If you're planning on taking a golf trip to the Southeast this late-spring or early summer, just be aware that you might not experience the same sorts of conditions you're used to - particularly on the greens.
The reason: the colder-than-usual winter that just ended is having some fairly damaging lingering effects.
It's called winter kill - a fittingly ominous term to describe a condition afflicting many greens in a part of the country now in its normal prime golf season.
What is winter kill?
Per the USGA, winter kill is " a catch-all term describing winter injury to turfgrass that occurs through a variety of mechanisms such as ice suffocation, crown hydration, low-temperature injury and desiccation."
"Ice suffocation" is self-explanatory. "Crown hydration" is when water freezes at a faster rate than the grass can safely adapt to (akin to freezing a full bottle of water; because ice is less dense than water, the bottle explodes). This tends to happen at the beginnings or ends of winters, when warm days are followed by bitterly cold ones. When the ground freezes quickly while saturated with water, it can stifle future growth, leading to large sections of injury.
Desiccation happens when turf loses moisture at a faster rate than it acquires it. When this happens in winter, the effects can be particularly devastating.
Winter kill can have a few different causes, and because winter tends to be the least predictable season from year to year, even the most adept and well-funded golf course superintendent can be beset by the sinking feeling that no matter the efforts at protecting the grass, Mother Nature has the ultimate say in its health as spring comes on.
Per an article posted recently on the South Carolina Golf Association website by the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association, winter kill "affects warm-season grasses such as Bermudagrass, which is the predominant turf on greens, tees, fairways and roughs in the Carolinas."
"The impact," the article states, "ranges from minimal to almost complete loss of the putting surface." This is potentially bad news if you are expecting pristine putting greens to greet you on a springtime trip in the Southeast.
This year, winter kill is having the most devastating effect on Bermuda grass surfaces (though cooler-season grasses are susceptible as well). Though heat-tolerant Bermuda has been adopted by more and more Southeastern courses in recent years, and has moved farther north, its Achilles heel is the bitter cold. And though strains like TifEagle, Champion and MiniVerde Bermuda seem to be better overall surfaces during prime golf months - one big reason being that they don't need to be fanned and coddled during hot summers like bentgrass does - winters like the one that just ended are not kind to them.
Even PGA Tour host venues can fall prey to winter kill. Just last week, the Triad Business Journal reported that the Ross Course at Sedgefield Country Club, host of the Wyndham Championship, had had to close temporarily to deal with winter kill damage.
We've noticed the impacts of winter kill showing up in our course reviews so far this spring. One experienced reviewer, reedyt, played a course in South Carolina earlier this spring and wrote:
"The fairways were patchy in some spots; however, this was not a major issue because you could easily roll the ball onto some grass when necessary. The major issue was the greens. They were almost all painted and many had huge bare spots with no grass at all. They rolled at a decent pace, but were rather bumpy. We paid $59 for the round so we weren't too upset because the layout is so great, but given the current condition, it is not a $100 course."
Another recent review of a North Carolina course by stevekovach85, put things even more bluntly:
"Came down on a golf trip and the course is in TERRIBLE condition. Not only did they not warn us that the course was in such bad shape but while checking in they were telling people who were calling in that there were only 2 or 3 bad greens."
While nasty surprises like the latter do happen, luckily, the former experience is more the norm. Smart course operators know how to retain customers even in times of rougher conditions, and the first course is sure to bounce back without too much damage done to its reputation. As for the second course, that's a little less clear.
What should you do?
If you have a trip on the books already, or if you're considering taking one, the best idea is to get on the phone and call the courses you're slated to play, or planning to play, and get an honest assessment of the effects the winter had on their greens. It's up to you to determine how to act based on the information you receive. One particular question you might want to ask is whether the course has covers for their greens. In general, courses that were able to cover their greens this winter have fared much better than those that weren't. Covers can run about $1,000 per, and courses that have made that investment are thankful they did this spring. You will be, too, if you play them.
On the one hand, I'd like to recommend you cancel your tee times at the courses that give you bad news. But since this recent bout of winter kill is largely beyond the control of the facilities that it's hitting the hardest, it would be a shame for certain facilities to be punished. And besides, the greens are just one part of the golf experience. In the end, though, your golf travel dollars are important, and you have the right to know what sort of conditions to expect.
In some cases, these unfortunate agronomic circumstances may save you money. Good course operators understand that their customers expect conditions to match up or exceed expectations based on green fees, so they may adjust their rates downward temporarily, similarly to how some courses will slash rates the week after they aerify their greens. Again, it doesn't hurt to call, ask about conditions, and then ask if any rate adjustments have been made in light of them. Even if your green fees are unchanged although the greens won't be quite up to standard, you can be content in the knowledge that your revenue is extra-appreciated this year. Bad conditions can signal the end for a golf course, and while it's one thing to turn away from a facility due to mismanagement, it's another for a course to succumb to the vagaries of the weather.