By MICHAEL GRAFF
Standing in the first fairway on the first hole of the first round played at the newly renovated Bryan Park Golf course, Kevin Smith pulled out a 9-iron. The course’s superintendent has stared at approach shots on this hole countless times during his 10 years at Bryan Park.
But this day, August 16, was different.
A little more than 100 yards away was a new green, now made of Miniverde Bermudagrass, which was installed during a nerve-wracking 52 days in one of the wettest summers in years. It was Smith’s idea, along with a few others, to make this transition, to tear up the old bentgrass greens and join the growing movement toward bermudagrass. Several courses in the Triad had already done it, but not Bryan Park, perhaps the area’s most prestigious public course.
“I felt like an expectant parent,” Smith says of that first approach shot. “My palms were sweaty and my knees were shaky.”
So it was big news when Bryan Park made this announcement. Bryan Park closed its Champions Course on June 17, right at the start of summer.
The past few summers have been hot – so hot that people even the most conservative-minded superintendents started to wonder whether the planet is warming. In North Carolina, superintendents scrambled to keep their bentgrass – which wilts in hot and humid weather – playable throughout the year. In the past three Augusts, dozens of courses lost their greens completely.
The superintendents who’ve made the switch are bermudagrass’s best ally. They hail it as having changed not only their courses, but their lives. It’s easier to manage, they say. Resistant to heat and disease. The transition comes with one major drawback, though, of course: The course must remain closed for about 8 to 10 weeks, sometimes longer, to kill the old bentgrass greens and raise the new bermudagrass.
Bryan Park has an advantage. It has two courses, the Champions Course and the slightly less-expensive Players Course. Smith – along with Bryan Park general manager Kyle Kolls and a few members of the Bryan Foundation board – decided to turn the Champions Course surfaces to bermudagrass while leaving the Players Course open this summer with bentgrass. So, although they knew the Champions Course would lose about 5,000 rounds while closed, the Players Course could assume some of those rounds.
After the June 17 closure, they rid the Champions Course of bentgrass, and one week later they began sprigging bermudagrass.
During the next eight weeks, Bryan Park officials found themselves in the strangest place. They were rooting for sunny, hot weather to help grow in the Champions Course. But they also didn’t want the long, extended periods of 100-degree days that would stress the Players Course – especially not if that course was going to be seeing more rounds than usual.
“I have a hard time knowing what to root for,” Smith says. “It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
What they got was weather wasn’t all hot or all cold. What they got was rain. The Piedmont Triad has experienced one of the wettest summers on record, with at least eight inches more than average in most areas. Every day, especially during the early part of the grow-in, Bryan Park watched the weather, hoping none of the worst storms would come and wash the bermudagrass away in its infancy.
“We were very fortunate,” Bryan Park General Manager Kyle Kolls says now. “There were days when there was some rain, and just some huge storms, around the area. But we were able to avoid those huge rains that wash those sprigs away. We hit that just right.”
Some storms brought down trees, but the bermudagrass held.
“We’d just wipe our brows and say, ‘Whew,’” Kolls says.
The other downside to the rain, of course, was that it kept players away from the Players Course – or any course in the region, for that matter. But there was just enough sun to keep the bermudagrass growing, and just enough cool weather to keep the bentgrass in good shape.
In August, the Players Course hosted the IZOD American Junior Golf Association championship. Two players shot 63s during the week, tying a course record.
“When players of any caliber are shooting those scores,” Smith says, “it tells me that the course is playing very well.”
Smith estimates that he and his staff used 2½ years’ worth of fertilizer on the Champions Course in six weeks this summer. But it worked. By mid-August, the course had grown enough that staff members announced the course would reopen to the public on Monday, August 19.
The weekend before that, they announced, they would open the course to a few of the course’s regular players and email club members. And the day before that, on Friday, August 16, two foursomes consisting of some of the most important participants in this conversion process would play ceremonial rounds to open it.
And that’s how Smith wound up in the fairway with that 9-iron. The other players in his group were Jim Melvin and Carole Bruce from the Bryan Foundation board, along with Melvin’s son, Jimbo.
Melvin and Bruce were among those who supported the conversion. Still Smith, the superintendent, had those sweaty palms as he stood in the fairway that day, hoping the board members would be pleased.
He lofted the 9-iron in the air, and it landed on the surface with a hard plop. He’d made the first ball mark. Together, the foursome walked up to the green. And Smith searched for the mark. When he found it, it was only a small indention, maybe 50 percent of what you’d see from bentgrass this time of year. It was a sign of good, strong bermudagrass.
The rest of the day, they played like they’d normally play. They talked about the speed of the putts and the straightness of the putts and everything about putting.
“We feel really good,” Smith said that afternoon, just after he got off the course. “But from my perspective, I would love it if people reserved their judgment on the greens until next year. Because they’re barely out of diapers.”
But when that first day was done, all reviews were positive. And then the key players went home, preparing to come back the next day for a soft opening to the public, to finally unveil these greens to some of Bryan Park’s most devoted golfers.
Of course, though, that Saturday it rained. It’s been that kind of summer.