Winterkill emerging in Carolinas

Winterkill emerging in Carolinas

Agronomists, researchers offering guidance to superintendents following harsh conditions.

April 6, 2018
As The Masters signals the start of the golf season for much of the country, some golf courses in the Carolinas are dealing with severe after-effects of harsh and prolonged winter cold. To date, most of the damage is showing up on greens where the impact ranges from minimal to almost complete loss of the putting surface. Generally, the hardest hit facilities are those without turf covers and those with newer greens and rhizomes too immature to withstand the sustained freeze. 

But damage is showing up across the spectrum, from high-end private facilities to low-budget courses. “Even some superintendents who did their due diligence and used covers were not immune,” says turfgrass pathologist Dr. Bruce Martin from Clemson University. Martin is among a number of researchers and agronomists urging golfers to be patient over the coming weeks, and even months, as golf course superintendents learn the full extent of the damage and make repairs.

The condition, known as winterkill, affects warm-season grasses such as Bermudagrass, which is the predominant turf on greens, tees, fairways and roughs in the Carolinas. 

What is certain, as is often the case with turf ailments, is that the impact will vary widely, sometimes from hole to hole on the same course and from one course to another. Greens have been affected in areas as geographically diverse as Greensboro, N.C., and Charleston, S.C. Some courses in the south end of Myrtle Beach were under ice for a week in early January.

“Winterkill is seldom an ‘all or nothing’ phenomenon,” Dr. Bert McCarty of Clemson and Dr. Grady Miller of North Carolina State University say, in a joint statement. “Turf grown in stressful conditions such as shade, low mowing heights, and, or, with compacted soils typically is most susceptible. Secondarily, sites with standing water or powder-dry soil during a freeze experience a certain degree of winter injury. North facing slopes are also more susceptible to winter injury.”

Carolinas Golf Association agronomist Bill Anderson urges superintendents who see or suspect damage to prepare now for what may be a worst-case scenario. Anderson and Martin anticipate demand for new plant material to regrow affected greens could lead to a shortage.

“Superintendents should be cautiously optimistic but go ahead and book the sprigs they might need on the high end of the spectrum,” Anderson says. “It if turns out their damage is not so bad then they can always revise their order down. But they should book a date now when they can close to re-sprig and get in line.” 

USGA Green Section agronomist Patrick O’Brien says the harsh cold defied historical norms in many areas but also underlined the value of turf covers. O’Brien says research shows covers should be used when temperatures fall to 20 degrees or below. In many parts of the Carolinas, temperatures through the first week of the year dropped into single digits and never got above freezing. 

“Most of the injury is at sites that typically don’t use covers,” he says. “Maybe this will change the perception for courses from Columbia to Charleston and up into Myrtle Beach that the winters don’t get cold enough to need covers. Events like this might only happen once every 20 years but courses will have to ask themselves how much risk and economic loss they can tolerate.”

O’Brien, like Anderson, urges clubs and courses to invest in turf covers against future damage from winterkill. “I know it’s not my money but at roughly $1,000 each, I think it’s a justifiable investment given the costs you incur when you’re forced to re-grass,” Anderson says.

Winterkill also had severe affects on courses in the region in 2015. GCI examined the situation in its August 2015 cover story