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Change of course: Greensboro National postpones greens project

by TG_Admin01

By MICHAEL GRAFF

Their decision to kill the grass on their golf course in the middle of the busiest time of the year seemed so … normal. These days, it seems like everybody’s either doing it or already has. The big courses and the small courses, the private courses and public courses, the championship courses and the novice courses, the rich courses and the poor courses – in the Triad, almost everybody agrees that it’s time to turn the greens over from bentgrass to bermudagrass.

And so when folks at Greensboro National Golf Club began working toward a conversion this year, few people questioned the move. It’s just not big news anymore.

Now, this is: Just as they were about to start, Greensboro National officials stopped. They’re sticking with bentgrass, at least for this year.

Now that’s news.

It’s news because it’s a gamble. Bermudagrass, reinvented in ultradwarf form in recent years, is a hot-weather grass. Bentgrass is a cool-weather grass. The Triad has been anything but cool the past few summers.

But there’s one thing Greensboro National officials couldn’t pass up – the chance to gather some momentum and reclaim some space in the northern Greensboro area golf market. The course’s primary competitor, Bryan Park, is shutting down its Champions course this summer to convert its greens to bermudagrass. Greensboro National general manager and partner Andrew Kilpinen says he and the rest of the ownership group see it as an opportunity to capitalize.

Moreover, he says, they also watched their own golf course come through a cool spring in great shape.

“It wasn’t worth passing up the opportunity to reintroduce the golf course to a lot of people who hadn’t played here in awhile,” Kilpinen says. “If our greens stay clean and we survive the summer, we’ll be heroes. If we get hit with heat and we lose our greens, we’ll have made the wrong decision. But given the current information we have, we have too good of a surface to tear up right now.”

The condition of the course is a story in itself, considering what happened last year. Midway through last summer, Greensboro National’s groundskeepers endured the nightmare scenario – they lost their greens.

To ordinary people, brown grass in the summer is expected. To superintendents, brown is the sign of scars, a mark of death. It means, for all intents and purposes, the end of a season.

Greensboro National’s problems started in late June. For two weeks, groundskeepers tried everything, but still the putting surfaces faded. By mid-July, word spread to the golfing community: Don’t go to Greensboro National.

It wasn’t the first time in the past few years the course has been faced with a public relations problem. Built in 1995 during the height of the golf-course boom, the course in southwest Rockingham County has had a rocky run recently. In 2011, it was foreclosed upon. A management group, Affiniti Golf Partners, came in to try to run the course and keep it playable while it was under bank ownership. The management group enlisted the help of anyone with a lawnmower to keep the course playable. Then, in April 2012, a group led by Herb Parks and including Kilpinen purchased the course.

They set out to repair the public’s trust. They bought new golf carts equipped with GPS systems. They added staff in the clubhouse to get drinks and sandwiches to golfers faster. Numerous improvement projects began and continue. And the golfers responded. In May and June of last year, “we were killing it,” Kilpinen says. Trust restored, they thought.

Then they lost the greens.

“We got hurt really bad in July and August,” Kilpinen says. “Nobody made any mistakes. Nobody screwed up. But it’s just incredibly hard to maintain bentgrass here when it’s 99 degrees all the time.”

Despite the struggles with the grass, Greensboro National still played host to 4,000 rounds in July 2012. That’s significantly better than July 2011, Kilpinen says, and twice the number from July 2010.

In the offseason, though, they decided they didn’t want to gamble again. They began to make changes and preparations for the conversion.

Also this winter, Greensboro National made a switch at superintendent, promoting long-time grounds crew member Vicente Hernandez to the top job. Hernandez has been one of the most consistent faces at the club, even through the ownership and management changes. He started 13 years ago as a member of the crew. He was promoted to superintendent in 2005, and he held the position until last spring, when the new management group made some adjustments on staff. But after last year, Kilpinen and the rest of the club leaders decided to turn the turf back over to Hernandez full-time.

“There’s book smarts and there’s street smarts,” Kilpinen says of Hernandez. “And he knows these greens like the back of his hand.”

All winter, Hernandez was part of the plan to move forward with new bermudagrass. He and Greensboro National’s officials planned to start killing the bentgrass this summer. They researched three different types of bermudagrass and settled on champion ultradwarf. They removed 165 trees around their greens to allow more sunlight – bermudagrass loves it sunny and hot.

They were ready.

But then they realized Bryan Park’s top course was closing for most of the summer. And then they sat through a cool spring. And then they saw their greens return to form. (Only two greens still show any visible scars from last year’s loss.)

So they backed off, at least for this year.

“We were thinking we were ready to go,” Kilpinen says. “But I think around the end of April, Herb called me and we had a long phone conversation. And we really just asked ourselves, ‘Why are we doing it this year? And what are we losing by doing it this year?’

“We still believe that in the long-term, bermuda is the right choice. It just has to be the right time.”

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