A word of advice if you are planning a golf outing in Tampa Bay this time of year: ask if the greens have been aerated.
There is nothing more irritating, next to a case of the shanks, than hitting a great shot to the first green only to find that it is full of sand-filled holes. How can you be expected to shoot 67 when the greens are rolling like your front yard?
But also know this, courses have to aerate in order to stay open. The 10 days to two weeks that it takes for a green to get back in shape is better than losing a green for good.
"It's not great,'' said Kevin Burnsworth, head professional at Heritage Pines Country Club in Hudson. "With this process, the greens take about 10 days to fully recover. But when you're here in Florida and you're potentially open 365 days a year, you're not going to be good 365 days. You have to do some maintenance work.''
Aerification achieves three things. It relieves soil compaction, it provides a method to improve the soil mixture around the highest part of a green's roots and it reduces or prevents the accumulation of excess thatch. A course like Mangrove Bay in St. Petersburg gets more than 70,000 rounds per year, so the fairways and greens get compacted quickly.
The aeration of greens (and sometimes fairways) occurs two to three times per year at most area courses. Heritage Pines aerated both greens and fairways last week. To aerify, most courses use a machine that cores the ground (punches holes and removes the dirt) in a certain pattern. Aside from relieving compaction, it also opens growing room for the roots and increases oxygen to the roots.
The holes are filled with top dressing, a mixture of sand and soil that allows water to seep into the roots.
"It's a necessary evil,'' Burnsworth said. "You have to aerate. Some clubs don't like to do it because you're going to lose revenue. But you have to do it or else you're going to lose your greens.''
There is a different problem at Clearwater Executive Golf Course. The greens require extra attention because they are older and well water (saltier) is used because course isn't slated to get reclaimed water until 2012.
That means in the summer the course is aerated weekly. Pencil tines, which bore pencil-size holes into the soil without taking out dirt, are used, then a roller to smooth the surface.
"With our poor water quality and old greens and old soil, we just try to do as much as we can weekly without having to close the course,'' course superintendant Wayne Darlington said. "We get most of our play in the winter, so we try not to disturb the greens at that time.''
Courses in transition
In the winter, courses overseed with winter-type grasses such as rye or poa trivialis. When the heat arrives, the winter grasses die off and Florida's natural bermuda wakes up.
"Everybody is in transition right now,'' Burnsworth said. "A lot of the courses aren't in very good shape because you're going from the overseeding process in November and December, and then the heat comes and that stuff starts checking out. The bermuda comes back. You kind of want to go slow with the transition because if all of a sudden the winter grass goes out then you have nothing but dirt.''
Mangrove Bay has aerated, and director of golf Jeff Hollis said the bermuda greens are back.
"The aerification process helps chase the rye grass out,'' he said. "It helps that bermuda kind of kick back into gear.''
Where's the rain?
It doesn't help that courses are reliant solely on sprinkler systems this time of year. Rain has been scarce, so to keep things green as much water as is legally possible is used on the course.
"It's a challenge,'' Hollis said. "We use reclaimed water, which helps. We typically water the putting surfaces every day. We back off of fairways and rough areas during water restriction times. But when you're mowing greens at five-thirty-seconds of an inch with no natural rainfall, they need to be irrigated daily.''
Burnsworth at Heritage Pines has a simple solution to keeping his course green.
"You water the heck out of it,'' said Burnsworth, whose course also has reclaimed water.
While the courses spend this time of year getting their greens and fairways back in shape, it's up to the golfer to ask about the greens. Rates generally do not go down just because the greens are aerated.
"We tell them the greens are aerated before they pay,'' Clearwater Executive's Paul Battle said.
Brooksville Country Club aerated its greens Tuesday, but the fees remain the same. Some courses have completed aeration, some are in the process, so it wouldn't hurt to ask about the condition of the course.
The silver lining is that the greens might not be perfect, but the cost to play golf in the summer is a lot less than other times of the year.
"In the next couple weeks, golf courses in Florida are like a ghost town,'' Burnsworth said. "Pretty soon it's going to be Deadsville. Up here in Pasco County, golf courses are just giving it away.''
Rodney Page can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8810.