Aerating greens: what you should know and expect from golf courses

Most golfers know the importance or aerating greens. Even if they don't understand why, they know it's necessary.

Still, no one likes to putt on greens that have been recently aerated, especially a deep-tine aeration with core removal and top dressing. Trying to putt over holes is frustrating at best, and often golfers who do play in such conditions just go ahead and invoke an automatic two-putt worst score on the greens. It can be like the leaf rule in the fall – it's not pure golf — but if you want to play the course you make adjustments.

What irritates golfers more than anything, of course, is when they show up for their tee time, only to find out then that the greens were recently aerated, or worst yet, don't discover it until they get to the first green. The latter is certainly rare, and the former is becoming less common, too, as courses know this doesn't exactly create good will with their customer base. Letting golfers know before they show up to the course should probably be the minimum practice, and most courses are trying to do that.

How courses and clubs communicate this to golfers varies, of course. Then there's the question of whether golfers should pay full price when they play courses where the greens are less than stellar because of maintenance.

The ins and outs of aerating

Although most golfers realize aerating greens is necessary, having a better understanding of the process does make it easier for them to plan when and where they should play.

First of all, there are probably as many as five different types of aerating practices, according to Adam Moeller, director of education for the USGA Green Section. The least invasive small-tine aerating hardly disrupts the playing surface at all and is usually very playable immediately afterwards, but its effectiveness is certainly debatable.

Most courses employ the practice of less frequent deep-tine aerating (often 5/8 inch or more wide), where holes are created and filled by sand top-dressing. Core removal opens up substantial holes on the greens, which helps the soil profile breathe. That improves drainage and air exchange for the plants. It can take up to a couple of weeks for the greens to recover, but these procedures are critical for the long-term health of the greens.

This is typically done one to three times a year, depending on the course, the type of greens, and in what part of the country they are located.

"The practice of core aeration is done when the grass is growing the most aggressively, so they can have the quickest recovery time," Moeller said. For year-round warm-season grasses, that probably means spring and fall and definitely summer, "when the grass is growing most actively," he said. "In the north, spring and the tail end of summer are ideal for cool season grasses."

Courses also try to schedule greens aerating around big events and vice-versa. And now, the USGA through its course consulting service, has created an "aeration model" for golf facilities and their superintendents, using the course's own data, which includes round history, green fees and recovery times. The model blends agronomic practices with financial considerations.

"We're trying to add a little more data and science into picking that date," Moeller said. "Play schedule, times of year that works best with them. If the weather cooperates, here's the best time to minimize your revenue loss, the best times to recover and experience the least disruption of play."

Informing golfers and possible discounts

As all of us have become more tied to our phones and computers, and facilities have extensive emailing lists, many courses send out alerts to their regular customers, letting them know when greens are going to be aerated. And most courses will inform golfers who reserve a tee time by phone if greens have been recently aerated. (It saves a lot of potential grief for shop personnel later).

There certainly isn't an industry standard when it comes to communication or discounting green fees. For example, the courses run by Chicago-based KemperSports management company vary by course as to how they communicate with golfers. As for discounts, "it's really left up to each property to figure out the best way to compensate our guests," said B.R. Koehnemann, director of communications for KemperSports.

Golfers looking to save a little money on green fees who don't mind rough greens would be well advised to check out course websites and get on mailing lists. Sometimes, the greens are surprisingly playable following an aggressive aerating, especially if you wait a few days after the procedure when the maintenance crews have had a chance to "whip" the sand off the greens and run the mowers and rollers.

For example, The Virtues Golf Club near Columbus, Ohio, offered discounted green fees of $54 for the week after it aerated this spring, and claimed that its greens were very playable. Normal green fees on the weekend at The Virtues are $100.

Jared Cottell, the head PGA professional at the Donald Ross-designed Elkview Country Club near Carbondale, Pa., lets his members know well in advance when the greens are going to be aerated. But before he came to Elkview three years ago, he employed a different practice at the semi-private/resort-like Woodloch Springs Country Club in Hawley, Pa., where he was head professional for seven years.

At Woodloch Springs, golfers didn't get a discounted green fee, but they did a certificate for a discounted round the next time they played. It's a gesture of goodwill, Cottell says, and it doesn't cost them much. In fact, without it, they could lose revenue during right after aerating. And the certificates ensure repeat visits, perhaps a bonus, when golfers also are likely to purchase food and merchandise on top of their discounted green fees.

But many operators aren't comfortable adjusting green fees based on what shape the course is in. It's a bit of a two-edged sword.

"It's definitely a polarizing topic," Moeller said. "The flipside of the argument is do you charge people more when the greens are playing better?"