'Transition Zone' courses betting on new bentgrass

Alamance Country Club — Pure Eclipse
Alamance Country Club, located in central North Carolina, is part of the Transition Zone, where turfgrasses struggle to adapt to the changing warm and cool seasons.

In a region where heat, humidity and freezing temperatures can wreak havoc on a golf course's greens, 2 North Carolina clubs become nation's 1st to implement Pure Eclipse bentgrass that has been in making since 2008.

Grass seed research isn’t necessarily the sexy side of the golf industry. It can often take a decade or so for breeding programs to produce a product worthy of placing on some of the nation’s best greens or fairways.

Such was the case with a bentgrass named Pure Eclipse, which is the new super heat tolerant “cool season” grass that has now been executed on the greens at Raleigh Country Club and Alamance Country Club in central North Carolina.

This area of the country is what agronomists have dubbed the “Transition Zone,” meaning summer temperatures can reach the high 90s with equal humidity for months and winter freezes also take place, stressing out the bentgrass in the summer months and doing the same to Bermuda greens in the colder months.

In recent years, many golf courses in the Transition Zone have gone to exclusively using new strains of Bermuda on their greens, producing a better putting surface for the meat of the golf season but having to cover them with tarps when temperatures plummet to 32 degrees or lower. It’s a trade off of sorts.

Raleigh CC and Alamance CC, the last two designs of legendary architect Donald Ross and separated by less than an hour’s drive, decided to head in a different direction recently as both private clubs underwent major renovations. Instead of Bermudagrass on its new greens, the two clubs opted to become the first in the world to use Pure Eclipse bentgrass on all 18 greens.

“New varieties of grasses get a lot of interest, but that interest really takes off once somebody does plant it,” said Dr. Melodee Fraser, a world renowned turfgrass breeder and the longtime director of Pure-Seed Testing East. “Both of these courses have taken the plunge.

“As far as Raleigh Country Club, I always had the idea from them that they weren’t concerned about being the first, if they felt like it was the best grass they were going with it. It is kind of a big step for somebody to be the first to plant this, especially when you’re talking about your greens.”

The Pure-Seed Testing East site sits on 25 acres in rural Rolesville, N.C., and features thousands of plots of grass for golf course superintendents and others to examine. The fact that the facility, which has been around for more than 30 years, was about a 20-minute ride for the Raleigh CC agronomists helped with clarity when it came to selecting a grass for its new greens.

“They looked at the turf over time,” Fraser said. “A lot of times the plots are not marked and they would say ‘What’s that?’ or ‘What is that over there?’ Well, that’s the same thing, I would say. When they do that enough times they start to gravitate toward one grass. Pure Eclipse hasn’t just performed well here, it has been in national tests so it has been evaluated all over the country and has done well.”

Dr. Melodee Fraser — Pure Seed
Dr. Melodee Fraser, director of research at Pure-Seed Testing East, says the new Pure Eclipse bentgrass has been developmental process since 2008.

Michael Shoun, the director of agronomy for McConnell Golf, knew company founder John McConnell was partial to bentgrass greens, so he recognized his marching orders early on into the Raleigh CC $5.5 million golf course renovation project, which was completed in late October 2020. 

“When we first started talking about this project we contacted Dr. Fraser because I had known her for a long time, and explained that we were looking at bentgrass,” Shoun said. “She said ‘I have all these grasses, come up and take a look anytime you want to.”’

Shoun and his Raleigh CC superintendent Billy Cole took Fraser up on her offer, and then some. They made several dozen trips to the grass farm to narrow its choice.

“We took the 15-20 minute ride in the spring, in the summer, different times of the year just to look at the different grasses,” Shoun said. “There are all of these 4-by-4 plots of grass and every time we went up there the Pure Eclipse plots always seemed to look the best -- color-wise and it handled the mowing. She told us flat out that she has been doing this for 38 years and had never seen a bentgrass of this quality. Coming from somebody who is that much of a specialist, well, it meant a lot to us.”

Peter Horn, the superintendent at Alamance CC, also made numerous trips to Rolesville to check out the progress of the new bentgrass and even grabbed some to put on a nursery green at the Burlington course for a daily first-hand look at its performance.   

“I know it’s new, but I pulled the string on choosing it at the 13th hour of our project,” Horn said. “I guess I kind of like trying new things, and so far it has done well.”

Fraser has been in the seed business for more than three decades, but acknowledges it’s still exciting each time a product comes to market. The original testing for Pure Eclipse began in 2008, she said.  

“You bet I go to those two golf courses and visit them because it’s very satisfying,” Fraser said. “It’s very exciting to see the seed in a bag going out with its name on it.  Sometimes I’m watching a football game on TV and it’s like ‘Hey they are playing on our ryegrass’ or watching a golf tournament on TV and say ‘Hey those are our greens.”’

“We’ll see if we’re visionaries or will be changing our philosophy (to Bermudagrass),” McConnell said of the new bentgrass greens. “It won’t take long to figure that out.”

Yep, probably one hot and humid North Carolina summer will provide some insight.