ON THE COURSE
Sequoyah National Shifts to Warm Season Grass

About Brannon Burnes
Brannon Burnes has served as superintendent at Sequoyah National since 2014. A native of middle Georgia, he started working on golf courses in high school. Burnes earned a turf degree from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, and later went back to school for a bachelor of science degree in economics from Georgia State University. He has served as superintendent, overseeing grow-ins at both Waterfall Country Club in Clayton, Georgia and The Ridges in Hayesville, North Carolina. He also worked as project manager for the construction and grow-in of a course for Eagles Brooke Country Club in Locust Grove, Georgia.

Sequoyah National Golf Club hired Brannon Burnes as superintendent in the fall of 2014 to oversee a renovation of the golf course. The investment was planned in support of a larger vision to provide a resort destination that also includes the recently expanded and upgraded Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel. The golf course renovation began with several years of turfgrass analysis and testing, ultimately leading to a shift from cool season to warm season grass for much of the course.

About the Course
Built in 2009, Sequoyah National Golf Club in Whittier, North Carolina is a public course under ownership of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The 18-hole par 72 championship course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Notah Begay III, measures 6,600 yards, set against the picturesque backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Because the course was originally designed with bentgrass greens and bluegrass-bentgrass fairways, Burnes was hired in part for his expertise with growing cool season grasses in a similar environment. 

“The tribe wanted to make improvements to elevate the golf course to the level of the $25 million hotel,” Burnes said. “I saw the opportunity to make a huge impact.”

Turfgrass Challenges
Sequoyah National hosted more than 20,000 rounds in 2019, with most of the play occurring between April 1 and October 1. Unfortunately the grass historically looked its worst during peak months, due mainly to heat stress.

“If cool season grass is going to have problems,” Burnes said, “it’s going to happen in the summer months going into the fall, our busiest time of the year.”

With recent trends toward hotter summers, the course’s issues were not likely to subside. “The course is in western North Carolina at only 2,000 feet elevation,” Burnes noted. “The summer of 2016, we had 66 days of 90 degrees or above. The bentgrass greens aren’t an issue—they are well suited for this area—but the bluegrass-bentgrass fairways struggled.”

Turfgrass Solutions
Switching to warm season turfgrass for the fairways, while a logical solution, was far from a simple process. First Burnes and his team researched varietal options.

“We did look at Bermuda, but the tribe wanted this to be a four- or five-star golf course,” Burnes recalled, “and zoysia would set Sequoyah National apart—to be a public golf course, a resort course where anyone can come and experience playing on a fine textured zoysia grass.

“We looked at Zoro, but through some consulting with Merett Alexander (VP of golf course sales at NG Turf), we decided to install some Zeon® zoysia.” Burnes mentioned that Biltmore Forest Country Club in nearby Asheville had successfully converted to Zeon after facing similar challenges with bentgrass fairways.

Zeon is a premium fine-bladed zoysia developed for remarkable shade performance, low thatch production and improved traffic tolerance, perfect for residential and commercial applications in addition to golf courses.

Burnes’ team started by installing Zeon only at a couple sets of tees and a couple approaches.
“We watched it for about four years. We wanted to see how it would do,” Burnes recalled. The results were encouraging. “The zoysia performed very well. We had zero loss.”

Once the team was satisfied that Zeon was the variety for the course, work began to replace the turf at all the tees, fairways and approaches. Burnes strategically planned the order of renovation based on the wide-ranging conditions.

“I wanted the three holes on the north side of the small mountain that we’re on to be the second phase of our project, to give them the longest time to establish during the summer.” The final phase includes three holes on the south facing slope, where ample sunlight and warmer temperatures will boost establishment, despite the approaching fall weather.

Kemper Sports, the management company, hired Robert Trent Jones and Begay Golf along with architect Bruce Carlton to assist with the project. “One of the things we discussed was taking zoysia up to the cart paths so that we could have the freedom to adjust the approaches,” Burnes explained. “If we went in and set an approach line of fescue or Bermuda, that becomes a set line, but we took the Zeon to the cart path and mow it a half inch higher than the fairway. This allows us to adjust if we decide we want to widen an approach or maybe change to a fairway cut around a green. We can adjust any time because it’s all Zeon.”

To date, all but the last two holes have been re-grassed, and reviews from the tribe and visitors so far have been overwhelmingly positive. Burnes says that the renovation will attract new visitors as well. “People who have never played the course will come just to have the experience of playing on zoysia. It’s a grass that not a lot of people get the opportunity to play on.”

Ongoing Project
Although the turfgrass installation is almost complete, Burnes says the project is far from over. “There will be a lot of adjustments that we will have to make as we go along.” Changes have already been made to cultural practices like plant growth regulator (PGR) applications and mowing, for example.

“If you spray some of the popular PGRs used on bentgrass greens during the transition when zoysia is ready to green up, you can really stunt zoysia if you’re not careful. We knew we would have to make PGR adjustments for all the greens once we had zoysia around all of them.”

The switch to zoysia also necessitated new mowing protocols. “Going into winter with warm season grasses when you are in a colder climate, it’s important to let those grasses grow up from a standard mowing height of say right at a half inch to about three quarters of an inch to help protect the crowns,” Burnes advised.  

This winter, extensive drainage improvements are planned for areas that tend to hold water, and other areas will be designated for vegetation removal to open up the course to more sunlight.

Although Zeon provides excellent shade tolerance, additional sunlight will help the grass establish more thoroughly on the highly trafficked course. “Robert Trent Jones noted on the drawings areas where they would like to see the underbrush and trees cut back. And as we watch the sun, we have identified a lot of areas where we will want to allow more sunlight.”

The roughs currently remain covered in a cool season bluegrass-fescue mix, but the team is testing a premium Bermuda as a possible replacement. “The tee tops we did in zoysia, but we put TifTuf Bermuda on some of the tee surrounds to see how that goes,” Burnes said.

TifTuf was developed by the University of Georgia breeding program for superior drought resistance. It maintains quality and color while using 38% less water than other varieties. TifTuf’s growth also allows for faster establishment and quicker recovery compared to other Bermudas.

Additionally Burnes cited a cost savings on fungicides as a benefit of the potential switch from the bluegrass-fescue mix to TifTuf. “I fully believe in the future they will convert the rest of the rough over to TifTuf.”