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Family-owned courses banking on new bermudagrass

by TG_Admin01

By MICHAEL GRAFF

You don’t do this without thinking about it.

You don’t tear up a golf course that’s been in your family for 45 years without being absolutely certain it’s the right thing to do. Two area courses – Wilshire Golf Course in Winston-Salem and Occoneechee Golf Club in Hillsborough – decided this summer to switch from bentgrass greens to bermudagrass greens. It’s hardly an unprecedented move for golf courses in the region. Dozens of courses in North Carolina – including Sedgefield Country Club, which hosted the Wyndham Championship last month – have made the switch in the past three years in response to the hotter summers.

Regardless of how many others make the change, though, such an undertaking is unique to each course and a major moment in the lives of the owners.

Occoneechee, run by the Ray family since 1963, and Wilshire, run by the Veach family since 1967, started new chapters in their course history this year, with different results.

Occoneechee closed the first week of June and, aside from a minor setback at the beginning, completed the transition to bermudagrass on time, reopening Aug. 3. Wilshire closed just one week later, but saw most of its work washed away in a late-June thunderstorm, and the course remains closed, with a scheduled reopening Labor Day weekend.

Still, both families saw a switch to bermudagrass as a step toward the future, and whatever heat that future might bring each summer. Unlike the bentgrass that made up the two courses’ greens the previous 30 or so years, this bermudagrass is built to withstand the increasingly hot North Carolina summers.

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After two months without golfers, two months of killing the old bentgrass, two months of planting the new bermudagrass, two months of sending members to different courses, and two months of seeing just how gracious and generous the golfing community was, Occoneechee general manager Scott Ray wanted to do something special when the course reopened.

So he threw a barbecue. And then, on a sunny afternoon with 100 people watching, he sent off a special foursome. The four longest-tenured members of the club – Lewis Crabtree, Henry Morris, Marvin Reep and Tom Newsome – were the first to hit tee shots. Crabtree, who became a member in 1968, was the first to go and he hit one down the middle.

It was a proud day for a proud course, which Ray’s grandfather built in the early ‘60s.

“It was a little nervewracking to send your members away for two months,” Ray said. “And you hoped they would come back. You’re worried about your grass, but you’re also worried about your family (the members) coming back.”

This isn’t the first time Occoneechee has had bermudagrass greens. It had the grass from the course’s opening in 1963 until the late 1970s, when colder winters forced a change to the cool-weather bentgrass. The weather patterns have changed, though, and so has the evolution of bermudagrass. The new Champion bermudagrass provides a much better putting surface than its previous incarnation.

Occoneechee encountered one minor hangup early in the process. On a Friday in June, the course was deluged with about an inch-and-a-half of rain in a half-hour, Ray said, so some of the greens had to be re-sprigged.

Even that, though, proved to be a moment to celebrate. When the rain came, Ray sent a text message to David Lee, a friend and the superintendent of Hope Valley Country Club, a private course in Durham. Lee’s course made the switch last year. And by 6 a.m. the next day, Lee had several of his staff members at Occoneechee, helping Ray and his staff save the project.

“That just shows you the golf relationships in North Carolina,” Ray said. “I’ll never be able to say enough about them. It makes you feel better about the game of golf when you see what happens behind the scenes like that.”

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Wilshire knows about weather delays, too.

A few weeks after the course closed in June, a major rainstorm swept through Winston-Salem and left Wilshire’s low-lying holes under water. The immature bermudagrass had yet to take root, and several of the holes had to be redone. The worst areas were in holes 1 through 4, which sit a dozen or so feet below nearby Peters Creek Parkway and along South Fork Creek.

But now, the course is close to ready. And that’s good news to the members of the Veach family who have invested their lives in this course since George Veach bought it in the mid-‘60s.

“It’s taken a couple of weeks longer than I was planning,” said Tod Veach, George’s son. “It’s the stress of it all. Our whole family’s here. Until you open, there’s no revenue.”

Still, the conversion was the right decision, Tod Veach said. Wilshire’s greens also were bentgrass through the 1970s, until those cold winters. The past two years, some of those became unmanageable in the summer, particularly when the Veaches had to add in the cost of fungicides. Now that the new bermudagrass is growing in the greens are expected to be more durable and resilient to heat and moisture.

One of the biggest changes was on hole No. 2, where the green was moved away from the tree line and raised eight feet.

“Once we grow in, it’ll be fine,” Tod Veach said. “The establishment part was where the problem was. We’re growing in a soil median that won’t take that moisture (well). This grass will be better for that.”

Besides, Veach said, it was time for a change. The bentgrass that was planted in the 1970s was about the only thing that remained the same in this area of southern Winston-Salem today. When the Veaches opened the course, Wilshire was just a course out in the country, with only a few businesses between the clubhouse and downtown Winston-Salem, about seven miles to the north. Now, Peters Creek Parkway is one of the busiest roads in the city, with fast-food restaurants, strip malls and stoplights at every turn.

“When mom and dad opened the course, between here and town, Mr. Barbecue was about the only thing,” Tod Veach said. “We’re not going anywhere. We don’t know how to do anything else. We’ll fight through it.”

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