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Two-thirds of the greens at London Hunt suffered severely after the winter. (GEOFF ROBINS For The Globe and Mail)
Two-thirds of the greens at London Hunt suffered severely after the winter. (GEOFF ROBINS For The Globe and Mail)

How to turn a wasteland into verdant golfing greens Add to ...

When the ice and snow finally melted at the London Hunt and Country Club after the longest and coldest winter the area had suffered in decades, golf course superintendent Jayson Griffiths stood before a wasteland.

To look around today at the site of this week’s Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, there’s no trace of the nightmare Griffiths and his grounds crew faced just five months before hosting the world’s best female golfers. The unrelenting Ontario winter put this course and hundreds of others under dense ice and heavy snow for about three months with no relief, suffocating the grasses and killing off three of their four acres of greens. With time ticking ahead of the August arrival of the LPGA, London Hunt’s crew had to breathe life into the barren, desert-like greens and bring them back to their vibrant, carpet-like championship form.

Griffiths, like many golf-course superintendents in Southern Ontario, began to suspect a particularly brutal and problematic winter was ahead when October was cold with little sunshine and leaves were staying on the trees far longer than usual. Then snow walloped London, Ont., in late November. Then, while other parts of Ontario suffered a catastrophic late December ice storm, London got heavy rain and snow, which melted but froze when temperatures plummeted dramatically as the calendar turned. Thick ice covered the golf course and didn’t leave until late March.

“On the greens, it was carnage: No sign of life, absolutely devastating. Ask any superintendent in the northeast, and they’ll tell you it was the most devastating winter we’ve seen in generations,” said 42-year-old Griffiths, who has been working on golf courses since he was 15. “The grass on our greens was a species called poa annua, which is found on older golf courses, and it doesn’t like extreme temperatures or ice cover. Anything over 30 days of ice is a ticking clock.”

Moving that much ice and snow from the massive greens in the dead of winter would have been nearly impossible, not to mention it would have further exposed the grass to the extreme cold.

“So you bide your time and keep taking plugs of grass to check the health,” said Griffiths. “We knew as the clock kept ticking, the situation was really bad.”

What they saw in spring was a far cry from the immaculate 7,200-yard championship course that has hosted numerous major tournaments since it was designed in 1959, including Canadian Opens for men and women. There was some damage to the fairways, but that was the least of their problems. Two-thirds of the greens suffered severely – many of those with more than 90 per cent brown dead space. Only two greens had less than 10 per cent damage.

They held a town hall to discuss with the club’s members – play on the greens would have to be suspended, which would mean temporary greens tacked onto fairways and late openings to the golf season. Griffiths kept a detailed blog, filled with photos, to keep club membership and the LPGA’s organizers updated as they dove into their recovery plan.

Griffiths said resodding would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – sod was nearly impossible to find, anyway, with so many North American golf courses recovering from catastrophic winterkill. So they opted to reseed with bent grass, a hardier species in times of extreme weather. Seeding would cost just a few thousand dollars but required a highly detailed plan.

They chose to seed in late April, but there were challenges to overcome. The spring was colder than usual, it was windy and there was still frost underground from the long winter, which meant the course irrigation system wasn’t ready yet. So they seeded strategically, pressed the seeds underground with rollers, and covered all the greens with perforated plastic blankets spanning about 10,000 feet each to simulate the warmer temperatures Mother Nature wasn’t yet providing. They crossed their fingers for just enough rain until they could get their sprinklers going.

“We kept peeking under the covers – Day 5, nothing growing, Day 7, Day 11, still nothing, and you start doubting, because we only had one kick at the can to make it happen,” said Griffiths, consulting his groundskeeper’s notebook. “On Day 12, finally, we saw tiny rows of perfect green shoots, thank goodness. It finally germinated.”

Then the endless hours of feeding and caring for the tender new grass began – the watering, feeding and rolling. They withheld play on the greens until the seedlings got stronger. Some of the old poa annua returned to the beds as well, so they tended to two species. It was June 27 before all 18 greens were open for play at London Hunt.

“I came to play a practice round in the spring, and I just got to hit, like, two greens then, so knowing the condition that it was in then, and now, I can see how much work they had to put into it,” said Canadian LPGA golfer Rebecca-Lee Bentham. “They did an amazing job.”

This week, the London course has a chorus of early-morning lawn mowers moving steadily across vibrant greens, where contenders such as Lydia Ko, Stacey Lewis and Inbee Park will contend.

“From Day 1, when we came out and saw the winterkill damage, it was bleak, but Jayson assured us not to worry and he put our mind and the LPGA’s mind at ease,” said Brent McLaughlin, director of the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open. “Slowly, every visit we made, the condition was getting better and better. Now, I think this course is the best-conditioned golf course the LPGA will see all year.”

The Canadian Golf Superintendents Association awarded Griffiths with a plaque earlier this week to recognize the recovery work.

“Failure wasn’t an option,” said Griffiths. “It wasn’t just us; there were so many success stories of crews who recovered their golf courses after that terrible winter. We just happened to be the one hosting the [Canadian Pacific] Women’s Open. It just took a good team, a good plan and a lot of patience and persistence.”

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