After a weekend deluge in September, golf supervisor Tony Bubenas knew something didn’t look right about the greens at Lake Spanaway Golf Course.
They had lost their lush shade of green. Two days later, they were brown and dead.
In just three days, a soil-borne fungus destroyed sections of 13 greens on the county-owned golf course in Spanaway. Eight were damaged beyond use, requiring temporary greens to be set up in front of the greens on the fairways.
Because of those eight temporary greens, many golfers have stayed away from the tree-lined, 18-hole course. The number of rounds played has plummeted by as much as 50 percent, even though Pierce County slashed green fees.
With less play and lower rates, the course is running a deficit that’s expected to reach about $400,000 by the end of this month, according to parks and recreation director Tony Tipton. The county has taken out an interfund loan to cover the loss.
To fix the damage, the county resodded portions of the 13 greens — at least half of four greens. It laid down about 25,000 square feet of turf it purchased for $4,900 from Sumner Meadows Golf Links, a struggling golf course that closed last year and is being sold for development.
Bubenas’ crew stripped the dead, diseased sections of greens at the Lake Spanaway course and put down sections from five Sumner Meadows greens.
To provide more sunlight and prevent dampness that causes the disease, the county will take another major step. It plans to cut down 250 trees — of 2,800 on the course — sometime before the end of this year. Nearly all are Douglas firs up to 80 feet tall.
“We don’t want to cut down trees if we don’t have to,” Bubenas said. “It’s a question of if you want the trees to live or the greens to live.”
Pierce County’s Planning and Land Services Department has approved removing the trees. No other agency’s OK is required.
The sale of the timber should cover the cost of hiring a logging company to remove the trees, he said.
If April’s weather is typical, the greens are expected to fully recover and be back in use by May 1, Bubenas said.
The root disease that damaged the greens, called pythium root rot, has hit some other area golf courses in recent years. They include Fircrest Golf Club, Glendale Country Club in Bellevue, and The Golf Club at Hawks Prairie in Lacey, Bubenas said.
At Fircrest, several greens were resodded and 300 trees were cut down after a pythium outbreak in 2008, said John Alexander, superintendent at the private course.
Last week at the Lake Spanaway course, two golfers hitting balls at the driving range had opposite responses to the course’s condition.
Joe Snope hasn’t played the course since the temporary greens were put in place.
“Who wants to play on temporary greens?” asked Snope, 29, of Tacoma. “You can’t really putt them.”
But Bob Van Wagner said he plans to take advantage of the bargain rates. Green fees have been cut to $10 a round, with a power cart $5 more.
“You can’t beat that anywhere,” said Van Wagner, 54, of Tacoma. “Just hitting the ball down the fairway, it’s worth it. This course is just grand.”
Many golfers have stayed away. Rounds played dropped by 50 percent in January and February, Tipton said. Between September 2013 through February 2014, they fell by 30 percent, or 4,200 rounds, he said.
Before the outbreak, course rounds had increased by 6 percent during the first nine months of 2013 compared with the same time period in 2012.
Tipton said the parks department plans to pay back the interfund load with green fees and sales tax revenue.
Bubenas said the Lake Spanaway course, which opened in 1967, is one of the best publicly owned courses in the Northwest. It’s among the longest, playing up to 7,083 yards.
The course is the long-standing site of the Puget Sound Amateur. This year’s tournament, scheduled for May 17-18, has been moved entirely to the county-owned Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place because of the damaged greens at Lake Spanaway.
Bubenas, who is also the county’s golf supervisor for Fort Steilacoom Golf Course in Lakewood, said dealing with the fungus has been one of the most difficult experiences in his 20 years as a golf course superintendent.
“Anytime anything’s not perfect on our golf course, I feel bad about it,” he said.
Bubenas said he doesn’t think the outbreak could have been avoided. He continues to have samples tested to make sure it doesn’t come back.
It hasn’t. But if it does, the disease would be controlled with pesticide, he said.
His crews continue to put down sand on the greens and press them with rollers. The seams between the resodded turf and what remains of the original greens are disappearing.
Bubenas said shade is the major cause leading to the outbreak of the disease.
Trees will be removed near 11 greens to allow for more light to hit them, especially in the fall and winter. Near one hole alone, 30 trees will be cut down that shade the green and hinder wind flow.
“We’re trying to create the best environment we can for the turf to stay strong,” he said.Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@ thenewstribune.com @TNTstevemaynard