Conquering winterkill at Sedgefield Country Club

North Carolina superintendent Chad Cromer and his staff returned a winterkill-ravaged landscape to a work of art in just three months.

| | Originally posted on Greensboro News & Record

Winterkill golf course
The effects of winterkill on the No. 12 green at Sedgefield Country Club. This photo, taken in April 2018, shows part of the damage that required 20,000 square feet of greens to be re-plugged by hand. In addition, 5 acres of damaged fairways had to be re-sodded. Photo courtesy of Sedgefield Country Club

The crops are saved. The 79th annual Wyndham Championship is, too.

While many people in the Sedgefield community consider it to be a miracle, superintendent Chad Cromer saw it as his job. Like a farmer saving the fields of grain just before harvest, Cromer and his staff turned a disaster into a work of art, just in time for the community’s biggest event of the year.

This week, the club invites a world of golfers and golf fans to experience the last tournament of the PGA Tour regular season on pristine fairways and on what many pros believe to be the best putting greens on tour.

They’ll be surprised to know anything was amiss when they get here. Had they seen the 1926 Donald Ross masterpiece in Greensboro, N.C., a couple of months ago, they would’ve never believed it possible.

The 79th Wyndham Championship was in peril.

“It was bad,” Cromer says. “But we didn’t have time to sit around.”

He didn’t think like a golfer — he thought like a farmer. Which, in a sense, all golf course superintendents are. Grass is a crop, and by April at Sedgefield, the crop was devastated. The golf course looked like a moonscape, gray and burned out from winterkill, a condition caused by crop exposure to extreme cold. All over the South, golf courses closed from the widespread effects of a January blast of Arctic air, a 100-year-record cold streak that saw temperatures drop and stay below freezing for nine straight days.

Sedgefield took it hard. Fairways died and grass in the shaded areas and low-lying areas ceased to exist almost overnight. The famous Donald Ross greens withered and wilted.

“We ended up having to replace 5 acres of turf on the golf course and had to replace about 20,000 square feet on the greens,” says Cromer, an 18-year GCSAA member.

He had to be decisive. He had to be creative. And he had to be fast.

“We were scared,” says Sedgefield director of golf Rocky Brooks. “Everybody was.”

When the bermudagrass began to emerge from dormancy in spring, the nightmare revealed itself. And that’s when the panic set in.

“What are we going to do?” Brooks wondered. “We have a tournament in 90 days.”

Cromer didn’t have time to panic.

“Once we realized the scope of it, we put our heads together and came up with a plan,” he says. “We talked to Bland Cooper, the PGA Tour agronomist, and we decided the plan we had in place was the best for us, the tournament, the membership and everybody, and it worked out great. My staff just killed it this year.”

It sounds so simple now. And the golf course is absolutely perfect. Not a blade of grass out of shape. Not a sign that Sedgefield was a ruined landscape just three months ago.

Cromer was up against time and the elements, both working against him and his staff. The plan was difficult because Sedgefield doesn’t have a nursery for emergency grass. To keep the integrity of the greens, he would have to plug. In other words, he had to farm the greens back into shape, taking small samples from surviving areas of the greens and literally sprigging grass plugs by hand every 2 inches or so, 20,000 square feet on 18 greens.

“We didn’t bring in any grass from outside,” Brooks says. “We used our own grass. And it worked.”

It was, in the eyes of many, a miraculous success. Cromer says it was just a crop plan that worked to perfection.

“It was an extremely tedious process,” he says. “In May, we did our aerification on the greens, and once we did that, everything grew into place to where you can’t see any blemish — no sign that there was ever any damage. That was our end goal, to not have the membership or the tournament or anybody know that there was ever any damage on the greens.”

Despite the winterkill, despite drought conditions in June and July and a recent deluge of rain, Cromer’s plan for an agronomic recovery has saved Donald Ross’ work of art.

And the Wyndham, too.

“You’re talking about 150,000 plugs of grass," Brooks says. “And him and his team to pull that off and then having 5 acres of sod in the fairways and on the tee boxes and the surrounds and have it look like it is right now? It’s unbelievable. I never thought we’d get here. I thought it was too big of a task. And he pulled it off.”

Golf courses are, in a sense, farms. Grass is a plant. It has to be fed and nurtured, and sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t play fair.

The people at Sedgefield consider Cromer a miracle worker, and they credit him and his staff for saving the club itself from a disaster from which some clubs and courses never really recover. But he didn’t have time to think of the bigger picture or to consider what might have happened if his plan didn’t work.

Chad Cromer is a farmer, in that sense. His crop was in danger, and he didn’t have time to be depressed or scared or daunted.

He and his staff saved the 79th Wyndham Championship with their bare hands.