Golf Courses Trying to Come In From the Cold : Unusually Severe Winter Weather Has Left Many of Them in a Dormant State

Times Staff Writer

Ruined crops and high heating bills weren't the only consequences of the recent cold snaps that have been chilling Southern California.

The unusually severe weather hit the greens and fairways at many golf courses so hard that they remain dormant.

Of particular concern is the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, site of the 1988 Los Angeles Open beginning Feb. 25.

"What we have on our fairways is a grass called kikuyu," said Jerry Hilperts, the new course superintendent at Riviera. "Kikuyu is a warm-season grass. Once the weather turns cold, kikuyu is a little more tolerant than other grasses but it is hard to get back."

Hilperts, however, is optimistic about the recovery of Riviera's greens before the L.A. Open. "Historically, there is always a cold spell in December that sets back the courses and then there's a warm spell to get the fairways back," said Hilperts, who came to Riviera in December from Cherry Hills in Denver. "Right now, the course has started to perk up."

Hilperts has had to deviate from normal procedures by putting down more fertilizer earlier than usual. This, he hopes, will stimulate quick growth when the dormant stage is past.

One might think that Riviera would have an advantage, being so close to the coast. Not so, according to Hilperts.

"One drawback about being on the coast is that Riviera does not get the warmth that other inland courses get," he said. "We suffer because it does not get as hot as quick as it does inland."

There are three types of grass courses in Southern California:

--Bermuda: This is a warm-season grass. The winter dormant stage usually lasts until the beginning of March. Lakeside and Hathaway country clubs are two courses with 100% bermuda grass.

--Kikuyu: This is a warm-season grass that is more aggressive in growth than Bermuda. Imported here from South Africa, it is becoming more and more popular in the Southland because of its vigorous growth.

--Blend: A mixture of bermuda and kikuyu used in many areas.

Most local courses seem to have been affected by the cold, but no more than usual.

Mike Hathaway, former golf superintendent for Riviera and now at the Los Angeles Country Club in West Los Angeles, said that the dormant stage can be a blessing for course superintendents.

"I really don't mind this stage because I don't have to water or mow the course for three or four months," said Hathaway, whose course was ranked among the top 10 in the country in a recent Golf Digest poll.

"The key is not to over-seed . . . to be patient and to just let nature take her course."

Steve Badger, course superintendent at Bel-Air Country Club, helps his course through the dormant stage by keeping it closed in the morning and limiting foot and cart traffic on the greens.

"Because of the frost, common Bermuda courses have gone into a solid dormancy, whereas in more normal times, golf courses with coastal influences flirt with dormancy, going in and out, losing a little bit of color," Badger said.

"But this year because of the freezing conditions, it has caused a complete dormancy."

For the courses to recover completely, a solid warming trend is needed, Badger said. "Air temperatures need to be significantly higher in order to bring up the soil temperature. Warm-season grasses are history once frozen. You just have to be patient and wait."

Golfers have to had to make adjustments in their games, especially on the greens. Said Joe Larkin, assistant manager of the Porter Valley Country Club's pro shop in Northridge: "Our greens have never been this brown so late. The balls do not hold as well on the fairways.

"Our greens were frozen a week after Christmas for three straight days. We have never had three frozen days in a row. Our course is usually frozen once or twice a year. We definitely had a harsh cold spell. Most golfers use winter rules now, where you can move your ball and adjust it to a better lie," Larkin added. "You cannot advance the ball. You can move it back six inches, but no closer to the hole."

Golfers can only hope that a recent warming trend continues. Otherwise, it could be a long dormant season for Southern California courses.

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