The bunkers that have coal instead of sand in them

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:35

The bunkers that have coal instead of sand in them

Built in 1982, The Briarwood Golf Course, an 18-hole privately owned golf course Stateside in Montana, covers 350 acres, of which 300 acres are maintained.

Trouble-shooting was superintendent Sean Sullivan’s first task when he arrived in Billings, Montana from Georgia in 2002, as the course had gone from ‘number one’ status in the mid-1990s to its lowest rating.

Sullivan explains: “I was brought in to try to stop the bleeding and put the country club back on track. In this part of Montana there may not be many golf courses but there is still considerable competition on getting the membership.”

Following the redesign of some of the greens’ complexes, bunker renovation was next on the agenda. And this is where Sullivan had a radical plan. He says: “All other golf courses in our area had undergone renovation and they had used white sand.

“I was looking for a hook to draw in new membership and I had seen a couple of courses in North Dakota using coal slag. They were near a tower plant where the slag is a by-product of burning lignite coal. It is almost jet black and looks like glossy glass.”

The product had proved very suitable as a sand replacement for bunkers as it is dense, does not blow around in the wind and weeds cannot grow through it. The price was similar to white sand and nearly all 300 members of the club voted in favour of the material, with only one or two gripes. So the club went ahead and started the process last year and work was completed early in the spring.

An environmentally-sound solution, Sullivan says: “It was a fantastic project, as it brought us a lot of media attention from TV and newspapers because of the novelty of black bunkers.”

It is when people are flying into Billings airport that they get the most striking view of the bunkers. Sullivan adds: “The comparison between the glossy black and the green grass in spring and summer is absolutely wonderful, unbelievable.”

The golf course is two different designs, with the front nine tree-lined parkland and the back nine changing elevation through a series of hills and ridges. Between the lowest point on the front of the course and the lowest spot on the back there is a 350ft change of elevation.

Billings is in a flood plain from the Yellowstone River and with snow and rainfall there is around 14 inches of moisture a year, but the area is classed as semi-desert with very low humidity. Irrigation here is a must, as areas not watered switch to dirt instead of any type of grass.

“One of my first priorities was getting enough water to the golf course to solve grass problems,” says Sullivan.

A 2.5 miles long pipeline pumps water from the Yellowstone River through some hills to the golf course and this is then stored in irrigation lakes. But that in itself was another issue, more than one million gallons of water can be applied in a night and with the amount of salt in the water this meant that by the next day the grass started to wilt from the salt. This created a lot of thatch and bare areas.

With an alkaline soil, the main grasses on the course are bent grass on the greens with Kentucky bluegrass and ryegrass on the fairways and rough. A sulphur burner has been purchased to adjust the pH of the water and lower the pH of the soil.

Sullivan is positive: “Luckily we do not have disease problems. I have switched to new salt tolerant, drought tolerant ryegrasses and we have started to experiment with slender creeping fescues like those used in Scotland.”

Wanting to improve course presentation, Sullivan is looking into a sharpening system to increase standards. He already owns a 1960 vintage bedknife grinder from the Bernhard stable. He says: “This area of the US is more unusual in that every golf course does not own a grinder, but you need to if you want the course to look its best.”

Fairway units are John Deere, with all other mowers for the rough, greens and tees Toro. Greens are aerated twice a year and the rest of the golf course one to three times, depending on weather conditions.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:35
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