On a freezing morning well before the sun rises over downtown, Jason Harsh gingerly steps onto the Memorial Park Golf Course he maintains.
As course superintendent, his job is to protect the turf at all times, so he uses a gauge to check the soil temperature. What lies beneath the frost-laden Bermuda is actually more important than what the thermometer reads.
“It’s not really about how low the temperatures get at this time of the year,” Harsh said. “It’s about how long the ground stays frozen.”
With this week’s freezing temperatures, course superintendents around the area are taking the necessary precautions to prevent long-term damage.
Randy Samoff, course superintendent at Redstone Golf Club, is primarily concerned with keeping the ground wet. Contrary to popular belief, wet ground is less susceptible to damage than dry .
At Redstone, Samoff is responsible for the Tournament Course, where the Shell Houston Open will be played in less than three months, as well as the Member Course. In order to keep both courses green rather than brown, Samoff is extremely careful to keep the grounds moisturized.
“Water can’t get any colder than 32 degrees,” Samoff said. “Soil, on the other hand, can get as cold or colder than the air above it. So, to keep those root systems protected from dying out, you have to watch your moisture levels.”
Recent rain helps
Luckily for Samoff and the rest of the area’s course superintendents, Houston experienced enough rain and humidity last week not to keep them worried at night. Last year, however, was a very different story.
“That was the worst I’ve ever seen in 14 years here,” Harsh said. “It was a lot of work to get everything back in good shape.”
Last year, when the temperatures dipped into the teens during an already dry winter, much of the area’s Bermuda died out. But the year that nearly every veteran course superintendent will remember is 1989.
“That was the worst year, by far,” Samoff said. “The grass was completely devastated, and when it came time to grow back in the spring, it was very late coming in.”
In December 1989, the temperature in Houston was below freezing for 48 straight hours. In the middle of that stretch, the temperature hit 7 degrees on Dec. 23 at Bush Intercontinental Airport for the coldest temperature ever recorded in the city.
But when superintendents check a weather forecast, the low number isn’t necessarily what they care about.
“How long it stays frozen is really the deciding factor,” said Collins Bean, director of agronomy at Cypresswood Golf Club. “When it stays freezing for 12 hours or so, then I really start to worry.”
During Houston winters, nature isn’t always the biggest villain. Grass that has frosted over isn’t permanently damaged until it either stays frozen for an extended period of time or gets stepped on. When golfers tread over frosted grass, the footsteps are apparent for weeks after as burned spots in the delicate grass.
But courses vary the way they handle the freezing temperatures . Some start their golfers on different tees than usual while others simply delay the start time until the sun has had a chance to melt the frost. Dark-colored organic products or moisturizing agents are also used in maintenance.
But for the time being, superintendents are optimistic about the conditions.
“We just always make sure to take our precautions and control what we can,” Samoff said. “If you treat the course right, the hard freeze won’t do any major damage.”