Better golf on the Bayou

Features - Construction and renovation

Using thorough research and clear communication with club officials, superintendent Ramsey Prescott forged a plan to help elevate a tournament-level Louisiana course.

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October 3, 2019

Le Triomphe Golf and Country Club hosts the Korn Ferry Tour’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open.
© photos courtesy of Ramsey Prescott, LE TRIOMPHE GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB

Le Triomphe Golf and Country Club sits in the heart of what’s known as Cajun Country in hot, humid, south Louisiana on the edge of the town of Broussard located in Lafayette Parish and about a two-hour drive west of New Orleans, just off Interstate 10. The 145-acre, Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course opened in 1986 and is one of only three golf courses in the state that hosts PGA Tour events. For nearly three decades, Le Triomphe has hosted the Korn Ferry Tour’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open.

Mississippian Ramsey Prescott became the club’s superintendent in fall 2017. The 23-year turf management veteran, who has a degree in agronomy, spent 18 of his years in the business as a superintendent at clubs in Florida before making his way to Louisiana. “I’m always looking for challenges and learning opportunities,” Prescott says. He took a position in Pensacola, because he “wanted to learn a new turfgrass,” paspalum, a perennial indigenous to tropical and coastal areas.

The courses in Florida are built on sand, Prescott says. In Louisiana, “the only sand you’ll find is on the greens. It’s a totally different soil structure; it’s all clay, which doesn’t drain at all.” He was up for a new challenge and accepted the responsibility for turfgrass management and environmental stewardship at Le Triomphe in October 2018.

“I was impressed with the club’s reputation as one of the state’s most respected golf properties, and that it’s a PGA Tour host facility,” he says. The single-ownership status and the club’s financial strength were also positives. “I’ve worked at places where there were greens committees or a management company with people having competing agendas and priorities. A single owner where decisions are made quickly and there’s a budget and an obvious desire for excellence were very appealing.”

Prescott says he was given the opportunity by club owner Michael P. Maraist and Le Triomphe general manager and CEO Dawna Waterbury to assess the current conditions (course and club grounds) and develop his own strategy and agronomic plan, but “had no idea the amount of autonomy I’d be given along with trust and confidence.”

© photos courtesy of Ramsey Prescott, LE TRIOMPHE GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB

Prescott gathered facts by talking with his immediate predecessor and even spoke to the superintendent who was there when the turf was originally implemented to obtain as much information as he could about the history and maintenance practices. A common theme was the ongoing challenge of establishing a healthy turf root system from the time the Jones dwarf Bermudagrass was installed in 2003.

“The outgoing superintendent was taking a sabbatical from his career to make an attempt at professional golf and did a phenomenal job at maximizing the playability and extending the life of the greens, but struggled to develop and maintain adequate roots,” Waterbury says.

Prescott says while talking to former superintendents was initially helpful, he says, “at the end of the day, the greens talk to you, revealing the most telling information.” Prescott continued to assess the condition of the greens, spending the next few months examining every aspect of the 145-acre property to determine the root cause of the turf issues.

First things first

Prescott says, given his experience, he knew in his gut the greens were at the point of no return and would eventually have to be replaced, but he wanted to do everything possible to make sure that was a last resort. And before new greens, he says, “you’ve got to have the proper irrigation to grow the greens in.

A desire to rebuild irrigation and greens sparked a renovation at Le Triomphe Golf and Country Club.
© photos courtesy of Ramsey Prescott, LE TRIOMPHE GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB

“Everything has a lifespan – a green, a bunker, an irrigation system,” he says. The general lifespan of an irrigation system is usually 20 to 25 years and Le Triomphe’s irrigation system was 33 years old and based on outdated hydraulics technology, according to Prescott.

Prescott received funding for a full upgrade on the irrigation system in fall 2018. After extensive research, he selected the Toro Lynx 2-Wire Smart Hub system along with a new state-of-the-art MCI pump system Model MPC with a nema-4-enclosure and cellular-remote. Le Triomphe secured industry irrigation design consultant Bryant Gordon Taylor, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., to facilitate the bidding process for contractor selection and to assist in the oversight of the construction.

As the irrigation work progressed, Prescott determined installing a new pump station represented the best plan for the course’s long-term future for multiple reasons: the old hydraulics-based system was poised to become obsolete and looming major repairs or replacement of the pumps would result in heavy equipment moving across the seventh fairway. “Just from a general maintenance sense, the current location needed to be eliminated,” he says.

“We had many challenges during the design phase and the installation,” he adds, “but we now have one of the most sophisticated irrigation systems in the world on our golf course, and it’s been a huge factor for the initial improvements in the fairways and throughout the course.”

The 1,200-head Toro Infinity system took approximately 18 weeks to install beginning in late October with the course remaining open during construction. The project wrapped up in March in time for the club’s annual PGA Tour event.

The struggle to achieve superb turf health

With the new irrigation system in place, Prescott turned his attention to the condition of the greens and the ongoing struggle to achieve superb turf health. He was determined to uncover why the greens were failing and to exhaust all options before considering replacement. He sought answers to a series of questions that hounded him: How did what he considered to be an incredible amount of organic matter accumulate on the top layer of every green, despite diligent cultural practices? Why weren’t vents installed during the 2003 renovation? These questions still lingered as he moved forward.

“My instinct was to be as aggressive as possible with regard to removing the layer of organic matter that had accumulated in the greens over the years, but traditional aerification methods were not an option due to the subsurface,” he says. Prescott resorted to the DryJect method, although he adds even that practice had “limitations due to the delicate root system of the plant.”

In a June morning meeting with Waterbury, Prescott discussed his efforts to date and the challenges his team faced. During that meeting, club owner Maraist happened to call Waterbury to discuss that very matter – the condition of the greens. Waterbury relayed to the owner a summary of the information she’d just received from Prescott — and before she’d hung up, Maraist greenlighted the greens renovation. Within three weeks of that meeting and call, turf renovation began.

Ramsey Prescott, red shirt in back, and the Le Triomphe golf course maintenance team.
© photos courtesy of Ramsey Prescott, LE TRIOMPHE GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB

Phase II: Greens renovation and installing TifEagle

Prescott knew he wanted to replace the Jones dwarf with TifEagle Bermudagrass because it’s highly tolerant of the environmental stresses found in southern climates. “I’ve managed and grown in TifEagle greens and have extensive history with this superior turfgrass and its time-tested resiliency, consistency and overall playability.” Prescott says. In superintendent terms, Prescott adds, “it likes to be beat up and can take abuse. It’s very drought tolerant and disease resistant.”

Le Triomphe sought and received bids from some of the industry’s more respected contractors and selected JGCC Golf Inc. out of Ormond Beach, Fla., to handle the project. The project started June 21, and TifEagle from King Ranch Turfgrass in Cleveland, Texas, was planted and sprigged on 3.67 acres of greens. The revamped greens were ready for full play by the end of September. Play never stopped during the summer season, though, as the club used temporary greens during construction.

The staff expected the play to slow down a little during renovation, says Le Triomphe’s PGA head golf pro Rob Spiars. “Short game practice such as putting and chipping were hindered a bit, but players could still work on their game hitting drivers on par 4s and 5s,” he adds. “We are lucky that we have a membership that’s been very supportive and patient and understands the improvements are ultimately for the benefit of the members.”

During the renovation process, Le Triomphe finally received answers to questions that lingered for years. The Jones dwarf didn’t stand a chance in the suffocating Louisiana growing environment because the greens vents (clean-outs) installed in 2003, which weren’t visible, were never brought to the surface. They were left three or more feet below the surface of the turf and capped off.

“Think of holding your thumb over the end of a drinking straw that you’ve dipped in a glass of water,” Prescott says. “Holding your thumb over the end captures water and holds it in the straw.” That these vents were buried and never brought to the surface as they should be, caused this thumb-over-the-straw effect of holding water inside the turfgrass cavity.

Prescott and his team discovered that the outfall pipes were also completely covered up, causing drainage failures in many greens. The water had been trapped in the tiles, producing CO2, methane gases. If these gases can’t escape through the drain tiles, they begin to travel back through the greens profile and aren’t able to escape because of the higher-than-desired organic matter content. These factors combined to create a breeding ground for anaerobic conditions, with black layer and organic matter build-up and an overall weak stand of turf grass. The greens also lost roughly 3 percent of surface area, due to significant encroachment and contamination. Severe collar dams had developed around entire greens, forcing the greens to have a bowl-like appearance where surface water became trapped on many putting greens and resulted in major puddling and water-logged conditions.

“Over half of the USGA specified golf courses that have drainage don’t know that both ends of the drainage have to be open at some point,” Prescott says. “They just don’t know.” He learned about the importance of air flow, oxygen and drainage — and how critically related it is to the health of the greens — years ago from David Doherty, CEO and founder of the International Sports Turf Research Center. “David did a seminar for myself and all the superintendents in the Southeast,” Prescott says. “He showed us how to set this up in house and even showed us how we could make something like our own version of a SubAir system to create an ideal environment for turf growth and management.

“Right now, the contractor that did our greens is coming back to the property to install four-way vents right at waterways. We get so much rain on our property and we have a couple of greens with drainages that go out into what we call coulees (ditches) here in Louisiana. These greens need vents and don’t have them because they are stubbed out under water. The contractor will raise all the vents to the surface, dig up existing drains and anywhere there was a drain will be dug up we’ll install the vents.”

Since the green renovation and irrigation upgrade, Prescott has implemented proper, transparent maintenance processes for his team to follow. For example, topdressing with sand dilutes organic matter through its life, Prescott says. “We are now on a regimen of proper maintenance and management of organic matter and are keeping the greens oxygenated. We topdress adequately and consistently to avoid layering and develop a consistent profile all through the soil profile.

“Overall, the improvements mean we as a team are operating as we should – proactively instead of reactively.”

In just 18 months, Prescott has overseen a transformation that will further elevate one of Louisiana’s more renowned courses. The nimble way the club operates and the ability to make timely decisions are the foundation of Le Triomphe’s success, he says. Prescott’s plan and clear vision for the course and club grounds aligned with what the club wanted to achieve and what the owner was willing to invest, Waterbury says. Le Triomphe is unveiling the upgrades to the membership this fall.

“Ramsey was so methodical in his assessment and his open dialogue with me every step of the way,” she says. “It solidified my confidence in his abilities and ultimately laid the foundation for the club’s owner to decide to invest millions of dollars in upgrades and renovations.”

Monique Bozeman is a Louisiana-based writer.