Ross Bridge, one of the top-rated golf courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course in Alabama, suffered a debilitating chemical accident that poisoned most of the greens on the layout at Hoover near Birmingham.
Much of the 18-hole course has been closed indefinitely as crews try to save portions of paving surfaces in hopes of running the course at a certain capacity during the fall, winter and early spring.
Earlier in September, the maintenance team thought a one-ton bag of herbicide-fertilizer mixture represented a bag of green sand that was to be applied to backfill roofs. The herbicide spread across greens 5-18, killing a lot of the bent weeds on those roofs. John Cannon, president of Sunbelt Golf Corporation, which operates the 26 Trail courses at 11 locations, said the bag of herbicides had been stored in the wrong building prior to the accident. He said the herbicide mixture can appear green to the naked eye, similar to a mixture that was supposed to spread across greens.
“It was just the wrong product in the wrong place, and it should never have happened,” Cannon said. “It’s an experimental error, there’s no doubt about that.”
The charcoal will be injected into the greens this week to try and form a filter layer, giving the remaining grass a better chance of spreading. If this method works, the course can be reopened at some capacity for this winter. In the meantime, holes 1-4 are undamaged and are now open, forming a playable ring back to the club. Practice facilities remain open.
“Ross Bridge has a very large green area, so we know we’re not going to get 100 percent coverage even in the best of conditions,” Cannon said. “It’s really about seeing the progress we can make in the next month or so without playing on the golf course.”
Regardless of these efforts, the course will be replenished with new laying decks beginning in the spring of 2023. Operators have already planned to refurbish greens from bent grass to Ultradwarf Bermuda grass at Ross Bridge in 2024, and those plans have been accelerated. Greens will be removed and reforested, and other improvement projects such as clearing trees in key areas will begin ahead of schedule.
“We just hope we take what we have, which internally is a true 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.”
The timetable for greens regeneration has not been set, but work could begin in April or even sooner if existing roofs do not recover sufficiently after coal injection. Cannon said vegetable regeneration should be completed with full growth before October of next year to anticipate any potential cold weather and early freezes.
Ross Bridge was ranked fourth in the state of Alabama in history List of the best golfweek courses you can play of public access layouts in the US and adjacent to the AAA Four Diamond Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort & Spa, just minutes from Oxmoor Valley, another track facility featuring two full 18-hole courses (ridge and valley) with a renovated short course set to become online This year.
Cannon said the chemical incident would not only affect playtimes at Ross Bridge, it would affect hotel reservations and send more play to Oxmoor Valley. The overall economic impact of the accident on the track cannot yet be predicted, but could run into the millions of dollars. “The acceleration of[the Greens renewal]for a year changes the entire capital plan for the course for the next two years,” Cannon said.
The track was designed by David Brunner, CEO of Alabama Pension Systems, in the 1980s as a way to boost economic growth and diversify the state’s pension fund. It expanded in the following decades As one of the most popular buddy trip destinations in the United States, golfers can hop from one location to another through golf courses, hotels, restaurants, and other amenities.
Trail operators are experienced in turning native green curved turf into Ultradwarf Bermuda, whose strains have been greatly improved in recent decades. Cannon said only four laps on the road, excluding Ross Bridge, still had curved lawn greens. His team oversaw the renovations of more than a dozen courses for the Bermuda Greens, which he said provide a better surface year-round without suffering the same amount of stress as the bent greens in the hot Alabama summer.
“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 some other projects,” Cannon said. “That is our ultimate goal in this project, it is not about what actually happened but what we can achieve from it that is most important to us. …
“This is the biggest accident we’ve had on any of the Trail golf courses in 25 years, and things like this happen, but we’re going to make the most of it and we’re going to improve Ross Bridge.”