Ross Bridge, one of the highest-ranked golf courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, suffered a debilitating chemical mishap that poisoned most of the greens on the Hoover layout near Birmingham.
Much of the 18-hole course is closed indefinitely as teams try to salvage portions of the greens’ surfaces in hopes of operating the course at some capacity through the fall, winter and early spring.
In early September, maintenance staff mistook a one-ton bag of herbicide-fertilizer mix for a bag of green sand that was to be applied to putting green surfaces. The herbicide spread across greens from Nos. 5 through 18, killing much of the bent grass on those surfaces. The bag of herbicide had been stored in the wrong building before the mishap, said John Cannon, president of the Sunbelt Golf Corporation, which operates the Trail’s 26 courses at 11 sites. He said the herbicide mixture could appear green to the naked eye, similar to the mixture that was supposed to be spread on vegetables.
“It was just the wrong product in the wrong place, and it never should have happened,” Cannon said. “It’s driver error, there’s no question about it.”
Charcoal will be injected into the greens this week to try to form a filter layer, giving surviving turf a better chance to spread. If that method works, the field could be reopened in some way this winter. Holes 1-4, meanwhile, were undamaged and are now open, forming a playable loop back to the clubhouse. Practice facilities remain open.
The 9th (right) and 18th green at Ross Bridge on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail near Birmingham (Courtesy of Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail/Michael Clemmer)
“Ross Bridge has very large greens, so we know we’re not going to get 100 percent coverage even under the best of circumstances,” Cannon said. “It’s really about seeing what progress we can make in the next month without having to play the golf course.”
Regardless of those efforts, the course will be refurbished with new putting surfaces beginning in the spring of 2023. Operators already planned to refurbish the greens from folded grass to Ultradwarf Bermuda grass at Ross Bridge in 2024, and those plans have been fast-tracked. Greens will be stripped and turfed back in, and other improvement projects, such as deforestation in key areas, will begin ahead of schedule.
“We just hope to take what we have, which internally is a real tragedy, and end up 12 months from now with a better product,” Cannon said. “You have to find the bright spot somewhere when you’re going through tough times like this.”
No timetable has been set for the greens renovation, but work could begin in April or even earlier if the current surfaces do not recover sufficiently after carbon injections. Cannon said the renovation of the greens should be completed with full growth before October next year to get ahead of any possible cold weather and early frosts.
Ross Bridge is ranked No. 4 in Alabama on Golfweek’s Best Courses to Play list of public access layouts in the U.S. It is located next to the AAA Four Diamond Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort and Spa, just minutes from Oxmoor Valley, another trail facility that features two full-size 18-hole courses (Ridge and Valley) with a revamped short course scheduled to come online this year.
The chemical mishap won’t just affect tee times at Ross Bridge, Cannon said, it will affect hotel bookings and send more games to Oxmoor Valley. The full economic impact of the accident on the Trail cannot yet be projected, but could run into the millions of dollars. “Accelerating (the greens renovation) for one year changes the entire capital plan for the Trail for the next two years,” Cannon said.
The Trail was conceived by David Bronner, CEO of Retirement Systems of Alabama, in the 1980s as a way to fuel economic growth and diversify the state’s pension fund. It has expanded in subsequent decades as one of the most popular buddy travel destinations in the US, with golfers hopping from site to site with consistently strong golf courses, hotels, restaurants and other amenities.
Trail operators have experience converting original bentgrass greens into Bermuda Ultradwarf, varieties of which have been greatly improved in recent decades. Only four courses on the trail, not counting Ross Bridge, still have bent grass greens, Cannon said. His team has overseen the renovation of more than a dozen courses to Bermuda greens, which he says provide a better year-round putting surface without as much stress as bent greens in hot Alabama summers. .
“We know we can build high-quality Ultradwarf greens that our customers will appreciate year-round, and at the same time, while we’re closed, we have the opportunity to do other projects,” Cannon said. “That’s our ultimate goal on this project, and it’s not about what’s already happened, but what we can get out of it, what’s most important to us. …
“This is the biggest accident we’ve had at any of the golf courses on the Trail in my 25 years, and things like this happen, but we’re going to make the most of it and improve Ross Puente.”
The story originally appeared on GolfWeek