And what about the Poa?

And what about the Poa?

GCI returns to a Pittsburgh-area club to see the results of a greens renovation that attracted industry curiosity.

October 9, 2017

Members at Sewickley Heights Golf Club are learning carefully constructed Poa annua greens can generate a season-long buzz.

The suburban Pittsburgh club reopened May 5 following an extensive greens renovation. The project, featured in the October 2016 edition of GCI, involved installing the necessary infrastructure to support high-quality Poa annua greens.  

We returned to Sewickley earlier this month to visit superintendent Randall Pinckney, first assistant Corey Cheza, architect Jim Cervone and greens chairman Ted Kotarsky, and to see how the rebuilt greens have handled their first season. Pinckney, Cheza and team had the challenging, tree-lined course in tidy condition. Sewickley Heights is a golf-dominant club in a market filled with elite private facilities. Poa annua greens are acceptable to many of Sewickley Heights’ neighbors, including nine-time U.S. Open host Oakmont Country Club. 

Members granted the team at Sewickley Heights a rare opportunity to develop the best possible situation for growing and maintaining Poa annua. Construction started Aug. 22, 2016 when a crew from Aspen Corp. arrived on site. Pinckney and Cheza quickly meshed with Cervone, a Western Pennsylvania-based architect, and the Aspen crew. Optimism continued to permeate as a dry fall and mild winter expedited the work, which involved coring, installing drainage and irrigation, and laying sod on two greens per week.  

Favorable conditions allowed Pinckney’s team to disperse sand on the greens last fall. For winter insurance, the club purchased 11 green covers. The club was aiming for a late-May unveiling, but the Western Pennsylvania winter never turned nasty, giving Pinckney’s team openings to fertilize and spray, thus strengthens roots as spring approached. The course reopened earlier than expected with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring World Golf Hall of Famer and Sewickley resident Carol Semple Thompson. Director of golf David Malatak and his staff helped Pinckney communicate the progress to eager golfers. 

“Members were really crawling out of their skin to get back on it,” Cervone says. “We knew early on that it was going to be sooner than what we originally told them, but I don’t think anyone realized how early. It was really just a home run all the way around. I can’t recall any major issues or anything along the way that might have given us pause to say, ‘Oh, boy, we could be in trouble here.’ It really went off without a hitch.” 

The drainage was tested immediately as Sewickley Heights received .4 inches of rain before the ceremony. “We joked with Jim and said, ‘Hey, (members) get to see what they paid for,’” Cheza says. 

Clouds hovered above Sewickley Heights throughout the spring and early summer, and Pinckney says the greens drained “wonderfully” during the wet stretch. The past 2½ months have been unseasonably dry in the region. Seeing the greens respond to myriad conditions will help Pinckney prepare for the heightened expectations associated with the second year of new greens.

Because of the late start to the 2017 season, Pinckney says, “we’re going to give the members the golf course as long as we can as long as the weather is good.” He plans on aerating with ?-inch tines in November, and then “douse” the greens with sand and fertilize “accordingly as we see necessary” before winter. Pinckney’s team aerified with a ¼-inch tine in the spring, followed by solid tining through July and another ¼-inch aerification in August. “We want to give the members while we are dry the best greens we can,” Pinckney says. “The roots are good on them. It’s not like we are losing anything by pushing them right now.”

Sewickley Heights is expected to exceed 25,000 rounds this year, a high total for a northern private course closed until May. The renovation also included altering contours and slopes to provide additional pin positions conducive to modern green speeds. Cervone balanced this desire while keeping characteristics endearing to members.   

The course reopened with five positions on each green, but the club is considering using a front-middle-back system in 2018. “Agronomically that would be the best we can do – have a bigger area and figure out where to put the pin instead of being confined,” Pinckney says.
Pursuing a project with few industry peers takes ample resources, and Pinckney says he benefited from the club’s willingness to use multiple consultants. Soil scientist Jeff Michel helped Sewickley Heights develop the proper greens mix. Steve McDonald and members of the USGA Green Section staff offered outside assistance as the reopening approached. Seeking multiple science-based opinions are an important part of the renovation process, Cervone says. 

“You want to have layers of confirmation, especially at a private club,” Cervone adds. “When you have different professionals all saying the same thing, it’s easier for the members to buy into it and then support you. A huge part of this equation was how well the members supported us in this endeavor. They entrusted Randall, Corey and the rest of the staff to do what they needed to do, and this is your result. Hopefully it’s a learning experience and precedent for the next project down the road. Let the pros do what they need to do and give them the space to do it right.”

A strong relationship among its turf professionals also helped Sewickley Heights. Pinckney and Cheza worked together before landing at Sewickley Heights, and Pinckney lauded his top assistant for providing “quality control” throughout the project. Like Pinckney, Cheza embraced playing a key part in a bold project.  

“We had this relationship with Aspen and Jim, and Ted and David that made it a fun process,” Cheza says. “We looked forward to coming here and seeing changes every day. Randall and I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago: Did you ever think they would be this good by the end of the year? We both laughed, and that’s hats off to everyone involved in the project.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.