The Rain in Spain falls mainly at the wrong time
Few of us expect our course back home to be at its best every day of the year. For example, we are a bit more tolerant of imperfect conditions in early spring when we get out on the course for the first time to kick-start the golfing season. Likewise, we do not expect the greens to be at their firmest during the heaviest of autumn rains.
Yet, many of us show much less understanding for imperfections once we head to warmer climes on a golf trip. This is quite evident when reading golf course reviews online. Is this because the weather is so much better or are we not aware that the course maintenance issues are different?
On Mallorca, one of four main Balearic Islands, three factors conspire to make autumn a trying time for greenkeepers, accounting for variable course conditions due to: a) mandatory irrigation with wastewater during the hot summer, b) occasional deluges and c) the transition between summer and winter grasses.
Irrigation with wastewater
Many parts of Mallorca consist of limestone substrata. Readers from London know this equates to hard tap water and crusty limescale in the kettle. Therefore, much of the island softens its drinking water with extracted salts going down the waste pipe. Furthermore, the many tourists enjoying Mallorca’s beaches in the summer put a lot of stress on the island’s limited freshwater resources as very little rain falls during the hot summer season.
It may not come as a surprise to learn that golf courses on Mallorca are only permitted to use recycled wastewater for irrigation during the summer. Due to the water softening process, this wastewater is unfortunately high in salt, almost to the point of being toxic to grass. Not watering at all is not an option during a hot summer with temperatures way above 30oC (86°F). Ignoring the rules, by sinking an illegal well or borehole to extract freshwater, is not an option either and significant fines have had to be paid recently by some prominent courses.
Therefore, course managers are doing all they can to treat this wastewater to make it friendlier to the grass. Despite these efforts, autumn is often spent recovering summer damage, whereas your greenkeeper back home has a similarly busy time in spring.
Apart from repairing unsightly bare patches on fairways and greens, these efforts often also involve a lot of extra watering at night to flush out accumulated salt deposits and restore the chemical balance in the soil. Therefore, you might be playing a very wet course if you start early in the morning, even if no rain has been recorded for quite some time.
The rain in Spain…
Mallorca has a dry Mediterranean climate, but when it does rain, it tends to come in bursts, sometimes in very high quantities. Fortunately, this seldom happens over the whole island at the same time or for any extended length of time. The tourism industry in general does not mind, as it makes it easier to rent hotel bedrooms and sunloungers. Golf courses, however, have a more challenging time, as few courses anywhere have a drainage system that can cope with a 50 mm (2-inch) deluge in a few hours.
Superintendents are often good at recovering the courses after these rainy assaults. But if you arrive a day or two after a very major downpour they might not have been able to cut fairways and there may still be standing water in some bunkers, despite the sunny weather you might now be enjoying. However, most courses drain well and very few have to shut completely for more than the odd day during a year.
Another consequence of the irregular rainfall pattern is the plethora of ponds doubling as water hazards on most Mallorcan courses. Greenkeeping without the ability to store water is not a realistic proposition.
Mallorca falls into what is knows as the “transition zone” where neither warm nor cool season grasses grow successfully throughout the year. No strain of grass has yet been developed that will cope with hot summers and cool winters while withstanding golf carts and year-round traffic and still looking looking permanently happy and healthy. Therefore many courses alternate between a heat-resistant (warm season) grass that thrives in summer (often Bermuda) and a cool season strain that grows in winter (often ryegrass). This is achieved by verti-cutting the turf, topdressing and overseeding with the desired grass and, of course, watering a bit more and cutting a bit less than usual until the new grass has taken hold
Course managers do their best by moving tees and restricting buggy traffic to paths only, but the fact of the matter is that you will be playing on a partially substandard surface for a short period and may be unlucky if you’re visiting during that time.
Apart from conditioning, the main point of criticism levelled at golf courses on Mallorca concerns value for money. However much we like to focus primarily on design qualities, many of us make a conscious or subconscious value-for-money comparison when playing a new course… “How does this course compare with others where I’ve paid a €100 greenfee?”
When considering value-for-money do remember that compared to most clubs in Northern Europe and the British Isles, Mallorcan courses have to spend much more on water, both in terms of capital investment (ponds, treatment plants etc) and in terms of ongoing water rates and maintenance costs. Also, golf courses on Mallorca are commercial operations, which are open 365 days a year with greenfees as their main source of income. Most facilities further north are member-owned clubs, some of which set a low green fee to attract marginal revenue from additional guest play.
This point is further underscored by the fact that peak season green fees for 18 holes vary from €60 to about €150, whereas the gap between the least and most expensive green fees tend to be much bigger further north.
The purpose of this article is not to warn you from visiting Mallorca as a golfing destination – quite the contrary – but to help you understand why course conditions vary, even in the autumn high season. In reality, Mallorca is a great place to go golfing in spring and autumn, especially if you want to combine your golf with other things like hiking, cycling, wine tasting or more traditional sun, sea and sand holiday pursuits.
Some of the points raised in this article are likely to be equally valid for other destinations. Who knows, with climate change advancing these issues might soon have some relevance for the golf club you belong to back home?This article was written by one of our regular contributors (who does not wish to be credited) after consulting with a number of course managers on the island of Mallorca.