Case study in the unexpected

Features - Cover Story

The winter of 2014-15 was one to forget for superintendents in the Carolinas and its aftermath has led to a challenging summer.

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August 20, 2015

As the mercury plunged to 24 degrees in Greensboro, N.C. in late March, Kevin Smith felt his heart sink right along with it. A veteran of nearly four decades of caring for golf courses, he’d seen enough in his time to be shivering from more than the cold. Experience told him that this late, hard freeze was the final ingredient of a “perfect storm” for winterkill.

Smith had seen it brewing. A little more than a month earlier, he tweeted: “Must be the transition zone when your predicted hi temp. is lower than the lethal threshold for your turfgrass.” Smith kept his fingers crossed all the same. He had harbored similar fears the year before after a tough winter but “nothing really materialized.”

Then came the night of March 29. “That’s when things got pretty scary,” says Smith, vice president of agronomy for Pinnacle Golf Properties. “Up until then, we were just sort of fooled into thinking we might be okay. Up until then, I thought maybe we’d be lucky again this year.”

Up until then…

What transpired over the following weeks was gut-wrenching. Golf courses along I-40 from Winston-Salem to Raleigh, the state capital, suffered the most devastating outbreak of winterkill in more than 20 years, maybe even since the ‘70s. Huge swaths of Bermudagrass fairways simply didn’t wake up. Even into June, golfers at some facilities were digging up dust instead of divots.

It wasn’t an onset so much as it was an onslaught.

Damage to some courses, like two that Smith oversees at Bryan Park Golf Course, was so severe they had to close. The repair bill of somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 was only part of the hit for city-owned Bryan Park. The twin 18-hole layouts generate about 55,000 rounds a year. So closing each for four weeks, or more, in summer meant another “very significant impact” financially.

Then there’s the potential for longer-term fallout from dented reputations. Bryan Park did its best to honor contracts for a busy schedule of events from outside groups. “To have folks come out and pay good money to play in conditions like that was extremely difficult,” Smith says.

Both Carolinas were affected. Many courses along South Carolina’s Grand Strand, with golf-centric Myrtle Beach at its heart, also felt the brunt of cold so severe in late-February that Gov. Nikki Haley declared a temporary state of emergency. On Pawleys Island, where the average low for February is 39 degrees, there were 19 nights at freezing or below. Several courses without covers incurred considerable damage to their ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens. Aberdeen Golf Club completely resodded one green while Black Bear Golf Club was forced to regrass all 18.

Even some facilities with covers ended up with damage. Carolinas Golf Association agronomist Bill Anderson says lighter weight covers appeared to perform best. Some older, heavier types actually froze onto greens, as a result of rapid freeze-thaw-freeze cycles. In general, Anderson says, the ultradwarfs did well but “there was enough damage to say there is potential there for vulnerability.”

Greener stripes under the covers on some of Kevin Smith’s greens reminded him “just how small the margin for error is.” Those verdant strips indicated healthier MiniVerde Bermudagrass on the Champions course thanks to seams where two sheets of covering overlapped. Right alongside, areas of the putting green with only single layers of protection were less vibrant and slower to recover.

There were other reminders of that “fine line.” Smith says he had south facing slopes that were doing “beautifully” while just a matter of feet away a north facing slope was barren. “Even after all my years in the business, it’s still quite remarkable to witness how a slight tipping of the scales can mean the difference between rather extensive injury and no injury at all,” he says. “Just a little bit one way or the other means life or death, really.”

Elsewhere in Greensboro, Sedgefield Country Club, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship on its Ross course, shut down the sister Dye course in early June for a six-week recuperation. That repair was part of what was expected to be a $250,000 bill for McConnell Golf across some of the 11 courses it owns or operates in the Carolinas. The majority of McConnell’s facilities are in the hardest-hit Triad and Triangle regions of North Carolina where industry observers say the final cost of sodding and sprigging could reach $5 million.

Soaring demand for Bermudagrass sod pushed prices to nearly double in some cases. Some superintendents reported that a square foot of Tifway 419 Bermudagrass sod, which cost 17 to 19 cents in 2014, was running as high as 32 cents.

Some of that tab fell to Greensboro Country Club, which was forced to close its Irving Park course on June 15. The club used a combination of sod and sprigging to bring the course back. Notably, the club’s Farm course, which has Zeon zoysiagrass fairways since a renovation in 2009, suffered only minimal damage by comparison. “The zoysia got beaten up more than normal but it did so much better than the Bermudagrass,” superintendent Doug Lowe says.

When one observer told Lowe that the sight of winterkill damage was enough to make him swear out loud, Lowe sighed and said: “Amen to that. And we are. All of us, golfers and golf course workers, are going to have to look at this stuff every day for the better part of the summer. You can’t go anywhere in Guilford County and not see significant damage.”
 

Softening the blow through social media

Lowe is one of a number of superintendents making good use of social media to soften the blow by keeping members and golfers informed. His blog offers extensive background on what led to the winterkill, what damage it caused, and what he and his staff are doing about it. Since the winterkill hit, Lowe has increased his posting rate from “every 3 to 4 weeks to more like every 7 to 10 days.”

“The response to the blog has been phenomenal,” he says. “You can do so much more. You can give more detail than you can in a newsletter or in an email and you can provide photos right alongside the words to enhance the reader’s understanding even more. Since the message got out and people began realize how widespread this was, they have been very understanding, sympathetic even.”

Social media has also played a part in helping superintendents cope with the non-agronomic stress caused by winterkill. In another Twitter post in late April accompanied by a photo of a stone dead fairway, Smith made sure no colleagues suffered alone. He wrote: “If anyone is feeling pressure from upper mgm’t re bermuda #winterkill bring them to Bryan Park.”

“It’s one of the unique and greatest aspects of our industry that help is only ever a phone call away,” Smith says. “Whether it’s a piece of equipment you need to borrow or a shoulder to cry on. There have been a lot of discussions within the company and with other superintendents about both the practical and emotional issues at hand.”

More broadly, the 1,800-member Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association made a concerted push to alert and inform golfers. Through a news release distributed in late May, the association’s executive director Tim Kreger appealed to golfers for patience.

“It’s important for golfers to realize that this is an extreme event affecting public and private courses alike,” Kreger says. “It’s not a question of expertise or budget. It’s simply a matter of when weather conditions get bad enough then bad things are going to happen. Golfers should know that our members are all doing they possibly can to get courses back to their best as soon as their club can afford it and Mother Nature’s conditions will allow.”

Like Lowe, Smith says his golfers at Bryan Park have been “quite patient and supportive.” “They were anxious initially,” he says. “But we are blessed with a very loyal clientele who just love Bryan Park through thick and thin. They understand that ‘Hey, this is just one of things beyond anyone’s control.’ I couldn’t be more grateful to them.”
 

Chaotic summer

The toll, as Lowe’s “Amen to that” intimates, is not limited to club budgets and golfer activity. While science says that – short of using covers across the entire golf course – superintendents were powerless to prevent the damage, they’re still taking the outcome personally.

While most now have their courses squarely on the recovery track, Smith speaks for many when he says, “Having an ailing golf course is a lot like having an ailing child on your mind the whole time. It definitely gets in your head.” Recently, Smith had relatives visit from Texas, but as keen as they were to play some golf, Smith couldn’t allow it. “I refused,” he says. “It was just too humbling.”

Indeed, as CGA agronomist Anderson observes: “The whole summer is going to be chaos for some superintendents as they try and patch things back up. A lot were hoping things would green up through spring but a lot of it just didn’t. It was just dead.”

By mid-June much of the Carolinas was baking under the searing heat that superintendents needed to grow-in their repairs. But heat is only one half of the equation with water obviously the other. And the sky wasn’t cooperating fully. In the first 10 days since Smith sprigged the Champions course at Bryan Park and Lowe, the Irving Park course at Greensboro Country Club, the city measured just 0.15 inches of rain.

As a result, superintendents were almost totally reliant on irrigation to keep their recovering turf “rice paddy wet, which is what you want,” Smith says. “Where we have irrigation, the recovery is robust,” he adds. “But where we don’t, out on the perimeters and in some of the rough, it’s not quite so good. If we do get some good rains then we can go pedal to the metal with our fertility, granular and soluble. But at this stage, it’s hard to imagine being open in two to three weeks which was our goal.”

Conditions for recovery were better in Myrtle Beach, but only marginally. Barely 2.5 inches of rain fell in the first three-and-a-half weeks of the month with the bulk of it coming in two downpours a full three weeks apart. Jim Burris, superintendent at Long Bay Golf Club in Longs, S.C., believes a “long wet and cool spring” exacerbated the impact of winterkill along the Grand Strand. “We didn’t get any heat until May,” he says.

“Everything just seemed to go backwards at a period of time the grass should really be growing aggressively,” Jim Knaffle, superintendent from the International Club of Myrtle Beach, told The Sun-News in Myrtle Beach. “It turned into a difficult time for a lot of people.”

Kevin Smith was clearly one of them. This episode of winterkill brought back memories of the mid-‘90s when he was managing 54 holes along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. He had to regrass more than 60 acres then. “It does affect you psychologically,” he says. “But I guess I’m a little fortunate in that I’ve been through this before. So I know that life goes on.”

 

Trent Bouts is a Greer, S.C.-based writer, editor and frequent GCI contributor.


 




Un-believable


After an unseasonably rough winter, now the Carolinas deal with an uncharacteristic dry spell.

By Trent Bouts


Drought blamed for a spate of shark attacks off the Carolinas’ coast is putting a bite on golf courses inland. The lack of rain means less freshwater flowing into the ocean leading to warmer sea waters with a higher salt content, a combination that appeals to sharks. Golf course superintendents, including those recovering from a severe dose of winterkill, are less enthused.

Their rainfall record is inversely proportional to the shark attack rate – 11 so far this year – which is four times higher than normal. More than 50 counties across North and South Carolina have been elevated to moderate drought status. Another 30-plus are considered abnormally dry.

“It’s been one of those years I’m afraid,” says O’Neill Crouch, III whose winterkill repairs at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, N.C., required 20 tractor-trailer loads of sod and 15 acres of sprigs. “We sprigged on June 8 and went 21 straight days without a single drop of rain” he adds. “That was tough.”

Crouch’s fortune in having access to city water is countered by the fact the club has to pay for it. Working to keep his sprigged acreage rice paddy wet was like “watching dollars getting pumped out the end of a hose,” he says. “I don’t even want to think about what our (quarterly) water bill will be. It might be something like $80,000.” In kinder times, Crouch “barely” irrigates at all on the Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw redesigned course he likens to U.S. Open host course Chambers Bay “but with Bermudagrass.”

Whatever that bill is, it will come in on top of $110,000-plus already invested on sod and sprigs. Then there’s the additional labor required after the skies finally opened up with such ferocity the rains washed out a significant amount of sprigs, in addition to some bridges on course. “We got heavy rains four days straight,” Crouch says. “The good news is that the last of the sprigs held after we repacked them for the third time. Then it got dry again.”

At nearby Forsyth Country Club, superintendent Chris DeVane tells of a similar experience, albeit on a smaller scale. Nursing three acres of sod and four acres of sprigs, DeVane saw his city water bill for June soar to $22,000, versus the $13,000 he had budgeted. With almost total control of how much water is going onto his A1/A4 greens, DeVane says he is “very happy” with their condition. “Our tees are good too but everything in the middle became a bit of a crap shoot,” he says.

“Things are definitely not as bad as they could be,” says David Johnson, CGCS from High Point Country Club in High Point, N.C. “But they sure could be a lot better.” When he was looking for Bermudagrass to kick back into growing mode and fill in winterkill zones in May, the skies offered up just .7 of an inch for the whole month.

In the end, he laid 12 tractor trailer loads of sod and sprigged two acres on the driving range. He harvested another acre of sod from out-of-play areas on the course to complete repairs. “We’re fortunate that we draw our irrigation from a creek and we’re still pumping at full capacity for now,” Johnson says. “But the creek is low.”

Just outside Leesburg in the South Carolina midlands, Dean Bedenbaugh is also watching the level of a creek that feeds his irrigation ponds at Ponderosa Country Club. Bedenbaugh says his course received just over an inch of rain in all of June. “Afternoon storms just keep going around us,” he says. “We aren’t getting a lick of rain. Fortunately, they have been catching some of the storms in town and that feeds the creek that runs to my irrigation source.”

He has been using wetting agents to make the most of what water he can put on the golf course. “It’s nothing that scares me yet,” he says. “But we would love to get some rain. That’s for sure.”

“Dry, dry, dry,” is how Clay DuBose, CGCS describes life at Tradition Golf Club on Pawleys Island in the Myrtle Beach area. By mid-month, DuBose says Tradition had received barely .75 of an inch for July. June delivered five inches but in isolated large doses including a three-inch downpour in the first week of the month. “It has been hit and miss,” he says. “Some guys on the north end are doing alright. We’ve had nothing on the south side, basically.”

DuBose’s nagging concern is the quality of the water he has access to from the Intracoastal Waterway. “I can get water, but the salt level is starting to creep up,” he says.

Drier than normal conditions haven’t hurt Chad Berry at Golden Hills Golf and Country Club in Lexington, S.C. Berry is converting his TifDwarf putting surfaces to TifEagle and also dealing with a major sewer line project through the golf course. Being able to control how much water goes where has been helpful. “We’ve had some really dry stretches but our creek and ponds are doing okay,” he says.

Further north, at Furman University Golf Club in Greenville, S.C., Paul Brandenburg, CGCS is wondering when he might have to tap into the city water supply to restock his irrigation pond. “We’ve certainly talked about it, but we’re going to hold off for now. It’s kind of a last resort for us,” he says. “Our pond is down close to three feet. Basically we’ve had no rain for the past 14 days and that’s been made worse by the heat. Even Bermudagrass can get stressed when it’s 99 degrees.”

Brandenburg aerified his greens mid-June and “had the hose coming along right behind the aerifier.” “It’s been tough the past couple of days,” he says. “I thought were going to get some rain last night but all we got was wind. You expect 90, 91 degrees with high humidity, but it’s been much hotter than that.”

In Charlotte, N.C., Matthew Wharton, CGCS says his A-1/A-4 bentgrass greens at Carolina Golf Club have “never looked better at this time of year” but he admits his pond levels are less attractive. Like Johnson, 80 miles to the northeast, Wharton found May to be almost crunchy. “April was wet and cold but when things finally started to warm up in May, we only got .11 of an inch for the entire month,” he says. “We were slinging water like crazy. Maybe five million gallons.”

Things improved to a degree in June, but the 2.5-inch total was deceiving Wharton says because after an initial downpour that brought an inch, the rest came in “dinky, light showers that weren’t really meaningful.” As a result, Wharton has some areas looking “a little raggedy, a little shaggy and brown.” More significantly, his pond levels are down “six or seven feet” to less than half capacity.

Like most in the Carolinas, Wharton is mindful of not overstating the case given what their counterparts in California are enduring. Still, he admits he would “sleep easier if it rained.” “We grew this course in from a restoration in 2008 during the worst drought on record and we didn’t run out of water,” he says. “So in the back of my mind I keep telling myself if we didn’t run out then, we won’t run out doing normal maintenance. But my members see the ponds going down and they keep asking me if we are going to run out.”