Stretching it out

Stretching it out

Santee Cooper Resort superintendent Gene Scarborough is always tweaking programs to maximize his ability to manage 36 holes.

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September 27, 2016
A couple of drone, three moisture meters, two iPads and iPhones, and innumerable files in Evernote about ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens management are Santee Cooper Resort superintendent Gene Scarborough’s work staples. He is frequently called upon management and the company’s IT person to deal with technology issues in the resort’s two pro shops, villas and maintenance facility. Meanwhile, back at home, at 8 a.m. each morning a robotic vacuum tidies his lakefront residence.

“I’m always messing with technology,” he says during a conversation inside the Lake Marion Golf Course pro shop on a sticky August morning. “It kind of flips people out. I’m almost 60 years old and people are like, ‘How can you do that?’ I say, ‘I like learning stuff, I like trying new things, just like we are doing with our greens.’”

Scarborough is responsible for maintaining 36 regulation MiniVerde greens as the superintendent at Santee Cooper Resort. A late arriver to the golf industry, he graduated from Horry-Georgetown Technical College in 1986, worked along the South Carolina coast and moved inland in October 1997 to oversee the agronomics of Lake Marion and Santee Cooper Country Club, a pair of courses owned by seven families. He’s the fifth superintendent in the history of the oak and pine forested property along the shores of Lake Marion between Charleston and Columbia.

Santee blossomed as a golf tourism alternative to Myrtle Beach in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with visitors flocking from Canada, Ohio and Pennsylvania to satisfy March, April, October and November golf cravings. Santee, like most tourist-dependent golf regions, experienced dips in play during the economic downturn from 2008-13.

Enduring the downturn took creativity by Scarborough. Lake Marion’s greens were converted from Tifgreen 328 Bermudagrass to MiniVerde in 2004. A similar conversion occurred at Santee Cooper CC the following year. Play has settled to around 35,000 rounds per year at each course, and holding steady requires producing quality playing surfaces with pedestrian resources.

Scarborough’s program for managing MiniVerde greens is evolving as he learns more about ultradwarf Bermudagrass. He’s attended events hosted by longtime ultradwarf Bermudagass savant Rodney Lingle and rising guru Jerad Nemitz. Scarborough says he’s learned to use a finer topdressing sand, and to “tickle” instead of “ripping” grass on putting surfaces. The program doesn’t fully mirror what he observes at private courses because of budgetary concerns. Scarborough only has the equivalent of 14 full-time maintenance employees for two courses. The resort doesn’t own a walk mower, and when it’s time to perform cultural practices, Scarborough must “knock stuff out and get it done” to limit disruptions to play. If there’s a more efficient way to complete a task, Scarborough finds time to learn it. “Everything I do has to be done with productivity in mind,” he adds, “but it’s also a quality issue.”

At the convergence of productivity, quality and implementing new technologies is the spray program. Scarborough forged a relationship with Syngenta territory manager Larry Feller more than 20 years ago, and the pair works together to create a preventative approach that allows Scarborough to cover 36 holes without straining the maintenance budget.

A proponent of early order programs, Scarborough is already thinking about the products he will apply in 2017, and he expects to finalize purchasing decisions by mid-November’s Carolinas GCSA Conference and Show. The value of purchasing proven products, especially when a discount is involved, is something ingrained in Scarborough by his father, a banker who retired at age 50.

Thinking ahead also has agronomic benefits, according to Syngenta senior technical representative Dr. Lane Tredway. “Advance planning is really important with Bermudagrass greens,” he says. “What these guys do August through November has a huge impact on the quality of the greens in March and April, probably more so than what you do in March and April. Being on a program and making sure that you have all your bases covered going into the fall and winter is crucial.”

Short days and limited sunlight make managing ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens tricky in the winter, spring and fall. Spring is Santee Cooper Resort’s busiest season, and it’s common for northerners to play 18 holes on a Friday, 36 more on Saturday and fit in another 18 before driving home Sunday. Scarborough keeps greens at moderate heights and speeds because numerous customers are playing their first rounds of the year when visiting Santee. “It’s not how fast I can get them,” he says. “It’s how slow I can get them. We don’t need six- and seven-hour rounds of golf. We need 4 ½-hour rounds of golf. Power golf.”

Spring dead spot has become the No. 1 disease concern on Lake Marion and Santee Cooper CC’s greens, according to Scarborough. Fairy ring and mini-ring are among the other disease concerns on putting surfaces. Untidy greens in March and April aren’t an option because of the volume of play, so Scarborough treats for the disease in the fall. He’s adding Velista, a broad spectrum fungicide released in 2015, to his program after observing successful results in research trials.

“There’s certainly more attention being paid to spring dead spot because we now have some very effective and economic fungicidal treatments that superintendents can use to manage the disease,” Tredway says. “Previously, it was just something that you dealt with and learned to live with during the spring and early summer, but now we have some very effective options like Velista. It’s something that superintendents are paying more attention to and thinking about managing more effectively.”

“I’m always messing with technology. It kind of flips people out. I’m almost 60 years old and people are like, ‘How can you do that?’ I say, ‘I like learning stuff, I like trying new things, just like we are doing with our greens.’” — Gene Scarborough
Scarborough’s fungicide program features a variety of other products, including Daconil Action, Briskway and Headway. Weed pressure varies by season, and Scarborough sprays Barricade preventatively to control summer weeds such as goosegrass and crabgrass. Scarborough added Acelypryn to his preventative pest management program two years ago and the move has thwarted the presence of army worms and cutworms on greens, tees, fairways and rough. Provaunt is also a part of his insecticide rotation, Avid contributes to nematode suppression and Award is used for spot treatments of fire ants.

Perhaps no product has allowed Scarborough to maximize labor resources more than the plant growth regulator Primo Maxx. Lake Marion and Santee Cooper CC each feature around 80 acres of maintained turf, including three acres of greens, three acres of tees and 26 acres of fairways. Every maintained acre receives regular applications of Primo Maxx from mid-May to mid-September.

“Here’s what I tell people: It saves my behind when it rains,” Scarborough says. “One of my cohorts told me he couldn’t afford Primo. I said, so then, for instance, when we get a week of rain and you haven’t been able to mow when we do get out there you have to mow; you have to blow. You have to mow; you have to blow. You have to mow; you have to blow. That’s all labor. I’m going out one time and mowing and blowing off a minimal amount of clippings. It’s huge, and the quality of my turf is so much better.”

Rain represented a theme at Santee Cooper last fall. The courses received 30 inches in October, including 18 during one weekend. In one of the most impressive feats in Scarborough’s career, Santee Cooper CC and Lake Marion were only closed for four and five days, respectively. Preparing 36 holes presents challenges, but it also offers competitive advantages, especially when coping with weather events or disruptions caused by cultural practices. “If we let people know what we are doing and why we are doing it, they can accept it,” Scarborough says.

Even as he approaches 60, Scarborough isn’t slowing. Santee Cooper Country Club recently added forward tees and enhanced its bunkers. Lake Marion is undergoing similar work. Scarborough says the changes are designed to attract younger players to the courses. And despite positive feedback about playing conditions, Scarborough intends to delve deeper into ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens management in search of additional ways to attract enthusiasts seeking to play “power golf.”

“I’m 59?,” he says. “People say, ‘You don’t look like whatever age it is.’ The body is pretty well worn. But I’m still a high-energy person, and I love to learn. What are we here for? We are trying to learn, get better and help other people out.”

Feller calls helping a superintendent in Scarborough’s situation “very humbling.” “You have a guy whose owner looks at every check that he sends out,” Feller adds. “But he’s using branded products as opposed to generics. He sees the value in Lane’s expertise and Syngenta, and knowing we are there if he has an issue. It’s worth it to him to stay branded as opposed to going to cheaper alternatives.”