This is a question that I, and every other superintendent in the Great Lakes region, have been asked at least once during our career. Dormant grass, snow on the ground, and the last golfer for the season teeing off back in November make this a logical question for many golfers. The answer to this question typically surprises most audiences. The Erin Hills turfgrass department uses the offseason to prepare the course for the harsh Wisconsin winter, strategize for the upcoming season and finalize any administrative assignments.
The golf season at Erin Hills ends on October 31st; however, the full turfgrass department staff remains on the course until Thanksgiving. During this three week interval, the staff completes tasks that are challenging to accomplish while providing the best possible course conditioning for our guest. The first task includes aerifing tees and fairways. In an effort to provide the best conditions, Erin Hills only aerifies during the spring and fall when the course is closed. We have developed a system of vertical mowing and lightly topdressing during the golf season that allows Erin Hills to ensure high quality playing surfaces without the necessity of mid-season aerification. The second task is to topdress all playable surfaces encompassing more than 50 acres of maintained turf. Fairways and approaches are topdressed three consecutive times with over 600 tons of sand. The third task is to remove any invasive grasses that may have invaded the fine fescues fairways. Any bentgrass that may have encroached from the greens is removed and replaced with our nursery stock. Finally all winterization of irrigation lines and applications for winter plant protectants or fungicides are applied. These tasks help to ensure that the course is prepared for the winter and ready for play in the spring.
In addition to the annual winter maintenance schedule, the Erin Hills turfgrass department uses the months of November and December to perform capital improvements to the course and facility. After the 2012 season the turfgrass department took on the task of installing walk paths between holes and from some tees to fairways to improve our guests' experience. These paths provide a consistent surface and help direct the patrons of Erin Hills to the next tee complex or the fairway while protecting the unmowed fescue grass surrounding the playable surfaces.
The winter is also used as an opportunity to perform annual maintenance on our equipment fleet while refurbishing older equipment. Providing exceptional golf course conditions starts with equipment that is used to maintain the turf. The staff of skilled mechanics uses the winter to sharpen over 160 reels, bedknifes, and blades to ensure a consistent quality of cut on all playing surfaces. Annual maintenance on over 100 pieces of equipment permits the turfgrass department staff to start the new season without the worry of equipment malfunctions and costly down times.
The months of January and February are reserved for administrative task since they are historically the harshest months of the year to work outdoors. Administrative tasks consist of developing and reviewing the operational budget and purchases for the upcoming season. It is also a time when the turfgrass department creates our annual agronomic practices program. This program is virtually a playbook for the upcoming season. It outlines staffing levels, staffing schedules, daily tasks, upcoming projects, fertility programs, and chemical programs. It is a tool that the turfgrass department utilizes during the winter to prepare accordingly, and during the summer to facilitate the program. This has become a vital process which enables the turfgrass department to provide consist playing conditions for every guest that plays Erin Hills. Administrative tasks also include comprehensive projects such as certification for the Audubon Society. During the past winter the turfgrass department has completed the final requirements to become certified as an Audubon Golf Sanctuary, only the fifth course in the state to achieve this goal.
It is these tasks and many more that superintendents in the Great Lakes region are focused on during the winter months. These tasks are rarely seen by golfers but are equally important. It is the work performed and the preparation planned during the winter months that enable Erin Hills to provide an exceptional experience from May through October.