How brown is my turf - at least in the off-season

February 10, 2012

I took advantage of a slight uptick in the winter weather recently and played nine holes on the brown stuff at Shawnee Country Club.

That color reference does not mean that all of the grass is gone, leaving nothing but dirt on which to play golf. It’s just that the Cape Region course is among the few on the Delmarva Peninsula to feature Bermuda grass on its fairways.

When I first played Shawnee 20 years ago, the playing surface was a mix of rye, bent and other grasses. It often would look pretty and green from October to June, but in the high heat of summer, those grasses would really suffer.

The club then made a wholesale conversion to Valmont Bermuda grass, sown in thousands of little plugs throughout the 18 fairways. The heat-resistant, drought-resistant hybrid is also cold resistant, which made it a better candidate for the mid-peninsula location than some other Bermuda strains.

In summer the stuff grows great. Golf balls sit right on top of the grass leaves, making a successful golf swing more likely. This grass requires less water than other golf turf hybrids, and also requires fewer applications of pesticides and herbicides than other grasses. For environmentally sensitive golf course superintendents, that’s a very good thing.

The only drawback to Valmont or other Bermuda grass, for some, is that it goes brown during its annual dormant stage. At Shawnee, this begins about mid-October, depending on when the first few cold night winds blow across the course. It stays brown until early to mid-spring, going back to green when overnight temperatures begin to stay above 60 degrees.

For some golfers, this color change is just a bit too jarring to their aesthetic sensibilities. They expect to see a lot of green when they play golf, and they complain when they don’t. In part, that’s why television golf viewers see green turf on Southern and Southwestern golf courses during the first month or two of the PGA Tour telecasts. If it weren’t for overseeding the courses with rye grass during the winter, many of them would look just as brown as Shawnee.

These Southern courses also rely on Bermuda hybrid turf in the summer, so for them there’s a short transitional stage in the spring. They let the high heat kill the rye grass, while the Bermuda grass bounces back into full, green-tinted glory.

I once asked Steve Zeveney, Shawnee’s longtime course superintendent, why he didn’t overseed with rye. Besides the added expense, Zeveney also felt that the transition between rye and Bermuda grass would take a bit too long, since our springs are normally milder compared to Florida.

Nonetheless, a recent re-evaluation of temperature data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture may help convince more mid-Atlantic golf courses to consider Bermuda grass hybrids for their next turfing projects. The agency issued a new map showing the revised plant hardiness zones, and in many locations the changes show more areas experiencing milder winters.

Most of these zones have shifted northward. The zone for the Cape Region is 7, which it shares with much of Virginia, a wide swath of Tennessee, and quite a bit of Georgia.

The warmer conditions may help convince more golf clubs to switch to what are euphemistically called “ultradwarf species” as noted in the winter 2011 issue of By Design, published by the American Association of Golf Course Architects. The journal notes the success of the Bermuda turf used by the Atlanta Athletic Club when it hosted the 2011 PGA Championship.

If Bermuda is good enough for a major, it should be good enough for the Cape Region.