Unprecedented outbreak forcing numerous Strand golf courses to temporarily close

The 12th green at International Club of Myrtle Beach in Murrells Inlet during the replacement of greens with Sunday ultradwarf Bermudagrass this summer.
The 12th green at International Club of Myrtle Beach in Murrells Inlet during the replacement of greens with Sunday ultradwarf Bermudagrass this summer.

Unprecedented winterkill damage to golf courses on the Grand Strand has led to more than 10 course closures this summer to allow for recovery, and numerous other courses are undergoing an extensive amount of sodding to expedite the recovery process.

Glen Dornoch Waterway Golf Links, Tradition Club, Myrtlewood Golf Club’s PineHills Course, Indigo Creek Golf Club, International Club of Myrtle Beach, Diamondback Golf Club and Panther's Run Golf Links have all closed or are scheduled to close this month to redo all of their greens.

Long Bay Club will close Thursday for approximately three weeks to allow its greens to recover, Lion's Paw Golf Links is expected to reopen Friday with 10 new greens, and the 27-hole Aberdeen Country Club closed Saturday and will be shut down for at least a month as seven greens on the Woodlands and Meadows nines are replanted with sprigs. Aberdeen's Highlands nine will be closed to allow its greens to recover and should reopen later this summer.

In addition, the Bay nine holes at the 27-hole Sandpiper Bay Golf & Country Club are closed for green renovations.

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Max Morgan, director of agronomy for Founders Group International (FGI), which owns and operates 22 Strand courses. “I’ve never seen so much damage everywhere.”

Other courses may still opt to close or can justify closing with the extent of the damage.

Though some courses in the market have come through the winter in decent shape, few were spared damage and most are in some form of recovery as Bermudagrass grows and sprawls in the summer heat.

“With the harsh winter we endured and the extended period of below freezing temperatures, winterkill is a major concern everywhere,” said Eric Covelli, the superintendent at Arcadian Shores Golf Club who is the acting president of the Grand Strand’s Palmetto Golf Course Superintendents Association. “Not only the Grand Strand, but also courses in coastal, inland, and the upstate areas, in both North and South Carolina, are seeing the symptoms.”

Winterkill is a term used to describe grass that is damaged or killed by harsh winter conditions. It affects warm-season grasses, and warm-weather Bermuda is the predominant turf on greens, tees, fairways and roughs in the Carolinas.

Some courses overseed their greens with the cool-weather grass poa trivialis to overtake the Bermuda when it is dormant, while others don’t and use a pigment to color the greens. The courses that didn’t overseed discovered the damage in March and April, while the courses that did have just discovered the damage over the past couple weeks as the overseed dies off.

It’s believed the widespread winterkill was caused by an ice storm and several consecutive days of below-freezing weather in early January, and may have been exacerbated by frosts in March following a warm February.

Winterkill affected all areas of many courses, not just greens, but courses can withstand damaged grass on tee boxes, fairways and rough more than on putting surfaces.

Less than 10 Strand courses have the cool-weather bentgrass on greens and they have reportedly come through the winter in good shape, on the greens at least. Those courses include Man O’War, The Wizard, The Pearl West, Crow Creek, Leopard’s Chase at Ocean Ridge, Shaftesbury Glen Golf & Fish Club, and the Sea Trail Maples Course.

A few Strand courses that have covers to protect greens from extreme cold have also survived the harsh winter. Those courses include Prestwick Country Club, Tidewater Golf & Plantation and The Dunes Golf and Beach Club.

“If you didn’t cover your greens you had some form of it,” said George Gore, managing partner at Glen Dornoch and Possum Trot, who said he will be buying covers for the new greens at Glen Dornoch.

The winterkill damage is costly to courses in multiple forms. Though his courses didn’t close, Jamie Roderick, director of golf at the three-course Sea Trail Resort, estimates the facility lost $500,000 in revenue this spring because of the green conditions at two of his courses. Sea Trail did not overseed greens.

Courses will lose revenue while closed, and Gore said the expense of redoing greens is between $100,000 and $200,000 depending on the method. A no-till renovation with fumigation is about $100,000 per 18 holes, and stripping the green and rebuilding it with a few inches of new greens mix and planted sprigs is closer to $200,000.

“We’re getting a lot of local play and it’s going to hurt us . . . but we’re going to do it the right way,” Gore said of Glen Dornoch’s closing.

Those invested in the Myrtle Beach golf market are hoping the winterkill conditions won’t impact future business.

“We’re going to have to get in front of everybody before the fall golf season and let everybody know what we’ve done, redoing all these greens. I think that’s important for all of us,” said Chuck Hutchinson, general manager at Indigo Creek and partner in East Coast Golf Management, which manages three Strand courses and has a marketing cooperative involving 15.

Tradition Club in Pawleys Island and the PineHills Course in Myrtle Beach, which are in FGI's portfolio, are closing to replace their Tifdwarf Bermuda greens with Sunday ultradwarf Bermudagrass, which is featured at Arcadian Shores Golf Club. The greens at both courses will also be expanded about 20 percent, back to their original sizes.

PineHills will close June 22 and is expected to reopen by Aug. 6, and Tradition will close June 24 and reopen by Aug. 14. “Both of them had old TifDwarf greens that needed to be updated so it’s kind of exciting to have an opportunity to do it,” Morgan said.

Later this year, FGI plans to add fescue grass in areas of rough at Myrtlewood to complement the existing mounding, and the course will remain open during that project.

Diamondback in Loris will close June 29 to redo the greens with Sunday Bermuda and may reopen between Aug. 10-16.

“Diamondback had a few greens that were suffering but the ownership decided the time was right to continue their course improvement project that was started 16 months ago and replace the greens,” Diamondback general manager Patrick Wilkinson said. “The Jensen ultradwarf that we had was getting close to its life expectancy and would need to be replaced within the next couple of years.”

Indigo Creek in Murrells Inlet closed earlier this month and could reopen by Sept. 1 with new Sunday greens. Work being done to the course includes clubhouse renovations, new drainage and bunkers, irrigation upgrades and the removal of trees. About 40 have been removed in the past couple days.

“We already had planned to redo Indigo,” Hutchinson said. “The greens were already 30 years old and were ready to be redone. Had we not been doing it, we’d be doing it anyway because it wasn’t about losing part of our greens, we lost them completely.”

Glen Dornoch closed Monday and could reopen by early September with Champion ultradwarf Bermuda greens in place of its old TifDwarf. “We’re going to put a good putting surface on there and we’ll come out better in the long run,” Gore said.

International Club in Murrells Inlet sprigged its greens over the past two days with a high quantity of Sunday Bermuda sprigs for accelerated growth and superintendent Jim Knaffle said he hopes to reopen July 11. While it’s closed, the entire course will be aerated and work will be done on bunker drainage, mulching around the clubhouse and landscaping around the course. Special pricing is planned for July.

Sandpiper’s Bay nine in Sunset Beach, N.C., closed last week and will be sprigged with Sunday Bermuda, as will four greens on the Sand nine that will have temporary greens until the new greens are ready for play as soon as late July or early August.

At the four-course Ocean Ridge Plantation in Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle, N.C., both Lion’s Paw and Panther’s Run closed on June 4. Lion’s Paw's 10 new greens have been sodded with the same MiniVerde ultradwarf Bermuda that is on the layout’s other eight holes. Panther’s Run is expected to reopen July 13 with new greens that have been changed from MiniVerde to TifEagle ultradwarf Bermuda.

“We will transition to what we pray will be a more cold tolerant hearty grass,” Ocean Ridge golf operations and retail manager Roxanne Powell said. “. . . I've never seen such a traumatic loss of grass in our marketplace. I can’t even imagine the loss we collectively endured as an industry over the past four months from the severe winter conditions.”

Several courses have used sod to avoid extended closures.

Some Champion greens on the Grande Dunes Resort Course were patched with sod last week during aerification, and parts of four MiniVerde greens at TPC Myrtle Beach will be sodded while it is closed for five days during aerification – the punching of holes to relieve compaction, remove thatch and increase air circulation that is an annual or semi-annual maintenance practice for courses

At Sea Trail, Roderick said the course used Champion sod from the closed Heather Glen course this spring, and has ordered 6,400 square feet of Champion sod from Texas that is due to arrive on June 20, mainly for a couple greens. The courses have used six temporary greens but Roderick expects the Byrd and Jones courses to be in pristine shape by mid-July.

The four-course Barefoot Resort has utilized sodding on its layouts, and Crown Park Golf Club used a couple temporary greens while sodding some TifEagle greens. “We’ve weathered the storm now and are on the other side,” Crown Park head pro Rob Lane said.

Bradley Vaughan, sales and marketing manager for Arnold Palmer Golf Management’s five Grand Strand courses – Moorland, Parkland and Heathland at Legends Resort, Heritage Golf Club and Oyster Bay Golf Links – said those courses remain open as the company formulates its plan to combat any damage.

“All of our golf courses are still open for business and getting better every day with this heat,” Vaughan said.

With all of the renovations and repair work being done, most courses expect to be fully recovered later this summer, which they hope will result in a profitable fall season and healthy grass going into winter dormancy.

“When you take a step back and look at it, everyone is doing the right thing and not hesitating to get the courses back into the conditions everyone expects,” East Coast president Mike Buccerone said. “I’m confident we’ll rebound.”

Mitchell Moenster, a Southwestern Illinois College horticulture student, interned at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., where he worked with the turf management team to learn more about how to care for Bermuda grass.