Golf courses recovering from ice
Some keep golfers off the grass
By MICHAEL AMES
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,
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,"
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
"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
With the worst behind us, it’s
fair to say that the Wood River Valley can look forward to a thoroughly
enjoyable golfing season.