Ultradwarf Bermuda grass becoming preferred over bent for area golf courses

ablondin@thesunnews.comNovember 18, 2012 

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    Man O’WarCrenshaw

— Some variety of bentgrass on greens was once considered essential to high-end golf courses on the Grand Strand.

As recently as the late 1990s, a course needed the smooth, speedy and receptive putting surfaces that bent could provide to charge premium green fees. Bermudagrass just wouldn’t suffice.

But the proliferation of ultradwarf Bermuda strains over the past decade are making bent greens nearly outmoded not only on the Strand but throughout the Southeast.

The finer blades of the ultradwarfs compared to older forms of Bermuda allow superintendents to create putting surfaces that are comparable to bent with less worry.

While some private courses have retained bent, the number of public courses in Georgetown, Horry and Brunswick counties with the grass is quickly dwindling.

Among approximately 90 public courses, only 12 have bent, while 54 have installed a Bermuda ultradwarf in the past decade, predominantly in place of a bentgrass.

“We’re delighted with them,” Max Morgan, vice president of agronomy for National Golf Management, said of ultradwarfs. “Mainly they’re more wear-tolerant and they’re better more days of the year than the bentgrass by a mile.”

Of the 22 public courses National Golf Management operates, 21 have Bermuda greens and none have bent. NGM courses that formerly featured bent include all three courses at Myrtle Beach National Golf Club, Pawleys Plantation, River Club, and 27-hole facilities Aberdeen Country Club and Waterway Hills Golf Links.

As good as bent can be as a year-round putting surface that isn’t overseeded in the winter, it’s a cool-weather grass that becomes stressed in the summer heat, to the point greens can be lost in extreme cases. Many Strand courses struggled to keep bent greens alive late in the summer of 2010, which was extremely hot and wet – the worst combination for bentgrass.

“The downside of bent is it’s not adaptive to heat and humidity in the South,” said Bert McCarty, professor of Turf Grass Science at Clemson University. He was a featured speaker during last week’s 50th Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association conference and trade show at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.

Ultradwarf revolution

McCarty estimates greens on S.C. courses were 40 percent bentgrass in the late 1970s, and that percentage is now less than 5 percent and dropping. “A few courses are still hanging on, and my guess is it might not ever go to zero, but it will get close to it,” McCarty said.

This year alone, experts estimate between 60 and 80 courses in the Southeast converted to an ultradwarf Bermuda. Champion and Mini-Verde are becoming the predominant ultradwarf grass, though TifEagle was among the first ultradwarfs and is still popular, and Emerald, which is at the Founders Club at Pawleys Island, is among the other varieties.

Modern Turf Inc., a grower and supplier of Mini-Verde, helped install the grass on 30 greens this summer in the six states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri. Company president Hank Kerfoot said 90 percent or more were transitions from bentgrasses.

McCarty said the lone course in golf-rich Hilton Head Island with bent greens is changing to Bermuda next summer. A few courses have also changed to Seashore Paspalum grass, which is hearty and salt-tolerant. Pine Lakes Country Club is wall-to-wall Paspalum, and Rivers Edge Golf Club in Shallotte, N.C., has Paspalum greens, as does the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort, which hosted the PGA Championship in August and impressed with its green conditions.

Each grass is susceptible to diseases, but McCarty said diseases that attack Bermuda grasses are eyesores but generally don’t threaten to kill the grass, whereas there are diseases that can be lethal to bent.

A criticism of Bermuda on the Strand is that it’s a warm-weather grass that goes dormant and turns brown in the cold winter months, requiring a winter overseed to keep it green.

But courses have become increasingly comfortable eschewing winter overseeding with poa trivialis and instead painting or coloring greens with dyes or pigments.

The increased denseness of ultradwarfs compared to the TifDwarf and 328 Bermudas featured on greens for decades allows them to hold up to traffic better while dormant. “This stuff is dense enough that it doesn’t become such an issue,” said Ralph Kepple, superintendent at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, which switched to an ultradwarf in 2008. “Painting is a viable option and it’s much better for the grass.”

Without overseeding, Bermudas don’t have to compete for growth with another grass, and maintenance practices aren’t needed to impact transition periods in the fall and spring, allowing them to compare favorably financially to bentgrass.

“It’s 25 to 30 percent cheaper to maintain Bermudagrass and less workers are necessary during the heat of the summer, and it takes less water, less fertilizer and generally less pesticides,” McCarty said. “So I’m in favor of some of those lesser inputs with Bermudagrass, and you still get that nice putting surface.”

Morgan said Bermuda holds up better to traffic and spike marks than bent, and maintenance practices such as aerifying and verticutting are ideally done in the summer and winter – the least busy times of the year on courses.

“We can do them in June and August,” Morgan said. “With bent, the ideal time to aerify is April and October, but you settle for May and early September. You’re settling for second best.”

Tournament tested

Mini-Verde was put to the test in 2008 at East Lake, home to the $8 million Tour Championship.

East Lake had a near disaster in 2007 with bentgrass. An oppressive summer resulted in the loss of portions of some greens and compromised many greens as the tournament approached as the culmination to the first FedEx Cup playoffs on Labor Day weekend.

“That’s just an awful time for bentgrass anyway, so we were nervous going into that,” said Kepple, East Lake's superintendent for the past 20 years. “We were doing fine through July, then August hit and we had several days in the 100s. It was just ugly. We had some really weak areas on some greens.”

The week before the tournament, Kepple and his staff spread seed, bathed greens in fertilizer, sodded bent on some areas of greens, made some greens smaller by sodding in parts of them with 419 Bermuda as collars, and filled in remaining thin spots with green sand.

The course made it through the tournament with criticism and changed the greens to Mini-Verde in 2008. “Our greens are better day in and day out now than they were when we were bentgrass,” Kepple said. “I’ve got more days when we’re good to great greens, and they’re more consistent. They’re firm all the time, they’re not soft in the summer and firm in the spring.”

The greens have consistently been smooth and fast for the tournament for the past five years, hitting a lightning-quick 14 on the Stimpmeter some mornings. “I think I can get them even faster now with a little less work,” Kepple said.

The ultradwarfs are quick to mature, as well. Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., had just 10 weeks to grow in its new Champion greens this summer prior to hosting the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship.

The course closed May 28 and reopened in time for the tournament the week of Aug. 13-19, and players were complimentary of the putting surfaces. Sergio Garcia won with an 18-under-par 262 total.

He knew what he was putting on. But there’s the question of whether most golfers can even decipher the composition of the putting surface.

“Maybe the elite professional golfers can tell the difference, but most golfers can’t tell the difference,” McCarty said. “When you get right down to it, they may say they can, but they really can’t. Most of them can’t tell if they’re on bent or Bermuda.”

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.

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