An Expert's View: Which is Better, Bent or Bermuda?
The weather of 2010 provided the perfect storm to deal some telling blows to golf courses in the Carolinas.
A winter that was frigid followed by a summer that baked and broiled more than Grandma’s kitchen had golf course superintendents waking up screaming.
Cooked greens were the special of the day and, as a result, golfers were forced to endure conditions that were subpar on many courses. Brown spots, bare spots and dying bentgrass created conditions that were unacceptable for some.
Most courses made it through the summer and recuperated during the brief autumn weather only to be submerged and frozen by an unseasonably cold period that featured snow and ice and empty golf courses.
What’s a good superintendent to do if we’re headed for a repeat this summer? Should course owners consider giving up on the popular bentgrass greens and plant them in the new Champion Bermuda strain that seems to be working so well at Hyland Golf Club?
George Thompson knows as much about growing grass as anyone in the country. He spent 40 years as a course superintendent before retiring from the Country Club of North Carolina. His excellence was recognized when he became the first superintendent to be elected to the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame, and he now teaches a class in turfgrass management at Sandhills Community College.
“Bermuda versus bentgrass will be debated for some time, and there will never be a good answer here because each year brings a new set of challenges,” the 71-year-old Thompson said. “Bentgrass is pretty darn good for 10 months a year or longer, and this year may have been an anomaly.
“Many wily bentgrass superintendents came through this summer in very good condition even though they sacrificed time with their families.
“If I was still working as a superintendent and my bentgrass greens came through last summer in excellent condition and my members didn’t know my name or how many rabbits I had to pull out of the hat to grow grass, I would definitely be sending out resumes.”
So, is there any way to predict what’s in store for golfers this year?
“Weather extremes seem to be the norm of late,” Thompson said. “We had the third hottest summer on record in 2010 and then the third coldest 45-day period from early December to mid-January.
“We can’t predict — or at least I can’t — what conditions we may find in a few months. I don’t think we’ve lost any Bermuda grass yet this winter, because once it went into dormancy, it stayed that way. Snow actually protects our grasses, while ice can be a problem if it stays in place for 30 or more days. But our ice never stays that long and it came on top of the snow, not under it.”
Thompson is not an advocate of over-seeding greens or fairways with rye grass.
“I’m not a fan of rye because of spring competition with our permanent grasses,” he said. “Bermuda is struggling to come back in April and May just when rye is charging so hard one can almost hear it growing. Rye is also a hog. It intercepts fairway irrigation and fertilizer. Our superintendents know how to mange transition with proper techniques and they have chemical tools to transition it out in late May and early June so we have at least 100 days of good growing weather, and it can recover before we beat it up again.
“In spite of the cold winter last year, superintendents were mowing Bermuda the first week in April and many wondered why they went through the expense of planting rye. We’re actually playing on Bermuda fairways until late February and March, and if April wasn’t our busiest golfing month, rye wouldn’t even be an issue.
“I imagine the pros and cons of over-seeding will always be debatable, but from an agronomist’s viewpoint there is no question that it isn’t good policy for healthy fairways, tees and rough. But if it pays the bills and keeps the courses open, then superintendents will do as instructed and manage the transition.”
The USGA is espousing a program called “brown is the new green,” and Thompson likes the idea.
“I’ve noticed a change in the number of courses that have refrained from planting rye,” he said. “It could be because of the green movement, less water, fertilizer, chemicals and energy. Brown can be beautiful, or as I used to call the dormant turf, ‘tawny golf.’ It does play well if we keep it weed-free.
“I’m not sure if Bermuda greens will catch on here in the Sandhills, but Hyland has done very well with Champion Bermuda and I think Legacy will be going through a conversion this summer. Others will watch these courses and make their own observations. They do putt more like bentgrass, but you are trading one set of problems for another.
“If I was starting out as a superintendent on new construction of a 36-hole complex in a non-forest piece of farmland, I would consider planting one set of greens in bentgrass and the other in Bermuda.
“Of course, one of the factors that has to be considered with Bermuda greens is that turf covers are almost a necessity for weather in the teens and 20s. It takes three or four men three or four hours to drag out the covers at 4 or 5 p.m.
“It’s easy to jump on the ultra-dwarf Bermudas as a panacea, because they look good in the summer when they do best. They do have a place, but not on every golf course.”
Contact Howard Ward at email@example.com.
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