Oklahoma weather extremes tough on golf courses
Through the first nine days of June, Tulsa’s precipitation total was the same as “Bluto” Blutarsky’s grade-point average: zero-point-zero.
Parts of Tulsa received about a half-inch of rain last weekend, but it wasn’t nearly enough. During a 10-month period that began on Aug. 1 and continued through May 31, rain in the Tulsa area was nearly 14 inches below normal.
If the drought affects anyone with a lawn or a garden, imagine the challenges presented to local golf course superintendents.
Even a comprehensive session of irrigation equates to “maybe a tenth of an inch each night,” said Mike Wooten, superintendent at Cedar Ridge Country Club. “It’s nothing like a big, nice rain. You can’t do with irrigation what Mother Nature can do.
“It’s not the intensity of the summer that gets you. It’s the length of it. And when it moves in during Memorial Day weekend, as it did for us (this year), it just adds another month to the summer.”
On June 3, 2010, Tulsa’s high temperature was 85 degrees. On June 3, 2011, the high was 97.
Last year, there wasn’t a 97-degree day until July 16.
“Eight of the hottest years ever recorded in the United States occurred in the last 11 years,” Wooten said. “There’s a lot of stress on golf courses.”
Southern Hills Country Club and South Lakes in Jenks have their own water sources. Clary Fields and The Oaks Country Club irrigate with water drawn from Polecat Creek. LaFortune Park Golf Course purchases water from the City of Tulsa, and “it’s our single most expensive budget item,” says Pat McCrate, director of golf.
For July 2007, McCrate reports, LaFortune’s water bill amounted to $31,000.
In July 2010, it was $63,000.
While irrigating, a larger property like The Oaks, Cedar Ridge or Southern Hills might use as much as 800,000 gallons of water in a single night.
“You have no choice but to irrigate,” said Dan Robinson, superintendent at The Oaks. “When you have so much invested in a golf course, you can’t just let it burn up.”
The erratic nature of Tulsa’s weather was never more apparent than on Jan. 29 (when the high temperature was 76), on Feb. 1 (when the city was blanketed by 13.2 inches of snow) and on Feb. 10 (when the low temperature was minus-12).
Within a span of nine days, golf courses were covered with more than 22 inches of snow. Robinson said the heavy snow actually was beneficial in that it insulated fairways and greens from direct exposure to the bitter cold.
“If we hadn’t had that snow, we would have had another massive winter-kill – just like last year,” he said.
In a typical year, McCrate says, LaFortune has about 300 playable days – days suitable for a round of golf, even if the temperature isn’t optimum. In 2009 and again in 2010, there were fewer than 240 playable days, McCrate said.
“Is this the new weather pattern?” McCrate asks. “Or have we just had a couple of bad years?”
On 60 days in July, August and September 2010, the high temperature was at least 90.
On 14 days, there were temperatures of at least 100. The high temperature on Aug. 13 and again on Aug. 14 was 105.
“When it’s 105, that’s bad enough,” said Kris Davis, the Southern Hills superintendent. “But what really hurts your greens is when it’s 105 in the afternoon and the overnight low is 84.”
Davis joined the Southern Hills staff in March 2010. On May 13, 2010, shortly before 5 a.m., he had his first real Tulsa Weather Experience. Straight-line winds of greater than 80 mph rocked the Southern Hills course, killing 60 trees and damaging 250.
When the storm arrived, Davis’ 93-pound golden retriever named Bogey bucked from a sound sleep and stuck his nose under the covers of Davis’ bed.
“My dog flaked out,” Davis recalls, “and then my phone started ringing.”
The Southern Hills course was closed for nine days. The golf staff, the caddies, the kitchen staff, general manager Nick Sidorakis and Davis all were involved in the clean-up of tree debris.
When the course was clean, the blazing-hot summer set in and was followed by the drought that persists today.
“Last summer opened my eyes. It taught me to prepare for the worst, and we’re preparing for the worst this summer,” Davis said. “We’ve purchased 15 additional fans and raising our mowing height already. Normally, we don’t raise the mowing height until July. This year, we’ve already done it.”