman couldn’t be happier.

The grass thrives in the heat so even if his roughs are shutting down and some spots on fairways are browning out, he now has grass from tee to green that is going to live through the lean times.

“I’d hate to have to be out there slinging a hose every day,” he said, referring to the practice of hand watering hot spots on greens that becomes a fact of life for bentgrass superintendents in the heat of summer.

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