December’s flash freeze blamed for winter kill issues at Oklahoma courses

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Winter kill issues at Oklahoma courses

By Ken MacLeod

After a relatively mild winter, it was hoped that the dreaded words “winter kill“ would not be part of anyone’s vocabulary this spring. Instead, superintendents across the state, including those hosting big events this spring and early summer, are again asking for patience from their golfers as they deal with the loss of Bermuda turfgrass on fairways, surrounds and greens.

Best collective guess from superintendents and USGA agronomists is that the flash freeze in late December of 2022 that sent temperatures plunging below zero with wind chills up to minus 25 took much more severe toll on grasses than had been anticipated.

It certainly wreaked havoc on shrubs and plants throughout the state but it was hoped the short duration would have a limited effect on dormant turfgrass. Not so on many golf courses.

Though nowhere near as bad as the repair needed in the spring of 2021, many superintendents are making the choice to wait for the turfgrass to slowly heal itself or go ahead and sod. Some have little time to make those decisions while others can afford to wait.

Cedar Ridge Country Club superintendent Eddie Roach Jr.  and his crew are sodding all the collars at his club, which will host LIV Tulsa on May 12-14. Roach suspects the Tahoma 31 Bermuda collars, noted for staying green longer but also being winter hardy, were susceptible to the cold blast because they had yet to fully harden off before the killer freeze, where the U3 or Astro Bermuda in the fairways was already fully dormant and better able to protect itself.

At Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club in Norman, superintendent Cody Elwood would rather be preparing for the NCAA Central Regional the Sooners are hosting May 15-17 and the Compliance Solutions Championship June 22-25 on the Korn Ferry Tour. Instead he’s trying to make decisions on whether to sod his zoysia collars and other large areas of Bermuda that appear to be lifeless.

“Last year was bad timing for a drought and the turf never recovered going into winter,” Elwood said in an email to Golf Oklahoma. “Then the cold snap at Christmas got us.”

Southern Hills superintendent Russ Myers, who is doing sodding of his own this spring to replace at least an acre of damaged turfgrass, concurred with his fellow supers that the killer freeze on top of an extended drought was the culprit.

Brian Talley, director of golf at The Canyons of Blackjack Ridge in Sand Springs, is dealing with damage to his Champion ultradwarf Bermuda greens for the third consecutive year.  A hopeful sign is that the roots are white which means they are alive, but Talley is extremely disappointed to be dealing with this issue again, particularly when play is at near record levels.

“It’s beyond disappointing,” Talley said. “We covered the greens seven times and did everything we were supposed to. We’ve been talking to Bud White (former USGA agronomist now running his own turf consulting company) and he says to be patient. But we can’t wait to late May or June and then decide to sprig those areas. And sod is extremely expensive right now.”

Paul Jacobs, the USGA agromomist for the Southern Central region that includes Oklahoma, said he has heard reports of turf damage as far south as Houston.

“It’s unfortunate coming off of 2021 when so many courses had to make repairs,” he said. “The difference between winter injury and winter kill is basically how long you are willing to wait. At the end of the day it’s Bermuda grass and it will recover. But if it’s on a green you need to make sure it’s on a pace to be fully recovered by August. The last thing you want is to go into next winter with damage and have the cycle repeat itself.”

Bailey Ranch in Owasso, which installed Tif-Eagle Ultradwarf Bermuda in 2021, also has strips of grass, which appear to be thriving while other areas have been set back. The course will be the host site of the Class 6A boys high school championship May 8-9.

Director of Golf Corey Burd said judging the speed as the ball rolls through the green and brown areas will be the only drawback at this time and he and superintendent Chris Cook are hopeful the areas will recover by late May with minimal sodding needed.

Temperatures are just this week reaching the 150 degrees of combined day time and night time highs required to make Bermuda thrive. And a decided lack of rainfall across much of the state is not helping maters.

Best advice for golfers eager to play on green grass again after a long winter of dormancy is to be patient as your superintendent makes final determinations on what is alive, what will grow back on its own and what needs to be replaced. If your course appears to be greening up just fine, count your blessings, because many major public and private courses across the state have issues.

Roach said his predecessor at Cedar Ridge, Mike Wooten, once called superintendents throughout the state to catalog their turfgrass practices during a bad winter kill year and see if there were any common denominators.

“Every one of them had their own maintenance practices and every one of them had winter kill,” Roach said. “Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it.”


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Ken MacLeod

Publisher Golf Oklahoma | Oklahoma's No. 1 Golf Source