If you're just getting to the Tampa Bay area looking to play golf, or if you're a local getting on a course for the first time this winter, you may have one question: What happened to the courses? They sure don't look like the pictures on their Web pages. But before you start berating the course superintendent, know that nothing is wrong with them. Bermuda grass, which grows on Florida courses, generally goes dormant during the winter. Throw in a deep freeze in early January, and the grass looks brown and unattractive. To combat the dormant grass, most courses overseed fairways and greens with winter-tolerant grasses such as rye. That has left most courses with strips of green fairways and greens with brown grass framing it. Don't worry. They may look uninviting, but it won't last.
"(Cold weather) doesn't really kill the bermuda or bahia grass that's out there,'' said Brooksville Country Club director of golf Roger Eppley, whose course survived several mornings of weather in the teens.
"What it does is just knocks it back and becomes dormant until the weather warms. It will all come back. It's a lot more evident this year because we've had such cold weather for a long period of time.''
Kevin Burnsworth, head professional at Heritage Pines Country Club in Pasco County, has a good description of what area courses look like now.
"It kind of gives it an Arizona effect, which is pretty cool,'' Burnsworth said. "It looks like you're playing golf in the desert.''
What is overseeding?
When the days get shorter and the temperature dips, bermuda grass starts to fade. Bermuda grass loves summer and full sun, which is why Florida courses are green from April through November.
But when the air gets cooler, bermuda slowly goes dormant. To prevent courses from becoming totally brown, grounds crews will overseed the greens and fairways. That means they will lay grass seed, usually rye grass, on top of the existing grasses to promote new growth. The rye grass will take over while the bermuda grass lays dormant underneath.
"The key to bermuda grass is the 150 rule,'' said USF Golf Course assistant general manager Drew Petersen. "It's a combination of the daytime and nighttime temperatures. If they equal 150, then the bermuda is going to flourish. If it's under that, then the rye grass will stay strong.
"In the spring, the bermuda and rye will fight for food, and it's kind of a transition period.''
The overseeding is usually done in November. The idea is to get the rye growing just as the bermuda grass goes dormant. The result is the green fairways and tee boxes prevalent at most courses. And greens stay green with a variety of seeds, usually ultra dwarf, which is used at USF to keep its greens carpetlike.
The rough is especially brown because it's bermuda or bahia grass.
"We've got green fairways and greens," Eppley said. "But it would be cost prohibitive to overseed your entire golf course.''
Keeping a course green is a big selling point for area courses. Courses could opt to keep bermuda year-round, and they would play the same in summer or winter. The greens would actually be "browns,'' or "purples,'' but Burnsworth said they would still roll the same.
"If you didn't have (overseeding), the whole course would be dead and the greens would turn a purpleish color,'' Burnsworth said. "You can still play on it, but the average person is thinking that if it's green, it's good.''
Making up for lost time
Though the courses survived this year's freeze, the weather did wreak havoc on the bottom line. For more than a week, frost covered area courses and limited morning play. In most cases, courses were closed because of frost until at least 11 a.m., especially in the northern counties.
For courses that usually start tee times at 7 a.m., that's nearly four hours per day of lost revenue.
"We were fine, except for the fact that nobody wants to play golf when it's 17 degrees in the morning,'' Eppley said. "You lose revenue that you never regain. That's the bad side of it. It knocked golf for a loop.''
Those lost tee times don't come back. So area course general managers are crossing their fingers and hoping the weather stays warm.
"We've had 13 straight days of frost up here, so we lost a lot of our morning times,'' Burnsworth said.
"When you're talking about 120 people out in a morning times 13 days, that's a significant loss of tee times. Public and semiprivate courses suffer big time at the cash register. It could be as much as $30,000 in a month.''