TILTON — Golf is an exacting game.
Many times, success can come down to the blades of grass on the green. They must lay just so, and that's a fact that Gerald "Jerry" Chaille well knows as owner of Lochmere Golf & Country Club.
Because golfers themselves are exacting, the work of running a golf course is as intense as the focus the players bring to the fairways. "Golfers like greens that are nice and smooth and are kept well," Chaille said. "Golfers always expect high quality."
Chaille built his 18-hole, 4.5-star, 72-par course and opened it just shy of three decades ago, in August 1991. In 2019, the Lochmere club was voted Number One Public Golf Course in New Hampshire by Golf Advisor, and Chaille expects he'll receive the honor again this year.
Chaille takes care of his about 100 members by taking care of his putting greens—which he calls a course's "main ingredient." One of the measures Chaille's staff take to keep the greens reliably smooth is rolling them a few times a week with a heavy piece of equipment. "Balls don’t hop as they’re rolling," he explained.
There is so much more to the course-care game, though.
In a given year, Chaille spends just under $100,000 maintaining the fairways and greens, using roughly $600,000 worth of equipment—including separate pieces of machinery each to mow the fairways, greens and rough, as well as aerators and transport vehicles.
In the peak summer months, maintaining 19 holes takes Chaille's team about 60 hours a week, particularly since mowing can be done up to three times in one week. But this time of year is quite busy as well, as staff work to put the golf course to bed.
As it does each year, Lochmere Golf & Country Club will close around Thanksgiving, and the task now is making sure the fairways and greens survive the ice, snow and threat of mold.
The math of golf
Statistics are big in golf. Just as there are many numerical considerations for golfers to analyze, there are those that Chaille and other course owners must keep top-of-mind.
On a typical, par-72 course, the average golfer is putting about two putts per green, for a total of roughly 36 strokes. "About 40 percent of the game is putting," Chaille said. "So, that’s why the greens are important."
He notes that all courses, in addition to having a set par-marker, also have a rating on difficulty. A 72-par course with a rating of 67 is easier than others—sub-par, if you will. "We are a par 72, but our rating is 71.8, which means we are a more challenging course."
The science of golf
H2O is a critical component of course care. "Water is like blood," Chaille said, noting that, "golf course owners always hope Mother Nature is nice to us. We like it to rain at night and have sunshine during the day."
Chaille's course has a complex irrigation system with wells and ponds, and at least five days a week in summer, the course is watered over eight hours during the night. "It’s on a timer, so you don’t saturate it," he said.
Other routine tasks that take place before, during and post-season are fertilizing the greens with nutrients to promote growth, ensuring not too much thatch builds up, aerating the soil to ensure water can penetrate, and endless soil sample testing.
George Sargent, a golf course architect who owns GF Sargent Design of Bristol, is the scientist of sorts behind the health of Lochmere Golf & Country Club. He has worked on Chaille's course since it was developed.
"We’re testing for the nutrient balance within the green—the major and minor nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium," Sargent said. "We test for the amount of water that will drain per hour and Ph, just like on the home lawn. We also test for a fungal disease that’s attacking the green in relation to the environment."
He added, "It’s a science of agronomics, and every golf course has to adapt to that micro-environment—the certain types of greens and the certain location within the design of the golf course. Greens on a hill are more difficult to manage than those sitting in lower areas sheltered by trees."
Putting the course to bed
In addition to removing all the leaves that fall on the 200-acre golf course this time of year so they don’t smother and kill the grass, Sargent said a big focus in fall is preparing the greens for dormancy. Greens are aerated to allow for air movement and proper moisture, and a top dressing is added.
This material, Sargent said, is a highly specialized sand preparation, the addition of which helps fill in voids left by ball marks and traffic, and keeps the greens smooth and helps prevent thatch build-up.
Thatch is organic matter that makes a cushion under the grass and causes matting. If it is not broken up and removed, it can become a nesting area for insects and disease.
"If thatch gets out of control, it can be a very expensive issue that needs to be resolved,” Sargent said. “We use a machine to de-thatch, which combs it out."
Workers also spray the course to protect from various molds that can form in winter as the grass lies under cover of ice and snow in raw, wet weather.
One of the final fall tasks is to blow the water out of the irrigation system, so the pipes don’t freeze and crack.
Winters are tough on a course
In 30 years, Sargent said the Lochmere course has only had one devastating winter. The snow came early that season and was followed by a December thaw. "The weather got so warm that the snow melted, and when it refroze, it froze as solid ice," he said. "That ice suffocated the grass plants."
Sometimes, maintenance teams go out in the middle of winter and clean the greens off. Some courses put covers over their greens, Sargent said. "We don’t do that. If ice gets on the cover, the cover can also smother the grass."
When the Lochmere course is ready for its long winter break, Chaille's club staff trims down to three people who work all year long. In the coldest months, they trim trees and work inside the clubhouse, servicing the mowers and other equipment.
Then, the spring comes, and the testing-aerating-mowing cycle begins again.
Janice Beetle is an author, editor and owner of Beetle Press, a public relations and marketing company. She can be reached at email@example.com.