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Green thumbs

A team of landscaping and irrigation experts takes over Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club as course renovation begins.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000

TAMPA PALMS -- Mike Blanchard's cart zips along the fairway at Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club. The superintendent of greens has already been up for three hours surveying activity on the course. By 9 a.m. the first morning of June, the course is buzzing -- but not with golfers.

At one hole, men drive shovels into large piles of sand. Farther along, another group connects large sprinkler heads to pipelines strewn along ditches. It's part of what the club will see all summer: backhoes, not backswings, work boots, not golf spikes. The course is closed for a complete renovation of all 18 greens.

"My goal is to have the best putting surface in Tampa," said Blanchard. "I consider myself a farmer. I farm Bermuda grass."

Perfect greens are paramount for golf courses. A lush, smooth, consistently emerald surface looks nicer and helps increase enthusiasm on the grounds. To serious golfers, everything about the greens matters, from the shape and pitch to the height of the grass to its density.

"You can have awesome fairways and bunkers and other parts of the golf course," said Jeff Strouse, a member of Tampa Palms since 1992. "But if you have bad greens, forget it. That's not a good thing for golf purists. The greens are really where it is at on a golf course."

Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club closed the course May 15 and began reconstructing all 18 greens and installing a new, computerized irrigation system. The projects are expected to cost more than $320,000 and take all summer.

Why such a seemingly drastic measure?

In recent years, club officials became aware that greens had become patchy and infested with a buildup of thatch from decomposed winter grass, hampering drainage.

After consulting an expert from the U. S. Golf Association, the club decided to do the entire project at once, instead of a few holes at a time over the next two or three years.

"That's like getting half your meal good and the other half bad," said Ray Dznowski, general manager at Tampa Palms Golf & Country. "If you make the commitment to do it, which our company did, you go do it."

In the meantime, the club has arranged for members to play at several area clubs.

"Obviously, that's a financial obligation we took on," said Dznowski. "That does cost an X amount of dollars. But our first focus is on the quality of the golf course for our members. You can't fix it if you don't close it down."

The grass isn't always greener

When Blanchard became Tampa Palms' superintendent of greens in October 1998, he had little trouble identifying the mutated greens. He saw the patchy, dried spots of a green in decline. He said the problem was shared by many clubs that planted earlier versions of Tifdwarf, a kind of Bermuda grass.

The less desirable strain of the hybrid began to dominate as it grew each spring. Turf scientists kept refining Tifdwarf but it was not certified by the U.S. Golf Association until 1991. Tampa Palms planted the grass when the club opened in 1987.

Most clubs must renovate greens every 15 to 20 years, no matter what kind of grass they use, if they want to keep them top-notch.

"I knew that before I came here," said Blanchard. "(It is) very common."

Before arriving at Tampa Palms, Blanchard, 40, spent three years overseeing two 18-hole courses at Westin Innisbrook Resort in Tarpon Springs, where he grew in one of the courses, and has worked at seven golf clubs in the past 14 years.

To be certain, he solicited a second opinion from John Foy, director of the Florida Region for USGA's greens division. The agency offers the service to clubs for a fee that ranges from $1,000 to $2,000.

"We go over anything and everything that affects maintaining the golf course and managing healthy turf and proper conditions for playing the game," Foy said.

In addition to the mutated greens, Foy and Blanchard discovered a drainage problem caused by thatch -- organic debris generated by leaves, stems and branches -- 2 inches thick below the surface. In Florida, Bermuda grass stops growing in the winter, so most clubs must overseed their courses with grass varieties used in colder environments, such as rye.

Foy agreed with Blanchard. They decided to replant with TifEagle, a third-generation Bermuda grass developed specifically for greens. The club made plans to close the course.

"I'm also a golf pro and I saw a lack of consistency in the product that I did not think was acceptable for our members," said Dznowski, the general manager. "Patches without grass, dirt, depending on what time of year it is. The transition from winter grass to summer grass was really tough on the course."

'The best greens in the Tampa area'

On May 15, Blanchard took over the course and has made rapid progress.

"We are almost done with the dirt work," said Blanchard on the first morning of June. "A quarter way done with the irrigation. That's not bad for two weeks."

While steering his golf cart, Blanchard talked about golf course grasses the way a sommelier discusses grapes. The club grows 410 Bermuda on the fairways and roughs, 328 Bermuda on the tees. And of course, the mutated Tifdwarf on the greens.

"This is a very high pressure business," Blanchard said. "Bermuda grass needs eight hours of sunlight each day."

Pressure is hardly a new concept to Blanchard, a former quarterback at Auburn University in the early 1980s. Even though he now slings sprigs, he knows that leading an offense still comes down to a series of intricate steps.

Leading a crew of nine and two crews of subcontractors, Blanchard began the task by stripping off old greens. With a small bulldozer they scraped away the grass and 4 inches of soil to remove all the contaminated area below.

Next, they began laying a mix of 90 percent sand and 10 percent Canadian peat.

Over the ensuing weeks, another expert will cut and shape the new dirt to match the course's original contours.

Then pesticide crews will fumigate the ground with methyl bromide to sterilize the soil and eliminate insects, rodents or pests.

"It has to air out for 48 to 72 hours," Blanchard said. "It is highly toxic."

Blanchard hopes to begin planting by mid July, but the schedule will depend on the weather. During the first 60 days, the new greens will require an average of 300,000 gallons of water each day. The course has a permit for up to 475,000 gallons, but must wait until the city lifts its current drought restrictions.

"Have to keep it wet the whole time," said Blanchard. "They are so fragile, if they dry out for one day, they will die."

After wetting the ground, crews begin hand shaking the TifEagle sprigs at 30 bushels per 1,000 square feet on the 3 acres of greens, a total of 3,900 bushels.

"Have to completely cover the surface," Blanchard said. "You don't want to leave a gap of more than an inch and a half. First two weeks, just sits there and it looks like there's nothing. Then all of the sudden, it takes off."

Complex fertilizations sets the stage. The day before planting, a layer high in phosphorus goes down, to help develop the roots. After sprigging comes an organic blend with microorganisms to break the fertilizer down, since the soil's natural microbes were destroyed during fumigation.

After the sprigs are planted, a regular fertilizing rotation begins every three or four days, switching from a blend of nitrogen and potassium with minor nutrients to a blend of ammonium sulfate.

"Every three days we spoon-feed the material to the greens," Blanchard said.

Once the sprigs root, crews begin to gently mow the nascent greens to encourage the grass to spread laterally. As it grows in, crews begin regular rolling to compact the playing surface.

"I believe the combination of what we are doing will provide us with the best greens in the Tampa area," Blanchard said. "Quite frankly, some members were embarrassed to bring guests here. We are going to turn that around. We want to make it a place where they are proud to bring guests and family."

-- Michael Sandler can be reached at 226-3472 or

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