Superintendent Magazine - December, 2012


Superstorm Sandy Slams Golf Courses

Superintendents now in recovery mode from massive hurricane.
By Anthony Pioppi

The breadth and depth of Hurricane Sandy's impact continues to stun as it lived up to its billing.

Soon after the storm passed in late October, photographs were flying around the Internet showing the massive damage Sandy inflicted, including on golf courses.

As would be expected, layouts with low-lying areas near the ocean were the worst hit, although winds from the category 1 hurricane also wreaked havoc.

At Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., a huge 150-year-old red oak tree crashed onto the 18th green.

Pictures from the Fishers Island (N.Y.) Club located about 7 miles off the coast of New London, Conn., gave testament to the storm's strength. After assessing the damage, Superintendent Donnie Beck estimated that in areas as much as 30 feet of shoreline was lost to the tidal surge. In the aftermath, the fourth fairway of the course that dates back to 1926 was littered with debris, including logs. Normally, that portion of the course is about 15 feet above the high-water mark.

Lost to the storm were the back tees on the fifth and 10th holes. The greenside bunker on the ninth hole is gone, and where it is now appears to be an extension of the nearby beach.

The lowest holes at Country Club of Fairfield (Conn.) were almost completely covered in salt water.

A sizeable area of Liberty National Golf Club, across the East River from New York City in New Jersey, was submerged.

The first hole at Pine Orchard Yacht and Country Club in Branford, Conn., was turned into a haven for kayakers by the tides.

Just down the road, Madison Country Club's short par-3 second hole suddenly had an island green.

At Fenwick Golf Course in Old Saybrook, Conn., the sea, which is usually 350 yards away, made its way onto the first and ninth fairways which have withstood other such storms since the late 1890s.

At Fenwick Golf Course in Old Saybrook, Conn., equipment was moved to the highest point on the course to avoid flooding.

In Rhode Island, the lower seven holes of the Misquamicut Club yielded to the ocean waters when a dike built in the 1960s gave way. Rocks, large and small, as well as man-made debris, littered that portion of the course.

At the venerable Newport (R.I.) Country Club, the entire 17th fairway and most of the 18th were under ocean water. The storm gate that's designed to stop the sea from making its way up a stream next to the two holes was breached by 7:30 p.m. the night Sandy hit.

Sandy's impact has been compared to a variety of storms. It definitely was not as big as the Hurricane of 1938, but was larger than Irene, which hit in the fall of 2011.

Peter Gorman, who has dealt with two hurricanes in his two seasons as golf course superintendent of Pine Orchards, has a definite handle on Sandy's incursion. After Irene came ashore, Gorman drew a line at the high-water mark on the inside of the maintenance facility garage door. Sandy's peak was "one bolt more," according to Gorman. The water level reached the bolt above the Irene line, almost 18 inches.

The sign at Fenwick Golf Course says it all.

Barclay Douglas, the president of Newport Country Club, said Sandy stands on equal footing with Hurricane Bob, which came ashore in 1991.

Misquamicut Golf Course Superintendent Bill Morton spoke with a longtime member who told him the flood levels reminded him of Hurricane Carol in 1954.

In the early 1960s, a dike was constructed around the lower eight holes at Misquamicut. That defense broke during Sandy, but nearby bunkers mitigated the damage. The bunkers had undergone significant modifications in the 1990s and portions of eight holes were raised and drainage was installed, which included outfalls through the dike walls.

U.S. Open Site Spared

"We thought it was going to be worse," Merion's Matt Shaffer says by Larry Aylward

That's how Matt Shaffer, director of golf course operations at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., describes how his two classic courses looked after taking on Hurricane Sandy in late October. Shaffer is thankful, to say the least, considering Merion's East Course hosts the 2013 U.S. Open in June.

"We thought it was going to be worse," Shaffer says.

It was worse for many other golf courses located near the ocean, which experienced tidal surge, but Merion had no flooding.

"In reality, outside of the fact that we had no power [for a few days], everything is pretty good," Shaffer says.

When Shaffer and his crew reported to Merion the day after the hurricane, they saw tree limbs and branches dotting certain areas, pine straw and leaves scattered about, and a lot of filthy turfgrass.

"We only lost three trees," Shaffer says. "I cut most of them down so there weren't that many left to fall over. My boss says all I want to do is cut trees down. He called me [the day after the hurricane] and said, 'How we looking out there?' I said, 'For a guy who loves to cut trees down, we are fine.' "

Shaffer and his crew have put in a lot of hard work the past few years to get the course ready for the U.S. Open. He's thankful the damage wasn't worse.

"What we have is nothing," Shaffer says of the damage. "We just have a lot of work - that's all. We're used to that."

"It worked unbelievably well, remarkable," Morton said. "By Wednesday the water was gone."

What was left behind, though, surprised Morton.

"We have a tremendous amount of garbage - piled 3 feet high - including plant life, coolers, a small refrigerator and three watercraft: a dinghy, a canoe and a kayak," he said.

Two large propane tanks and a garage door also made it onto the course.

A crew member hoses salt water remnants off a tee at Madison (Conn.) Country Club. That's a flooded green in the background.
Photos: By Anthony Pioppi

What was lost at Misquamicut included a dunes resurrection project: pushed-up sand mounds that had been hand-planted with beach grass.

The receding tide also revealed the remnants of cottages that once sat between the golf course and the ocean and were destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938. From 1869 to 1937, no hurricanes made a direct hit on New England, and residents assumed they were safe to build near the ocean.

The recovery efforts from Sandy began even as salt water was still covering turf. Some superintendents benefitted from lessons learned during Hurricane Irene.

Pine Orchard and Madison, which once only derived irrigation water from on-course sources and therefore were unable to flush away the salt post-Irene because of lengthy power outages, hooked into municipal water in the last year and this time were able to flush the course sooner.

Pine Orchard members recently approved funding for a project that will elevate a large section of the course. It will increase the capacity for stormwater and improve drainage. A healthy salt marsh environment will also be built on-site.

Right now, the stream that runs through the course and to the nearby ocean has three town-installed floodgates to prevent salt-water incursion.

"This helps with the normal tide cycle," Gorman said.

But two days after the storm, while leaning on a railing, he pointed out how they were hindering floodwaters from escaping. "They're hurting us now," he said.

After Irene, Gorman planted Seaside II creeping bentgrass, which has the ability to tolerate water with high salinity.

"I don't think they meant this much salt," Gorman said chuckling, as much of his first and ninth fairways were still submerged.

At Newport Country Club, Superintendent Chris Coen really needed a drenching rain to flush salts left from the ocean water. The course does not have fairway irrigation. He planned to put down calcium and wetting agents to help with the flush, he hoped, just prior to a significant rain.

"We're trying to time it," he said.

The fairways will be aerified, Coen said, and he'll be putting down regenerating ryegrass for the first time. More seed will go out in the spring.

"We're just trying to do something," he said.

According to Coen, the salinity level of the soil on the 17th fairway is incredibly high, and areas of turf have adapted to that environment. He's optimistic that some spots will be able to withstand Sandy's drenching.

Morton is unsure about how his turf will fare.

"We don't know yet. I've got my gypsum on the way," he said.

Some courses avoided the flooding but didn't escape wind damage. At Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., 50 trees came down, including a notable one. According to Superintendent Chris Carson, a huge 150-year-old red oak next to the 18th green crashed onto the putting surface. The tree, which had long been cabled up, was in the twilight of its life, according to Carson.

"It went out in a blaze of glory," he said.

Carson said Echo Lake may look bad, but the damage is nothing when compared to the fact that lives, homes and businesses were wiped away by the storm.

"It's a matter of perspective," he said. "It's a golf course and we lost trees."

Pioppi can be reached at