Over time, Kevin Smith may eventually forget the overnight hours of March 29, but what occurred during that time happens so infrequently that it almost becomes historic.
Throughout the dark early morning, temperatures took a Titanic-like plunge to a low of 24 degrees, 18 degrees below the historical average for Greensboro. Combined with the 30-degree low the previous morning, swaths of golf course acreage across the Triad region were blindsided.
Winterkill had taken hold of the warm-season grasses that were coming out of winter dormancy as a result of more typical early-March temperatures.
“The viable turf might have been injured, stunting the growth of the grass to the point it’s just now starting to grow back, or if the turf was hanging on by a thread, then those hard freezes caused its death,” said Smith, director of agronomy for Pinnacle Golf Properties, which manages six properties throughout the Carolinas, including Bryan Park Conference Center’s two courses that serve as Smith’s home base.
Quite simply, winterkill is the result of an unseasonable mix of snow, ice and period of below-average temperatures following a stretch of warmer temperatures that sparked turf to resume growth. The worst affected areas are typically shaded and high-traffic, along with those that do not get enough sunlight.
And because Bermudagrass tends to lose its color and growing characteristics during the winter months, the winterkill is not readily noticed until the affected grass fails to respond to spring’s warmer temperatures.
While winterkill is typically an annual occurrence, the severity varies.
The best analogy would be hurricane season. Each year, North Carolina weathers through the months of August through October with little to no damage caused. Occasionally, though, the Tar Heel state gets hammered by a horrific hurricane whose name becomes indelible — Hazel, Floyd and Fran come to mind.
“It seems to happen like every 20 years and right now we’re on our 19th year,” said Tim Kreger, executive director, Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association, of the winterkill cycle. “So weather cycles have a lot to do with it, but it’s still Mother Nature and there is nothing guys can do.”
Smith estimates that at Bryan Park, roughly 10 acres on the Champions Course and 15-20 acres on the Players Course were affected. At Sedgefield Country Club’s Dye Course, 20 acres of turfgrass was damaged.
“The problem was the timing,” said Michael Shoun, director of agronomy for McConnell Golf, which owns or operates 11 private courses across the Carolinas, including Sedgefield. “We had the cold temps in February, then the Bermudagrass was ready to come out and then we got hit again in late March. It was like a one-two punch.”
That blow is not only to the physical course, but to the financial pocketbook of courses and clubs. In addition to the cost of having to either sprig or sod the damaged turf, there is also the loss of revenue from having to close the course.
Bryan Park’s Players Course is closing July 6 and is expecting to be closed until the last week of August, but that represents the more extreme case. Some courses can get away with “course under repair” markings.
Sedgefield’s Ross Course, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship, had slight damage, but the areas have been re-sodded and Shoun expects the course to be fine by the Aug. 17-23 tournament week.
McConnell Golf will spend upward of $250,000 to repair the five courses that were most affected. Smith estimates that sod runs between $8,000 to $10,000 per acre, while sprigs cost $2,500, which puts the price tag to sprigging Bryan Park’s courses at around $75,000, not including labor and maintenance costs.
“So it’s not cheap,” Smith said. “And unless you have some money in the bank or deep pockets, it’s going to be a big outlay.”
In addition to courses, sod producers were affected by the winterkill. The North Carolina Sod Producers Association lists 38 growers producing eight species of grasses ranging from cooler season (Bluegrass, for example) to warmer season (St. Augustinegrass and Zoysiagrass).
Since most sod is produced in direct sunlight, the winterkill affects were not as substantial, but they were enough to cause some delays in meeting the demands from courses. That, in turn, created a slight increase in costs.
What makes North Carolina somewhat unique is that it’s located in a transitional weather zone, which means courses can actually have a mixture of cooler and warmer season grasses. For example, Bryan Park incorporates Bermudagrass on the majority of its courses, but also uses a cooler climate Tall Fescue for its less maintained areas.
As a frame of reference, Chambers Bay Golf Course, site of this year’s U.S. Open and located in the often wet and cool Pacific Northwest, uses Fescue, a cooler weather grass, exclusively on its property.
Smith puts the situation in a more enlightening context. The grasses being used on courses throughout the transition zone are native to other continents, so he likens them to being invited guests.
“So our goal is to cultivate them as best we can so that they can reach their peak potential,” he said. “So when we get a winterkill situation, it’s counter-productive to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Kreger says, short of covering fairways in similar fashion to how some courses protect their greens — a practice that Shoun says is a “physical and financial impossibility” — there is little to nothing that will prevent winterkill at its worst.
A common best practice is raising the height of fairway mowing from a half-inch to three-quarter-inch in height starting in the early fall. Surface drainage and reducing the stress in high traffic areas are also considerations. Another possibility is the removing or thinning tree canopies to improve sunlight penetration to shaded areas.
How does a course sell winterkill to its golfers? Education.
“In March, I think many golfers were expecting to see some courses starting to come back in from being dormant, but as spring wore on and the fairways were greening up, then they knew something was up,” Smith said. “So the real thrust of our education is underway. We just try and explain how this happens.”