Grand Strand golf courses endured some relatively harsh winters in 2013 and 2014 and managed to emerge from them largely unscathed.
They weren’t so lucky this year.
A series of unfavorable and untimely weather occurrences combined to promote the onset of a condition known as winterkill on area grasses – particularly the different varieties of Bermudagrass that are prevalent in the Carolinas – and it has taken its toll on Strand layouts.
Though the impact of winterkill, a general term used to describe turf loss caused by cold weather during winter months, varies in the area from destructive to mild, few courses have been spared.
It’s the worst case of winterkill in the Carolinas since the mid-1990s, according to Patrick O’Brien, the Southeast region agronomist with the USGA Green Section who has been in the Carolinas since 1987.
“In Myrtle Beach I don’t know that it’s a disaster, but in parts of the Carolinas it is,” said Trent Bouts, a spokesperson for the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association.
O’Brien said many of the worst cases are in the North Carolina areas of Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Charlotte, regions where he’s seen damage on 30 to 50 percent of fairways on several courses and at least a few courses are closing for repairs.
Myrtle Beach may be the hardest hit region in South Carolina, and the worst case on the Strand appears to be at Black Bear Golf Club, where bare Champion Bermuda greens will be re-grassed through sprigging beginning in the next couple weeks, depending on the delivery date of the Champion sprigs from Texas.
The course will remain open during the work as temporary greens have already been cut near the existing greens and will be used until the Champion is ready for play, possibly by early August.
Black Bear head pro Patrick Wilkinson said a few options were considered. The problem areas could have been sodded. “We ended up with about 40,000 square feet of damaged area, and at $1.25 per square foot plus installation that wasn’t a real feasible option,” he said. Another option was sprigging only the affected areas, but those areas would have to remain wet for growth and it could adversely affect adjoining grass.
So course operators opted to completely re-grass the greens. “That will give us full coverage again and we can get a fresh start,” said Wilkinson, who said green sizes will be enlarged to their dimensions when the greens were last replaced eight years ago before the encroachment of fairways and collars.
Other Strand courses have had to repair portions of their playing areas but haven’t reported having to replace all of their greens.
The damage can be to tee boxes, fairways, rough or greens, and varies from course to course.
Bermuda is an aggressive grass that quickly sprawls, and maintenance practices that stimulate growth such as aerification are beginning this week as scheduled at most courses.
“We’re well on our way to recovery now, and in the middle of our aerification process,” said Max Morgan, director of agronomy for Founders Group International, which has acquired 22 Strand courses over the past 10 months.
The weather factors
The winterkill likely took root on dormant warm-weather Bermuda on the Strand in February, when temperatures dipped below freezing on several occasions.
Morgan said temperatures of 32 degrees or below were registered on 16 days in February at River Club in Pawleys Island compared to just six days in February 2014, which itself wasn’t considered a great month for weather. “We didn’t have any record low temperatures, it was just a cumulative effect of a damp, cool and cloudy February,” Morgan said.
In late March, just as the Bermuda was beginning to wake from its dormancy, a particularly cold night saw temperatures dip to 26 degrees on the north end of the Strand and 31 in Pawleys Island, according to Morgan.
“It definitely chill-shocked the greens and we were already pushing them along with fertilizer because they did have some damage from the winter time,” Morgan said. “When it came time for them to green up they weren’t greening up.”
While April was generally pleasant, it didn’t provide the temperatures of 80-plus in the day and 60-plus at night to spur Bermuda growth. Morgan said it never reached 80 degrees at Pine Lakes Country Club in Myrtle Beach in April.
“It was nice for golf other than being a little cloudy and rainy but it was not nice for growing Bermuda grass,” Morgan said. “We needed temperatures to stay above 60 degrees [at night] to get Bermuda growth.”
A tropical storm in early May that dumped more than 5 inches of rain on parts of the Strand may have inhibited the recovery process.
“Everything just seemed to go backwards at a period of time the grass should really be growing aggressively,” said Jim Knaffle, superintendent at International Club of Myrtle Beach and a past president of the Palmetto GCSA, the Strand’s superintendent organization. “It turned into a difficult time for a lot of people.”
Perhaps because of the colder temperatures in late March on the north end, the stretch of courses on the S.C. 9 corridor was particularly hard hit, including Black Bear.
Morgan said the most drastic measure that needed to be taken on Founders Group’s 22 courses was the complete sodding of the ninth green on the Highlands nine at the 27-hole Aberdeen Country Club on S.C. 9.
“Everything on Highway 9 seemed like it just got smacked in the mouth this spring,” Wilkinson said.
Many Strand course operators have only recently learned the extent of their turf loss as cool-weather grasses have died off at courses that overseeded and green colorants have worn off at facilities that didn’t, revealing dead patches of underlying Bermuda.
Areas of golf courses that are particularly susceptible to winterkill are those that are shaded, have north-facing slopes, traditionally retain water, or have high foot or cart traffic that compacts soil and weakens turf.
In the central corridor of North Carolina, where course operators are more accustomed to freezing temperatures, the damage is generally limited to tees, rough and fairways because they routinely use green covers to protect putting surfaces on cold winter days. “There has been virtually no damage at all to Bermudagrass greens where the covers are used,” O’Brien said.
At least four Strand courses used the covers, which are similar to tarps, this winter, and Prestwick Country Club, The Dunes Golf and Beach Club, Pine Lakes Country Club and Tidewater Golf Club all helped limit any damage to greens by doing so.
Tidewater closed last summer for renovations that included the installation of MiniVerde Bermuda on its greens, and the new grass was often protected by custom-fit covers over the winter. Tidewater general manager Archie Lemon said the course was closed about half of the days in February when the covers were in use.
“It impacted revenue, but our greens were new so we gave them probably a little extra TLC over the winter,” Lemon said. “The covers are phenomenal and I expect more courses to go to those.”
Lemon said the covers can cost up to $30,000 for a course, depending on the size of their greens.
Michael Shoun, director of agronomy for McConnell Golf, which owns and/or operates 11 private courses across the Carolinas including two on the Strand, told Bouts he expects to spend close to $250,000 repairing damage at his chain of facilities. That includes one truckload (about 10,000 square feet) of new sod at The Reserve Club in Pawleys Island. McConnell’s Dye Course at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., will close for sprigging.
As will the two courses at Bryan Park Golf Course in Greensboro, N.C., which is home to the Carolinas PGA Section. It lost 30 acres of turf over the courses, which will both close within the next month for sprigging, according to Bouts.
Many in the Strand golf market expect more courses to reverse a recent trend and get back to overseeding fairways and greens for the winter, to both have the live overseed grasses – generally ryegrass on fairways and poa trivialis on greens – to absorb moisture in a wet winter and ensure golfers in the important spring season have healthy grass.
More cold-tolerant Bermuda strains have been developed at Oklahoma State and are now for sale in the Carolinas, and some N.C. clubs are replanting fairways with the improved varieties called Northbridge and Latitude 36 rather than the traditional Tifway 419 Bermuda.
Latitude 36 is the home stadium turf for NFL teams in Philadelphia and Washington.
The grasses aren’t in use on the Strand yet. For now, Myrtle Beach area courses will just pray for some better weather and hope maintenance practices are successful.
“Let’s hope those days are behind us and we have some mild winters coming up,” Lemon said.