May 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Rough time for Detroit area's golf courses

New sod is placed down on a damaged green at Birmingham Country Club. 'It's the worst I've seen,' says General Manager Joe Basso. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Public golf courses and private country clubs throughout Metro Detroit want to take a mulligan on this past winter.

Layers of ice and severe cold suffocated and killed the vulnerable poa annua grass used on most greens. Course superintendents from Birmingham to West Bloomfield this spring scrambled to fix the dead grass, spending tens of thousands of dollars re-seeding and re-sodding greens, then protecting them with insulating covers. To ensure they opened on time, many courses erected temporary greens — unpopular with avid golfers — and are already reporting lower-than-normal attendance figures.

A trickle down effect has hit revenue from food and beverage sales. And a cool spring hasn’t helped matters, slowing the growth of new grass and keeping some would-be golfers indoors.

“It’s been devastating,” said Gregg Matthews, president of the Michigan Golf Course Superintendents Association. “A majority of the private clubs were hit very hard. It’s damage that I never realized could happen to this severity.”

Metro Detroit is home to some 400 golf courses, and at least half of them saw damage, said Adam Ikamas, executive director of the MiGCSA. He said it’s likely many courses won’t fully recover until the end of the summer.

“It’s been a pretty massive hit,” he said.

Private clubs were hit harder than some of the area’s public courses because of the type of grass used on the greens. Most use poa annua, an annual bluegrass that can’t survive more than about 50 days of severe weather. Others, especially public courses, use bentgrass, which can survive harsh weather conditions longer.

“In some cases you could look and say 90-100 percent of the green was killed,” said Kevin Frank, a Michigan State University associate professor and extension turf specialist. “This winter, we never had a good melt. After a period of time, the grass just started dying.

“It’s a big problem.”

'The worst I've seen'

Every green at the 18-hole Birmingham Country Club, which uses poa annua, was damaged, said general manager Joe Basso.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen and I’ve been in the business 35 years,” he said. “You really can’t prepare for it. It’s a once-in-a-100-year aberration.”

When the club opened in early April, Basso said it was using 18 temporary greens. Today, it’s down to six, but the financial damage has been great.

The club has paid thousands to repair the greens, and likely has lost substantial revenue from its 600 members. Basso said it’s down about 900 rounds of golf compared to this time last year. Fewer rounds of golf translate to fewer food and beverage and pro shop sales, too.

Still, Basso hopes to have 15 of the 18 greens open by early June.

“They won’t be in mid-season form, but they’ll be playable,” he said.

Tam-O-Shanter Country Club, an 18-hole course with about 300 members in West Bloomfield, hopes to have its greens repaired soon, too.

“This winter was very bad,” said Bashar Tobia, Tam-O-Shanter’s general manager. “We have probably one of the best greens in the state, but this winter caused us to have some damage.”

Matthews, superintendent at Tam-O-Shanter, noted the club bought covers and re-seeded them as soon as possible, and erected temporary greens so it was able to open on time.

“We were very proactive in getting a head start on everything,” Tobia said. “Our goal is to get our greens back 100 percent to the level our members expect them to be. We will do that, we just need Mother Nature to assist us.”

Public courses suffer, too

Public courses weren’t spared, either.

Fox Hills Golf and Banquet Center in Plymouth Township spent about $10,000 on protective green covers. It normally opens in early April, but had to delay opening and is still limiting play to greens that weren’t hit as hard.

“We’re not able to provide the quality of greens we’re used to providing,” said Eric Niemur, Fox Hill’s director of grounds. “It’s a game of getting some play and some revenue but also getting recovery.”

Niemur said they’ve had some leagues play the courses and the golfers seem sympathetic.

Still, he said Fox Hills and others are sure to see lower attendance figures because of the winter damage.

“It’s a quality issue and golfers learn quickly,” he said. “There won’t be as much play on courses simply because of that.”
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