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With no rain, greens can be not so green

Course superintendents put watering emphasis on the putting surface to minimize effects of the drought.

In addition to having the thankless task of making sure their courses are in pristine condition, golf course superintendents in Tampa Bay and across Florida might consider adding another ritual to their duties: the rain dance.

That is how desperate the situation is these days, and anybody who has seen their lawn turn brown can appreciate how difficult a problem area golf courses are having keeping their greens green.

"It's very stressful," said Jeff Hollis, director of St. Petersburg's Mangrove Bay Golf Course, one of the busiest in the area. "We're just trying to hang in there to the best of our ability. We've tried to limit our water to where we really need to focus it and that's on the greens. That's the biggest priority. They are under the most stress. We really aren't irrigating the rough at all. We're trying to concentrate on key areas."

Because it has the use of reclaimed water, Mangrove does not have some restrictions other courses face.

The TPC of Tampa Bay in Lutz, for example, must adhere to the same watering restrictions faced by homeowners in Hillsborough County.

"We can water one day a week," said TPC of Tampa Bay superintendent Scott MacEwen. "They let us put more water on the greens. We're only at two days a week for that, but that's okay for greens. If you give them a good drink of water twice a week, that's really enough.

"The rest of the golf course isn't in quite the same situation. It's just drier. We're brown. We're not mowing grass, we've restricted carts to the path. But we're still full (with players every day). The course is in great shape."

It doesn't take a meteorologist to figure out we've been experiencing drought conditions for some time. According to MacEwen's records, his course had received 2.7 inches of rain for the year through April. There has been no significant rainfall since April 13.

"We're all being challenged," MacEwen said of area superintendents. "But in the long run, we'll be better because of it. We'll learn. There is just not much we can do. Water is one of the main elements that grows grass. You just roll with the punches, get through the day and hopefully it starts raining."

It was just more than two years ago that MacEwen and his colleagues were tested in another way. During the winter and spring of 1998, it was the other extreme. Record rainfall left courses saturated and unplayable. MacEwen said through the end of April in 1998, his course received 27 inches of rain compared with this year's 2.7 inches.

"This is typically the time of year when we're dry," said Joel Jackson of the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association. "But we've already had an abnormally dry winter and spring. And it's been warmer earlier, which aggravates the situation."

As bad as the situation is, it could be worse, said Hobe Sound's John Foy, agronomist for the United States Golf Association. Golf courses in Florida typically are seeded with Bermuda grass, a strain that can withstand great heat and dryness. Midwestern or northern courses would have a much more difficult time with this lack of rain.

Courses that overseed greens with rye grass in the winter also are being adversely affected now. That grass cannot withstand the heat, and therefore has mostly died. If the Bermuda grass that it replaced has not come in, golfers play greens that are barren.

"When the temperature drops in the winter, Bermuda goes into a semi- or fully dormant state, so some courses put down a winter grass that will grow and also have a greener color," Foy said. "It's primarily aesthetics.

"But when you transition from the winter overseeding to Bermuda grass, the rye grasses they use to overseed are not very drought tolerant. So the greens will be thin."

So what can be done? Courses can control cart traffic to lessen the stress on the grass and also use numerous pin positions for the same reason.

And, Jackson said, golfers can perhaps appreciate how good they normally have it.

"In Europe, where golf originated, the game came from courses that lived off of natural precipitation," he said. "If you didn't have any, it was harder, faster and browner. If not, it was more soft and soggy. Here, we have been able to modify Mother Nature a little bit to enhance or support our courses."

And golfers can take heart: Because of the dry conditions, tee shots are traveling farther than ever.