2005: Newsmakers - Courses reach withering heights

Turf is wilting, and so are superintendents. Golf courses throughout the mid-Atlantic and Midwest are feeling the effects of sustained withering heat and humidity. No one is being spared. Even high-profile layouts prepping for major championships are taking special measures to withstand the onslaught of tournament grooming in the midst of a searing summer.

Six weeks before the Presidents Cup, to be held Sept. 22-25 at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., course officials, in conjunction with agronomy consultants from the PGA Tour, decided that an infestation of nematodes was so severe that two of the greens needed to be resodded.

Nematodes are a root parasite that weaken the turf, in this case Penncross bentgrass, and make it even more vulnerable to excessive heat and humidity.

The resodding, undertaken Aug 9-11, forced the club to shut down a week earlier than planned. Superintendent Scott Furlong says he expects the greens, on Nos. 12 and 17 of the tournament routing, to be fully recovered by the Presidents Cup.

The signs of stress are evident at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, where, as of mid-August, there had been 53 days of temperatures in the 90-plus range and seven days of 100 or more. A storm in mid-July that dumped 2.6 inches of rain, followed by severe heat, produced stifling conditions for the bentgrass greens, to the point where five of the putting surfaces on the North Course (host of the 2003 U.S. Open) are thin from scalping or scalding, and two of those greens (both rebuilt to USGA specifications for the Open), are showing signs of an anaerobic black layer.

At least Olympic Fields remains open for play, which is more than can be said for Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. In the run-up to the U.S. Amateur at Merion next week, club officials closed the course to member play Aug. 1, two weeks earlier than initially planned. Pythium blight – a fungus that develops when water accumulates and starts to heat up – became apparent in June, and while the greens are recovering, progress has been slow.

With more than 200 rounds per day plus caddies, there simply was too much foot traffic on Merion’s small, soil-based greens, jeopardizing their recovery. The problem was compounded because Merion’s well-contoured greens have few hole locations, which means that ball marks are concentrated and lead to excessive wear and tear. Within 10 days of closure, the putting surfaces began showing improvement.

At nearby Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, the course and its superintendent, Rich Holanda, didn’t fare as well. Soon after a 3-inch rainstorm hit the course in mid-July, Aronimink held back-to-back outings, followed by two rounds of the Philadelphia Open in 98-degree heat. The greens started declining immediately to the point where, by early August, according to golf professional Jim Masserio, every green is showing “30 to 80 percent turf loss.” The course is now relying upon temporary greens, while Holanda undertakes aggressive reseeding.

The major problem, according to Holanda, is that when Aronimink regrassed its soil-based greens in 2000, it didn’t rebuild the subsurface, merely regrassing with L-93 bentgrass. The soil-based greens do not drain well, and according to Holanda, basically have been holding excess moisture for two years.

“We should have rebuilt back then,” said Holanda, who is in his last season, as his contract was not renewed by the club.

Older, established courses with Poa annua greens are especially vulnerable to the sustained heat. Many of them showing stress and turf loss are doing what famed Pine Valley (N.J.) Golf Club is doing – closing a few days early for core aerification and overseeding. Many clubs prefer to delay such steps until mid- or late September, after the bulk of the golf season. But when turf is seriously stressed, basic maintenance takes precedence over the golf calendar.

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