Q&A With Ty McClellan, USGA Agronomist July 19, 2011 By Christina Lance, USGA

Stuart Naugler, the assistant superintendent of Olympia Fields' South Course, checks the moisture on the seventh green during the second round of stroke play at the 2011 U.S. Girls' Junior. (Copyright USGA/Chris Keane)

As soon as the players at the 2011 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship walk out of the Olympia Fields clubhouse, they are met with the same feeling – intense, blistering heat. Olympia Fields, located in Chicago’s southern suburbs, has not escaped the massive heat wave that has taken much of the United States by force. Monday and Tuesday saw temperatures in the mid 90s and heat indices well into the triple digits, and those readings are only expected to rise the next few days. Combined with high humidity and low winds, both the players and the course took quite a beating during the first two days of stroke-play qualifying. 

Ty McClellan, an agronomist with the USGA’s Mid-Continent Region, has been on-site at Olympia Fields for the past week, working with the OFCC grounds department to prepare the golf course for the championship. However, nothing could prepare the staff for the brutal conditions that have enveloped the area. 

We are projected for, and it’s holding true, the worst week for heat in Chicago in six years, said McClellan of the weather conditions. Nighttime lows have not fallen below 80 degrees in three nights and there is no relief forecasted for the next four days. We’re in the midst of heat indices approaching 108 degrees for six consecutive days during the championship. 

Sam Mackenzie, the director of grounds here at OFCC, has a talented and dedicated staff that is accustomed to dealing with heat. But the worst week, heat wise, in six years is taking its toll. 

Christina Lance sat down with McClellan to find out how he and the OFCC staff are maintaining the golf course through these brutal conditions. 

Q: How are you and the maintenance staff handling these oppressive conditions? 

A: All hands are on deck right now. Staff hand-watering the greens are equipped with moisture meters to measure water content in the putting greens at multiple times throughout the day, including morning preparations, mid-day and afternoon evaluations and evening maintenance. We’ve got three management zones across the golf course with each manager overseeing six to seven greens, and they’re on-site watching the greens, syringing to cool the turfgrass canopy and also replenish soil moisture where need be, really from about 11 o’clock on. It’s grueling work to say the least.

We’ve also worked with the Rules officials, communicating to everybody and the players that stoppages in play are to be expected and asking that patience be provided as the grounds crew continues to provide championship conditions. There will have to be some breaks in play so that we can continue to keep the greens healthy, yet at a championship level.

Q: What kind of grasses do they have here at OFCC, and how do they handle the heat? 

A: Greens, tees and fairways are a mixture of creeping bentgrass and <i>poa annua<.i> and the rough is Kentucky bluegrass. All are cool-season turfgrasses and all perform best at soil temperatures between 60 and 65 degrees. We are far and away above that, and as temperatures continue to be oppressive, our turfgrasses just simply go into a state of decline.

We can handle heat if we have air movement and can control water inputs. The worst conditions we get into are hot, humid conditions with no air movement. At that point, turfgrasses simply cannot cool themselves and watering does little to help.

Turfgrasses cool themselves in a similar way to how we sweat. More specifically, sweat forms through pores in our skin, yet in the absence of air movement we’re not cooling off. But when we get a little airflow, we cool down considerably. Through transpirational cooling, turfgrasses operate much the same way by forming water on its leaf blades through stomates. Those are small holes on the leaf surface that are comparable to pores in our skin. Adequate air movement allows moisture on the leaf blades to evaporate, which cools the turfgrass canopy. In the absence of air movement, however, there is no cooling effect, so adding water does not help. This is in some cases what we’re faced with this week. It’s sort of touch-and-go for 14 hours a day when the hand-waters begin at 5 a.m. and are on watch until 8 p.m.

Q: For the person at home living through this heat wave, an immediate thought would be to keep watering the grass. Is this the proper approach? 

A: Not necessarily. In fact, the most dangerous thing we can do is overwater because wet soils have a higher heating capacity than dry soils. Applying too much water eventually will create higher soil temperatures and leave too little oxygen in the newsContentzone, both of which add to turf stress. That’s the idea behind the hand watering – to keep putting it out daily in small amounts, to manage consistent, as-needed moisture levels and not overwater.

On the greens, we turn off the overhead irrigation [the sprinkler system] and everything is by hand-watering only. That way, we can put water exactly where it is needed, when it is needed and in the precise quantities needed. [The overhead irrigation system] is very accurate, but it can’t overcome all of the irregularities of a putting green or all the contours. Invariably, using overhead irrigation overwaters some areas and underwaters others. Turning that off and relying only on hand-watering has been something we’ve been doing since last Tuesday.

Hand watering relates to championship firmness, as well. We can maintain more consistent firmness by routine applications throughout the day versus a large watering that will create soft putting surfaces. So the idea is to keep putting water on throughout the day as needed for both firmness and plant health. When conditions get this oppressive, though, we have to begin opting more toward managing for turfgrass survival and not necessarily sticking to championship expectations.

Q: Looking beyond watering, how else is this heat affecting the golf-course maintenance? 

A: We can only mow at certain times of the day when it’s cool, either in the early morning or the very late evening. Oftentimes, directly after mowing, we have to lightly irrigate to prevent wilting and mechanical injury. The frequency of when we cut the greens and whether or not we roll has a lot to do with the heat as well. We just have to back off maintenance practices accordingly until the heat wave breaks.

This again is an example of where we have to safeguard turf health, opting more for turf survival than trying to always produce championship conditions. Right now, we’re keeping the balance between the two, but if this were to continue, which we may see through the entirety of the championship, it will get progressively harder to maintain turf health and championship conditions.

Q: As anyone who lives in the Midwest knows, rain and thunder often come with high heat. How are you prepared to deal with a rainstorm? 

A: We’ve got 30 squeegees and labor – Olympia Fields staff and the golf pro shop personnel – on standby, ready to squeegee any standing water. Turf, if it is submerged under water, and given the sun intensity and such high temperatures we are experiencing, would likely survive less than an hour or two. The goal at that point would be to immediately use squeegees and any means necessary to get water off the golf course. We’re trying to avoid scald injury [burning the grass with hot water].

The greens, fortunately, should surface drain well so that there is little standing water. But water standing in the fairways is going to be a major problem that we’ll have to get corrected within the hour if it happens midday when both sun intensity and temperature are at their greatest.