Golf course turf maintenance and how to keep it green

The first thing to realize about golf course turf maintenance is that you are moving away from the low to medium maintenance level to high maintenance. What does that mean? Well, most home lawns are kept at a height of 2 to 3 inches, which means most lawns are cut not more than once a week, and able to survive without fertilizer, pesticides or other cultural practices. That level of maintenance would be on the low end of the maintenance spectrum. Then there are those who fertilize, apply pesticides, and perhaps aerate or overseed; they are at the medium level of maintenance.

If you want to maintain a putting green you will need to get into the high maintenance end. Now before I scare you away from the idea, high maintenance is not necessarily more work than medium maintenance. What you need to move up to this level is more of a dedication to follow a strict golf course turf maintenance program and closely monitor what the turf requires. For example you may well put down less fertilizer than some of your neighbours, but you will be moving to a more expensive type of fertilizer, or you will be fertilizing extremely small quantities every two weeks. At this level, golf course turf maintenance is not about more money or labour, but more about dedication to the turf, and a realization that there are several ways to accomplish your goal, but there are no shortcuts.

Now if you are still ready to click away because this just doesn’t seem to suit your needs, there is still artificial turf as a low maintenance alternative.

And now for the basic parts of a golf course turf maintenance program


Particularly on your greens you should be taking soil samples of the top 4 inch layer of soil and sending them off to a certified laboratory for analysis. What this will do is guide you on your fertility program. You will find out your pH which is hopefully between 5.5 and 7, the turf likes slightly acid soils best as this is when most of the other micronutrients it needs are released in the soil, the organic matter content of the soil and levels of macro and micronutrients important to the turf. You will also get recommendations as to where you are deficient, excessive or spot on in your fertility to guide you in your choice of fertilizer.

The only nutrient you will not test for is nitrogen mostly because this is a very volatile nutrient, and any readings one day, will not necessarily reflect the reality on another. Where to go for testing? You can try contacting local agricultural extension offices, universities, or local golf courses to see where they go or contact me and I can try to find a list of accredited labs you may want to use. The results of your soil test will tell you what you need to know to set up the fertility part of your golf course turf maintenance program.


Probably the next most important part of golf course turf maintenance is cutting. Greens really should be cut at least 6 times a week. Tees and fairways can go from twice to 4 times per week depending on how fast they are growing and the height of cut chosen. The main reason for this is that the less leaf blade we remove from the turf each cut, the less we stress the turf. A rule of thumb is that we should never cut the turf down by more than ⅓ of its height. You can get away with cutting less often, but in the growing season it will be mostly the playability of the surface that will suffer first. The advantage of all this cutting is that we have very few weed problems as most weeds become much weaker under this type of regime. And of course not any old mower will work, at this height you need to cut with a reel mower. Particularly on the greens you will need to find a greens quality reel mower that not only can be adjusted low enough but also has a fast enough clip rate to cut evenly at low heights. The following is a guideline to normal heights of cut in a golf course turf maintenance program:

Greens: from 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch (3 to 3.5mm)
Tees: from 3/8 to 1/2 an inch (9 to 12mm)
Fairways: from 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch (12 to 18mm)


Another aspect to consider is irrigation. There is no golf course turf maintenance program that doesn't call for at least some supplemental irrigation as needed. At short heights of cut the turf is much more vulnerable and needs enough but not too much water to remain healthy. It is essential to have supplemental irrigation around a greens and tees, and highly recommended though optional in fairways. The irrigation can be a simple as a hose nearby that is used to water the green by hand when needed. While that may be inexpensive, you will need to be there when the turf needs irrigating, and it is preferable to do it just before sunrise to minimize disease pressures during hot humid weather. On the other end of the spectrum would be a fully automatic, programmable irrigation system with weather station to monitor evapotranspiration. On average, turf needs 1 inch (25mm) of water a week during summer, which includes any water received through rainfall. One last thing to keep in mind is that too much irrigation is as dangerous as too little.


Now we get into the things that golf courses do that makes all the difference. One of the most important part of golf course turf maintenance is aeration. By forcing the turf to grow through regular fertilization, we start to build up organic matter at the surface which becomes thatch. This is an ideal place for disease to grow. The best way to deal with thatch is to physically remove it through core aeration. Golfers hate this practice, but 2 times a year is essential. Other advantages are reduced compaction and better root growth.

Another practice is sand topdressing. This dilutes the organic matter at the surface, creates a firmer surface, keeps the surface true and rolling nicely and may even help to modify the upper rootzone.

Verticutting is the practice of vertically cutting the turf which also removes thatch, promotes better turf vigour and give a better ball roll across the surface.

Finally rolling is a good way to get a smoother surface and more importantly faster green speeds and truer ball roll. However, too much of a good thing can create problems, compaction and poor rooting in this case, so rolling should be limited to once or twice per week and never when the surface is very wet.

These are the general practices needed in a golf course turf maintenance program, there may be other things you need to do, and the frequency will change depending on climactic conditions where you live. Notice I haven’t mentioned pesticide applications, in many instances you may not need to apply any pesticides if your growing conditions are perfect for turf, in other areas you may need only fungicides when diseases start to appear, or in difficult areas you may find a need to apply fungicides or insecticides on a regular basis because you know you will encounter certain problems. As I say it will take dedication to get to know your turf, but with time you will see that it is not that difficult.

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