Text: Greg Johnson
Jack Thomasma, golf course superintendent at The Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe—also known as the course visible to automotive drivers on eastbound Interstate 96 as they approach Grand Rapids—joked the course always looks green from a distance.
“The faster you drive by, the better it looks, too,” Thomasma added, laughing.
Thomasma, who has served as superintendent at the course since it opened nearly 21 years ago, said the period after Labor Day and into the fall is the time when golf courses must plan and carry out significant aeration on their greens and fairways to maintain its great condition year-round.
The goal is to conduct the necessary practice, and have the greens healed and back to rolling smoothly as quick as possible, according to Thomasma.
“If you time it right and have the right equipment, you can aerate with the big tines, punch some big holes, get sand in there, and get them healed in about a week,” Thomasma said.
“It has to be done. There is no getting around it. The key thing is making sure you time it right for the soil, for the pro shop, and for your customers,” Thomasma added.
Aeration is a program essential to ensuring surfaces are healthy and in good condition, and is primarily performed to control organic matter, such as decayed roots and grass stems, according to the United States Golf Association. The process not only relieves soil compaction and stimulates root growth, but also improve drainage. Adam Moeller, an agronomist in the northeastern region, explains on the USGA website if organic matter becomes too thick, it can act as a sponge and result in surface water retention after rainfall or irrigation; or inhibit root growth, reducing oxygen level in the soil. This can lead to disease and eventually turf failure.
The buildup of organic matter can also lead soft surfaces and allow for ball marks, foot prints, and inconsistent playing conditions—and the best way to control organic matter and maintain smooth putting surfaces is through aeration and topdressing, according to the USGA website.
Thomasma also noted aerating with the big tines, which disrupts play on the greens, takes place in the fall, and his staff uses smaller tines and equipment to aerate once per month during the middle of the summer season.
“We use tiny tines and maybe that day the golfer can tell we did it, but by the next day they can’t tell,” Thomasma said. “The equipment and methods you can use now are better than they were years ago. If you do it enough, you keep those gasses from building up, get good oxygen, sand down in the holes, and keep your turf healthy.”
While a lot of golf course superintendents have varying methods for aeration, Thomasma said some still pull the cores of soil out and replace with sand, and others punch deep holes and add sand.
“We find punching the holes, just pushing down, and then putting sand it allows them to heal quicker,” Thomasma said.
Timing is also an important factor, and aeration always has to be coordinated with the pro shop. Thomasma noted Labor Day and the two weeks following are usually significant outing weeks at a public facility.
“We talk about it at length because you don’t want to disrupt a big outing, or a tournament or something like that you might be having,” Thomasma said. “Everybody knows it has to be done—it’s a necessary evil in a way—but you plan it for when it works for everybody, heal it as quickly as you can, and keep the turf healthy.”
Thomasma also noted that farmers turn their soil each year in large part to get oxygen and release harmful gasses.
“We don’t have that option, so we have to break up the thatch layers, get air and water down in there and put in clean sand to keep the soil healthy. Labor Day is right around the best time because the soil temperatures are still warm and the greens recover so much faster,” Thomasma said.
“We look at it again in the spring and usually do it again. Then we do our small tines throughout the year. It makes a huge difference when you can do it regularly,” Thomasma added.