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Winter injury becomes impetus for golf course to improve for future


February 9, 2015
By Mike Jiggens


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IT’S been a year now since the winter many golf superintendents in Ontario would rather forget. But with so many golf courses afflicted with the same adversity, it’s still being talked about.

In fact, the winter of 2013-14 was the primary topic of discussion in late November at Guelph’s Cutten Fields where the topic was discussed at a seminar put on by first-year turfgrass management diploma students from the University of Guelph.

Burlington Golf & Country Club superintendent Dean Baker, whose course was one of many to have emerged from the winter with dead turf, spoke frankly about the conditions which led to the setback as well as the measures the club took to rectify the situation and place it in a better position to survive future misfortunes.

Baker noted the winter was one of record cold temperatures, rain and more cold temperatures.

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“It equated to a bad grass winter, second to none,” he said.

Ice had already begun to cover the ground in December of 2013. At  that point, the clock began ticking, Baker said, acknowledging his then poa greens could survive beneath the encasement for 30 to 60 days.

The ice was 21/2 inches thick in some areas, and the entire golf course was pretty much covered in December and January. In January, he began to harvest plugs and monitor their health indoors. Things were looking good so far, and there was the same reassurance in February.
By March, the situation had taken a turn for the worse.

“We were still under ice, pushing 60 days now, maybe 70.”

Plugs had also been taken from the course’s practice facility which had been rebuilt five years earlier to bentgrass, and they were still healthy. Plugs taken from the poa-surfaced greens were not faring nearly as well.

Baker and his staff began to break up the ice in March, using verti-drain equipment to allow much-needed air to reach the plants. Four skids of black sand were purchased and used to help melt the ice.

Eventually, bare ground was reached.

“The snow is starting to disappear and things don’t look too good. The tell-tale sign for us was the smell. It was absolutely horrendous and you knew something had gone wrong.”

Baker said the smell wasn’t confined solely to the greens. The entire golf course bore the pungent odour.

By April, an aerial photograph of the golf course spoke volumes of the extent of the winter injury, depicting greens that were brown and stripped.

Baker said he found strength from his network of fellow classmates from the University of Guelph’s “’85A class,” most of whom had experienced the exact same problem at their respective golf courses in southern Ontario.

“Communication was the key ingredient.”

The group found strength and support in one another, and they also reached out to the professionals from the University of Guelph and the United States Golf Association’s green section.

It was just as important, however, for Baker and his fellow superintendents to touch base with their respective memberships and ownerships and admit they were in trouble. He said it was equally important to let his wife know there would be many long days ahead.

The severity of the situation wasn’t something Baker could hide from and pretend it would go away, he said. The club expected to hear from the superintendent and be presented with a plan.

“You have to be honest with them and show them pictures and let them know you’re not the only golf course having this problem.”

In establishing a plan for recovery, Baker said it was important to know how much was needed to be spent, and whether the work required would be to resod, reconstruct, seed or leave things alone with hopes it would all come back.

Smaller “mom and pop” golf courses couldn’t afford the expense of such elaborate projects as resodding, and perhaps had to go with what they had, waiting for poa to return.

At Burlington, the affected fairways proved too large an area to consider sodding. Some seeding was done in certain areas, and poa eventually returned.

The greens were the club’s primary focus. What the club was able to afford would dictate how the recovery plan would proceed, he said, adding there would have to be sacrifices made along the way such as the creation of temporary greens.

Baker sat down with club officials to review all options. He laid out the budget and resources for each possibility, suggesting what he thought the club could afford. If the club wished to proceed beyond an option, another more expensive alternative was presented.

The club considered everything in its deliberations, from cost to recovery time to course disruption to the temporary closing of holes.

Everything was put before the membership and completely spelled out, including what needed to be done with the greens and fairways and how the course would recover.

The club looked at other similarly afflicted golf courses in the area to discover their plans for recovery. At Burlington, the club heard of the St. George’s Golf & Country Club’s plan to rebuild its greens, but erroneously added the club would also be closed for the summer. Other courses had different strategies, but each was in the same boat insofar as what they were facing.

“We knew it (2014) wasn’t going to be a normal season. We knew it was a time for change. The members began to see that without us even telling them.”

Baker admitted he has never been a fan of covers, even though he has covers for each of his greens. Several years ago, when he was superintendent at Glen Abbey in Oakville, he regularly covered his greens because he enjoyed seeing the green colour in the spring. He noticed, however, the green grass would soon give way to poa because it was surviving under the covers. Although he appreciated the green of early spring, he wasn’t fond of the poa which survived the winter.

He decided at Glen Abbey to go coverless and found the poa would die off, especially during bad winters. After moving on to the North Halton Golf Club, he continued the same strategy and found an ideal blend of poa and bentgrass, finding it to be more “natural.”

Baker had said to his members that because the tees and fairways weren’t covered, why was there a need to cover the greens, posing the question: for the sake of that green colour in the spring, are we really doing ourselves any favours?

At Burlington, the 17th green next to the bay was traditionally covered, producing a nice green colour with full poa in the spring. The 13th green was never covered yet fared well with an ideal combination of poa and bentgrass. On the 11th green, it was decided the cover would be removed and, in the spring of 2013, it was hit hard because the poa had died.

Baker told his members it was a case of short-term pain for long-term gain.

“That green came back and we got a little more bent in it the next year, and then we go into the season of 2014 and I didn’t put any covers down.”

Members went out onto the course to check on the results of Baker’s decision not to cover his greens and proclaimed it worked. Baker quipped that not only was there no poa, there was no grass, period.

What the experiment told the membership was that poa doesn’t like the extreme cold temperatures, and the club can benefit by getting better quality grass.

“We had the perfect scenario for resurfacing our greens.”

Burlington opted to resod its greens while other nearby clubs chose other options. St. George’s in Toronto rebuilt its greens while the Hamilton Golf & Country Club elected to seed its putting surfaces.

Over the past few years, Burlington has “blown up” almost every tree that had surrounded its greens in order to achieve 85 to 90 per cent sunlight penetration. The result has been “beautiful” soil-sand pushup greens which percolate “like there’s no tomorrow.”

The greens have been drilled and filled for the past five years with ample dry sand. With new irrigation and redone bunkers, it was decided the greens could be resodded even though it was realized they could be seeded instead.

The process actually began with reseeding, but Baker told the club he wished the opportunity to sod two or three greens to allow the membership to see what bentgrass was all about. He suggested that if members liked the sodding option, more greens could be done the following year and in subsequent seasons.

“That conversation lasted 10 minutes, and they came back to me at a board meeting and asked roughly how much we were looking at (to sod), and I said about $ 10,000 a green, and they said, why would we do just three or four?”

While Baker attempted to offer an explanation, he was interrupted and asked why he wouldn’t simply want to sod all of the greens.
“The club said, you find the sod and let’s do it.”

Burlington was already in the midst of a $ 1.2-million project to redo its bunkers and cart paths, and the members felt that for an additional $ 200,000 they could benefit from new greens completely finished with bentgrass, new bunkers and new irrigation, and that there was no reason not to resod each of the greens.

While the more expansive fairways were underway with “seeding, seeding, seeding and seeding,” Baker sought out 2 1/2 acres of bentgrass sod for his greens.

The sod—MacKenzie Tyee creeping bentgrass—was obtained from Greenhorizons. Baker said when he originally looked at the sod fields, they were still covered in three inches of snow, but the required amount was available.

“They did a really good job for us,” he said, noting its crew stripped the entire golf course of its existing greens surfaces in a week before setting out to lay the new sod. “It was done very quickly.”

The sod was still fairly brown in colour when laid, but greened up quickly. By mid to late April, everything was down on the ground.
Burlington closed its greens for 10 weeks to allow for establishment, but provided its “patient” members with 18 temporary greens through May and June.

“I said to them, ‘I don’t want to open them early because I want you to play on really good greens when they’re ready to go.’”

After waiting about a month, the roots got in about four inches, and Baker’s staff began to punch and sand them, repeating the cycle a number of times. Because the sod was washed, a fairly significant thatch layer was present which needed to be addressed.

Baker said he isn’t a proponent of pulling cores on his greens because he doesn’t want to see any poa seeds. When punching his surfaces, he prefers to use solid tines and added he no longer verticuts aggressively anyone because he doesn’t want to see seeds coming up.

“It’s a lot of punching holes and a lot of sand. I have been a fanatic for sand, sand, sand all of my career. It’s a really good way of keeping that surface going.”

He estimates about 300 tons of sand were put down on his greens from start to finish, and anticipated an even larger amount would be used this year because he’s now dealing with a more aggressive grass type.

Pins were placed on the greens on July 3. Their opening height of cut was .130 inches yet were shortened to .120 inches in time for the club’s member-guest day and its club championship. Baker said their speeds were easily reaching between 11.5 and 12 on the stimpmeter.

Baker acknowledged that when debating between sodding or seeding or selecting between poa and bentgrass, it’s whatever the client wants.
“Bent is a wonderful grass, but there’s a lot of work that goes into it. There’s a lot of resources you need and a lot of money.”

With the exception of what happened last winter, Baker said poa can be put up against bentgrass almost every time. It’s the strongest grass we know, he said, adding it has its flaws yet is just as good. The choice of turf type all comes down to what the club can afford, what it’s willing to pay for, what it can afford to manage, and whether or not the club has the necessary resources and equipment.

During the spring and summer of 2014, Burlington didn’t experience any disease setbacks.

“We didn’t have any outbreaks and we didn’t have any surges, even with the bentgrass.”

Greens were sprayed preventatively to get them going. Tees and fairways were sprayed early on to ensure disease wouldn’t take out the young seedlings. By July and August, no pathogens nor insect pressures stood in the turf’s way. Some weed growth was experienced in areas where there was bare ground.

The absence of pathogens and insects was good for the club’s budget because a lot of money was spent on seed, and that amount was saved on chemical treatments throughout the season.

“It was a wonderful tradeoff. It was nice to have no disease pressure.”

After having worked several Canadian Open championships for so many years while at Glen Abbey, Baker said he considered the aftermath of the winter of 2013-14 to be “just another challenge.

“That’s the way I got through this. You’ve got to be a good planner, well organized and one step ahead of everyone else.”

Baker said a superintendent needs to go before the course owner or a board of directors and not ask them what he can do, but rather tell them what should be done. He said options can be presented as well as a recommendation for the best course of action.

“That’s all we did all summer long…worked hard and got it done.”

He added it helps to have a good sense of humour to help get through such a challenge.

“This was the challenge that tested us all…mentally, physically, emotionally.”

 

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