One of the great misconceptions about the new generation of finer-bladed bermudagrasses sweeping the golf landscape is that they are so sleek and resilient they almost take care of themselves.
In the midst of a recession where golf courses are trimming costs as often as they are their turf, that has prompted some course operators to wonder if they need such an experienced – that is to say, expensive – golf course superintendent.
Pat O’Brien, the USGA’s chief agronomist in the Southeast, scoffs at the thought.
“Plant genetics are only about 20 percent of the equation,” he said.
“The other 80 percent is in knowing how to take care of the ultradwarfs.
“Getting the best out of them is totally dependent on your surface management system and it is not intuitive. It’s not easy to figure out.”
Ultradwarf greens now account for the vast majority of putting green acreage along the Grand Strand with nearly 10 new conversions this year alone.
King’s North and Grand Dunes Resort Course recently reopened with Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass.
Both courses are part of the 22-course National Golf Management stable and, ultimately, fall under the supervision of vice-president of agronomy and certified golf course superintendent Max Morgan.
Morgan has been working and learning the ultradwarfs since around 2000, when Aberdeen switched its Woodlands nine to TifEagle.
“There is a lot of technique involved,” he said. “Typically, it’s the greens that are not getting enough done to them that don’t perform well.”
And therein lies the rub with these greens.
Sure, the sun-loving bermudagrass has indeed taken the nuclear option off the table that still gives bentgrass superintendents nightmares every summer.
“With the wrong conditions, bentgrass can fizzle out (die) on you no matter how good your maintenance programs are or how good you are as a superintendent,” Morgan said.
But on the flipside, if a superintendent is not doing all the right things often enough with the ultradwarfs, he added, “You can end up with something that feels like a mattress.”
To prevent the surface becoming spongy and therefore bumpy, superintendents need to be far more aggressive with the turf surface far more often than they could with bentgrass.
Beyond periodic aerification, where superintendents extract turf cores they then fill with sand to promote oxygen, water and nutrient flow, ultradwarf greens need frequent verticutting and topdressing.
Verticutting, or vertical mowing, reduces thatch build-up beneath the turf canopy.
It certainly disturbs the surface, so superintendents then topdress with sand and will drag, roll or mow soon after to level things out again.
In the growing season, some successful superintendents will verticut every second week and topdress weekly.
“These grasses can handle that sort of treatment very well,” Morgan said.” You only have to look at our hundreds and hundreds of comment cards to see that golfers are happy with greens that have just been verticut or topdressed.
“Because with 22 courses, if the greens weren’t putting well, you would hear somebody squawking.”
But as the USGA’s O’Brien points out, verticutting and topdressing are only the rudimentary steps.
“You need to know what type of blades you’re going to use, what degree of spacing and what depth you are going to go,” he said. “There is a real level of sophistication required to get the best out of these grasses.
“You better know what you’re doing or pilot error is going to put you in a whole house of pain.”
Some of that pain can show up in excessive grain that overly influences what path the ball takes or scalping, where undulations or bumps on the surface produce an uneven mowing cut.
Just some of the other techniques for coaxing the best out of the new generation grasses include brushing and double-mowing in different directions.
The first of golf’s majors to be played on ultradwarf greens was the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Several weeks before the tournament, which drew rave reviews, someone remarked on the quality of the greens.
The superintendent, Ken Mangum, laughed and said, “If they look that good today then it means I just didn’t work them hard enough yesterday.”
His point, like that of O’Brien and Morgan, is that the grass may be good but it takes skill and work to make it great.
TRENT BOUTS edits Carolinas Green magazine for the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association and consulted with members of the Palmetto Golf Course Superintendents Association for this column. He writes a monthly column that appears in The Sun News the last Tuesday of each month.