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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of June 11 - 17, 2003


Golf courses recovering from ice damage

Some keep golfers off the grass

Express Staff Writer

Driving along Elkhorn Road on a spring day usually offers a sumptuous banquet of roadside scenery. One gets healthy doses of wildflowers, cyclists, green hillsides and typically, golfers playing the Elkhorn Golf course.

This is not a typical year, though.

Express photo by Michael Ames
Steve Maas of The Valley Club displays a freshly-sodded trench.



While wildflowers and the greener grasses are abundant, golfers have been erased from the landscape. The mowed expanses of the course are empty. The inviting, well-manicured fairways end not in emerald greens, but with frightening blue tarps.

The problem is ice damage. And to some extent all of the valley’s golf courses have been affected.

"Yup, we had to buy 18 turf tarps in total, actually," explains Elkhorn head golf pro Shane Galles.

The tarps are just one element of a large and complex process of rehabilitation that Elkhorn and various other clubs in the Wood River Valley have undergone this spring.

Elkhorn Golf Club, which would normally open in early May, is planning on a June 16 opening.

"We could have opened up earlier in the season, but then had poor greens all year. The route we chose will give us the best possible playing surface for the rest of the season," says Galles.

The valley’s golf courses are in the process of recovering from some strange weather that killed off large areas of grass and created a greenskeeper’s worst nightmare.

Golf courses are, despite the common derisive comments from anti-golf-ecological-activists, a delicate and finely tuned habitat. They are habitats for grass, mainly, but they are habitats nonetheless.

The hours of labor and the quality of tender care that preserve the plush green surface of local courses are great—greater than you can imagine.

Whether your Sunday outing is a record round or as Mark Twain called it, " a good walk spoiled," you can be sure that your favorite links have benefited from untold, unheralded, honest hard work.

Just ask Steve Maas C.G.C.S (Certified Golf Course Superintendent) of The Valley Club, where nine of the 18 holes remain closed.

His greens department employs over 35 people who, in the last two weeks alone, have together logged over 700 hours of overtime trying to restore the full 18-hole course.

Everybody realizes the problem.

At The Valley Club "the membership and board couldn’t be more supportive," Maas says. "That’s what’s keeping us all going."

In a normal year Maas would spend most of his days indoors, but this spring he has been finding himself laying sod, digging trenches and pitching into the mammoth task of resuscitating a broken golf course.

The culprit of all this grass carnage is something called "ice damage."

Known also as "ice injury" and falling under the umbrella term, "winter kill," ice damage refers, specifically, to the widespread death of a golf course’s grass.

Though not the worst ice damage the valley has ever experienced, the weather patterns of the past winter and spring have carried out something of a grass blade genocide.

"But doesn’t grass die every year?" the curious mind wonders.

Apparently not. Grass, like a tree, simply lies dormant for the winter. Still, when the snow melts, what lies beneath is invariably brown. So how can one possibly differentiate dead grass from dormant grass?

"Good question," says Maas, who then produced a tiny, high-powered magnifying loop from his desk drawer while explaining that "you really have to get down on your hands and knees and look at it."


Looking at grass

Steve Maas is passionate about grass. His face lights up as he explains the finer points of grass care.

When closely examining the grass, for instance, it is key to find the "crown" of the plant. A grass plant is composed of a leaf, stem and crown. The crown is basically the "heart" of the plant and as with an animal, if the heart is hit, the entire organism dies.

It’s crown damage that accounts for this year’s grassy carnage.

While the thaws and rains of late January and early February lasted only a spell, water did accumulate and when colder conditions returned, that water froze.

To fully understand the process, it is helpful to refresh on some basic principles of elementary science

Water is unique in that when frozen, it expands. So when the heart of the grass plant becomes water logged during a thaw, it bursts when colder days return. On a cellular level, the grass explodes.

Maas has been at the helm of The Valley Club’s greens department since 1994 and has been in the greens business for 27 years. From his native northern Wisconsin to northern Idaho and Arizona, Maas has cared for grass in several climate zones.

"This isn’t anything new, it happens all over the country," he said. "This is the first time it’s happened to us and probably won’t be the last."

Maas is resigned to nature’s whims making decisions for him. "Nature got us," he said.

In moments of reflection, he cannot help recalling the grim days of early spring. That’s because it was not only the ice damage that caused so much harm.

In April and May the valley saw abnormally high amounts of rain that drowned grass that otherwise could have survived.

As the rains continued dumping, Maas recorded the daily weather from one of the club’s two weather stations and charted the course’s condition in a large diary. He said, "Here…May 11—snow and rain. And on May 12—.73 inches of rain."

In near biblical terms, Maas reflects on those days: "It kept raining and raining and raining and then it was the third or fourth week of rain.

He was still hoping for a dry spell, just a fair chance for the grass to grow. But the rain persisted and one day he realized the grass was suffocating under all that water.

"The only thing you can do is sit and watch it die," he said.

And smell it die.

"That terrible smell," is how Maas remembered the stench that "is death…almost a sewer smell…a rotting."

As greens superintendents and golf pros waded through the spring deluge, they knew what a huge, labor-intensive project lay before them.

At The Valley Club, Maas and his crew have laid a mile and a half of drainage pipes in the last three weeks.

The worst spots of the fairway floods were marked with stakes. When the water finally receded, lines were painted to mark low-lying areas.

Now, the trenches have been dug, the pipes have been laid, the pea gravel laid atop that and the specially sand-grown-drainage-sod (delivered from California in a refrigerated truck) has been laid atop that.

Many parts of the still-closed front nine at the mid-valley course are marked with snaking lines of freshly laid sod. Fairways were then over-seeded with Kentucky Bluegrass, the heartiest grass at mountain elevations.

Part of the delay at The Valley Club is that Bluegrass takes a long time to germinate but, once mature, will last longer than say, Rye grass.

Tee boxes have been sodded with 30-foot by 100-foot rolls at Elkhorn and The Valley Club. Both clubs also employ various grass-saving techniques with such technical names as aerifying (drilling rows of holes into the grass), verticutting (cuttings slits into the grass to deposit seed) and other big words as well.

At Elkhorn, once these processes were complete, the greens were covered with the now infamous blue tarps. The tarps act as insulation, heating the greens. They are cut with holes to allow the grass to breathe.

At The Valley Club, Maas even went as far as dyeing patches of brown grass a deep green pigment that would presumably absorb the sun’s warmth and facilitate growth.

Demonstrating the fickleness of what the weather does to golf courses, the conditions at the Sun Valley Golf Course are basically normal.

A few patches of dead grass can be seen, but the oldest course in the valley (with nine holes built in 1936) escaped the winter basically unscathed. Business has been booming at Sun Valley because of the misfortunes befalling other courses.

So how did Sun Valley manage such peculiar success?

"Luck," says assistant golf pro Art Kerrick.

Yes, mid-winter snow removal helped and yes, the greens were slathered in turkey dung, but most admit that luck and nature’s whimsies are the deciding factors.

At Warm Springs Golf Course in Ketchum, where mountain shade always means a late spring, only four greens sustained damage.

Those greens have been closed and temporary greens have been established for the spring. The nine-hole course opened May 15, only five days later than last year.

Warm Springs used similar greenhouse-effect tarps for its damaged greens and according to course manager Karen Walker, the course is "doing OK…and everything should be open within a week."

At Elkhorn, Galles pointed out that low spots have suffered the most because of run-off and pooling.

On Elkhorn’s greens, patches of new growth are a telltale sign of even the slightest dip or trough. These markings have actually become a helpful way for golfers to read the green and have provided at least one bright point amidst so much horticultural horror.

Elkhorn was hit the hardest by the ice. In closing all 18 of its holes until June 16, Elkhorn has also taken the boldest step to ensuring a good year. Head pro Galles is "looking forward to getting the golfers out here—the course looks great."

In addition to the work, Elkhorn ownership recently contracted a major figure in golf course management to operate its facility—Troon Golf out of Scottsdale, Az. Don Shirey, former PGA tour player and current facility manager for Troon will be managing the course.

"The community can rest assured that we have made a commitment to the absolute perfection of Elkhorn Golf Club," Shirey said.

He added that "as the general manager at the facility I’m committed to incorporate all the Wood River Valley community—Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey, Bellevue, Twin Falls—the entire area and say we need your support and we want to support you with a great place to enjoy golf. Elkhorn will blend with the community, not stand apart."

With the worst behind us, it’s fair to say that the Wood River Valley can look forward to a thoroughly enjoyable golfing season.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.