Ross Bridge, one of the top-ranked golf courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, has suffered a debilitating chemical mishap that poisoned most of the greens on the layout in Hoover near Birmingham.
Much of the 18-hole course is closed indefinitely as crews attempt to save portions of the putting surfaces in hopes of operating the course at some capacity over the fall, winter and early spring.
Earlier in September, the maintenance staff mistook a 1-ton bag of herbicide and fertilizer mix for a bag of green sand that was to be applied to the putting surfaces. The herbicide was spread across the greens of Nos. 5-18, 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, chairman of Sunbelt Golf Corporation that operates the Trail’s 26 courses at 11 sites. He said the herbicide mix could appear as being green to the naked eye, similar to the mix that was supposed to be spread across the greens.
“It was just the wrong product in the wrong place, and it should never have happened,” Cannon said. “It’s pilot error, no doubt about it.”
Charcoal will be injected into the greens this week to try to form a filter layer, giving the surviving grass a better chance to spread. If that method works, the course could reopen in some capacity for this winter. In the meantime, holes 1-4 were undamaged and are open now, forming a playable loop that returns to the clubhouse. The practice facilities remain open.
“Ross Bridge has very large greens, so we know we’re not going to get 100-percent coverage even in the best circumstances,” Cannon said. “It really is about seeing what progress we can make in the next month or so without having play on the golf course.”
Regardless of those efforts, the course will be renovated with new putting surfaces starting in the spring of 2023. Operators already planned to renovate the greens from bent grass to Ultradwarf Bermuda grass at Ross Bridge in 2024, and those plans have been accelerated. The greens will be cored out and regrassed, and other improvement projects such as tree clearing in key areas will commence 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 difficult times like this.”
The timeline for the greens renovation has not been set, but work could begin in April or even earlier if the current surfaces don’t recover sufficiently after the charcoal injections. Cannon said the greens renovation would need to be completed with full grow-in before October next year to get ahead of any possible cold weather and early freezes.
Ross Bridge ranks No. 4 in Alabama on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list of public-access layouts in the U.S. It is adjacent to the AAA Four Diamond Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort and Spa, just minutes down the street 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 will not only affect tee times at Ross Bridge, Cannon said, it will affect bookings at the hotel and send more play to Oxmoor Valley. The accident’s total economic impact for the Trail cannot yet be projected, but it could reach into the millions of dollars. “Accelerating (the greens renovation) by a year changes the whole capital plan for the Trail for the next two years,” Cannon said.
The Trail was conceived by David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, in the 1980s as a way to boost economic growth and diversify the state’s pension fund. It has expanded in the ensuing decades as one of the most popular buddies-trip destinations in the U.S., with golfers able to bounce from site to site with consistently solid golf courses, hotels, restaurants and other amenities.
The Trail’s operators are experienced in converting original bent grass greens to Ultradwarf Bermuda, strains 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 said provide a better putting surface year-round without suffering as much stress as do bent greens in Alabama’s hot summers.
“We know we can build high-quality Ultradwarf greens that our customers will appreciate all year round, and at the same time while we’re closed we have the opportunity to do some other projects,” Cannon said. “That’s our final goal in this project, and it’s not about what already happened but what we can make out of it that’s the most important to us. …
“This is the biggest accident we’ve ever had to 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 we’re going to improve Ross Bridge.”