One year removed from a wet, blazing summer, Pilot Knob Park is blazing a trail that other golf courses in North Carolina could be following in the not-so-distant future.
In April, the course located about 20 minutes northwest of Winston-Salem and less than an hour from most other spots in the Triad, closed nine holes for about a week, then the other nine, so that new putting greens could be installed.
Out went the bentgrass – a fixture at golf courses across the state. In came the Diamond Zoysiagrass – a bold, new experiment.
“This is the farthest north they’ve ever put it,” said Pilot Knob general manager Tom Gibson. “We’ve had a lot of courses in our area come look at (the new greens) to see what their options are.
“We’re in that transition zone where bentgrass is hard to grow,” added Gibson. “I think we did our homework to where we know what we have to do to protect them in the wintertime.”
New Life Turf out of South Carolina did the installation at Pilot Knob.
Zoysia is considered an option for golf courses in this state, which often is referred to as a “transition zone” because of its mix of hot summer days and cold winter nights. Bentgrass, which handles cold weather, is a top choice for greens in northern climates. Bermudagrass is found throughout the Deep South because it performs best with muggy summers and mild winters.
Few golf courses in North Carolina were spared last year when a wet winter was followed by a brutally hot and wet summer, and Pilot Knob was no exception.
The course still used its original bentgrass greens from when it opened in 1963, and Gibson said it was long feared that a bad summer would spell doom for the putting surfaces. When the bentgrass went, officials at Pilot Knob quickly put in rye grass just to keep the course playable through the winter.
“We knew we had to change something,” Gibson said. “A lot of people gave input. We saw Champion Bermuda, then Diamond Zoysia. We talked about doing bentgrass again. Zoysia is more shade- and cold-tolerant than bermuda. We felt zoysia was the best option: time down (to install), cost, maintenance. Any issues during the wintertime, we just have to manage them properly.”
Gibson expects Pilot Knob to save about $30,000 a year in maintenance costs due to fewer chemicals and far less summer watering. During the winter months, however, workers will have to spend time putting covers on the greens based upon weather forecasts – a process that may take between 6-8 hours to put in place and then remove.
“During the winter, that’s your slow time anyway, so I don’t foresee that being much of a problem,” Gibson said.
The zoysia certainly went down without a problem. Gibson said the fascinating process began with what looked like a highway grinder taking off the top inch of the existing green. The loose mulch and dirt was used to fill in other areas around the course. The material remaining on the old green was tilled two or three times, topped with a layer of sand, then covered with plastic so the soil could be sterilized with a methyl-bromide solution. That fumigation lasted 48 hours.
When the plastic came off, Gibson said the greens were tilled one more time, then dragged for hours until the proper smoothness and texture was achieved. The sod rolls came out at that point, and seams that were already surprisingly tight grew even more when pressed with the three-ton roller.
Remarkably, the greens were ready for traffic in a matter of days. Only two greens got design changes: The fifth hole, which Gibson said had drawn complaints for years, was re-contoured and had old timbers removed. The eighth hole – top-ranked for handicap – had its false front flattened out among other contour changes.
“By June 1, they’ll be really pretty,” Gibson said. “I’ve seen courses after five, six weeks and you couldn’t even tell they’d done it, they’re so beautiful.”
Mother Nature made sure that there’s plenty of beauty to go around at Pilot Knob thanks to scenic Pilot Mountain and the lakes, streams, hills and valleys that surround it. Officials at the semi-private club aren’t merely sitting back and enjoying the view, though.
When Gibson arrived at the course nine years ago, he stepped into a brand-new clubhouse that welcomed golfers to a 6,225-yard, par-70 layout boasting new fairways and bunker complexes. A new short game area recently was installed where unused tennis courts had languished, and the pool is undergoing improvements for the upcoming season.
Area golfers unfamiliar with the course, or perhaps hoping to reacquaint themselves, will find course specials available throughout June. Gibson said Pilot Knob, which logs about 30,000 rounds a year and has 425 members, also will be offering a membership promotion.
“We’ve always had compliments on the area, the fairways, but the greens always held us back a little bit,” Gibson said. “The greens are the last piece of the puzzle to put us right where we need to be. I think we’re timed to explode right now.”