At the start of June, Brent Gentel was the happiest golf course superintendent around. His greens at Starmount Forest Country Club in Greensboro were in their best shape in six years. The way they rolled, the way they looked, everything was perfect.
And then it wasn’t.
On June 11, Starmount’s bentgrass greens started to die. Fast. Gentel rode the course 25 times a day, and every trip, he says, the greens looked worse. He called scientists and superintendents and anyone else who might be able to help. Every evening when the sun went down, he worried, not knowing what he’d see when it came back up. For six days, Gentel took the lashing of a natural mystery – was it bacteria, or heat stress, or what?
Superintendents throughout the Piedmont shuddered at their counterpart’s nightmare, wondering if it could happen to them.
Still, nearly three months later, nobody knows exactly what happened to the greens at one of the Triad’s oldest and most prestigious golf courses. For sure, bacteria played a part, but it’s still difficult for anyone to explain why it happened so fast. Gentel, though, couldn’t wallow in the why. He had to fix it, for his course, for his club and for his career. So he and Starmount Forest leaders turned to a grass that would stand up to the bacteria in question, a grass that thrives in brutal summers, a grass once cursed for its graininess but now beloved for its resilience.
They turned to bermudagrass.
Starmount Forest isn’t the first course in the Triad to abandon bentgrass greens in favor of bermudagrass greens. Holly Ridge in Archdale and Bermuda Run in Clemmons were among the early converts a couple of years ago. And a few others – including Pinewood Country Club in Asheboro and Tuscarora Country Club in Danville, Va. – are in the process of switching over. But Starmount Forest, with 80 years of history that includes a handful of professional championship events, may be the most esteemed of the bunch. And its success or failure with the heat-loving turf could determine how many other high-end clubs follow its lead.
Among those watching closely are the folks at Sedgefield Country Club, host of the PGA’s Wyndham Championship, where last month pros fired at pins to prove again that even the best-kept bentgrass can be a little cushiony in the North Carolina summer.
Starmount Forest reopened to its members in mid-August with 18 new Champion Dwarf Bermudagrass greens. And Gentel believes many others will soon do the same.
“Some places, it’s going to take a tragedy to do it,” Gentel says. “And some places will do it before the tragedy.”
The weather in this part of the country can make trying to manage a golf course as difficult as trying to sail a boat in shifting winds. Whichever way a superintendent turns, there’s potential for both good and bad.
We’re hot in the summer, and we’re cold in the winter. Bermudagrass is a warm-weather grass; bentgrass is a cool-weather grass. Neither one works well all year long.
But back-to-back brutal summers have changed the minds of many course managers. Summer 2010 was the second-hottest on record. Greensboro had 55 days when the temperature reached 90 degrees or above, nearly double the average of 29. By Aug. 20 of this year, the same area had 50 days of 90 or above.
And it’s been humid.
Throw in late-afternoon storms to douse the greens, and bentgrass suffocates.
Tuscarora superintendent Zane Breeding lost several of his greens last year in those conditions. And when the same greens started to go this year, he’d seen all he needed to see.
“Whether you believe in global warming or not, what I do know is it’s getting warmer and more humid here,” Breeding says. “Last summer, we all said it was the worst summer we ever had. This summer is similar. You can act like this is just an abnormal couple years, or you can accept that this is how it’s going to be and do something about it.”
Tuscarora closed in late July, and the club planted MiniVerde Bermudagrass the following week. The course is scheduled to reopen in early October.
Breeding says he’ll cover the greens in the winter if the temperature dips below 26 degrees. But losing golfing days in the winter, he says, is not nearly as important as having top-performing greens all summer.
“We were providing less than acceptable conditions during the heart of our season,” Breeding says. “I’m a bentgrass guy. I love bentgrass. But it’s at its worst when we need to be at our best.”
Leon Lucas visits 100 clubs a year to talk about grass.
Lucas is the staff agronomist with the Carolinas Golf Association, and he’s a former faculty member at North Carolina State University with a degree in plant pathology. Few people are as qualified to speak on turf issues in North Carolina as Lucas.
Yet, even he doesn’t know the best solution to the bentgrass-bermudagrass debate.
“There’s no perfect answer out there,” Lucas says. “Of course, the bermuda people will say bermuda’s better, and bent people will say bent’s better. It’s just like if you go to a Ford dealership. Well, his Ford’s going to sound a whole lot better than the Chevrolet across the street.”
Lucas favors bentgrass, long known for its smooth putting surface in ideal conditions. But he understands why the heat has caused courses to tilt toward bermuda.
The biggest problem with bentgrass in the summer, Lucas says, might not even be the heat or the humidity – it might be the golfers.
They demand a lot of their courses.
A bentgrass green can survive the summers here if it is aerified and given proper rest. But aerification can be seen as an intrusion on golfers, who want good conditions every time they pay for a round. Especially on public courses, the quality of a golfer’s experience determines whether he’ll return. So if he plays on a week when a course is being aerified, that could lead his money going somewhere else next time.
“It’s not a game,” Lucas says. “It’s a business.”
Bermudagrass needs less care in the summer. It doesn’t need to be watered by hose, and its condition is sturdier throughout the hot season.
So if a course has heavy play in the summer, bermudagrass might be the better choice, Lucas says. But if a course is like those in Pinehurst – with heavy fall, winter, and spring play from resort guests – Lucas believes bentgrass is still the best choice.
Forty years ago, many golf courses in North Carolina had bermudagrass greens. But an extremely cold winter in 1976-77, and then another in 1984-85, convinced the courses to switch to bent. In the summer of 1985, many courses were bare because of the previous winter’s freezing temperatures, Lucas says.
To prevent that now, courses switching to bermuda will purchase covers to place on their greens when the temperatures dip below 26 or 27 degrees for extended periods of time. Starmount ordered covers for its greens at a one-time cost of about $25,000. Those covers will last about 20 years.
“They’ll go from pulling hoses on bentgrass greens in the summer to pulling covers on bermudagrass greens in the winters,” Lucas says. “This is just a tough area to grow perfect grass under those conditions every year, throughout the year. There’s an art to managing golf greens.”
A week before the Wyndham, Atlanta Athletic Club gave the biggest testament to bermudagrass greens yet when it unveiled the Champion Dwarf Bermuda surfaces on its Highlands Course at the PGA Championship.
Bermudagrass – long a favorite turf for fairways in the South – now works on greens because science has improved the turf. Years ago, greens keepers could not get bermudagrass short enough to achieve the desired speeds of 11 or 12 on the Stimpmeter. Now, though, three types of ultradwarf bermuda – Champion, MiniVerde, and Tifdwarf – are giving the superintendents the faster greens their golfers want.
Michael Shoun oversees the agronomic division of McConnell Golf, which owns six courses in North Carolina, including Sedgefield and Cardinal Golf and Country Club in Greensboro.
“I don’t think it’ll eliminate bentgrass,” Shoun says of bermudagrass. “But I think you’ll see a 50-50 mix here within the next five years.”
McConnell owner John McConnell still prefers bentgrass, Shoun says, and all of McConnell’s North Carolina courses have bentgrass greens. But the company is watching the bermudagrass movement.
“We’re in that transitional zone, where it’s too hot for bent and too cold for bermuda,” Shoun says. “Either grass is meant to grow here, and you just have to make a choice as to which way you want to go.”
Six weeks removed from the scariest week of his professional life, Gentel stands next to the 18th green at Starmount Forest and watches a club member hit an approach shot.
When the ball lands on the green, it doesn’t leave a large divot, instead bouncing against the firm surface and rolling about 10 feet. That’s just what Gentel wants.
“You’re not going to get that on bentgrass in August,” Gentel says. “It’s just mashed potatoes on bentgrass this time of year.”
It was a tough summer, but out of the troubles an opportunity emerged. With the club shut down, Gentel decided to make other improvements to the course while working on replacing the bent with bermuda. Five of Starmount’s greens – Nos. 7, 12, 14, 15, and 16 – were re-contoured. Some of them were returned to their original, larger size, after years of rough creeping in. Three holes received new tee boxes and No. 7 was lengthened by 38 yards.
Several greenside fans were taken out because bermuda handles moisture better than bentgrass. That will save the club about $10,000 in energy costs.
But more valuable than any future cost savings, Gentel says, is the reaction from Starmount Forest’s members.
“Everybody’s so happy about this,” Gentel says. “And that’s what a country club’s success is, keeping the members happy.”