Tournament course requires extra care

When the developers of the Champions Club built a new, links-style golf course on virgin farmland on the outskirts of Omaha, Neb., their philosophy might well have been, "If we build it, they will come." If so, they made a wise decision in following through with their plans. After all, the 18-hole championship course opened in 1992, and within 3 years, the PGA Tour booked a Nike tournament for the first week of August 1996.

Jeff Latka became golf-course superintendent in June of that year. But hosting the club's first tournament just 2 months after he arrived wasn't as stressful as replanting most of the fairways, he says. The need to replant resulted from the previous winter, which was extremely cold and dry. "It was -26 degrees F for 2 nights in a row during March," he says. "We lost 50 percent of our bentgrass fairways--about 15 to 20 acres of bentgrass turf. But we didn't lose much grass on greens because they had been heavily topdressed with sand the previous fall."

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Just getting grass to grow was Latka's top priority. Unfortunately, because many other area courses were in similar or worse condition, the availability of bentgrass seed was limited. Thus, he slit-seeded whatever bentgrass varieties he could find into the existing dead thatch, without taking time to aerate. "By mid-July, we were getting pretty nervous. But we had very good weather prior to the tournament, and everything looked great by early August," notes Latka. "We hosted the tournament again in 1997, and the PGA plans to return for a third time in 1998."

Designed for wide, open spaces Designed by Jeffrey Brauer, the Champions Club follows the natural contours of the rolling Nebraska topography. The developers placed minimal housing around the course, focusing primarily on keeping the golf course wide open. They planted few trees throughout the property and instead left many natural areas where prairie grasses and wildflowers now thrive.

"I'd rather work on a wide, open course like this than a tree-lined, closed-off golf course," says Latka. "It means that wind is a major factor in our maintenance program, but disease pressure is lower. Our disease problems are generally related to lack of air movement. Fortunately, we only have a few low-lying areas on the course where we get disease pressure."

Because Latka keeps greens on the dry side and removes dew on a daily basis, he experiences little brown patch or dollar spot on greens. He waits until the end of June to begin a preventive-disease-management program on greens, tees and fairways, tank-mixing systemics and contact fungicides. "Keeping greens free of brown patch and dollar spot makes the turf less susceptible to other problems, such as algae," Latka explains. "Diseases can thin the turf, and algae then takes over in those areas."

Tank mix provides dual disease control The Champions course is so spread out that Latka finds it difficult and time-consuming to continually spray fairways during summer months. For the last 2 years, he's used a tank-mix of flutolanil (ProStar 50WP fungicide from AgrEvo) and triadimefon (Bayleton 50 fungicide from Bayer). Together, the products control both brown patch and dollar spot for 30 days at Latka's course.

"When I first sprayed the tank-mix, I was very happy to get such long control," he explains. "We only have one sprayer, so it takes a guy 2 days to treat all of the fairways. [Using this tank-mix], we only have to go out once a month instead of every 2 weeks. Depending on weather conditions, we may only have to make one application each summer and still get good disease control."

Last year, Latka got nearly 40 days of disease control with one application in June. The time saved by not making spray applications came in handy when Latka and his 25-member seasonal crew began getting ready for the August tournament. The crew starts tournament preparation in late July by restricting water and double-mowing greens to increase speeds. They also spend a great deal of time firming up sand in bunkers. In addition, they stop mowing roughs in mid July, allowing them to grow as high as 6 inches by tournament time.

"The PGA first sends runners out to preview the golf course in March, and they visit monthly after that," Latka says. "Then the rules official stays at the course for a good 2 weeks prior to the tournament. They are particularly picky about the bunker sand. We tamp it down and add water to keep it constantly moist. The PGA agronomists were a little more hands-off in 1997, after working closely with me the previous year."

In fact, green speeds were so fast last year--up to 13 on the Stimpmeter--that tournament officials asked Latka to slow them down a bit. He generally shoots for a base tournament speed of 9.5 on the Stimpmeter and increases speed depending on officials' comments during the tournament. He keeps greens speeds at 8 before and after the tournament, restricting water when necessary.

Keying in on water management "Water management is the key to turf management," Latka notes. "Drier is better. It's very tempting to overwater a golf course. When the grass starts turning blue, that's when I turn on the water. I like to say I'm about a day away from being too wet and a day away from being too dry."

Latka also believes in aggressively aerating fairways. By leaving the cores on the surface and dragging them in, he believes that microbial activity in the soil biologically controls the thatch levels. Because bentgrass is a heavy thatch accumulator, he also aggressively grooms fairways and uses moderate nitrogen levels. He mows fairways and tees at 7/16 inch, greens at 0.135 inch and roughs at 2.5 inches during non-tournament play.

Getting to know the golf course plays a major role in properly maintaining turf, Latka adds. After nearly 2 years at the Champions Club, he feels more comfortable with his management decisions. "You learn which areas need more water than others and how far you can push each green before watering," Latka explains. "It's tempting to just turn on the water and go home, but you can't keep a course in tournament condition for long that way."

Debbie Clayton is a freelance writer in the turf industry with more than 10 years of experience. She provides public-relations support for AgrEvo (Montvale, N.J.).

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