(Pictured: Winterkill on fairways at Southview CC)
A thick layer of ice that encased many courses in December, followed by extended cold well into the start of spring, has left properties scrambling to try to get newly seeded turf to germinate. “The damage out there is so vast,” said one Superintendent with 40 years of experience. “I’ve never come close to seeing this before. It just took it all out—tees, greens, fairways.”
A “perfect storm” that swept through Minnesota this past winter has resulted in major problems for golf courses across the metropolitan Minneapolis-St. Paul area this spring, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported.
“Winterkill” has torched certain types of grass, the Pioneer Press reported, rendering some areas of golf courses unplayable.
“I look at the damage out there and it’s so vast. I’ve been in this business 40 years, and I’ve never come close to seeing this before,” said John McCarthy, Superintendent of Loggers Trail Golf Course in Stillwater, Minn. “It just took it all out—tees, greens, fairways.”
McCarthy was worried about how his course would hold up in the dead of winter, when greens were exposed to negative 60-degree wind chills, the Pioneer Press reported. But, surprisingly, that wasn’t the main issue. The real problems occurred in December, when four inches of built-up snow melted in the middle of the month. Then, late in the month, a couple inches of rain fell, and that moisture froze over.
“It caused a rather thick layer of ice to form, and it actually encased many golf courses, even on hillsides,” said Paul Diegnau, Superintendent of Keller Golf Course in Maplewood, Minn. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Golf course superintendents in the area would prefer to see consistency throughout Minnesota’s winters, the Pioneer Press reported. Having a foot of snow all winter that doesn’t go anywhere isn’t a problem, but the constant fluctuation of temperatures and precipitation causes freezing that can damage courses.
“If you don’t have all the factors working against you [it’s OK], and that’s why it doesn’t happen very often, because a lot of times you’ll have, like, two factors but not three factors. You get lucky,” McCarthy said. “This year it was just an exact situation that caused it.”
The effect it had on area clubs has varied from course to course, the Pioneer Press reported. Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn., which will host the Women’s PGA Championship next month, and TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minn., which will host the 3M Open in July, emerged from the winter largely unscathed. Some courses, such as Keller GC and Highland National in St. Paul, had spots of winterkill here and there in occasional fairways. Loggers Trail had parts of its tee boxes eaten up.
But other courses have experienced far more damage, the Pioneer Press reported. At the beginning of May, Southview Country Club in West St. Paul had just nine holes open from tee to green. And greens have been badly damaged at area courses such as North Oaks, White Bear Yacht Club, Golden Valley Country Club and Oak Ridge Country Club.
“It was a very bad winter for everyone,” Southview CCs General Manager, Josh Luehmann, told the Pioneer Press. “You just hear some of the horror stories from some of the other facilities around the area, and it is very widespread. It is a tough start to the spring for everyone, and some are delaying their openings and such—so yeah, it’s a mixed bag there, too.”
The extent of the damage depended on the type of grass on a course, the Pioneer Press reported. Bentgrass can survive wet and frozen conditions for long periods of time. The problem was poa annua, or annual bluegrass. Poa annua is fertile and can easily spread. The turfgrass is often present on putting greens, and can thrive year-long in areas such as the West Coast.
“[Poa] is more or less considered a weed,” Diegnau said. “But it’s a prolific seeder, so it gets everywhere. The problem with it is it’s not very hearty, whether in cold or in heat. It has a lot of problems. It’s a good putting surface if you can maintain it, but it’s high-maintenance.”
It’s a dice roll to use that grass in Minnesota, the Pioneer Press reported, but most area courses have no choice but to use it. Poa is present on most, if not all, courses in the area because of how easily it spreads, but the level to which it’s present determined the fate of courses this spring.
“Poa annua, underneath ice, maybe will last 60 days. After that, it’s dead,” Diegnau said. “Underneath the ice there’s toxic gasses that build up. Eventually, it kills the poa.”
At older country clubs, poa has had plenty of time to encroach on various areas of the course, the Pioneer Press reported. Many of those courses feature a number of trees that create the shade and damp areas where poa can thrive—until conditions change.
“Older country clubs with old grasses, it just decimated some of them,” Diegnau said.
Keller had very little winterkill damage because of the renovation it endured in 2013, when all of its course’s surfaces were resurfaced with bent grass. “[The renovation] definitely paid for itself this year, no doubt,” Diegnau said.
For those courses not so fortunate, the recovery process is ongoing, the Pioneer Press reported. Most already have split-seeded the affected areas, and are simply waiting for that seed to germinate. The cloudy and relatively cold temperatures that have prevailed in the area into early May aren’t helping that process.
“People freak out on the golf courses—they like blame us like it’s our fault that it’s dead,” Highland National’s Head Golf Pro, John Shimpach, told the Pioneer Press. “It’s like ‘C’mon, no.’ [Winterkill is] non-selective in killing stuff.”
Courses have had to take matters into their own hands to try to get the situation under control, the Pioneer Press reported. Golden Valley CC placed heated tents over its damaged greens to control the temperature and help grass grow.
“Unfortunately, now we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Southview CC’s Luehmann said. “And she’s not working in our favor right now.”