Planning with climate and weather data

When it comes to successful agronomic preparation on golf courses, accurate climate and weather data makes all the difference.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Myriad weather data points are available to golf course superintendents to help them manage their daily decisions, from irrigation to mowing to pest management. Photo illustration by zeeclock1/

Like any outdoor sport, golf is at the mercy of the weather, which means the work of the golf course superintendent is also subject to the same whims of Mother Nature.

Brad Jakubowski, an instructor of plant and turfgrass science at Penn State University who has taught several GCSAA seminars on how the weather affects golf courses, says, “(The weather) impacts superintendents’ facilities and their management decisions daily. Decisions concerning irrigation, mowing, pest management, fertilization, plant growth management, projects, etc., are all dependent upon the weather.”

As such, Jakubowski is an advocate for relying on weather and climate data to guide management decisions. “Weather and climate data is one of the most important sources of information golf course managers utilize,” he says.

The long and short of it

But the terms “weather” and “climate” aren’t interchangeable. Climate is defined as the long-term pattern of temperature and precipitation over many years. For example, the standard value used for determining “normal” or “average” conditions is 30 years. To fully describe the climate of an area, it’s not enough to just use averages but also to note extremes and how frequently they occur. Looking at climate data will give you an idea of what has happened in the past, what you can reasonably expect in the future and what extremes in temperature and precipitation may occur.

The National Centers for Environmental Information ( have a wealth of climate information. You can get daily, monthly and annual data for temperature and precipitation for the country, individual states or even specific cities. Although calculated at the NCEI, this information is also distributed locally by Regional Climate Centers (, through state climatologists ( or local agricultural Extension offices.

Marc Szablewski is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at the St. Andrews Golf Course in Overland Park, Kan., and regularly uses climate data. “Every season is different, so dates don’t mean a ton,” the 17-year association member says. “A good data model that is very helpful is growing degree days for application intervals of certain products. The model also helps look back at past temperatures and gives a good gauge of plant growth from the past.”

Jeffrey Austin, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at the Yale Golf Course in New Haven, Conn., has made climate data an important part of his agronomic planning. “With regards to long-term planning, I like to know annual trends in such items as temperature and precipitation totals. Both points of information can help in scheduling pest applications; there are products that I do not need to have on the shelves during summer months because the likelihood of a certain disease is only prevalent during spring and fall months.”

Don Forehope, who manages turfgrass in one of the most inhospitable places in the world as the superintendent at Furnace Creek Golf Course, part of The Oasis at Death Valley, also relies on climate data. “We use climate data to plan for turf management, as well as for the effects on play and/or people,” he says. “We monitor our past years’ temperatures to give us an idea of how to plan. Each month the patterns change, so we have to increase or decrease our watering plan.

“Since temperatures fluctuate between winter and summer — particularly in summer when they can vary from 100 to 130 degrees — we look at our watering plan each month, perform temperature checks and examine weather patterns. Our EZLinks tee time reservation system stores historical weather data and our play records for each day of the last 12 years, which makes it helpful to see what months and weeks have been busier. Having this historical data also helps us maintain staffing levels that will accommodate walk-ups or advance-reservation golfers.”

Kevin Breen, CGCS, director of greens and grounds at the La Rinconada Country Club, Los Gatos, Calif., and current president of the GCSAA, adds, “I use historical data to manage the golf course — chemical and fertilizer applications and personnel schedules.”

Frosty golf course
Planning for frost is one area of concern for many superintendents that can be informed by accurate weather data. Photo by MrSegui/

In the here and now

All the planning in the world won’t account for the occasional curveballs tossed out there by Mother Nature, so monitoring current weather conditions is also commonplace on golf courses, most often by using on-site weather monitoring. This ranges from using “low-tech” methods, such as thermometers and simple rain gauges, to complete on-site weather stations.

“We have an electric weather station on our fourth hole that measures temp, precip, winds, dew point and atmospheric pressure,” says Austin, a member of GCSAA for 19 years. “It gives us real-time and historical weather data.”

For help with current conditions at locations away from the course and updated forecasts, there are two basic sources. You can go to the National Weather Service website for free information for a host of locations, or you can use the services of private meteorology firms that typically offer basic information for free and more detailed information via subscription. Paid services are tailored to the specific needs of the clients, who often can interact directly with meteorologists.

Breen, a 33-year GCSAA member, only needs to look in a mirror to interact with a meteorologist — he has a degree in meteor­ology from the University of Nebraska. As a result, he relies on basic data from the National Weather Service. “I use a combination of raw data, forecast models and NOAA forecasts that I access online,” he says. “I learn so much from the NWS discussions that are part of my local forecast and would say that is my one go-to.”

At St. Andrews GC, Szablewski uses Weather or Not, a private firm in Kansas City. Paul Latshaw, CGCS, the director of golf course operations at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., uses several private firms, primarily Weather Sentry, powered by DTN. But he also uses a golf-specific service, Grass Roots Weather, headed by Herb Stevens. “It is a service that I highly depend on and value his professional opinion,” Latshaw says. On his phone, Latshaw — a 36-year GCSAA member — has several apps he relies on, including RadarScope and Dark Sky.

Water works and more

As Jakubowski pointed out, there are many uses for weather and climate data, and each superintendent contacted for this story noted its role in water use and management. In water-scarce Death Valley, Forehope says, “We usually use daily weather forecasts on our irrigation computer to let us know how to schedule. The information we look for is wind, rain, humidity and barometric pressure. It is always helpful to know our conditions so that we can update or stop our watering cycle throughout the week.”

Irrigation decisions at Merion are guided by projected daily evapotranspiration along with hourly winds, humidity and dew points, Latshaw says.

And at Yale GC, Austin says, “We mainly use temperature, humidity, wind, precipitation, cloud coverage and length of daylight. All of these categories affect how well turf grows during any given day and how we treat it in terms of mowing, watering, etc.”

Disease management is another part of a superintendent’s job that benefits from accurate data. “Anytime you can prevent a disease, it is going to require less product and save chemical applications,” Szablewski says.

Not surprisingly, weather forecasts become less accurate the farther out they go. Forecasts that offer some specificity are typically reasonably accurate out to a week. More general outlooks for the second week are also generally accurate. Beyond that, forecast reliability should be questioned.

Szablewski says he uses forecasts “usually just a few days out for chemical application preparation. The long-range is more planning out mowing schedules and watering concerns. Day-to-day has its own personality.”

Forehope is a little more confident in forecasts but knows they’re not foolproof. “We typically forecast two weeks out, primarily because of our location, the weather patterns and the unpredictability of the forecast,” he says. “What the forecast says may change within a week. We have had instances where we adjust our watering plan to accommodate a forecast, but then had to go back and recalculate it because of a sudden change in weather.

“However, we do monitor our past years’ temperatures to give us an idea of how to plan. Each month the patterns change, so we have to increase or decrease our watering plan.”

Breen, Latshaw and Austin don’t put much faith in anything outside of 10 days. “Forecasts can change so quickly that anything outside of 7-10 days is a little difficult to trust,” Austin says. “I will plan our weekly practices using the forecast, all while knowing that changes will need to be made on the fly.”

One area where accurate forecasts can make all the difference is frost, a major concern for most superintendents. “If we dip into the 37-to-38-degree range with clear skies, there is a good chance we will have frost on our first hole, which happens to be at the lowest part of the course,” Szablewski says. “We will monitor the temps in the morning for any delays and usually put off mowing if we are up against a busy morning.”

Latshaw says, “Normally we look at nighttime temps and DTN to see if they are projecting a frost. If we believe there is going to be a frost, we always communicate with the pro shop so we can let golfers know there might be a frost delay. There is always rotational maintenance that occurs, so if we are delayed by two hours, we have to delay the first tee time the same. There are times that if we know we are going to have a heavy frost and the tee sheet is packed, we will take out some maintenance aspects to get them playing sooner. Sometimes we will run water lightly to help burn it off.”

Kevin Breen standing on a golf course
With a degree in meteorology, GCSAA President Kevin Breen, CGCS, knows all about the importance of the accuracy of weather data when making decisions around La Rinconada Country Club in Los Gatos, Calif. Photo by Adam Weidenbach

Reading the tea leaves

Weather’s effect on golf course management is undeniable, which emphasizes the importance of access to and understanding of reliable climate and weather data.

“Almost every agronomic decision is based off of weather and weather projections,” Latshaw says. “You obviously can’t control it, but weather forecasts or outlooks can impact your agronomic programs. I am constantly looking at the weather, not just daily but what is in the projected forecast, and adjust agronomic programs with the information we have. Then when inclement weather does occur, such as heavy rains, high dew points, high daytime temperatures coupled with high nighttime temperatures, programs change accordingly.”

Szablewski looks at it this way: “Weather data for superintendents is very important, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. There is a ‘feel’ element to managing turf for longevity. We have certain time frames we like to hit on having products out, but the seasons can vary. Nothing ever goes as a 12-month plan in the transition zone. The data that is really most important is what you have in the next couple of days, then move on out from there with regards to planning.

“Then be ready to pivot, because you will have to when the forecast changes.”

Ed Brotak, Ph.D., was a longtime professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.