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Bent out of shape, courses opt for warm-weather grasses

by TG_Admin01

By MICHAEL GRAFF

When George Veach bought Wilshire Golf Course in Winston-Salem 45 years ago, winters gave him fits.

Cold seasons didn’t mix well with Wilshire’s bermudagrass greens – greens that would be more comfortable in shorts and sunglasses than overcoats and boots. On the worst years, they froze up and died. So in 1977, Veach decided he couldn’t worry anymore about the frost, and he – like almost every course owner or manager in the Triad at the time – switched to bentgrass. The cold-weather grass made for great playing conditions in the fall and spring, and it lived through the winter.

But now, more than 30 years later, summers are the enemy. The past two years have been abnormally hot, and Wilshire’s greens wilted. Now, after a mild winter, it’s time to go the other way.

Veach and his two sons, Tod and Tim, will plant champion bermudagrass this summer at Wilshire. The course will close June 11 and reopen sometime in early August.

Wilshire joins a fast-moving trend among North Carolina courses to abandon bentgrass and build greens that will thrive in heat. Occoneechee Golf Club in Hillsborough also will plant bermudagrass this summer, as will Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro. And Reynolds Park Golf Course in Winston-Salem plans to go with Diamond Zoysia, another grass with a root system that works best in hot weather.

“Be it a mistake or not a mistake, it’s getting ready to happen,” the 76-year-old George Veach said. “If it’s got to happen, it’s got to happen.”

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Occoneechee has a similar story to Wilshire’s. The Ray family built the course in the 1960s using the old bermudagrass. Then, in the late 1970s, the Rays switched to bent. This year, the course will close shortly after Memorial Day and reopen sometime in August with champion bermudagrass greens.

The new version of champion bermudagrass is far different from its ancestor a half-century ago. That previous incarnation was grainy and made for unpredictable rolls. This version is firm and provides rolls similar to bentgrass.

“We’re not going back. We’re going forward,” said Scott Ray, Occoneechee’s general manager. “It’s different grass (from the previous version).”

Ray said he made the decision in November after visiting Benvenue Golf Course in Rocky Mount, which planted bermudagrass about five years ago with success.

The advantages of the new bermudagrass are obvious. It requires less care in the summer – less watering, less aerating and far fewer fungicide applications. Ray said Occoneechee’s fungicide costs doubled in 2010 and 2011. The grounds crew worked from sun-up until sun-down, just trying to keep the greens from becoming a dead wasteland. They never lost the greens at Occoneechee, but the manual effort and financial costs to stay afloat were substantial.

The drawback to the warm-weather grasses is how they handle the winter season. North Carolina can still have cold winters, and warm-weather grasses require covers for extremely frigid spells.

Also, the champion bermuda requires significant sunlight, about eight hours a day. That’s not a problem for a course like Wilshire, a wide-open tract just off of Peters Creek Parkway in Winston-Salem. The Veaches say they won’t have to cut trees to allow sunlight. They will have to move one green – hole No. 2 is nudged against a treeline.

But courses with shade trees everywhere need something different.

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There’s an old oak tree behind the 18th green at Reynolds Park. Many players use the tree for a target line when they hit their approach shots from the fairway, which sits on a hill on the other side of a ravine.

When Harold Kincaid went looking for a new grass to replace his 40-year-old bentgrass, he and his ownership partners considered the champion bermudagrass. But several things led him to the shade-tolerating Diamond Zoysia instead.

Pilot Knob put down zoysia last year, and Kincaid liked what he saw there. Moreover, zoysia comes off a truck from a sod farm, and it needs only a couple of weeks to set. Kincaid envisioned a planting process that would allow him to leave nine holes open at a time. Shutting down completely for two months on a public course – where zero rounds mean no income – wasn’t really an option, Kincaid said.

And then there was that oak tree. It would’ve been torn down to allow the 18th to have enough sunlight to support champion bermudagrass. The zoysia doesn’t need as much.

“(The tree) is at least 100 years old. It was probably a small tree when there were two cities, Winston and Salem,” Kincaid said. “The majority of our players use it as an aiming point. That would’ve had to go. And I would’ve cried if that had to go.”

So on April 23, the back nine at Reynolds Park will close. Kincaid said that half of the course will be shut down for about two weeks, then reopen with zoysia, at which time work on the front nine will begin.

The renovation, paid for by the City of Winston-Salem, will require 115,000 square feet of sod, equaling a couple of hundred tons. Reynolds Park will not re-contour its greens and the slightly more forgiving zoysia grass will make for easier putting, Kincaid said.

“A few of our greens have severe contours,” Kincaid said. “We’d have people three-putting and everything (on faster bermudagrass). And this is supposed to be fun. We want to bring people to the game, not run them away from the game.”

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Ultimately, that’s the goal for all the courses changing – bring people to the game, or keep them in. The summer season now is the most popular of the year. Warm weather brings golfers, and golfers demand better greens. So in North Carolina, at this point in its golfing history, many courses believe that warm-weather grass is a better option. Starmount Country Club in Greensboro and Carolina Lakes Golf Club in Sanford made the switch last year. Holly Ridge in Archdale was among the first, making the greens conversion in 2008.

And when it comes to a choice between zoysia and bermudagrass, each course has its own set of circumstances.

The new grasses are unproven over the long haul, and weather patterns are unpredictable – as warm as it’s been, there’s no telling what next winter will bring.

“The Titanic wasn’t supposed to sink, either,” said Ray of Occoneechee. “There will be challenges that we don’t know about.”

But universally, Ray and Kincaid and the Veaches and all the other managers who’ve decided to switch in the past couple of years believe they’ve made the best decisions for their courses – the best decisions for right now, at least.

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