Halfway there

Halfway there

Five of Pinehurst’s 9 courses will soon have Champion Bermudagrass greens. Bob Farren and John Jeffreys discuss the affect the variety has on agronomics and business.

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June 26, 2016
Guy Cipriano
Course News Turf

Looking to learn more about life at Pinehurst since the No. 2 course hosted consecutive U.S. Opens in 2014, GCI visited Bob Farren and John Jeffreys in late May. The visit started in Farren’s office, a mini-museum of key events hosted by the resort in the last 30 years. 

With a flat-screen television on mute – cable news and the Golf Channel are staples – the conversation immediately shifts to Pinehurst’s biggest summer project: converting the greens on the No. 5 course from bentgrass to Champion Bermudagrass. When the conversion is completed, five of the resort’s nine courses will include Champion greens. Three courses include bentgrass greens; one Mini Verde. 

Bentgrass covered every green less than a decade ago, thus making Pinehurst the epicenter of the Bermudagrass vs. bentgrass discussion. The conversion that received the most attention occurred on the historic No. 2 course following the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open. Fortunately for superintendents managing both varieties or mulling conversions, Pinehurst’s agronomists enjoy sharing their story.

“There is a different mentality now as far as keeping the greens alive vs. making the greens better and being better suited for our environment and our play demands,” says John Jeffreys, the No. 2 course superintendent. “We get more play June, July, August now than we probably did 10-15 years. We are able to focus on better conditioning when we are at our highest levels of golf and not necessarily putting them on life support. We can work feverishly to make them better with a lot of surface management techniques. It’s not like bentgrass where you are trying to keep them alive during the summer.”

Farren, the director of golf course and grounds management, started working at the resort in the early 1982. The situation in the early 1980s contrasts what Jeffreys experiences today. The No. 2 course closed in May and didn’t reopen until October, sparing the crew from preparing bentgrass greens for play in 90- and 100-degree temperatures. But increases in the village’s population and summer golf demand eventually made summer closures unfeasible.

“Our membership is huge now,” Farren says. “It’s not just travel people. We had to change and Bermuda fits our business model for the summer so much better. And then our fall kicks off, and it’s more resort, buddy trip, social travelers, so now we can have really good conditions September and October whereas before we were in recovery the entire month of September trying to get the greens back in condition from summer stress.”

Farren turns toward his desktop computer and displays a spreadsheet on the television screen when asked if customers notice the difference between Champion and bentgrass greens. Extensive surveys are key parts of Pinehurst’s business model, and managers such as Farren receive access to every result. Farren says only a “handful” of guests over the last four years mentioned grass differences in the survey. 

“Some call it ‘Championship’ grass of all things,” he says. “Some are saying you need to convert all of the greens into that and some are saying I don’t like that new ‘Championship’ grass, it’s either too fast or too hard. But it’s like not even a tenth-of-a-percent. You read into some of the surveys of people who play and the three most popular courses on a golf trip are 2, 4 and 8. Regardless of how good No. 4 may be, which is still bent, they tend to like 2 and 8 better. Some might not be able to tell you why they like it better.”

Farren and golf course maintenance manager Kevin Robinson spend more time reading the surveys than Jeffreys, who oversees the crew working on the No. 2 course, which received close to 35,000 rounds in 2015, the first year full year with Champion greens. While never easy, summer has become less taxing. The physical labor needed to manage the surfaces through grooming and topdressing has increased, but Jeffreys no longer cringes when temperatures are above 80 degrees when he leaves for work at 5 a.m. Winters, though, bring new demands, because temperatures in Pinehurst can dip below 32 degrees.

“But,” Jeffreys says, “your insurance policy with the covers is much stronger than the syringing you did to try to keep the bentgrass alive in the summer. It’s now that focus of making them better and not just keeping them alive in the summer.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.