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Even after a winter storm blanketed much of the Bay State this week, there are many places near the coast where golf can, and will, be played during the remaining weeks of winter.
Among them is Cape Cod Country Club, a public course located in East Falmouth. Its superintendent, Matthew Crowther, is well-versed in proper maintenance of the golf course year-round. From 1995-2019, Crowther worked at Mink Meadows Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard before taking the job at Cape Cod CC. Crowther has been active in his local and regional associations, serving as president of the Golf Course Superintendents of Cape Cod and the New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation during his career.
Crowther’s philosophy has been keeping inputs at a minimum while still maintaining a healthy playing service. In addition to establishing low maintenance natural areas at Mink Meadows, only 3.5 of the course’s 45 acres were conventionally maintained with fertilizers and pesticides under his watch.
As a result of his hard work, Crowther is receiving the 2021 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America during this week’s Golf Industry Show. The award recognizes “an exceptional environmental contribution to the game of golf — a contribution that further exemplifies the golf course superintendent’s image as a steward of the land.”
Mass Golf caught up with Crowther prior to receiving the award to talk about the landscape for golfers looking to play this time of year and courtesies they should observe when they’re on the course.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Mass Golf: What’s the biggest factor that goes into determining whether the course is suitable for winter play?
Matthew Crowther: It’s probably the same as when the regular season is going, and it’s ground conditions. The difference is you can get one-tenth of an inch [of rain] or you could get a half-inch in July, and be out playing 15 minutes after the rain stops. And now you can get one-tenth of rain and it’s saturated. The ground just does not take the water in the winter, the way it does normally.
It’s a day-to-day thing, and the hours of daylight are completely different. We’ve got a couple of greens that probably get an hour or two of sunshine this time of year. So if they get snow, it could take days for it to disappear there versus the others. So in that case we might have temporaries on those greens and just doing what we can and what we have to do to make the place playable.
MG: What are some things golfers might notice in terms of special rules and etiquette for the winter?
MC: The simple rule would be to lower your expectations. As far as everything goes whether greens will be open whether regulation tees will be open, play to whatever the particular course has deemed the setup is. Whether it’s temporary tees off the tee boxes themselves or temporary greens out in a fairway. You should not expect to play a regulation golf course.
Secondly, just be even more cognizant of the traffic that you’re putting onto the turf. Every time you drive off a car path, that grass is not growing so it’s not going to recover from that damage. Fifty percent of the traffic this time of year does at least double that amount of damage if it was growing season, if not more.
Because of snow cover or frost in the ground in the spring, invariably we’ll end up with a handful of temporary areas because they don’t get enough sunshine to break the frost in the ground like the rest of the place.
MG: What are some of these special or temporary areas marked with?
MC: Recently, I just asked my assistant to go out and put a temporary tee marker out. We use blue wire flags that we use for irrigation marking and stuff, and he ended up putting all temporaries [tees] out. Two weeks ago we had a 50-degree Sunday and did 150 players, so the tees are just going to get destroyed if we have an exceptionally busy winter, so we don’t want to start the season with dirt tees. A private club only doing a handful of rounds per day might keep their tees open, but we decided to go all temporary tees this year. But the greens and fairways are open.
At my old course, we had a big bucket in the fairway so when there was a temporary green, at least it was a bigger cup to shoot to. Here, we don’t do temporary [greens] that often, only when we absolutely need to. We’d just have a regulation 4-inch cup out in the approach, and people just play to that. Generally, every club and every group of players will have their own thing, like get it to within a club length and it’s good.
MG: Are fixing divots and repairing ball markers even more important in the winter?
MC: Yes, without question. They can take divots, but we don’t have the manpower to go out to seed divots because seeds won’t grow this time of the year. So they should work hard to put their divots back. The divot will probably live because it wants to live so that sod will want to put roots down if it can and the ground is not frozen.
It all goes back to the same thing I said. All the work being done in the wintertime is a fraction of what’s being done in-season. So every ball mark that gets made is one that’s going to stay there for however long it takes before the crew gets out there and starts doing stuff [in spring]. When the ground stays frozen, I can’t go out there an hour ahead of play and fix ball marks. Anytime you get to play after Thanksgiving in New England is a luxury, and it should be treated as such.
MG: Do pin locations change at all?
MC: For the last two seasons, and I think they generally do it in the wintertime, we’ll cut two cups. Some places have two, some places have three.
And the standard practice from what I understand from winter players is when you play to the green, you play to the flag that’s there and then you move it to the other cup. Thereby, essentially, if everybody does it, everybody’s playing a different cup and you’re putting 50 percent less wear on each cup. We try to change them at least once during the winter.
MG: With a huge surge in golf last year, what are some of the most important tasks for your maintenance team during the winter to get the course ready for in-season play during spring?
MC: The equipment takes the highest priority: Your benches, ball washers, bunker rakes, and flags sticks. There’s cleaning them up painting them up and making them all pretty for next year. There’s preventative maintenance. You’re not really doing much in the way of wholesale repairs and upgrades. It’s a good time to get some projects done on the golf course, whether it’s construction or regular maintenance like edging bunkers or tree work. You’re hampered by the weather because you can’t work the ground in the morning if it’s frozen. So you’re not as productive as if you would be when it’s not frozen in winter, but it doesn’t mean you still don’t try. You just have fewer hours in the day to do them.
MG: What does this award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America mean to you?
MC: It means a lot. I was shocked by the award and deeply humbled, but upon reflection, it made me think about all the work I’ve put in to be extremely environmentally conscious and it’s hard not to be damn proud of them. I think all superintendents are environmentalists at heart. We all want the best for our properties on a regular basis anyway, but some of us go a little above and beyond at times, and it’s nice to be recognized.
MG: What are you most looking forward to as we start 2021 and the regular golf season approaches?
MC: I’m hoping that the increased excitement and play that we saw in 2020 continues. It was a nice boost for golf, in general, and it’d be nice if that continued because that’s good for everybody. If the clubs are making money, there’s a good chance they’ll spend more money on projects, and get money for equipment.