USGA GOLF JOURNAL
Drought and Golf: 5 Things Every Golfer Should Know June 28, 2021 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

When grasses are stressed by lack of water, they go into drought-induced dormancy where growth slows and the grass loses color. (George Waters)

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Golf courses across the United States face the risk of droughts and the problems that can come with them. Even courses that normally receive sufficient rainfall can experience serious damage from a few weeks of hot, dry weather – especially if they don’t have an adequate water supply or good irrigation coverage. With droughts becoming a growing concern for golf courses in many areas, here are five things every golfer should know:

Droughts have variable effects on courses

Courses in the same area can experience very different impacts from a drought, depending on their grass types, irrigation system and water source. If a course has great irrigation coverage and an ample water supply, it may be able to endure an extended period of dry weather with only minimal impacts. Courses with poor irrigation coverage might see damage fairly quickly. Lake levels at some courses may drop noticeably during a drought while others remain full because they have a more consistent water source.

Droughts expose weaknesses

Extended dry spells can tell you a lot about a course's irrigation system and the durability of its grasses. It doesn’t take a very long stretch of hot, dry weather to see where irrigation coverage isn’t adequate and whether the grasses can tolerate and recover from a shortage of water. If drought damage occurs on a frequent basis, the underlying issues will have to be addressed with irrigation upgrades, modified grassing lines or the use of drought-tolerant turf species.

Prepare to see brown grass

When grasses are stressed by lack of water, they go into drought-induced dormancy where growth slows and the grass loses color. In most cases, the grass is not dead and will regain its color once rain returns. However, some grasses, like Poa annua, go from dry to dead very quickly. Any grass in drought-induced dormancy is also vulnerable to traffic damage because it is not growing normally. If you notice brown areas on the course during a drought, avoid driving a cart on them as much as possible to reduce damage.

Any course can be hit hard

Courses that typically get adequate rainfall can be more vulnerable to damage during a drought because they may not have the irrigation coverage or water supply necessary to offset a lack of rain. In cases like this, there isn’t much the superintendent can do other than try to keep primary playing areas healthy and wait for rain.

Courses should plan for the worst

There are lots of things golf courses can do to prepare for droughts and mitigate the damage they might cause. Developing a water budget and drought emergency plan is a good start. These tools help golf courses determine how much water they typically need each year and where to allocate water during a drought. A drought emergency plan also conveys to course officials and golfers the steps that will be taken for various levels of drought. Upgrading the irrigation system and utilizing grasses that are more drought-tolerant will greatly improve a course’s ability to manage drought. While these improvements cost money, that investment must be weighed against the risk of dead grass and lost revenue during future droughts.

Whether the courses you play deal with drought frequently or almost never, it’s important to keep in mind that rainfall patterns and water availability can change quickly. Just because a golf course doesn’t have a water issue today doesn’t mean that it won’t have shortages down the road, which makes preparing for droughts a critical part of any golf course’s long-range planning.

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.

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