Tami Bright was sitting in her Heritage Golf Club office three days after the reopening of the course’s putting greens following a nearly two-month renovation when a member stopped in her doorway.
The brief conversation served as a litmus test for whether the renovation was well received.
“It’s good to be back home,” the member said. “Things look great.”
For the first time since the Bob Moore-designed course opened in 2001, the greens underwent an extensive overhaul as they were converted from A1/A4 bentgrass to ultradwarf Champion bermudagrass. The move to Champion would improve the quality of the greens during the hottest parts of the summer — June through August — and move the putting greens’ prime playing season from May through October.
“Because of who we are, that member reaction means the most to us,” said Bright, the club’s membership and marketing director. “It’s nice that we get public play in here, but quite honestly the member reaction was our No. 1 concern.”
Superintendent Nick Bisanz, who arrived at Heritage in 2012 after serving as an assistant at TPC Scottsdale for six years, said the conversion was all about giving golfers a better playing experience during the peak season.
“At the end of the day it is providing a better product when we have the opportunity to get more golfers out on the course — June, July, August and September — and that’s what we want,” Bisanz said. “That’s when we do the most rounds and it makes sense to be the best we can be during that time frame. With bentgrass we were the best in the shoulder seasons.”
Due to advances in turfgrass development in recent years, switching to an ultradwarf bermudagrass is in vogue. Bermudagrass was long considered just a durable turfgrass, but ultradwarfs such as Champion, Mini-Verde and TifEagle now offer a similar putting surface as bentgrass, which is better suited for cooler climates.
In addition to Heritage, located in Wake Forest, Raleigh’s River Ridge Golf Club, Sanford’s Tobacco Road Golf Club and Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s No. 2 Course went through similar conversions this summer. The ultradwarfs thrive best in Southern summer climates.
But Heritage did not tread lightly into the process, which Bisanz estimates as costing between $175,000-$185,000, not including loss of revenue during the project.
The process began a couple of years ago as Heritage officials went about learning what was available, what other area courses were doing and then had Champion Turf Farms do a site visit. Heritage was deemed a candidate for Champion’s no-till renovation, which simplistically is a process of placing the new turfgrass where the existing bentgrass had been with no changes to the green’s configuration or slope.
“While we had good greens during the summer time, you can’t maintain them at a certain speed, you have to maintain them at higher mower heights, they’re more susceptible to ball marks and we wanted a better putting surface in the heat of the summer when we have our most play,” said David Sykes, Heritage’s head pro. “So this allows us to keep the greens firmer and faster without having to worry about ball mark issues and extra maintenance issues, like guys dragging hoses out to syringe greens on hot summer days.”
So in late June, Heritage closed its regulation greens and created temporary greens. On July 8, the bermudagrass was planted. Heritage also used the down time to reclaim some of the greens’ outer edges that had been lost over time. During the conversion, Heritage offered reduced rates and negotiated reciprocal privileges with 30 area golf courses and clubs.
“We had almost twice as much play on the temporary greens as we had projected,” Bright said. “Many families took advantage of playing during that time. It was still very much the Heritage experience.”
Fifty-three days after the Champion was planted, Heritage reopened its greens.
While Champion Turf Farms had converted or renovated greens at more than 650 courses, including a number of major championship venues, since 1996, there was some natural trepidation on Heritage’s part. What ifs existed, but were quickly squelched beginning with the resumption of greens play in late August.
“All that we could have hoped for,” Sykes said. “We’ve never had greens this good this late before. They were good but we were always coming out of a summer of babysitting bentgrass and trying to make it to September.”
Bisanz said the greens will be relatively “easy, but tricky” to maintain throughout the dormant winter months. The greens have a temperature threshold of about 25 degrees below Fahrenheit before they need to be covered, but they also stop growing, so Bisanz said green speeds and green traffic need to be carefully monitored. The greens also need to be artificially colored because they have gone dormant.
For now, though, members are glad to have their greens back — better than ever.
Joe Gay has been general manager at Tobacco Road Golf Club for 16 years, during which time the Sanford course has routinely been ranked among the best public courses in the region and United States.
“But I would have to say that right now the course is the best we’ve ever looked,” Gay said.
Such heady praise comes after a 70-day closure of the course this summer to make cosmetic changes, including the conversion of its greens from bentgrass to ultradwarf Mini-Verde bermudagrass.
“We’ve been fortunate in the last six years to be named to some of the more prestigious lists,” said Gay of Tobacco Road to being listed on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Public Courses in America in 2009, Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Places to Play in America and GolfWorld’s Top Public Courses in America in 2010, and on Golf Course Architecture magazine’s Architects’ Choice Top 100 Golf Courses in 2013.
“And with that type of ranking comes a bit of responsibility. As many people know, with bentgrass in summer by the end of August you’re not offering top 100 conditions.”
Especially when the course is totaling approximately 4,000 rounds played in July and August combined.
So Tobacco Road did as many courses throughout the Southeast are doing and that was making the conversion to an ultradwarf putting green. Advances in Mini-Verde offer the same durability as a bermudagrass always delivered, but now has a putting surface closer to what golfers have long enjoyed in a bentgrass.
“I guess you could say we have the best of both worlds now,” said Gay, who added that the Mini-Verde also greens quicker in the golf season and goes dormant later. As a result, the course’s prime playing season is potentially extended from April through October, depending on weather conditions.
Imagine turfgrass as being similar to carpet. Over time, the grass can become worn, even out of date.
In 1997, when River Ridge Golf Club opened in southeast Raleigh, the Chuck Smith-designed course’s greens featured the best in bentgrass. But years of play and hot, humid summers began taking a toll.
As well, numerous advances in turfgrass research were being made. Ultradwarf bermudagrasses such as Champion, Mini-Verde and TifEagle were just being discovered when River Ridge opened, but as they evolved more courses, especially in Southern climates, started taking notice.
A couple of years ago, River Ridge general manager Craig Hooks and course superintendent Rodney Moss began their due diligence on the latest and best turfgrasses.
“I think in the last three to five years, the Mini-Verde bermudagrass greens have gotten so good that there’s not a huge difference in terms of playability between what people like in a bentgrass — in terms of being quick and fast — and the bermudas,” said Tim Cockrell, River Ridge’s head golf professional. “They just have gotten better and you could see the quality.”
The appeal in the new bermudagrasses is how it fares in the summer months, especially July and August, which can take bentgrass greens to their breaking point. Bermudagrasses have long been considered ideal for the summer months because they thrive in the heat, but they never offered the same smooth putting surfaces — until now.
In late June, River Ridge began the conversion to Mini-Verde greens. It cordoned off all 18 greens and created temporary greens. The staff also found 650 tee times at other courses for its members. The course reopened its greens in late August.
“There’s certainly always going to be some reluctance, but if you were a member here you knew it was time,” Cockrell said. “We never lost our greens in terms of having to start from scratch again, but people remember there were certain holes where the greens were on edge. Then word gets out on the street that your greens aren’t good and that hurts you, too.”
So what has been the word on the street since reopening Aug. 29?
“Overwhelmingly fantastic,” Cockrell said. “People can’t believe the quality of the surface of grass in nine weeks time … and they’re only getting better.”
PINEHURST NO. 2
Pinehurst Resort & Country Club did not waste time seeking to improve upon its fabled No. 2 Course, even after hosting the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open on successive weeks in June.
Following the lead of other courses throughout the Southeast, and having seen success of green turfgrass conversions made to its own Nos. 1, 3 and 8 courses in recent years, Pinehurst chose to convert its No. 2 greens to Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass.
“Bermudagrass has improved significantly over the last several years with the development of the ultradwarf varieties and establishment of best maintenance practices,” said Farren, director of grounds and golf course maintenance at Pinehurst, which made similar conversions on No. 1 in 2012 and Nos. 3 and 8 last year. “They have become a great option for the North Carolina climate.”
The beauty of the ultradwarf bermudagrass is that it stays durable and plush during the dog days of summers, which for area courses tend to be June, July and August.
No. 2’s transformation began June 30, just eight days after Michelle Wie’s victory capped a successful two-week run by the United States Golf Association in the Sandhills. The course reopened in early September.
“Our members and guests have been thrilled with the results on our other courses, as we’ve been able to sustain firm greens with a smooth, fast and consistent roll,” Farren said.
If there is concern that the greens might not be of the same championship caliber as they were for the Opens in June, then there is plenty of precedent suggesting otherwise.
The Atlanta Athletic Club, which hosted this summer’s U.S. Amateur Championship, made the switch in advance of the 2011 PGA Championship. East Lake Golf Club, host venue to the PGA Tour’s season-finale Tour Championship, made the conversion in 2008. Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club will join the growing list in preparation for the 2017 PGA Championship.
The integrity of Donald Ross’ iconic green complexes on the No. 2 Course was never compromised as a no-till renovation was performed. The existing turf was first eradicated and then after the turf was treated, the green was put through a process of mowing, verticutting, coring and topdressing.
No. 2 was able to reopen in only two months because ultradwarf bermudagrass greens are installed through sprigging rather than seeding, and their aggressive growth process helps them take root quicker, especially in the warm summer months.