Golf Course Maintenance 101: Frost Delays

In my previous post, I mentioned that there was a long wait to tee off because of a frost delay. Being still fairly new to the sport (and usually only playing during warm weather), this made me wonder about the exact meaning behind a frost delay and the problems it could cause to a golf course.

I reached out Brandon Evans, General Manager & PGA Certified Golf Professional at Village Greens of Woodridge (and self-imposed “Director of Fun and Entertainment”). Brandon was kind enough to offer some insight into various topics of golf course maintenance, including frost delays, water drainage, and cart rules.

This is the first post in a multi-post series on golf course maintenance. In this post, we talk about frost delays.

CGN: It’s obvious was causes a frost delay, even though I didn’t really think it got that cold the night before my round. What’s the reasoning behind preventing play when there’s frost? What does the frost do to the course? How is this any different than playing during the winter or early fall? How often do frost delays actually happen?

****BE: Frost is one of the most frustrating and somewhat unpredictable issues we deal with. Frustrating because nobody wins… the course has to delay golfers from teeing off, which only causes aggravation and irritation for the golfers, especially those accustomed to teeing off early and getting home early. In many cases, the golfers simply can’t wait and they cancel their tee times, resulting in loss of valuable revenue. Even if they do stick around there’s often confusion and chaos in getting everybody onto the course once the delay ends. NOBODY has fun on frost delayed mornings.

Believe me, there’s a very good reason we prevent golfers from going onto the course when there is frost present… it would be a lot easier to simply let everyone out to play than to try to mitigate our guests’ frustration if the consequences weren’t that severe.

First of all… frost is tricky. Without going into details, frost is obviously frozen water, but because the temperature you see on the Weather Channel is taken several feet off the ground and cold air is more dense and therefore ‘sinks’, there could (and often is) frost on the grass when the ‘temperature’ is above freezing. Additionally, it takes frost a while to melt, depending on the severity and density, so by the time you’re driving to the course it may read 37 on your car’s dashboard but when you arrive at the course the greens are frosty white. Lastly, frost will settle and be more severe on shorter grass, which is why your yard may not show frost but a putting green will. Alternatively, humidity levels and other factors are involved, so it’s entirely possible to have overnight lows in the 20’s without frost being present in the morning, yet other mornings when the overnight lows were 35 and there’s a heavy frost.

A blade of grass is 80% water and therefore very pliable or flexible. When that water freezes, and/or a layer of frost covers the blade, the blade of grass becomes rigid and fragile. When someone then steps on it or drives on it, the blade of grass will break, crack, or otherwise become damaged. In the short term, it will cause very bumpy greens (imagine walking through newly fallen snow leaving footprints… a putting surface will look just like it). A few days later, grass may show signs of ‘bruising’ from it’s injuries… we’ll literally see brown or black footprints all over the grass, and those areas won’t grow as evenly, resulting in poor playing surfaces. If the frost was heavy enough and the crown of the plant was frozen, the entire plant will die and the course has some serious problems at that point. We’ve all seen greens with dead ‘footprints’ all over the place.

Bottom line… as much as we hate frustrating the golfers and losing the revenue, the alternative of bruised or dead fairways and greens is less appealing and has longer term consequences.

We typically see frost in March and April, October and November. At some point, the grass goes dormant. Once it’s dormant, it’s more difficult to damage the blade of the grass, which is why some courses allow ‘winter’ golf. However, there are other ways to damage the playing surface in the winter and most course don’t see a positive cost/benefit ratio for winter golf.