Course Conditions

USGA article on El Nino

How does El Niño affect golf courses in southern regions?

El Niño affects golf courses in several ways. For one, increased rainfall creates wet environments and softer playing conditions. Observations on recent Course Consulting Service visits include:

  • Increased stress on greens and collars
  • Frequent plugged lies
  • Short roots and larger ball marks on greens
  • More “mud balls” in fairways
  • Less ball roll in fairways
  • Tire rutting from mowers and golf carts
  • Higher-than-normal water levels in lakes and ponds

The combination of wet, cool and cloudy conditions can cause considerable turf stress. Turfgrasses need sunlight for growth. Prolonged cloudy weather causes turf to deplete carbohydrate reserves that are stored in roots, weakening the root system. Roots take up oxygen from soil and saturated soils make it nearly impossible for weakened roots to survive.


How can you protect your golf course?

Ultimately, we need drier weather and more sunlight. A few tips to consider for improving turf health and playability at your facility include:

1.   Monitor soil moisture and reduce overhead irrigation – Many facilities have not applied irrigation since before Christmas 2015, yet rootzones remain saturated because of the increased rainfall. Keep track of your soil moisture and reduce irrigation as much as possible at this time. Spend the extra money and purchase a dependable soil moisture meter that measures volumetric water content.

2.   Increase mowing heights on greens – Do not stress your greens by mowing low. Sacrifice a little bit of playability for turf health and be more tolerant of slightly slower conditions. Turfgrass leaves are like miniature solar panels. Therefore, providing greater leaf area by increasing mowing heights will allow turf to create more energy through photosynthesis, promoting turf health and deeper roots.

3.   Vent greens regularly with solid-tine aeration – Venting with small, “pencil” tines – e.g., 0.25-inch diameter solid tines – is recommended on a monthly basis during normal winter months. Some facilities are venting greens as frequently as every two weeks. Venting improves rooting by relieving soil compaction and increasing soil oxygen.

4.   Use plant protectants – Fungicides are being applied at many facilities to reduce disease and improve turf growth. Leaf spot and Pythium diseases have been among the most common pathogens on golf courses over the past few weeks.

5.   Manage golfer traffic – Ropes and stakes often are used to reduce cart traffic stress and are particularly helpful during the winter. Also, more courses than normal have adopted “cart path only” policies during the past month because of saturated soil conditions.

6.  Implement a fairway topdressing program – “Mud balls” are a common problem when fairway soils remain saturated and are caused, in part, by an undiluted surface layer of organic matter. This thick, spongy layer causes more plugged lies and increases the occurrence of mud – i.e., organic matter – on balls. While fairway topdressing is costly, it certainly improves playability – especially surface firmness – and helps reduce the occurrence of “mud balls” in fairways with excessive organic matter.

Source: Todd Lowe ( and Steve Kammerer (


Course Conditions, Disease

EL Nino

According to the National Weather Service, the winter of 2015-16 will be regulated by a strong El Nino ocean current.  The forecast from the NWS is that the winter of 2015-16 will be colder and wetter than the average for the state of Florida.  From past experience we know that prolonged cold, above average rainfall, and excessive cloudy weather has the potential to be disastrous for Florida Golf Courses.

El Niño is defined by prolonged warming in the Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures when compared with the average value. Typically, this anomaly happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years, and lasts nine months to two years.  This year’s El Nino is predicted to be the strongest in the past 75 years.

The last strong El Nino experienced in the state of Florida was the winter of 1997. The winter of 1997 was basically a conveyor belt for cold fronts and storms, many of which were deadly. The winter of 1997 was also a winter in which several Florida golf courses had significant turf loss due to the weather conditions.

During an El Nino year, the southern jet stream is much stronger than it normally would be, and the storm track moves across the southern tier of the U.S.  As we look at the winter as a whole (December through March), I expect that the final numbers will show below average temperatures across much of the South.

Precipitation Overall, Winter 2015-16

Nearly all past El Niño winters have featured an active storm track across the southern United States. It looks like that pattern will dominate our winter this year as well. Therefore, we expect above-average precipitation from Southern California to Florida and up to the East Coast to Maine. This will likely include a higher threat for severe weather near the Gulf Coast, including Florida.

We received 10 inches of rain in December with the average being 2.19 inches.  The first week of January, we received 3.5 inches of rain I write this article.  The normal average for January is 2.7 inches for the whole month.  I’m not trying to be a doomsayer, but taking into consideration of the wet summer and cloudy wet fall.  These conditions will produce shallower roots, thinner turf canopy and our turf is more disease prone compared to a normal year.  I’ve taken precautions and have raised the greens to the highest I’ve ever had them.  I will be venting the greens which means solid tining/spiking greens weekly as well as topdressing to help dry out and add oxygen to the soil profile.  My main goal is keep the turf healthy, so green speeds will not be the goal this year.  So fasten your seat belts and hold on, I believe this winter is going to be a challenge, but a challenge I relish!