Aside from a chance of rain on Monday, it appears to be a glorious Memorial Day weekend forecast, the perfect kind of weather to go out and play some golf.
Just don’t expect the golf course to be in perfect shape.
The record-setting snow that blanketed Boston for much of the year’s first four months delayed the opening of nearly every golf course in the state. When the snow finally did melt away, course superintendents discovered that the challenges winter brought would extend well into spring, maybe longer. Some have it worse than others — there are still temporary greens being used — but almost every course is dealing with the after-effects of more than 100 inches of snow from a mean, unforgiving winter.
“I can tell you, in the Western Mass. area, there’s still a large group of boys still recovering. Mother Nature was pretty vicious,” said Mike Fontaine, superintendent at The Ledges Golf Club, a daily-fee facility in South Hadley. “Even still, now that the snow is gone, her weather pattern has not been all that great. Guys are chasing, getting all aspects of their golf courses ready to go.”
In the golf industry, especially here in the Northeast, Memorial Day is a key weekend; it’s when course operators and superintendents want their place to shine. It signals a start to the golf season, the unofficial start to summer, and draws eager golfers who are ready to play more after a long, forced break.
With the snow long gone and recent temperatures in the 70s, those golfers might expect area courses to be in midseason form. This year, those expectations aren’t reasonable, and likely won’t be met, at least not yet.
The issue at many courses is damage from winter kill: grass that has died, either from a layer of ice, or a combination of other factors that can lead to the plant suffocating. This time, though, there was one main culprit.
“It was the weather this year,” said Jim Skorulski, the US Golf Association’s agronomist for the Northeast region. “We can deal with weather, just not the extremes, like heavy rain or strong winds. The winter this year was extreme, there’s no doubt.”
It’s interesting, because some courses had more damage than others, and some courses experienced damage on certain parts of their course, but not others. Growing grass — and keeping it alive — in these kinds of conditions isn’t easy.
“A lot of the things that we’ve done, and a lot of the things a lot of my colleagues have done over the years, is improve the growing sites that greens and golf courses are on. They’re doing work on drainage, they’re working on tree removal to get more sunlight in. I think a lot of what’s happening in the winter has more to do with drainage and shade and environmental factors that we can control,” said Mike Luccini, the superintendent at Franklin Country Club and president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New England. “What you see coming out of the winter is very course-specific, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. What happens over here might not be the same thing people are experiencing 5, 10, 20 miles away.”
There have been a few positive course stories this spring. George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park and the William J. Devine course at Franklin Park were the hosts of the Massachusetts Four-Ball Championship on May 12-13. With the courses opening two weeks later this year (April 17) than last, it didn’t leave much time for the course maintenance staffs preparing them to welcome and challenge the best amateur players in the state.
“We were very concerned. We know the reputation that George Wright has, so we were more concerned for Franklin Park,” said Dennis Roache, who manages both city-owned courses. “The Four-Ball gave us an opportunity to showcase Franklin Park, and for those who had never been here, we didn’t want them to have a bad experience.
“We were very concerned about the conditions, but they got both courses looking phenomenal. Up to 10 days before we were worried that we’d be in April conditions for a May tournament.”
It will take much longer for most area courses to hit their peak condition, and that is no guarantee. A lot will depend on the weather we get going forward. Seasonal weather will help: Heat, warm nights, precipitation.
“Everybody is still nicked up, I would say,” said Fontaine, who had The Ledges ready to open April 24, the latest start date he can remember in nearly 30 years in the profession. “Superintendents are very proud of what they do, nobody wants a golf course to grow in faster than we do.”
Until then, a little patience and understanding is recommended. Winter set everybody back, reflected in most courses not opening until late April, some in early May. It will take time for the bluegrass and bentgrass greens used on the majority of area courses to get completely healthy.
“They might look healed, but they’re not. They might look recovered, but they’re not,” said Skorulski. “It’s so true in this case: Be patient. Everyone’s working hard to get them back. I would guess, based on historical principles, we’re probably looking at mid-June, maybe early July for really damaged courses to get back to normal.”