Superintendents Wade Thomas, Anthony Williams and Andy Huber are out there on the edge – confidently remaining from where others have retreated. They have no regrets and are comfortable in their defiance.
Huber in Arizona, and Williams and Thomas in Georgia have chosen to maintain bentgrass putting greens while nearly every other facility around them has converted to the new strains of ultradwarf bermudagrass.
“The decision is very easy,” Thomas says. “What’s the best putting surface?”
For him, the answer is bentgrass.
Huber says the decision to go with bentgrass at Wickenburg (Arizona) Ranch Golf and Social Club came down to quality.
“We wanted the best putting surface, period,” Huber says, recounting that he told the course owners, “If we can grow bentgrass, we’re going to.”
Thomas is superintendent at the private Idle Hour Country Club in Macon, Georgia – about 85 miles southeast of Atlanta and, he estimates, 20 miles south of the nearest course with bentgrass. He says his United States Golf Association (USGA) spec greens with Crenshaw creeping bentgrass have attracted new members since the club is the only non-ultradwarf layout in the region.
In fact, Thomas says bentgrass greens are so rare now in his area of Georgia that golfers often say it’s “a treat” to play on his.
“We market ourselves a little differently now,” he says proudly.
When the ultradwarfs arrived on the market and proved themselves in the real world, the USGA Green Section touted the conversion from bentgrass to bermuda. In the Feb. 18, 2011, Green Section Record, Green Section agronomists Patrick O’Brien and Christopher Hartwiger authored a piece on reasons to convert.
“There is a new business model in the Southeast Region that is improving the golf experience and reducing costs. The new model involves the replacement of creeping bentgrass putting greens with an ultradwarf bermudagrass variety,” began the article.
Ironically, O’Brien is a member at Idle Hour.
They wrote of their own observations, and the observations of superintendents who had converted, including 36 that responded to a survey for those who had made the switch. In the article, there were two case studies: One from The Oaks Course in Covington, Georgia, the other from the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Georgia.
The USGA survey also showed the negatives of converting to bermuda. Every superintendent who replied indicated that they spent “more on equipment repair and maintenance on an ultradwarf green compared to a bentgrass green.” All of them also responded that they “require more equipment overall for ultradwarf putting greens compared to a bentgrass green.”
Ninety-six percent of survey respondents said overall labor costs are lower on ultradwarfs compared to bentgrass, but Thomas and the others disagree.
Thomas, as did Williams and Huber, says the cost of maintaining bent and ultradwarf is about the same.
“We just spend it at different times of the year,” Thomas adds.
For him, that means paying crew members for “wilt watch” during the hottest months. He doesn’t, however, spend a dime on winter overseeding, or expend money for his crew to cover and uncover putting surfaces daily, including weekends, when temperatures dip into the mid 20s, as they did the first week of January.
Williams also sees a cost offset by remaining with bentgrass at the 36-hole Stone Mountain Golf Club, located within Stone Mountain Park in Georgia. With bentgrass, his layouts never shut down during the peak season for the verticutting and topdressing required with ultradwarf greens, he explains.
“If you have to close the golf course, that impacts the choice to come to the resort,” Williams says.
Stone Mountain is about 16 miles southeast of Atlanta. Williams has 27 holes of Penncross and nine of Crenshaw.
He has another reason besides money for staying with bent: shade.
“Trees are impacting putting surface quality,” Williams states.
According to Williams, ultradwarfs need more sun than bent, and that made his decision to stay with bent and easy one.
“The ultradwarfs have to have more aggressive and unfiltered sunlight. Bent struggles in the summer, but it is more forgiving with shade,” he notes.
Williams, who’s a certified arborist, maintains 190 acres of forest and 130 acres of turf. The detrimental impact trees are having on the turf has only been taken into consideration in recent years. The Robert Trent Jones design opened in 1969, and the John LaFoy course opened in 1988.
“We’ve had 40-plus years of trees maturing,” Williams notes.
His worst green receives less than one hour of sunlight a day during winter.
“The only shade you should see on a green is from the flagstick,” Williams says.
To help reduce wear on his greens, Williams makes a concerted effort to move hole locations on a regular basis. There is also frequent hand-watering.
Plans to trim some trees and fell others should help reduce the problem. Park regulations require that the removal of a healthy specimen can only occur if a tree is planted within the park to replace it.
At Wickenburg Ranch, Huber maintains bentgrass at an elevation most others don’t. In fact, Huber says only one other course that he knows of in his area of Arizona has turf at a lower elevation. Get too close to the desert floor and the bent will fry in the summer heat. The town of Wickenburg is about 55 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Wickenburg’s layout sits between 2,200 and 2,500 feet above sea level. Huber thinks 2,000 feet is the cutoff point for bent, although part of Pinnacle Peak Country Club in Scottsdale dips as low as 1,900 feet, he notes.
According to Huber, his decision to go with bentgrass was based on the fact that it is at top form when he needs it to be.
“Bentgrass aligns you for the best putting surface during peak season,” he says. “Those who have bentgrass during this time of year can produce better putting surfaces. That’s a major plus.”
His greens are turfed with Dominant X-Treme 7 creeping bent blend.
Huber is in a unique situation. The course opened for play last winter, but was grown in nearly five years ago. Since 2010, when the economic downturn brought a halt to work at Wickenburg Ranch development, the course has been maintained by Huber and a crew of about three and had no play. When construction of the project was going full tilt in 2008, Huber says it was the largest earthmoving project in the country.
The greens are USGA spec, which Huber says is important for keeping the bent healthy. He is dialed in on his cultural practices and utilizes a fungicide program developed by Dr. Bruce Martin and his colleagues in the Clemson University turfgrass department. Huber says he sprays fungicides about eight or nine times a year at a cost of about $20,000.
“To me it’s money well spent,” Huber says.
Huber’s chief concern is what he refers to as “monsoon season,” usually seven to 10 days in August. The deluge and the heat lead to the bent getting puffy, and that can mean scalping. To prevent that, Huber raises his height of cut as often as every two days.
If Huber does lose grass in the summer, seeding is not an option; plugging and sodding are the only solution.
He admits that bermudagrass is less risky to manage, but he says the quality of putting on bent makes it worthwhile.
“One out of every 10 years may reach up and get you,” he adds.
One other area where the three dispute the survey’s findings is the amount of good days each type of turf provides.
Eighty percent of survey respondents found that “ultradwarf greens provided more playable days for golfers without adverse conditions due to aeration holes, topdressing on greens, covers, etc.”
Thomas has a different story to tell.
“Our number of great putting days far exceeds what I’d be able to do with bermuda,” he contends.
Thomas says that if managed correctly, even in the middle of the hottest months, bent provides a fantastic playing surface that can hold up to daily stress. He points to the fact that Idle Hour has hosted three Georgia State Golf Association events during his tenure, all in July, including the 2014 Georgia Amateur Championship.
Thomas, Huber and Williams have no regrets about sticking with bentgrass greens and wonder why so many other facilities were so eager to make the change.
“I feel like people are giving up on bentgrass too easily out here,” Huber says.
COVER PHOTO BY ANTHONY WILLIAMS