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It's not easy being green
Is the difference in Copperhead more than meets the eye?
By BOB HARIG
Published March 5, 2007
[Times photo: Thomas Whisenand]
In the fall | Taken Oct. 26, 2006.
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
In the spring | Taken March 1, 2007.
PALM HARBOR - The first thing you notice is the green. Not the putting surfaces, although they have an emerald-like look, too. No, we're talking about the entire Copperhead course at Innisbrook, wall-to-wall green, from the tees to the striped fairways to the rough and to, well, the greens.
The PGA Tour players arriving today for the PODS Championship who were here just more than four months ago for the Chrysler Championship will notice a difference in appearance and, perhaps, playability.
Nothing has been done to the routing of the 7,340-yard, par-71 course, one that has received high marks from players over the years. No tees have been moved, no greens altered.
But there is a cosmetic change from fall to spring, and it provides some insight into agronomy and just how much thought and preparation go into getting a golf course to look stunning but still offer a test worthy of the best in the world.
"There is a balancing act that goes on to make it look good and also make it play fast," said Keith Einwag, in his seventh year as director of agronomy at Innisbrook. "The average golfer wants to see green grass. Tour players are a totally different class of golfer. They don't care about the color. They want it to play fast."
Getting it green
Like most Florida courses, Copperhead has Bermuda grass, typically found in warm climates. When the tournament was played in October, the entire course - tees, fairways, rough and greens - was strictly Bermuda. It can withstand the summer heat, and when it grows in the rough, good luck finding your ball.
There are different strains of Bermuda - at Innisbrook, the tees, fairways and rough are called 419. The greens are TifEagle.
Bermuda grass, however, tends to die, thin out or turn a brownish color when the temperature drops - inevitable here for periods of time in the winter.
And for a resort that gets more than $200 per round during the prime winter months, that kind of green would not be possible without courses of the same color.
That is why most area courses "overseed" with a rye grass in the fall or winter. Some do it extensively - such as TPC Tampa Bay, where the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am was played three weeks ago - meaning rye will be the predominant grass. Innisbrook overseeds to a lesser degree.
"If you're coming from the Midwest or the Northeast or Canada and leaving brown or black or snow ... you want to see green," Jay Overton, director of golf at Innisbrook, said. "By lightly overseeding, we're able to allow the Bermuda to continue to grow if weather permits. And we can assure that there will be some substantial color in the event that the Bermuda is forced into dormancy by a frost or by a prolonged cold."
About a month after the Chrysler Championship, Innisbrook officials led by Einwag undertook the process by which they overseed the courses, including Copperhead. They put a perennial rye grass on the tees, fairways and rough. Another grass, Poa trivialis, was put on the greens. The result is a lush, green look that will play well on national television and is a hit with resort guests.
But how will it affect the tournament?
Copperhead has drawn raves for its tough, yet fair test. Winner K.J. Choi was the only golfer to finish double digits under par in October and his winning score of 13 under was the highest in relation to par of any regular PGA Tour event dating to last summer's Western Open.
The usual fear is that overseeding makes the course play easier, whether by making the greens and fairways softer or the rough less lush.
Palm Harbor's John Huston, who lives near Innisbrook, won the 2000 tournament and has probably played the course more than anyone in the field, says course officials need not worry.
"If you get to where you're really trying hard to make it look green, then you take a chance on the course playing too soft," Huston said. "It doesn't seem like they're doing that. They've been fortunate we haven't had too much cold weather. They haven't had to keep the water going, so it should play pretty fast. It should be fairly similar to the fall, and I think everyone will say really good things about the golf course."
Let it blow
Overton initially expressed concern about the course's vulnerability with a switch to a spring date, and he still has some fears that the best players in the world might take it low.
"I'm counting on Keith firming up the greens, I'm counting on the PGA Tour getting the speed of the greens fast enough. And I'm counting on the March winds," he said.
Overton is also counting on another variable - the moistness of the rye grass in the rough. When that wetness gets between the club face and the ball, it can cause shots to "fly" out of the rough, meaning the ball is harder to control.
"In October, it was always kind of dry and the Bermuda wasn't excessively long," PGA Tour player Steve Flesch said. "I think the fall is more predictable. The weather is going to be the biggest changing factor as to how the golf course can play.
"But I don't care what time of year we play, that is a great golf course. (Players) are not going to go nuts during perfect conditions. It's a hard golf course. You have to hit shots. You have to keep the ball in play. I'm sure there will be plenty of rough. ... You're not going to have a scraper go around that golf course and win. I think that golf course can withstand the test no matter what conditions are thrown at it."