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With dry weather, golf course work is a delicate dance

A sprinkler waters the green on No. 17 at Wild Oak Golf Course on Thursday morning in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

It's not all green at Wild Oak Golf Course this summer.

In fact, there's brown and yellowish grass in some of the fairways. But that's par for the course in a summer in which Mitchell hasn't gotten much rain. Course Manager Dave Backlund Jr. said workers at the course try to control what they can in keeping the course in top shape.

"We're a little more cautious about the cart traffic and where we've got people coming and going," he said. "Especially in those places that aren't irrigated."

On a course that measures nearly 7,000 yards, it's not realistic for every inch of the course to be hydrated. Wild Oak, for example, will likely hire on extra staff later this month — if the dry weather continues — to help hand water the greens and tee boxes. That's generally considered to be a best practice to manage the amount of water used on a course because it can be more closely controlled. And because water can conduct heat easily, Backlund said maintenance and when to water the course is a delicate balance.

"The course becomes susceptible when it's hot and dry and that's where the hand watering comes in and you really have to be careful with finding the right amount," he said.

It's been a dry period for the Mitchell area. Since June 1, Mitchell has received 1.02 inches of rain, nearly 4 inches below normal for that time frame from June 1 to July 6. For the year, Mitchell is also well below normal for precipitation (8.04 inches in 2017 compared to normal of 11.72 inches) and has received about half the precipitation it received by this point in 2016 (15.2 inches).

Currently, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Davison County and much of the southeastern part of the state is listed as "abnormally dry." In South Dakota, 91 percent of the state has some sort of drought designation, with the worst conditions in the north-central part of South Dakota.

Wade Merry, the executive director of the South Dakota Golf Association, said that water and sustainability are always issues that are on the minds of golf course operators.

"Growing up in the 1970s, I remember that they watered the greens and the tee boxes and you just played," he said. "I hope that if a golfer goes to a course that's not green and lush but is well-maintained, that they understand the purpose of that. The water and the irrigation systems, that's an expense and that ends up getting passed on to someone and that usually ends up being the golfer."

There's also been a public effort from groups like the United States Golf Association to help golfers realize that a course that's not all green doesn't equate to a poorly maintained one. Backlund said that helps golfers understand how the course is being kept during dry weather and mentioned that the U.S. Open has been played on courses that weren't perfect in color in recent years.

"I think those things, they alleviate some of the pressure from people that might not realize just the cost that goes into pumping all of that water and the labor and the electricity," he said. "When you head that off and get that out to the public, I think people are more accepting. You can have a virtually brown course that still is fun and fair to play."

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