Luke DeCock

Harsh winter takes toll on Triangle golf courses

In less than three weeks, professional golfers will be playing from the fairways at TPC Wakefield Plantation. It’s a little hard to believe at the moment, since some of them have slashes cut through the brown turf in a desperate attempt to encourage growth, the most visible manifestation of a disastrous winter.

Every golf course in the area is dealing with massive damage to the Bermuda grass that makes up most fairways and tees after a winter that started wet and finished with brutal cold, the worst conditions in two decades.

Wakefield is feeling the pressure more than most because of the impending Rex Hospital Open, the Tour event that runs May 25-30. While its greens are as firm and fast as ever – they’re bent grass, which handles cold weather better – parts of the rest of the course still have catching up to do.

This week, the first with consistent sunny days and warm nights, is important. With enough heat, damaged Bermuda will slowly come back to life, growing from below the surface instead of above it. If not, courses face the expensive prospect of extensive sodding to replace it.

“This is my 11th year in the industry, and I’ve never seen anything close to this,” said John McConnell, who owns Wakefield and other courses in the area and state. “Every golf course I’ve seen in North Carolina has a lot of winter kill and potential winter kill. This week will make the determination how much will come back and how much is dead forever.”

Wakefield’s current issues are partially the result of winter damage and partially the extreme measures taken to repair it, the slicing and aerating of the turf to allow air, heat and water to reach deeper into the soil. At N.C. State’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course, such measures weren’t an option because the course is hosting an NCAA women’s regional this weekend.

Brian Green, Lonnie Poole’s director of course maintenance, said he plans on taking action after the tournament, but that won’t help nearly as much as warm days and nights that get the soil temperature above 60 degrees, which is when Bermuda really starts to grow. Either way, Green said, he’ll have to replace some sod laid in the fall as part of a bunker renovation that didn’t make it through the winter.

Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, which installed new Bermuda greens on the No. 2 course after the U.S. Open, had some nervous moments during the winter, but conditions weren’t as bad in the Sandhills. The Triangle was hit particularly hard.

Damp, generally mild weather through January discouraged the grass from going dormant, leaving it vulnerable when February hit with sustained low temperatures and ice. Even grass that weathered February and started growing on schedule was hit particularly hard by a brief freeze in late March.

The collars around greens are typically vulnerable, but this winter took an unusual toll on fairways and tees as well, especially north-facing slopes and areas where water drains.

“It’s going to take time,” N.C. State crop science professor Grady Miller said. “And we may have some areas that the expanse just isn’t coming back.”

Even the courses that can afford to re-sod dead areas will face limited availability and high prices in the face of unprecedented demand.

“One of my biggest concerns with all the damage from Raleigh to Greensboro is being able to get sod,” said David Dalton, golf maintenance director at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary.

McConnell sent out a detailed note to his clubs’ members explaining the biology behind the damage. He’s still hoping to avoid re-sodding, but there wasn’t time for that at Wakefield anyway, with so little time before the pros arrive in town.

Wakefield works closely with PGA Tour agronomists to prepare the course, but it’s really up to the weather now.

“It has been a tough winter, but we’re expecting the golf course to be in terrific condition,” Rex Hospital Open tournament director Brian Krusoe said. “That’s the least of our concerns.”

“And we’re a week later this year, so that helps a little. Every week helps.”

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947