By Mike Jiggens
By David McPherson
So long poa, hello bentgrass. That’s the refrain Donalda Golf Club members—a private course in Don Mills, Ont.—are singing this summer. Thanks to a major overhaul of all its greens, the club hopes its new and improved putting surfaces will survive winter better, revive faster in the spring, and be more resistant to anthracnose, offering more consistency throughout Southern Ontario’s hot and humid summers.
While I was enjoying a spring afternoon playing with my son, Scott White was busy babying these new greens. While the course is not set to open until June 28, as per the planned schedule communicated to members last fall, Donalda’s golf course and grounds manager was not taking any chances.
“I’m watering the grass, so I don’t lose sleep tonight,” he said.
Following this past winter of discontent where many golf courses in the Greater Toronto Area—and White’s colleagues across Ontario—lost many or most of their greens because of the freeze and thaw cycles that killed the poa annua underneath the layers of ice and snow, White is lucky.
The veteran greenkeeper could not have timed this project better. Many neighbouring courses opened with temporary greens this spring. Maybe, when others see and hear about White’s success, they might consider following a similar greens’ conversion.
The seeds for this project date to 2009. Clear, ongoing communication and a solid long-term plan convinced Donalda’s membership this capital investment was required and the right solution to the perennial problems caused by too much poa.
White and I chatted about this renovation shortly after 6 a.m. on a Monday in mid-May. He was already in his office, preparing for the day ahead before his crew arrived. While the course was not set to open for another five weeks, the daily task list was just as long as usual.
“We were suffering and chasing our tails, trying to keep disease away in the summer,” White explained. “We were having issues with anthracnose on poa. Some people will tell you anthracnose also affects bentgrass, but I’ve never seen it. It certainly loves poa, though!”
No matter what cultural practices or chemicals they tried, Donalda’s grounds crew could not keep the poa in check.
“It was getting crazy,” White said. “We were having tough, humid and hot summers and some of our greens had up to 90 per cent poa.”
That’s when members started to notice, especially the low handicap players who played other clubs. When it got hot and sticky in the summer, putting was more of a challenge for players because the bluegrass with poa greens weren’t as good as they were supposed to be. Members knew when another club had bentgrass greens because they were healthier and rolled truer.
“They noticed there was something better out there and wondered why we didn’t have it,” said the superintendent.
White explained to members the reason why. Communication was essential to make sure the right long-term solution was picked and not a quick-fix. White says members initially assumed this project would be relatively easy. For them, it was as simple as stripping the current greens, redoing them and the course would be open again in no time. White explained this was not feasible. To do it right, the club needed to approve a comprehensive, full-scale greens renovation.
“I told them you could go out and buy any run-of-the-mill car and take off all of the doors and bumpers, and clad it in Ferrari branding and a Ferrari structure, but underneath the engine it’s still going to be whatever that run-of-the-mill car was that you initially bought.”
The solution that White, working with architect Tom McBroom, sold to the membership, was one where the club would remix all the greens, rerun the drainage and concurrently make some modified design contours to all the putting surfaces. It took time, but members eventually got it; in September 2011, they voted 74.9 per cent in favour of the project. McBroom had already done some design work previously at the club (with a course renovation in the 1990s), so the membership knew his style and approach.
The vote sent a strong message; there was a desire amongst the membership to improve the greens and do it right the first time. The gold standard for a lot of golfers now, especially at private clubs, is USGA greens. Donalda had 14 of these that were within the USGA range with six push-up greens. Part of doing this project right meant redoing all of them again, so there was consistency on all 18 putting surfaces.
Donalda started growing the sod for the project at Zander Sod early in 2012, so White could control this part of the project, and it would be established and ready for the planned start of the renovation, scheduled for Aug. 12, 2013.
“I would be naïve to say everything was where I wanted it to be last August, but it was as close as it could be,” White recalled. “We put the shovel in the ground and closed eight of the 18 holes, so the membership could still play golf until Labour Day. My understanding is that our members really enjoyed the eight-hole loop.”
A race against Mother Nature followed from the end of last summer until late into the fall when the entire course closed right after Labour Day. White and his crew worked with TDI and McBroom. Excavation of the greens was followed by rough grading and the sign off by the architect on the contours; then, as soon as the contours were signed off, drainage, installation, gravel bed, greens mix and sodding of the greens occurred. At any one time, five or six greens were in various stages of deconstruction or reconstruction.
White’s plan called for the final green to be completed by Halloween; instead, it ended up being Nov. 18, nearly three weeks behind. He was worried about the final green (No.7) and even had one of his assistants ask some academics in the United States how they thought this bentgrass green would survive its first winter.
Flash ahead to this spring. White’s crew had already aerated the new greens once and planned to do another aeration before the course opened to members. How did that final green survive the long, harsh winter that just passed?
“Sure enough, that green didn’t look beautiful coming out, but now it’s fine while neighbouring golf clubs have poa that has been around for 60 to 70 years that is suffering,” White said.
That’s all the proof the superintendent and Donalda members needed to know they had made the right capital investment for the future health and consistency of their greens.
“It’s a testament to the whole idea of why we did this,” White concluded. “It’s paid a dividend already and we are not even open yet.”
White can be followed on Twitter @DonaldaGrounds.
David McPherson is a Toronto-based freelance writer and communications consultant. He started golfing at Kitchener's Westmount Golf & Country Club as a kid. A love of words soon followed. As a golf writer for the past 14 years, his work has appeared in a variety of publications. As president of McPherson Communications, David helps a wide range of corporate clients. Besides golfing, David enjoys playing tennis, listening to music, travel, and spending time with his wife and two young children. Follow him on Twitter @mcphersoncomm.