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The importance of proper drainage to the golf course

Some would say that with the arid fall, winter and spring we are experiencing that proper drainage is not very important at all. In fact, probably some golf pros, general managers and greens committees may be speaking that kind of language as I write this. However, forward thinking, progressive golf facilities are possibly looking for ways to budget some unexpected money that may be becoming unleashed for some capital expenditures to further improve their course and put it in the best possible condition to perhaps be more attractive to prospective members or the golfing public in general.

When speaking of the importance of “proper drainage” to golf courses I like to think in terms of “infrastructure upgrades.” Most of North America’s urban areas are in dire need of these upgrades to roads, bridges, sewers, water mains and the like. A large amount of this infrastructure can be 50 to 100 years old and significant advancements obviously have been made in product development and installation techniques.

I believe the same can be said for most golf facilities. Many golf courses do not hesitate to spend one to two million on irrigation system renovations and most of these upgrades are on only 20- to 30-year-old irrigation systems. While I understand this type of infrastructure spending for the golf course, I can’t help but ponder how often it is utilized, for instance, unless a course has truly adopted the deep and infrequent watering mantra that I totally support (but few clubs really practice), I purport that the only times the irrigation heads are really used are after an aerification event and it may be a little dry and windy on their playing surfaces. Lets face it, most mid- to high-end golf courses really only hand-water (see popular twitter hashtag #whosegotmyhose) their putting surfaces these days, which gets me to my point … if golf facilities will routinely spend this type of capital on an irrigation system, why won’t they spend it on equally important infrastructure (in my eyes anyway) like subsurface drainage upgrades?

Drainage infrastructure upgrades are generally a quarter to half the cost of an irrigation system replacement and will generally last almost twice as long as irrigation pipe, which is under constant head pressure unlike a gravity flow drainage system. But what is the value or importance of drainage? Well, the last two hot and wet summers have really solidified that non-argument. Simply put, when wet soil gets hot turfgrass roots will bake. When they bake, turfgrass roots shrink upward, and when they do so the turf plant is susceptible to a host of diseases and insect infestation issues. In essence, my take away point in this article is that well thought-out golf subsurface drainage infrastructure is the best way to get your turfgrass plant healthy enough to withstand the environmental onslaughts that Mother Nature frequently throws at you. Now before you think I am against irrigation system upgrades, I will say they are also a major player in aiding in turf health as well. Irrigation and drainage are the most important tools in a golf superintendent’s arsenal to impact on positive soil moisture content, which again promotes the healthiest turfgrass plants.

I believe it was Donald Ross who coined the popular phrase, “the three most important components to a successful golf course are Drainage, Drainage and Drainage.” Obviously, that phrase is likely well over 80 years old, and one could easily argue that we are not driving around in cars from that era, so I will counter that with while that is certainly true, shouldn’t careful, thorough drainage still be in the top three? Precipitation event frequency really hasn’t changed. We still need to manage the excess moisture. Currently, many water-challenged facilities are looking into recycling as much course runoff as possible back to their facilities. Moving forward, this type of rainwater management will begin to be adopted by most if not all golf courses sooner than later. Courses who can get out in front of these planning challenges will be the facilities other courses will look to model themselves after.

One other advantage that drainage has over irrigation is the ability to warm the soil two weeks earlier in the spring (compared to undrained areas) and two weeks longer in the fall, resulting in four weeks of extra root growth per year. Subsurface drainage systems perform this by eliminating useless gravitational groundwater that keeps, the soil cooler in the early spring and late fall periods. Conversely, in the heat of the summer and during a heavy precipitation event a golf drainage system will help cool the subsoil temperature in the same way by reducing the groundwater and introducing oxygen in to the soil profile to aid in cooling your playing surface.

In summary, the importance of proper drainage to the golf course is completely unglamorous and does not give you visual style points like showing your greens committee how you can program your irrigation head from your smartphone. I only urge you to also communicate the importance of drainage to aid in giving your facility the optimum soil moisture level needed to reduce your other agronomic inputs to a sustainable level for the long term.

Mark is Vice President of Sales for XGD Systems LLC. Mark has 25 years of experience in the golf restoration industry. He helped develop and perfect TDIGolf’s XGD Systems process twenty years ago. A significant part of his career has been with TDIGolf as a Senior Project Manager. As vice president of Sales, Mark is responsible for sales and business development.

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