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Winter kill a scary scenario for superintendents

The new year's start along the Grand Strand was so chilly that golf course superintendents are likely to still be shivering when spring finally arrives.

Of course they will be warmer by then but they will be nervous, perhaps even a little scared.

Things were so cold for so long early this month that superintendents fear some of their bermudagrass, which effectively sleeps through winter, might not wake up when it's supposed to.

What has them biting their nails is golf's version of a silent assassin, an insidious threat known as winter kill that slays turf but is long gone before any carnage becomes apparent.

Winter kill occurs when conditions are, well, just like they were for most of the first two weeks of the year in Myrtle Beach.

Severe cold, low humidity and strong winds combine to freeze-dry plant cells, making the plant brittle and vulnerable to crushing like a potato chip underfoot.

Even without any impact from above, the plants can still starve to death because frozen cells serve as a road block to the passage of essential nutrients.

So in that sense, any damage from this month's big chill is already done.

But as Dan Connolly, superintendent at Aberdeen Country Club, said: "We might not see problems until late April or even early May."

That is when poa trivialis, which most courses at the beach sow to provide color and uniform coverage on putting greens through the cool season, backs off under the heat.

By then bermudagrass, which thrives in warmer weather, has stirred from its slumber - known as dormancy - and should be green and growing again.

Transitioning from poa trivialis to bermudagrass is tricky at the best of times because spring can be fickle bouncing around between hot and cold and everything in between.

For each of those grasses, that's like approaching a traffic light that can't make up its mind.

Sometimes even the best superintendents get caught with their cool season grass gone and their bermudagrass still on its way, leaving greens blotchy and bumpy.

But in areas affected by winter kill, that bermudagrass won't be coming at all.

Short of testing every inch of their greens, superintendents have no way of knowing how much grass they have lost until it doesn't wake up, months from now.

By then, golfers too have come out of hibernation having whet their appetites on another Masters and are looking for their courses to be as ripe for action as the golfer.

No one can be sure what they will discover, although, like Connelly, most superintendents are doing their best to find out.

Connelly regularly takes soil samples to try and get some sense of what may be ahead.

But at this stage, it's still too early to tell what, if any, damage has occurred.

One method superintendents can employ is to take plugs out of their greens and nurture them inside on a window ledge that gets plenty of sun.

If the plug doesn't show signs of greening up with some warmth and water, then there's a problem.

Treatments are simple but can be slow to take effect.

A superintendent can replant the dead areas with sprigs, sod or simply wait for the surrounding plants to spread over the affected area.

Winter kill can also affect other areas of a golf course, particularly north facing slopes, say, on green surrounds, around bunkers or slopes on a fairway.

But it's definitely the putting greens that cause the most trepidation.

And there are two other factors adding to superintendents' nerves this time around.

One is that this is the first real hard test of new ultradwarf bermudagrasses that have become so popular in recent years.

They tend to have their rhizomes - read: engine rooms - closer to the surface where it gets colder quicker and stays that way longer.

The other is that it's been the early- to mid-'90s since the Grand Strand last saw cold like what was recently experienced.

That means there are a lot of superintendents out there who have been in the business for anything up to 15 years but who have no experience with winter kill.

Put side by side, those issues amount to a two-lane road into unknown territory.

You could say that's a chilling thought.