Turf Battle Opening day is nearing, and the greening of the Florida track has to happen fast

November 12, 2001

We don't have a golf course yet. We have a botanical garden. We
have a lush, closely mowed meadow transversed by ranks of tall
pines and moss-draped oaks. We have a man-made cypress head in a
pocket wetland. We have Confederate jasmine clinging to boundary
walls and bulrushes poking from a pond. We have men on machines
spreading fertilizer, men using hand tools to edge walks and men
bending over to pull the occasional weed.

Here I am, one morning in early October, standing on the aromatic
throw rug that is the 1st tee of the University of Florida Golf
Course, glancing down and beholding...divots. Four little
eyesores, four patches of yellow sand. Each divot is square and
flat--the calling card of an accomplished wedge player.

Later, I casually ask course superintendent Mark Birdsell if
anybody has hit shots in advance of the opening, which is still
six weeks off. "They weren't supposed to," he says, "but they
have hit a few balls off the 1st and 10th tees, to see how the
holes play." His eyes shift to the upper floor of the clubhouse,
where the golf coaches hang out. "You're looking out your office
window, there's this beautiful green hole. I understand the
temptation."

Birdsell's forbearance is impressive because he's in charge of
the growing-in, that all-too-brief period from the time a
course's grass is planted until it's dug up again by John Q.
Duffer. In a perfect world Birdsell would have six months or more
to nurse his darling sprigs and plugs to robust health. Instead
he has only until Nov. 17 to ready the front nine for an
eight-player skins game. The entire course must be ready by Nov.
30, when about 72 golfers will tee it up on Gator Golf Day.
"Prayer and luck," he says, looking at the sky. "You need both to
be successful."

To the average homeowner who struggles to keep his lawn green and
weed-free, the skills needed to cultivate 60 acres of turfgrass
seem to border on sorcery. In reality, succeeding at such an
endeavor is more a feat of advanced agronomy. (Weed Golf Course
Design senior associate Scot Sherman, asked how the homeowner can
match the results of a course maintenance crew, says, "You start
with a five-ton roller....") The professional greenkeeper, like
the engineer, relies on data. "We took soil samples back when the
dirt was first moved," Birdsell says, "and we keep taking
samples. We know if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. We
know if we need to apply sulphur or dolomitic lime."

Certain areas of the Florida course were excavated or filled
during construction, so Birdsell uses highlighter pens and a
course routing to record soil anomalies. "You might have a great
pH where we used existing soil," he says, "but the other side of
the same fairway might have dirt that was six feet down, dirt
that had no nutrients at all."

The first dose of fertilizer and soil amendments was applied with
a tractor-pulled broadcast spreader when the fairways were bare
dirt. The contractor then worked the mix into the soil with a
light drag and planted with TifSport bermuda grass plugs. "It's
critical that you keep the soil damp," says Birdsell. "We
irrigate from one to eight times a day for probably a month."

A week after planting, Birdsell's crew applied nitrogen, in the
form of ammonium sulfate, to force growth. (The fertilizer bags
are marked 21-0-0, the numbers indicating how much nitrogen,
phosphorus and potassium are in the mix.) Since then the crew has
applied fertilizer every week to 10 days, alternating between the
nitrogen mix and a more complete 12-4-12 formula. The crew
doesn't spread much phosphorus "because we are irrigating with
effluent water, which is already high in phosphorus," says
Birdsell.

It's a cushy life for the young grass, lying around and being
fed all the time--until a tractor rolls over it pulling a
six-foot drum studded with six-inch knives. This relatively mild
form of aeration, called slicing, relieves compaction and
permits vital air and water to get into the soil without
disturbing the root system. The next stage, perversely, has one
of Birdsell's men crushing the grass with that five-ton roller.
The roller presses the wrinkles out of the fairway but
dramatically increases compaction, making another run with the
slicer necessary...and so on, in a cycle of cut and paste. In
addition, the grass must withstand frequent mowing, which
discourages upward growth and promotes the lateral growth needed
to fill in the bare spots between plugs.

When I ask about weeds and bugs, Birdsell takes a deep breath
that becomes a sigh. "This is an old course, so we had a lot of
weed seeds in the ground," he says. "When you turn over the soil,
it exposes all those seeds to the sun and air, and they're
busting to germinate."

To discourage their weedy enthusiasm, Birdsell applied Ronstar, a
preemergent herbicide, with his preplant mix. These days the weed
battle is more of a see-and-squirt campaign, fought with portable
sprayers. When Birdsell spots some goose grass gaining purchase
in a perfect patch of TifSport, he pinches it with his fingertips
and gently pulls it up. "It takes two weeks to a month to kill a
weed with chemicals," he says. "Hand-pulled, it's gone." He also
keeps an eye out for the brown patches of turf that announce an
onslaught of those notorious turfaholics, sod webworms and
armyworms. A battalion of armyworms can eat a small fairway
between dusk and dawn, with a good-sized green for dessert.

Greenkeepers have a saying: When all else fails, throw ryegrass
at the problem. On Oct. 24, Birdsell began overseeding with rye,
a fast-growing, fine-bladed turfgrass. The rye will fill gaps in
the TifSport and keep the course green in cool weather, when
bermuda grass is dormant. "We should see germination of the
ryegrass by next Thursday," he says, nudging the accelerator of
his nifty new Carryall Turf 2. "With any luck we'll be mowing
like crazy from here on out."

Thinking of the divots on the 1st tee, I almost say, "Too bad you
can't spray for golfers," but Birdsell is already gone, speeding
up the 7th fairway with the calendar hot on his trail.

They call it Gator Golf Day, but Nov. 30 will be judgment day for
course designers Bobby Weed and Scot Sherman. Look for the final
installment of This Old Course in the Dec. 10 issue of GOLF PLUS.

For previous installments of This Old Course go to
golfplus.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Birdsell, the course super, is keeping an eye out for weeds and armyworms. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG

Cutting Edge

The first time assistant course superintendent John Drouse mowed
the steep, 30-foot-high bank behind the new 6th green, he felt
like a teenager on a roller coaster. "I was kind of shaky in the
beginning, but you get used to it," he says. "You drive straight
down the slope, circle around, go back up and do it again."

Other members of the Florida course's full-time greenkeeping crew
have reported similar paradigm shifts: more hand-mowing around
the greens, more bunkers to rake, more mounds and moguls to
manicure. "It will be more high-maintenance than they intended,"
says course mechanic Vince Perry (above), "but you can't expect a
designer like Bobby Weed to hold back. That would be like asking
a German shepherd to retrieve quail."

Perry, who was born in Massachusetts, joined the Florida staff as
a groundskeeper in 1988. He played recreational golf until a
couple of years ago but quit because "it got sort of boring
playing this course." Now he's thinking of taking up the game
again. "Jack Nicklaus came here one time to look at this course
and he said it was cute," Perry snorts. "It's more than a cute
course now. It has a little bite to it."

--J.G.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)