Trying moments emerge in June, July and August, when Baywood Greens superintendent Jamie Palokas checks daily tee sheets and notices hundreds of names. He might then open a weather app and notice hours of punishing temperatures exceeding 90 degrees.
The brutality of it all seems distant on days like March 3.
It’s a blustery Friday in the Delmarva Peninsula, a popular summer destination. Tourists who tote their sticks on vacation are stuck in offices in Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia or New York City. With 30-mile per hour winds pelting the exposed holes on the back nine, Palokas and consultant Jeff Michel are taking soil tests.
“The Mid-Atlantic is a very tough region to grow grass,” Palokas says after returning to his office.” You spend seven, eight, nine months prepping yourself for basically June, July, August, and all of your prep work can go downhill really fast in those two or three months.”
Thinking ahead has allowed Baywood Greens to outdistance competitors in a market where most of the golf development has occurred in the last 20 years. Palokas has reached his 10th year at the Long Neck, Del., facility. Intricate landscaping surrounds Baywood Greens’ consistent turf. The grounds feature more than 200,000 plants, with a horticulture team creating rotations promoting color throughout the year.
Palokas leads a turf team consisting of 30 employees who support more than 30,000 annual rounds. He constructs an agronomic program that has Baywood Greens playing its best when it receives the most use.
“July and August are our two busiest months of the year,” Palokas says. “It’s not uncommon for us to be right around 200 players a day – if not more – pretty steady throughout those two months. That definitely causes quite a bit of stress on the turf and that’s where all of the programs we implement come into play. We use all of our resources to put the best product out there and defend that product against the stress of Mother Nature and against the amount of play that we get.”
Planning for the next season starts in early fall. Palokas quizzes assistants and spray technicians about what they saw the previous season. He encourages and seeks input from turf professionals who maintain other courses or receive all-encompassing views of the region’s golf scene. His network includes, Bill Lewis, the superintendent at Bulle Rock Golf Course, a touted Maryland facility where Palokas spent four years as an assistant superintendent before landing the head job at Baywood Greens.
At Bulle Rock, the former site of the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, Palokas learned how to provide what Lewis calls a “country club atmosphere for a day.” Satisfying customers means few peak-season respites for turf, Lewis says. “Every day it has to be championship conditions 100 percent,” he adds. Now in his 19th year as the superintendent at Bulle Rock, Lewis has created a system where assistants grind for two to four years, learn the demanding Mid-Atlantic growing environment and leave well-prepared to lead a maintenance department. “We still talk, we still network,” Lewis says. “It’s really fulfilling that you are seeing somebody like Jamie become so successful at Baywood Greens.”
Bulle Rock is considered an intricate property with various microclimates, which further primed Palokas for Baywood Greens. The first 12 holes at Baywood Greens are wooded; the final six holes are open and meander around water features. Disease and water management tactics vary throughout the course, thus the emphasis on developing and tweaking plans during the fall, winter and spring. Spray records are thorough; conversations are frequent. Surprises can ruin a season, and chaotic summers are, well, not chaotic anymore.
“You have to prepare your course for an intense, brutal summer and focus on all aspects of your agronomic management,” Palokas says. “The one or two things you let your guard down on is probably what will hurt you.”
Even before the 2017 calendar reached March, Palokas started scouting for the annual bluegrass weevil (ABW), a pest problem he has managed to avoid. The scouting starts in winter because as Palokas says, “you have to go by what Mother Nature tells you.” February temperatures exceeding 70 degrees are a sign 2017 could be different than 2016.
And 2016, according to area turf veterans, proved challenging. Solid cultural practices, precise hand-watering and a reliable preventative spray program allowed Baywood Greens’ L-93 bentgrass greens, tees and fairways to withstand intense disease pressure.
Rotating fungicides is helping Palokas control dollar spot, the biggest disease challenge Palokas faced in his first three summers at Baywood Greens. Daconil Action and Secure are among the fungicides in his spray program.
“We never really spray a chemical class more than twice in a row,” Palokas says. “That’s one of the reasons I think we have been really successful – we haven’t relied on one product or one chemistry. That’s what has also helped over the last six, seven, eight years. A lot of new products have come out, not only new products, but some different and improved chemistries. Many of the newer products are safer to apply during the summer months and cover a wider range of diseases. At times, you can now get away with one product in the tank to take care of multiple issues, whereas 10-15 years ago you’d be tank mixing two or three products for the same issues.”
Fairy ring, another potential problem Baywood Greens faces, is also controlled preventatively through a rotation. Palokas has recently added Velista, a broad-spectrum fungicide released in 2015, to his fairy ring rotation. Palokas starts spraying for fairy ring in March, although the disease doesn’t become noticeable until June at the earliest. “That goes back to the whole preparation thing,” he says. “It’s better to fight disease preventatively than it is once you have it.”
The preventative approach extends into Palokas’ pest control program. After witnessing grubs creep into tees and fairways last year, along with causing more than normal damage in rough, Palokas reassessed his program and determined fixing grub-related turf problems distracted his team from pursuing scheduled late-fall and winter projects. Damage started in August and continued into November, and followed a multi-year pattern of increased grub activity.
Baywood Greens wasn’t alone. Doug Rider, a Syngenta territory manager who covers the region for the company, says the last two years have presented “more and more issues with grubs in all facets of turf,” including golf courses, lawns and athletic fields. Customers seeking championship conditions on all surfaces has made expanded grub coverage on golf courses a practice being explored by more superintendents.
“The demands for high-quality turf just keep getting farther and farther from the flag,” Rider says. “Not only do you have to maintain the bunkers to a certain standard every day, but now when you are dealing with the rough, where you may have hit a shot 10, 20 yards off line, that turf needs to be in just as good of shape as greens and fairways in a lot of cases now. You might be playing catchup in an area that might be out of the play to some. All different levels of a course are scrutinized nowadays to be in tip-top shape.”
Conversations with other superintendents and Rider led to Palokas expanding his use of Acelepryn, an insecticide he used to control ABW on greens. Acelepryn is also labeled for grub control, and Palokas says he’s planning to spray it “wall to wall” this year. In addition to 38 total acres of L-93 greens, tees and fairways on the existing course, Baywood Greens has 80 acres of tall fescue/bluegrass rough. Palokas will only need one spring application of Acelepryn to receive season-long grub control.
“At first, we were spraying it on greens as an ABW control, and I always thought that maybe we will go tees and fairways with it,” Palokas says. “But we weren’t really having grub or ABW issues to the point where we were interested in making the change and increasing our cost. Then, over the last two years, I had several conversations where I learned about the success guys have been having with Acelepryn for grubs. Five years ago, I would have told you that you were crazy if you said we should spray Acelepryn wall to wall for grub control because of how much the price increases. After the damage we had last year, it becomes a no-brainer.”
Repairing grub damage – and the damage caused by animals digging for the pests – can overextend a staff already fatigued from handling peak-season play. “It’s not only fixing the areas you’re sodding and reseeding,” Palokas says. “You are also taking labor to fertilize these areas, to water them, to keep them alive for another three, four weeks until they root and stand on their own. It really, really taxed our staff at the end of the year when you are trying to do other things and projects and you have to delay those projects and plans because you are fixing damage that you didn’t expect.”
The current project at Baywood Greens is a major one. Palokas and his staff are constructing a third nine. Six holes are done, and the nine will include multiple collection and native areas. The philosophies behind managing the new holes will remain the same. Each hole will be managed differently and calculated decisions will be made before tourists arrive.
“The cool thing about this business is that you are always learning,” Palokas says. “You could be here for 30 years and you are going to see something new every year. Even on the course itself, each hole is unique, with its own microclimate that poses different challenges. Over the last 10 years, our staff has excelled in learning from and managing these challenges.”