TOWER- The calendar is an odd sort of beast for Ryan VerNess, course superintendent at The Wilderness golf course at Fortune Bay Resort Casino. Spring begins in the fall, as it must if the …
TOWER- The calendar is an odd sort of beast for Ryan VerNess, course superintendent at The Wilderness golf course at Fortune Bay Resort Casino. Spring begins in the fall, as it must if the championship-level destination layout is to meet the high expectations of those teeing up balls for the May 7 season opener.
“The way you put it to bed dictates how it will wake up in the spring,” VerNess said.
For VerNess and his crew, water is both friend and foe, nourishing the bent grass greens, fairways, and tee boxes during the playing season, but threatening to wreak havoc in the off-season.
“Your biggest concern here is moisture and freezing, so what you need to do is to get that water moving down,” VerNess said.
The process begins in the fall by removing thatch that would hold excess moisture, and then VerNess turns each green into a sieve by poking thousands of holes into it. One run of his specialized equipment lays down holes eight inches deep, spread four inches apart. Another run creates smaller holes, four inches deep and spaced two inches apart. Then comes a blanket of green sand intended to protect the grass from the cold, wind, and snow of winter, help with water filtration, and provide a growing medium in the spring.
“It’s just a colored sand. In the spring it helps get more heat to build up soil temperatures,” VerNess said.
The final step is to spray on fungicides to prevent what VerNess called gray and pink snow molds.
“You spray, and then you pray that you get snow first, without rain and ice, and then you start to count,” VerNess said. “Once you get your spray down, you start counting about 140 days. That’s how long your application is going to be most effective. If you get past that window, you start to get nervous.”
Similar but different and less intensive processes are used to prepare the tees and fairways for winter. Greens get the most attention, VerNess said, because they’re “the moneymaker” for the course.
General manager and PGA head golf professional Ryan Peterson said that the nerves kicked in this past fall before the countdown even started.
“Last fall was a little touchy because snow came and never left,” he said. “Thank God it warmed up and melted so we could finish what we needed to do before the snow came and stayed for good. So, we were a little scared last year.”
But the winter was generally kind, the snow retreated early, and the maintenance crew is off to a good start in prepping the course for the true spring opener.
“On the greens themselves, we do almost the same things we did in the fall, minus the spraying,” VerNess said. “You still have the same issues with water movement, and you want to have a good growing medium.”
That means more hole poking everywhere, but there’s also some hole filling going on. Golfers leave divots, gashes in the turf, behind them, and spring provides the opportunity to repair them.
Machines are used to do most of the work for greens, fairways and tees, but when it comes to taking care of the course’s 62 bunkers it’s a different story.
“Bunkers are a huge, huge labor issue,” VerNess said. “Repairing the bunkers in the spring is essentially a week-long process. They’re going to get leaves and debris. They’ll have growth on their edges. You have to clean up all the edges and seed the bunker faces to get them to look good.”
Underlying it all is the close attention paid to good environmental and conservation practices.
“The golf course uses the same mindset as Bois Forte – we want to protect the land. The golf course will do whatever it can to do that,” Peterson said.
As a designated Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, a status first achieved in 2005, course practices for environmental planning, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, outreach and education, and wildlife and habitat management have been evaluated and certified by Audubon International. The course is also a participant in Monarchs in the Rough, a collaborative effort of hundreds of golf courses to provide habitat and implement best practices for monarch butterflies along their migration routes.
“We’re doing things like using more recyclable stuff, more biodegradable stuff, whether you’re talking restaurant supplies or golf tees,” Peterson said. “We use bamboo tees because bamboo grows much quicker and it’s more renewable than trees.”
VerNess said he uses organic fertilizers, and last year he replaced about 20 sprinkler heads with ones that deliver a more focused pattern to minimize water use.
And VerNess carries another key to water conservation right in his pocket. From an app on his cell phone, he can control every sprinkler head on the course individually. Using both visual observations and sophisticated soil moisture measurements, VerNess can adjust the flow and timing of a sprinkler head to exactly what a specific area of grass needs and no more.
VerNess plans to shift away from gas and diesel-powered equipment to electric in future years, and it’s likely more technologically sophisticated equipment guided by GPS systems for more precision will be in the mix as well.
If the 2020 summer of COVID is any indication of what this summer will be, and Peterson believes it is, golfers who want the best tee times should probably plan ahead.
“Something outside was one of the things you could do, and you could do it socializing with some friends on the golf course,” Peterson said, noting that the Wilderness was up by eight percent over 2019. “Golf was huge last year across the country. We expect it to be again. Our future bookings look fantastic.”
Director of Sales and Marketing Rachel Indihar said that emphasis given to implementing strong COVID protocols at Fortune Bay and the golf course was an essential element of their success in attracting people to the course.
“We wanted to be straightforward and tell them that we care about COVID, we want you to be safe, we want you to have fun,” Indihar said. “You want to find that balance, you want to find ways to make it safe but still make it enjoyable for them when they come here because it’s their vacation. We have several things in place that we’ve tried, and most of them I think we’ve stuck with if they worked well.”
But COVID has also had its downsides.
“What’s hurt the most is that you have to take back the level of service that you’re used to giving and that you want to give the customer,” Peterson said. “Now we’re talking with masks and I can’t see if somebody’s smiling or not. I can’t bring a cart to somebody’s car and help them with their bags. We can’t have the water coolers and other things out that are amenities.”
They even had to remove the rakes from the sand traps to prevent multiple unsanitized hands from touching the handles.
But the critical element for good service still remains.
“People want to come here, choose to come here because of the service, because of the golf course, and none of that happens without people,” VerNess said.
So, golf season is about to begin, but there’s still more to do to get the course in tip top shape.
“The opening of the golf course doesn’t stop on May 7, it’s a process,” VerNess said. “There’s still a bucket list and to-do lists. We don’t put flowers in until June. It’s a long process. Then you get to the Fourth of July and you’re like alright, let’s start backing everything up and start working towards the spring again – I mean, the fall.”
Or perhaps, in VerNess’s calendar, he really did mean spring. Such is the life of a golf course superintendent.