There was a golf course under there somewhere.

December 2023, the two pictures below show the devastation of constant rain and flooding over at Renishaw Park GC in Sheffield. It was far from their first such occurrence but sadly it was to be their last. Renishaw Park Golf Club closed for good soon after, no longer able to carry the cost of repairing the damage.

It’s not motorbikes churning up courses, or arsonists setting fire to clubhouses, this is Mother Nature at work, the winter of 2023/24 has set new records for rainfall and disruption across the golf industry. Although there have been no Renishaw Parks in the Midlands as yet, our golf clubs have had to count the cost of weeks/months of inactivity, winter plans changed, shortened hours for the catering and pro shop staff.

Not to mention the cost mentally to the greenkeeping teams out there in all weathers, patching up the rain damage, improving drainage where they can and attempting to maintain some sort of playability.

By and large, this feature has been written for MG with the kind permission of Karl Hansell, BIGGA’s Head of Communications, with words added by Paul Woodham, the R&A’s Head of Sustainable Agronomy in Europe.

The winter of 2023 into 2024 has tested everyone associated with the golf industry in the UK. Whether it is golfers frustrated at being unable to play or greenkeepers unable to maintain their golf courses and forced to watch as heavy rainfall causes untold damage to their hard work, this winter has been one to forget.

MG would like to invite Midlands contributors to add to this article, giving us an insight into their experiences and opinions gained from winter 23/24. If this is the new norm, what do we need to do to safeguard our clubs and courses during winters of the future, how do we look after the members and preserve the golf courses at the same time? Inside the golf club, we’d also like to speak to the GMs, lack of play leads to lack of income too in the 19th holes, how they are managing that reality.

Golfers may criticise their greenkeepers when the ‘course closed’ signs come out. But the decision isn’t taken lightly and is always with the long-term health of the course in mind. The health and safety of golfers is also a serious consideration.

“I’m a golfer as well as a greenkeeper,” said Alan Boyd, Head GK, Bothwell Castle, South Lanarkshire. “I grew up playing golf, so I know how the members feel. But as a greenkeeper I’ve had to build a thick skin to what the members feel because we’re doing it for the long-term health of the course. I don’t make the decision lightly, but it’s important to make a decision with your head rather than your heart.”

It has been estimated that heavy rainfall events now occur four times more often than they did before humans warmed the planet. These downpours raise the water table and consistent wet weather afterwards keeps it topped up, keeping golf courses wet and muddy and preventing greenkeepers from doing regular maintenance. A warmer, wetter climate also leads to increased disease incidence on turf, adding further challenges.

Drainage systems on golf courses are often outdated and no longer fit for purpose. That’s why a major job for greenkeepers during periods of heavy weather is digging out channels, clearing them of debris and ensuring water can flow away, off the course. It’s mucky work – and there are few people around to witness it – but someone has to do it.

Paul WoodhamParkland courses with clay-based soils have been particularly vulnerable, even where there is drainage,” he said. “The volume of rain has commonly overwhelmed the natural drainage potential of soils and drainage systems, especially aging designs.

Greenkeeping teams will see the impact of the conditions even more than the golfer. Maintenance schedules will be severely disrupted, especially with the current conditions persisting well into the period when pre-season maintenance is due to commence.”

Just to give this a Midlands perspective, three local greenkeepers kindly sent us two photos each of one of their best holes on their courses, the first one of each, unplayable this winter as the conditions took hold. The second one of each is how it’s supposed to look, and will do this summertime.

It’s an eye-opening look and illustrates perfectly what a job these guys do in transforming one to the other – but also with a sense of optimism of better things to come for us all this summer.

Craig Wyatt (Course Manager, Birstall GC, Leicester) took one of their 6th hole next to how it’s used to looking. Elliot Walters (Robin Hoods GC Deputy Course Manager) shows their 18th hole in rain and shine, and so does Andy Bryan, Head Greenkeeper at Maxstoke Park GC.  

Greenkeeping teams will see the impact of the conditions even more than the golfer. Maintenance schedules will be severely disrupted, especially with the current conditions persisting well into the period when pre-season maintenance is due to commence.

Winter project work such as construction is likely to have been delayed because of the conditions. Wet ground conditions have restricted the ability to transport materials such as aggregate and turf across the course without damage to the haulage routes. The operation of heavy plant such as excavators is equally challenged by the conditions. Greenkeepers will often resort to heavy lifting and detailed hand work just to keep somewhere on track but delays are inevitable.

When the water recedes, turf is weakened and damaged, applying recovery aeration, topdressing and managing play back on to damaged areas is potentially counter-productive. This is perhaps as simple as ‘be patient’ and ‘manage your expectations’. There is little point in aerating saturated soils even if water is perching in the upper profile.

Recovery will come over time, it’s not like we’ve not been here before, but as Karl Hansell concludes here, it won’t be overnight.

On behalf of our members, BIGGA asks for patience. Eventually the weather will improve and the damage will be repaired by expert greenkeepers who have the training and ability to overcome any challenge thrown at them. The damage won’t be repaired instantly, but your greenkeepers have the long-term health of the course at heart, so support them where you’re able to and look forward to longer days, better weather and some good golf.”

Here are the links to the full articles we’ve taken some words out of for this piece.

Why is the golf course closed again? How this winter’s heavy rainfall has impacted courses everywhere | BIGGA

What happens when a golf course is exposed to heavy and persistent rain? | BIGGA

Get in touch with Phil at Midlands Golfer editor@midlandsgolfer.co.uk to offer your thoughts on the above so we can give it an extra Midlands slant ahead of the next issue of the magazine in mid-April