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Sometimes someone performs an arduous task at such a high level that they make others forget about the challenges they are overcoming.
Steve Wilson fits this description.
Wilson is the superintendent of Millburn Country Club, a 105-year-old private club nestled in a neighborhood of Overland Park, Kansas. A William Langford design, Millburn features a mix of holes playing left and right, rolling zoysiagrass fairways and a desirable balance of shade, strategy, scenic views and turf health achieved through a decade of thoughtful tree management.
The club supports a charming golf course where the greatest charm resides above and below the lowest surfaces. The greens are spacious with a sustainable slope. They look like something Langford probably designed during the golden age of golf course architecture. “These are cool greens and they kind of do the golf course,” Wilson says.
Work with a Kansas City-based architect Todd Clark, Millburn has carefully improved various parts of the course with one exception. Instead of rebuilding its four acres of greens to USGA specifications, Millburn opts to keep its lovely push-up greens intact. Clark advocates sticking to a good thing as long as managing A1/A4 bentgrass surfaces doesn’t overburden Wilson and his team.
“Architecturally, I love greens,” says Clark. “They’re great. If the agronomy works and Steve can handle them the way he does, I wouldn’t touch the greens. It’s the character of the golf course and it would be difficult to hollow them out and put them back in place And you probably can’t keep those slopes if you go to the USGA greens.There are some severe greens, but that’s what Millburn is.
Stern, yet beloved greens built for another era. A growing environment in a transition zone. Expectations of private clubs.
In typical superintendent fashion, Wilson uses humility and science to describe how his team overcomes significant odds, particularly in July and August, to produce elite push-up greens.
“It’s a lot more stressful in the heat of the summer,” Wilson said. “We probably handle the water a little differently than someone with USGA greens. We go out with them and do the good old fashioned light squirt two or three times in the afternoon, which a lot of courses with USGA greens and the newer bents have been able to get away from. They will let them wither and then strike those places. We don’t seem to bounce back when we get to this point.
A 7 inch layer of sand has accumulated around the native clay soil. Wilson concedes that Millburn’s greens will “never take root” like a USGA-built green, although seven years of a steady program of drilling and backfilling helps the surfaces withstand weather variations. Overland Park averages 42 inches of annual precipitation, 4 inches above the U.S. average, according to the National Weather Service. The average July high is 88 degrees; the average January low is 20 degrees.
The growing season begins around April 1. Wilson says Millburn “airs out a little early” for the Kansas City area, with the process occurring in late March or early April depending on the weather. Drilling and backfilling are also carried out in early April. Light scarifying and topdressing are regular practices until the summer turns hot. Wilson reduces mechanical stress at this point.
The greens are again aerated in the fall to what Wilson describes as “closer core spacing” than the spring aeration. Practices such as grooming and scarifying resume when summer temperatures cool. Wilson estimates that about 10% of green surfaces are covered with Annual poa and he turned to PoaCure to help reduce that total. “We try to get everything poah we have off greens,” he said.
Wilson arrived at Millburn in 2013 and Pythium root rot has become the biggest disease his team faces. “Our guest member is early to mid-June and we’re going to be drying the greens and stressing them for it,” he says. “It seems like when we come out of it, that’s when we see Pythium root rot. Brown spot and dollar spot are other health issues. Wilson relies on a preventative spray program to keep playing surfaces healthy.
Winter golf is common in Kansas City, and Millburn uses its regular greens instead of temporary surfaces when play is in December, January, or February. Like many clubs, Millburn have seen an increase in play almost every season for the past two years.
Membership is full. The club, which suffered a clubhouse fire in 2010, has approved plans to build a new maintenance facility to replace its current 62-year-old structure.
The return on investment for the management of large green spaces has never been so high.
Guy Cipriano is the editor of Golf Course Industry.