It's Rough Out There!

Each year, right on cue, we field questions about thick and difficult rough conditions.  In a 2010 article titled “Spring Rough Is Rough”, Senior USGA agronomist Darin Bevard noted that difficulty of the rough was a topic of discussion at nearly all of his Turf Advisory Service visits. 

Fundementals of Turfgrass Management,  Nick Christians
Aggressive spring growth of cool season turf is normal.  As depicted in the graphic below, cool season grasses experience a primary surge of growth in the spring followed by a smaller (recovery) growth spurt in the fall.  Most superintendents maintain a rough mowing height of 2-3 inches, with the most common height being 2.5 inches.  As suggested by most golfers, the solution for challenging rough conditions is to lower the height of cut or and /or mow more frequently, sometimes this is easier said than done.  The frequency of rough mowing is usually dictated by available manpower and equipment.  Throughout the spring growth period we mow the rough Monday – Saturday.  Even with this effort it might not be enough to keep up with the growth rate of the grass.  If the rough is mowed at 2.5 inches on Monday it may be 3.5 -4 inches by Wednesday.  Height of cut is not the issue, frequency is the issue.  So why not just mow more often?

Spring is a very busy time for the maintenance crew.  As we prepare the course for the upcoming season we work our way through a long check list of items.  The list has over 60 items on it and represents thousands of man hours above and beyond normal course maintenance.  It takes the crew about a month to complete all the items on the spring job list.  Use of labor on items such as cleaning and edging bunkers, charging the irrigation system, building cart paths, spraying broadleaf weeds… tasks our ability to keep up with mowing the rough.  Mowing the rough one time (inclusive of green and tee banks) requires approximately 66 man hours and 11 different pieces of equipment.  While we are equipped and staffed well enough to mow the entire course in a single day, when we do so it requires the majority of our crew leaving no time for jobs on the spring checklist.  Throw in a couple of rain days and the issue of timing becomes even more complicated.  Since the rough mowing equipment represents some of our larger mowing units, wet course conditions can throw a wrench in our schedule for days.  Once work on the checklist is complete, then it becomes much easier to allocate resource to the rough.  Keep in mind that the rough is not considered to be one of the primary playing surfaces.  The concept of sustainable golf, as advocated by the USGA, focuses on “down the middle”, with primary consideration given to playing conditions of greens, tees and fairways.

This year we will be taking a different approach to rough mowing.  We will continue to mow a walkway (or dew path) extending from the tee box to the fairway.  This will be mowed 2-3 times a week at a height of 1 inch, but we will not mow the traditional 1 pass intermediate cut around the fairways.  Instead, we will mow a primary rough which will consist of 4 passes on each side of the fairway.  The primary rough will also include the descent (the area extending from the tee box up to the fairway).  The primary rough will be mowed 2-3 times a week at a height of 1.25 inches.  The remainder of the rough (the secondary rough) will be mowed once a week at our current mowing height of 2.25 inches.  The frequency of cut on the secondary rough will be increased during the spring time to keep up with growth, when growth slows then we will scale back to our once a week schedule.  We are also going to change the timing on a couple of our fertilizer applications to better manage spring growth. 

The course is ever changing.  In the spring the rough makes the course challenging, following a rain event you might not get 30 yards of roll in the fairways thereby changing your approach shot into a green, on a windy day your drive could be blown off course, in the fall the leaves make the course challenging…  The influences that nature has on the course is integral to the game, it creates interest.  It is up to the player to adapt their game so as to overcome seasonal influences.
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