Country club hopes new grass grows greener

These are anxious times for those who run golf courses in the area, and no course officials are more anxious than those at Starmount Forest Country Club.

Weather, disease and a turfgrass mystery forced the 80-year old club to do something no golf course in this area has ever done. That’s because Starmount has just been through something no course around here has ever seen.

Starmount lost its greens in five days, sending a shockwave through the tight-knit golfing community and keeping local superintendents and state turf pathologists up at night.

“We still don’t know what happened at Starmount,” said Lane Tredway, an associate professor at N.C. State and the state’s leading expert on turfgrass diseases.

His staff has been studying the samples from the Greensboro course and has found no reason for the sudden death of every putting surface at Starmount.

“I’ve never seen a bacteria that would kill every green in five days,” Tredway said.

The club lost its bentgrass greens about a week after Memorial Day and made a sweeping decision. They closed the course for about a week and a half in late June and began re-sprigging the greens with a hybrid Bermuda grass never before used in this area.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” said Brent Gentel, the course superintendent at Starmount. “I didn’t necessarily want to be the guinea pig, though.”

There are only a few golf courses in North Carolina with the hybrid Bermuda grass, a heat-resistant plant popular in Florida but long considered too risky for places farther north. But the weather and plant bacteria throughout the area in recent years forced several clubs to make drastic decisions.

Keith Wood, the course superintendent at Sedgefield County Club, said every golf course in the state will be watching Starmount.

“They’re the first here,” he said. “It’s probably the farthest north anyone has ever tried it. I know they went to this Bermuda at the Atlanta Athletic Club and at East Lake, but this will be the first around here.”

Kevin Kemp, the chairman of golf operations at Starmount, said members are looking forward to the transition.

“We may be the first to do this,” Kemp said, “but we won’t be the last. We know people are going to be watching us, but again, our members here are more than excited with everything we’ve been through.”

There’s nervousness at Starmount, and it’s not just because of the new hybrid Bermuda beginning to grow on the roped-off greens at the course in Starmount Forest. The nervousness is because they still don’t know what happened to the bentgrass greens that had been there since 1966.

Rumors swirled throughout the club and at courses in the area. Tredway said his staff continues to study samples from Starmount while watching carefully as other courses in the area are battling against similar conditions.

Tredway said many courses in North Carolina are about to change over to the same strain of grass now growing at Starmount, including Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, which hosts an annual PGA Tour event.

Courses such as Hope Valley and Old Chatham in Durham will soon make the changeover as courses in Raleigh and the Sandhills follow suit.

Tredway said the early results from courses to the south that made the switch last year have been positive, but he knows new bacteria attack golf courses all the time. The weather in recent years has been the biggest concern for superintendents across the South.

“Right around Memorial Day, when it was hot and humid, we started seeing a lot of bacterial disease in the samples sent to us,” Tredway said. “Most of them are nonpathogenic, causing no damage to the plant whatsoever. But we started seeing some different things going on, and most of them were in the Piedmont. Since then, samples are coming in from wider range of areas, from the Sandhills to Virginia, and it all seems to be driven by moisture and humidity.”

Last year, courses across the South dealt with aggressive bacteria in the bentgrasses brought on by “winter kill” and then hot and humid spring weather. Hundreds of courses in the South lost their greens and re-sprigged with more bentgrass.

Those immature plants are under attack once again.

“We’re working around the clock to get to the bottom of what is occurring,” Tredway said. “Last year was an extremely bad year for the management of bentgrass, and the turf that was re-established last fall was immature. Then it turned very hot and humid in May, and it took its toll on the immature bentgrass.”

That’s the description for what has happened to golf courses in the past two years, but it still doesn’t explain what happened at Starmount, which is the troubling thing for everyone in the business.

“Starmount is a completely different case,” Tredway said.


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