The ultradwarf revolution

Superintendents from the transition zone southward are sleeping better at night because of a sweeping change in bermudagrass cultivars.

Mark Leslie

Read this story in GCM's digital edition

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MiniVerde ultradwarf bermudagrass replaced bentgrass
on the greens at Atlanta’s East Lake GC.
Photo courtesy of East Lake GC

To some golf course superintendents, especially across the North, ultradwarf bermudagrasses are simply "vertically challenged" turfgrass. To others, in the transition zone, they are more and more a curious possibility. But to a growing number of superintendents from the Southeast to the Mid- South, they are as close to a panacea as the definition allows.

Now in their third wave of conversions — first to replace older bermudagrasses, second to replace bentgrass at public courses looking for a more dependable summertime turf, and now at higherend clubs as well — ultradwarf bermudagrasses are firmly entrenched.

This is the story of a "revelation" that fostered a "revolution." The revelation: ultradwarfs survive — and even thrive — in weather conditions that murder even the hardiest of bentgrasses. The revolution: scores of golf courses in the Southeast and Mid-South are racing to get on the bandwagon that holds out the hope of economic enrichment, agronomic improvement and a cure for sleepless nights.

Indeed, ultradwarfs are nearly invincible in the South and allow superintendents to be on the offensive, constantly improving their putting surfaces rather than defensively trying to rescue bentgrass that is often stressed in heat and humidity and unable to provide the firmness desired from July through September. Call it a "surge," call it a "wave," but scores of golf courses of all types are converting from bentgrass to bermudagrass each year.

"The embrace (of the change) by the golfing community has been a phenomenon that I never would have foreseen," says Kevin Smith, CGCS, vice president and director of agronomy for Pinnacle Golf Properties who oversaw the conversion at The Champions Course at Bryan Park Golf and Conference Center, which he manages in Greensboro, N.C. "It has literally exploded."

"We continue to have 70 to 80 conversions a year and they never stop," says Patrick O’Brien, director of the USGA Green Section’s Southeast Region.

And that surge continues to spread to new areas of the country. The companies that own the three leading cultivars — Champion, MiniVerde and TifEagle — report bent-to-ultradwarf conversions from Florida to Texas and north into Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and even southern Indiana and northern Virginia. Word of mouth and personal visits to courses that have made the conversion are powerful weapons in this revolution, especially two that are high-profile PGA Tour hosts: East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta and Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro.

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The greens at The Champions Course at Greensboro,N.C.-based Bryan Park Golf and Conference Center undergo conversion from bentgrass to ultradwarf bermudagrass. Pictured here is the process,from sprigging,to topdressing and irrigation, to the finished green just seven weeks later.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Smith, CGCS

"When the 2009 heat wave hit, we had some of the worst greens on the PGA Tour," says Keith Wood, superintendent at Sedgefield, host of the Tour’s Wyndham Championship every August. "Fastforward to 2013, and the players are saying ours were the best greens they played on, so it’s come full circle.

"It’s the best decision this club’s made," he adds. "It’s changed the way golf is played around here during the summer. With bentgrass, you’re always playing defense, looking at the plant, making sure you’re doing the right thing health-wise. And you’re on the edge. Sometimes you go over the edge and lose bent. With Champion, you’re playing offense every day. You’re not worried one bit about losing it. You’re double- cutting it, verticutting it, flat-out getting at it. Everything you do makes it that much better. What a difference from tiptoeing to going full-blast working them and working them!"

Sedgefield’s experience "was a transformative event in this area," says Smith. "They actually converted in late May–early June last year and hosted a Tour event two and a half months later, and to have the quality that fast obviously spoke volumes to everyone in this area. And then this year, after a very wet summer, they still had greens rolling in excess of 12 and the ball not plugging and having the resiliency and durability they had. Everyone thought, ‘How can we not have this type of surface?’"

Bland Cooper, competitive agronomist with the PGA Tour, declares, "The (Sedgefield) conversion was a grand slam from the Tour’s viewpoint. The old greens were not in favor with our players, and Keith turned them into greens that they love."

At River Run Country Club outside Charlotte, N.C., host of the Chiquita Classic, superintendent Ron Ritchie converted the greens last summer, and Cooper says, "The jury is in, and the Tour players absolutely love them. Trevor Immelman says those were the best greens he played since Augusta National."

Ralph Kepple, CGCS, superintendent at East Lake, harkens back to 2007 when his club hosted a FedEx Cup event the first week in September. It was a bad year for bentgrass, which provided the catalyst for a conversion to MiniVerde. "This summer’s been our hardest because of cloudy, wet weather," Kepple says. "Bermuda hasn’t liked that well. But even with that, and after talking to golfers who have played here for years, I think our greens are better 365 days a year than with bentgrass.

"It’s a more consistently good product," the 31-year GCSAA member adds. "They’re more consistently firm and true, and you don’t have the summer stretch where you’re simply trying to survive and can’t do anything to make the greens putt well. We’re able to work them all summer long, and in the winter, when they’re dormant, they putt terrific."

Golf course architect Lester George of Richmond, Va., added another wrinkle in support of the ultradwarfs. After converting the greens at the municipal Suffolk (Va.) Golf Course last summer, he says his main concern was maintaining the Dick Wilson-designed greens’ "cooliosity." An ultradwarf allowed him to declare "mission accomplished."

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Sedgefield CC hosts play for the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship on its Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass greens every August.

"We didn’t want to rebuild the greens and reduce the contours just to keep bentgrass," George says. "There were only one or two greens of the 18 on which I softened a couple contours. But if we had been redoing to bentgrass I would have needed to change them all and lost (the greens’) character.

"So now we have the best of both worlds. We have the original contours, and the summer months are covered; it’s a very smooth surface."

Suffolk GC operator Eddie Luke of LEL Golf Management agrees, adding, "To take the course to the next level, we had to rebuild because of the heat issue here in the summertime. It’s 95 to 100 degrees for weeks on end. Suffolk lost two or three greens every year, like clockwork. We always lost No. 10 green, so we tested Champion on No. 10 last year, and it came out of dormancy in late March and lasted through the end of November before it turned brown. … These greens will be really good."

The Tour’s Cooper reasons, "Now that the ultras have been out there for a period of time, members look at them and say they’re pretty darn good, and at that point it just becomes a financial hurdle."

Why make the change?

The reasons behind converting to ultradwarfs are economic, agronomic, play-side or any combination of the three.

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Hank Kerfoot of Modern Turf Inc., which installs MiniVerde ultradwarf bermudagrass, says golfers are embracing the conversions at courses throughout the Southeast and Mid-South.

According to George Frye of Trans Golf, an independent consultant with Champion Turf Farms, "In 2006 the majority of golf courses we did were replacing bermudagrass. Last year more than 50 percent were replacing bentgrass. What has allowed that to happen is the growth habit. Whereas the older Tifdwarfs needed warm soil temperature, (the new ones) react quickly to air temperature."

Frye says the ultradwarfs came to the marketplace as a replacement for Tifdwarf, which had replaced Tifgreen 328 as the bermudagrass of choice in the mid-1990s.

Agronomically, the PGA Tour’s Cooper puts it bluntly: "With bermuda, you’re not exposing yourself to the annual possibility of catastrophic turf loss."

"I’d rather have a green that I’m trying to hold back from getting too aggressive than one I’m trying to keep alive," says Gary Chambers, CGCS, who has converted 28 holes at the 63-hole municipal Firewheel Golf Park in Garland, Texas. Pinnacle’s Smith, a 34-year GCSAA member, says the reasons for conversion at his Greensboro course were both economic and agronomic.

"What we’ve eliminated is the risk that our businesses faced with bentgrass. That’s the economic side of it that really is attractive: you have virtually eliminated risk in terms of potential bentgrass loss, potential putting green surface loss."

He adds, "We felt it had the potential to improve our bottom line inasmuch as we can promote play on that course now with an ultradwarf bermudagrass that we might not otherwise be able to in the months of July and August. And because of our typical weather patterns, bentgrass becomes stressed in most years, and it’s hard to promote rounds of golf at a pace that would maximize the revenue potential of the golf course."

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The PGA Tour’s annual Wyndham Championship raises the profile of the converted greens at Sedgefield CC.
Photos courtesy of Keith Wood

At Suffolk GC, Luke was looking at a combination of savings and lost revenue because of losing three or four greens that would die every year. More importantly, it was more sustainable to serve Suffolk’s patrons with exceptional greens in the months when the most golf was being played. O’Brien refers to clubs moving to a new "business model." That is, because ultradwarfs are only aerated once a year, instead of the two or three necessary for bentgrasses, they can add two months a year to their golfing revenue.

"It’s impacted the business model, particularly at public courses and resorts, because they’re not having downtime due to aeration and their golfers playing elsewhere," he says. When Morris Brown of Champion Turf Farms in Bay City, Texas, developed the notill renovation method (see sidebar, "Notill, no worries") and converted Champions Golf Course in Houston, speed of conversion became a major selling point. With the no-till method, a conversion in Texas can be completed in as few as four or five weeks, while in most of the country it ranges from eight to 10 weeks.

"If it took 100 days, it wouldn’t be happening," the USGA’s O’Brien says.

Perhaps, perhaps not.

The time factor

Having completed conversion at the Lakes Course in four weeks and Olde Course in five weeks, Firewheel’s Chambers may hold the world’s record.

Or maybe not.

"From north Texas to the coast you can get them open in four to five weeks," says Chambers, a 36-year member of GCSAA, "partly, I guess, because we’re pretty warm in the summer. I closed them on July 4, reopened on Labor Day, and people couldn’t believe how great the greens were."

But Sedgefield’s experience is more common for the rest of the Southeast and Mid- South. Wood, a 17-year GCSAA member, says John McConnell of McConnell Golf, who bought the course in 2011, notified the membership of the conversion in April 2012. The maintenance crews spent two weeks defoliating the bentgrass and preparing the greens for planting. The course was sprigged with Champion on May 23 and 24 and was ready for members to play on Aug. 7 and for the Wyndham Championship three days later.

"In the Carolinas you have a short window to get it done," Wood says. "Sometimes May is too cool, so we were taking a chance in late May. You need eight weeks of good growing weather, and if you do it in June you’re at late August opening up."

The cost factor

Using the no-till method, the cost for an 18-hole transition varies from $100,000 to $200,000 depending on the size of the greens, architectural changes, irrigation, tree removal and other factors.

"The infrastructure is the key," says Frye, "because once the grass is on the ground, it’s a quick conversion to get the golf course open again."

Luke says Suffolk GC’s cost was $175,000, which included $50,000 in lost revenue.

Hank Kerfoot, president of Modern Turf Inc. in Rembert, S.C., who installs Mini- Verde, says, "For the grass itself, you’re in the $50,000 to $75,000 range to have it planted; that (same amount) for sand and fertilizer and the methyl bromide to kill the old greens." Cooper recommends one way for clubs to size up the investment.

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Bland Cooper, competitive agronomist with the PGA Tour, says the greens conversion at Sedgefield CC is "a grand slam from the Tour’s viewpoint."

"We don’t know the life cycle of ultradwarf greens," he says, "but certainly if a superintendent says, ‘If I can get 10 years out of this grass and the conversion costs $200,000, that’s a $20,000-a-year investment. Not bad.’"

It appears this cost will take a hit on Jan. 1, 2014, when the government’s ban on methyl bromide begins.

"The popularity of no-till has ridden the coattails of methyl bromide," Kerfoot says. "When we started, it cost 17 cents per square foot. In 2014 it will probably cost 30 to 35 cents per square foot for fumigation.

"It’s going to change the way people look at doing it."

Other options for killing bentgrass greens exist. While the race has been on for years for companies to find a replacement for methyl bromide, superintendents have used Basamid soil fumigant with varying results.

Also, Kerfoot says, if a course undertakes its transition a little later in the summer, it could use Roundup and Fusilade in the spring and spot-treat with it. The residual on Fusilade is about two weeks and two applications will cause "a two good kills on bermudagrass," he says.

Once the conversion is complete, by all accounts, maintenance of ultradwarf bermudas is less expensive than bentgrass. That’s the reason that first drove public courses to convert to them. The ultras use less water, less fungicide and less pesticide, meaning less labor. They also thrive on thatch, low height of cut and heavy grooming, so many superintendents are putting those savings right back into the course by constantly improving grooming programs (see "Writing the textbook," Page 50).

East Lake’s Kepple explains, "We didn’t change to save money, and I don’t feel we have. The resources we spent keeping bent alive, we spend trying to make the product better."

The bottom line

As the USGA’s O’Brien says, "You couldn’t believe the percentage of our time we spend assisting clubs to do with this — and with incredible success."

"When you look at the results," says Cooper, "I don’t know how clubs can be in the position not to do it."

"It’s a breath of fresh air for superintendents who have struggled with bentgrass," says Sedgefield’s Wood. "You don’t struggle any more. You sleep at night. The greens aren’t my worry anymore."

Mark Leslie is a free-lance writer based in Monmouth, Maine, and a frequent contributor to GCM.

By the numbers

 
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Keith Wood shows off the results of his ultradwarf bermudagrass maintenance regimen at Sedgefield CC in Greensboro, N.C.
Photos courtesy of Keith Wood

Once Morris and Mike Brown of Champion Turf Farms converted Cypress Golf Course from bentgrass to Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass, the no-till renovation method became the star of the show, the driving force behind the ultradwarf revolution that can help a golf course change its fortunes in a mere eight to 10 weeks — or sometimes even half that time.

As PGA Tour competition agronomist Bland Cooper says, "It is the most painless of the conversional alternatives. … It’s so quick because you can plant into existing grade with no modification to the profile itself."

Keith Wood at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., is a case in point, and his experience has prompted a number of colleagues to follow in his footsteps. Closing Sedgefield on May 1 allowed Wood time to do the necessary prep work, fumigate, then pull fumigation covers off to let the greens breathe a little before sprigging on May 23.

"It was pretty easy," he says. "There’s about two weeks’ worth of prepping beforehand where you defoliate the bentgrass. You verticut, mow and scalp it, trying to shred the leaf surface. Then you aggressively aerify and verticut to remove all the leaf texture that you can while leaving the contours of the greens intact."

At that time Wood’s crews applied amendments to the putting surfaces, including a lot of zeolite, humates and minerals such as calcium and potassium — "basically the whole pre-plant package so that when the grass is sprigged, all the nutrients are there to take off," Wood says.

In the no-till method, superintendents have the option of fumigating or using Roundup to kill the bentgrass.

"You get rid of organic matter on the surface, but everything underneath is actually beneficial to ultradwarfs, which grow better in a heavier soil type rich in organics," he points out. "You want as much organic matter at the beginning as you can have as long as it’s not excessive. Our thatch depth is . inch."

Once the preparation was complete, Sedgefield’s four acres — 18 golf course greens and practice chipping and warm-up greens as well as nursery — were sprigged with Champion in 1. days by an 18-person crew hand-shaking the sprigs, rolling them and applying heavy topdressing sand to pack them in. (MiniVerde ultradwarf sprigs are cut into the surface with a machine.)

"Then you cross your fingers, hoping you don’t get a heavy rain for 10 days," Wood says with a smile.

Actually Sedgefield received heavy rain on the third day, and Wood’s crews needed to rake up the sprigs and shake them out evenly. "It wasn’t hard to overcome," he says.

Hank Kerfoot of Modern Turf Inc. says some superintendents are considering doing their transition a little later in the summer than Sedgefield.

"That will give them the opportunity to use Roundup and Fusilade in the spring and spottreat with it, not kill the whole green," Kerfoot says. "Cut out an inch or two with a sod cutter and put in Basamid."

Because Fusilade’s residual is about two weeks, it takes a month for two good "kills." Kerfoot suggests that superintendents choosing this path should identify all bermudagrass contamination lines within their greens and, if they are going to reclaim areas, do them as well.

"Not everyone has fumigated because it’s expensive," he says. "Timing and planning become the bigger issues. You have to communicate with your membership or clientele, telling them you’ll improve the greens but they must bear with you."

Kerfoot noted that not every course is a candidate for the no-till method. For instance, if the greens aren’t percolating well, that issue must be addressed. Indeed, superintendent Gary Chambers at Firewheel Golf Park in Garland, Texas, used the no-till method on his Olde Course but not on the Lakes Course, where he removed three inches of the greens’ surface, then tilled.

On the Lakes Course, he says, "we removed the organic matter and tilled, and we were open in four weeks. We sprigged them on a Monday, watered, applied starter fertilizer with ammonium sulfate and twice used a slow-release fertilizer with humate. On the seventh day, I was mowing them at 3⁄8 inch; on the 14th day at 1⁄8 inch. By the sixth week, we were cutting at 1⁄10 inch and verticutting and lightly topdressing them every 10 days.

"Both methods worked out the same way," Chambers says.

Writing the textbook

 
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Part of Wood’s maintenance program at Sedgefield CC involves setting up his verticutters to “whisper” over the greens immediately before they are topdressed.

Whether deciding to work ultradwarf bermudagrasses on the cheap or devote extra effort to create top-flight putting surfaces, golf course superintendents are writing the manual for management of the new darlings of the golf industry in the South.

"The way I look at it is, the superintendents are rewriting the textbook as it relates to ultradwarf management," says Kevin Smith, CGCS, of Pinnacle Golf Properties of Charlotte, N.C. "We’re learning so much every year about what it can and can’t do and what it needs. Each individual takes a little different approach to it. Writing that textbook is a neat endeavor."

"It’s a lot of fun," says Bland Cooper, competitions agronomist for the PGA Tour. "I’m seeing guys managing the plant up, not the plant down. I mean they’re not in problem mode all the time like with bentgrass."

While ultradwarf bermudas thrive on low heights of cut; double-mowing; and heavy rolling, verticutting and brushing, Cooper does warn, "They aren’t foolproof. You have to manage them. You can’t go home at two o’clock sure all your work is done."

The ultradwarfs’ kryptonite? Straight sand, according to Hank Kerfoot, president of Modern Turf Inc., who works with the MiniVerde cultivar.

They thrive on thatch — a major reason why no-till renovation works so well in sprigging ultradwarfs.

Patrick O’Brien and Chris Hartwiger, USGA Green Section agronomists in the Southeast Region, wrote in 2010: "Practically speaking, we have found low- to mid-level budget courses doing all their work with riding equipment and maintaining green speeds from 9 to 11 feet. Most importantly, the turf is healthy."

Indeed, the affordability of maintaining ultradwarfs was the driving force behind their early popularity. Today, more and more higher-end clubs are converting to the ultras and going the extra mile, foot to the accelerator.

Wood’s textbook

Superintendent Keith Wood at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., host of the Wyndham Championship, spelled out his maintenance regimen.

From mid-May to mid-September that routine is:

  • Mondays: verticut two times, up and back on the same pass, followed by topdressing, brush, water and roll. "We may verticut again and cross the pattern, depending on the weather for the upcoming week," Wood says. "With lots of sun we’re more aggressive with verticutting. If it’s cloudy, we’re less aggressive." Tuesdays: water and roll in the morning, single-cut with groomers off.
  • Wednesdays: double-cut; no rolling and groomers are off.
  • Thursdays: double-cut and roll, with groomers on and set at 0.
  • Fridays: double-cut and roll, with groomers on and set at -0.05.
  • Saturdays: double-cut and roll, with groomers on and set at -0.05.
  • Sundays: double-cut; no rolling and groomers are off.

Wood says that for most of the season his crews use walk-behind mowers set as low as possible — 0.123 so the bedknives don’t drag.

"Once we’re into October, we start to single-cut and raise height of cut and get the greens ready for dormancy," he says.

When he verticuts, the greens are immediately topdressed. The verticutters, he says, are set up to "whisper" verticut.

"By that I mean we’re not trying to remove thatch or disrupt the stolon/sand/mat layer," Wood says. "We’re only trying to thin out the canopy and remove any long leaf blades that may try to lie down."

Aerating is only done once a year. "You do need to aerify because the density of the surface is such that you can’t use coarse-particle sand; you have to use fine sand," Wood says.

"Since the fine sand, over time, will seal things off, you need to aerify. You backfill aerification holes with a very coarse 45-mm sand. Once the greens are 90 percent healed from the aerification, we start back on the fine 65-mm sand routine."

From early April to mid-May and from mid-September to mid-October, maintenance is restrained. Crews topdress every other week and use colored sand to help hold heat and stimulate warmer soil temperatures.

Regarding fungicide treatments, Wood says his four disease concerns are Pythium blight and Fusarium patch during low-growth periods in the winter, early spring and late fall; spring dead spot, which means preventive applications in the fall; and leaf spot during extended cloudy and overcast weather in summer or following a dry-down of soil moisture that leads to wilt.

While some superintendents must deal with Rhizoctonia zea, Wood has not seen it at Sedgefield. His main pests, he says, are nematodes, which he controls by spraying with Avid in the spring and fall.

Wood says the greens are much more successful when you don’t overseed, adding that the ultras "play great when brown. Depending on how tight you mow them going into the fall, they will play very well. As a matter of fact, sometimes they get too fast because they’re not growing."

Depending on how cold it gets in the winter, superintendents may have to use green covers.

The Texas touch

Superintendent Gary Chambers, who maintains 36 holes of ultradwarf bermudagrass at Firewheel Golf Park in Garland, Texas, says, "With just a little bit of work the dwarfs are great." A 40-year veteran of bentgrass management, he says, "Bents cost more because you’re spraying fungicides. The only time I spray bermuda is to prevent spring dead spot in October, and Eagle fungicide at the 12-ounce rate is the only treatment my greens need."

Some superintendents complain about verticutting and topdressing the ultradwarf greens, Chambers says, "But it takes me no more time to verticut in two directions than it would just to mow the greens. I mow behind that and lightly sand in two to three passes and irrigate it in." It took him two years to work out a regimen that includes brushing the greens and topdressing lightly every 10 days; verticutting twice every 10 days; and applying a small amount of Primo every 10 days "and you can get those greens putting great."

Mowing the greens at 1⁄10 inch, Chambers says, "Ultras will read 11 (on the Stimpmeter) consistently and 12 easily."

Regarding his fertility program, he says he uses a lot of foliar products. In the spring and fall, every three weeks, he applies slow-release granular 13-4-13 with humic acid at a ratecomof . to . pound/1,000 square feet. To keep thatch under control on the greens, in June he sprays a liquid 12-0-0 iron product and mixes in a micronutrient package at 3 ounces/1,000 square feet and iron at 3 ounces/1,000 square feet every 10 days.

A question of speed

Hank Kerfoot of Modern Turf says ultradwarf bermudas "have made the Stimpmeter relevant again. … The discussion used to be, ‘How fast can we make our greens?’ Now the Stimpmeter is relevant because we can have an intelligent conversation. You can make the ultras too fast to play. Going by the slope and quality of greens, the caliber of the members, you can have a conversation between the superintendent, pro, owner, greens committee, ladies, and you can dial in the speeds by how you maintain them. What’s the budget? Speed is a cost factor. It costs more to maintain an 11 than a 9.."

The challenge of ultras

The PGA Tour’s Cooper says, "There are challenges with the grass. You have to ensure it is not stressed going into winter. If you protect yourself during winter months, you’ll be fine in the spring."

Superintendents have a lot more tools today, he noted, mentioning tarpaulins that can cover greens quickly; black topdressing sand to keep in the heat; pigments that are colorants to make dormant brown bermuda green; and moisture meters to prevent against moisture levels getting too low or high during winter months.

"Desiccation is the real enemy, not cold," Cooper says. "Moisture problems are difficult to see if the grass is dormant. But with meters you can identify what percentage you need to maintain moisture and can largely mitigate the problem."

Sedgefield’s Wood declared his findings: "You’ll get ball marks for the first year or 18 months as the turf matures and knits together and creates a tight mat layer. But once they turn from juveniles to adults, it’s amazing; the ball marks disappear; the stress is gone." The stress is also gone from the superintendents overseeing these ultradwarf bermudagrass putting surfaces.

Not so quick!

 
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Photo courtesy of Modern Turf Inc.

The stigma attached to golf courses that don’t use bentgrass is sometimes the overriding reason the powers that be at a course decide against converting to ultradwarf bermudagrass. However, the "two-way option" allows many multicourse facilities to have it both ways and retain a bentgrass course or two while converting others. But more often than not, climate is the deciding factor when it comes to converting to bermuda. As USGA Green Section agronomist Patrick O’Brien says, "We have them (bermuda courses) in the Carolinas everywhere but in the mountains where it’s 4,000 feet."

"You get the question, ‘Can we do it in Kansas City?’" says Hank Kerfoot, president of Modern Turf Inc., which installs MiniVerde ultradwarf bermudagrass. "Yes, you can, but ask yourself, ‘Does it make sense?’ Are you prepared to keep bermuda alive in cold and snow? … When you push the envelope going north, you have to put more thought into just what your expectations are."

The stigma

A number of clubs, when debating bentgrassto- ultradwarf conversion, declare proudly, "No way. We’re a bentgrass club."

"It can be tough, but it’s easier now than five years ago," says PGA Tour competitions agronomist Bland Cooper. "Until four to six years ago there weren’t a number of higher-end private clubs that had done it, so there was a stigma.

That stigma still exists. People consider bermudagrass as a second-tier grass. They think bent is the grass for prestigious clubs."

O’Brien agrees, adding, "There’s still a deeply ingrained ‘bentgrass purity’ down here with some people."

Best of both worlds

Some superintendents are fortunate enough to have more than one golf course and therefore can hedge their bets or simply offer their golfers both the bent and ultra option. Gary Chambers of the 63-hole municipal Firewheel Golf Park in Garland Texas, is one of those superintendents; Kevin Smith, CGCS, vice president and director of agronomy for Pinnacle Golf Properties in Charlotte, N.C., is another.

Firewheel has two clubhouses — one boasting 27 holes of 962 bentgrass and another offering 36 holes that were converted from 328 bermudagrass to an ultradwarf bermuda in 1999 and 2000.

While Chambers and the region’s golf associations supported switching the bent courses, the city’s course manager determined it was better marketing to have 27 holes of bentgrass out of a new clubhouse.

"It’s worked out real well," Chambers reported.

The same reasoning prevailed at the Bryan Park Golf and Conference Center, home of the bentgrass Players Course and the Champions Course, which hosted the 2010 U.S. Amateur Publinks Championship and recently was converted to ultradwarf.

"We feel that by having one bermuda and one bent course, we can maximize our revenue potential at virtually any time of the year," Smith says. "In the summertime we can promote the Champions Course and not have any concerns about wearing out the putting surfaces. In the fall or spring and times in the winter when it’s conducive to play golf, we have a bentgrass surface that hopefully will be superior. But we found the ultradwarfs are very playable year-round, and many superintendents have decided to paint the grass, so golfers don’t realize the bermuda has gone dormant."

"At every club we work with, the subject (of conversion) has been discussed," says O’Brien. "Not everybody decides to do it. You could be a club in the city where the market pressures are such that you continue to have bent. It goes to market pressure more than anything now. It’s not agronomic alone but other issues as well. A lot of times, agronomics is the lowest thing on the totem pole."