By Ken MacLeod
The winter of 1989 produced some of the worst winter kill on dormant Bermuda turfgrass experienced in Oklahoma. Not until the winter of 2009-10 was the damage equally catastrophic to fairways, roughs and green surrounds.
Coming out of a artic vortex that has resulted in record cold temperatures and deeply frozen turf throughout the area, Oklahoma superintendents are praying the damage will not be as severe.
According to turf grass expert Bud White, it’s time to start preparing for the inevitable.
White, a long-time USGA Green Section agronomist who now runs his own turf-consulting company from his home in Granbury, Texas, told Golf Oklahoma today he expects significant winter kill in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, New Mexico and into Tennessee and Louisiana from the record-setting storm that has enveloped the Southwest.
White prepared a document that was circulated to superintendents throughout the area, with tips for many of the younger ones who may have never experienced a significant winter kill event.
The record low temperatures are problematic enough for Bermuda grass, a warm-season grass that doesn’t fare well when the ground freezes several inches below the surface. Exacerbating the problem, White said, is the amount of compaction and wear that courses experienced up through late fall from the pandemic-inspired golf boom.
Many courses went to single-rider carts for a time last summer, essentially doubling cart traffic. Courses also did more rounds May through November than they had in decades. Although it was generally a good growing season for Bermuda, that amount of wear, particularly in high traffic areas, has White worried about their ability to survive.
“Every course had record-breaking play,” White said. “They all went into dormancy more stressed out than usual due to compaction. It’s scary to me what could result from this.
“I wanted to point out to the guys a lot of things to think about for this spring and some good educational points. Make sure they get their managers and pros on board and understand what’s going to be going on. They’re going to need total support to limit cart traffic to certain areas this spring. They may need more money for extra fertility. And they need to be thinking ahead about things such as sod. I guarantee you by June there will not be much quality sod left to purchase.”
White said this will be a very instructive test for all the courses that have installed ultra dwarf Bermuda greens and that currently have them covered and under a heavy snow layer.
“This freeze is so severe that they could be in danger. Hopefully they were watered very well before being covered because desiccation can do as much damage as anything.”
White said he hopes he is crying wolf, but that superintendents and courses need to plan now for the worst.
“It’s not a question of if (there will be winter kill). It’s a question of how much. There’s nothing we can do about it now. This spring they’ve got to make sure the weak areas – the high traffic areas and the north slopes – are hydrated and keep carts off them.”
Jared Wooten, superintendent at Stillwater Country Club, said that the anxiety level among Oklahoma superintendents is creeping up.
“I’d say the anxiety has to be up pretty high,” Wooten said. “The snow cover will help but with the length of the cold temperatures the ground is frozen harder and deeper than it has been in a long time.”
Bermuda and other warm-season grasses (zoysia) typically go dormant after a significant freeze in the fall and remain that way until spring. When the root system freezes it can kill the plant, requiring resodding or sprigging, which can delay optimum playing conditions considerably. South Lakes Golf Course in Jenks, at that time a new course, lost entire fairways in 1989. Gaillardia Country Club in Oklahoma City was one of the hardest hit in 2010. The damage is non-discriminating.
Let’s hope the damage from the record-setting cold across the state is limited to some worn areas and north facing slopes. Let’s be understanding if it’s not.