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Gorgeous and growing

Jun 13, 2023

The fifth hole on The Pointe nine at Sunbrook Golf Club, a 27-hole municipal facility in St. George, Utah, is a short par 4 with straight beginnings before shifting abruptly left at the 100-yard mark. The left side of the fairway follows a cliff.

Everywhere Ken Steed looks from the tee, fairway and green, he notices clusters of homes that didn't exist when he moved to southern Utah's largest city in 1996. He also notices what attracted him to a fast-growing community with a robust golf scene consisting of courses almost entirely constructed since 1990.

Snow Canyon and its reddish-orange peaks dominate the northern background. Hundreds of homes dot the immediate and distant periphery. Overseeded ryegrass fairways and dormant Bermudagrass rough cover the ground beneath Steed's gray, yellow and blue Hoka running shoes.

Visit for the mountains and winter warmth. Stay for a unique place to live and work.

Steed is a turf patriarch in southern Utah, a region cleverly marketed as Greater Zion in homage to nearby Zion National Park, which attracted 4.69 million visitors in 2022. Fewer than 45,000 people lived in St. George when Steed relocated to the area nearly three decades ago. The city's population swelled past 100,000 in 2022. The area encompassing and surrounding St. George now supports 14 golf courses in a 20-mile radius, with 58-year-old Dixie Red Hills, a city-owned, 9-holer, being the oldest.

"Golf is extremely important to this area," Steed says. "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 9 or 10. It brings a lot of people here to play and it brings a lot of other tourists in to do a lot of different things. They come to play golf and then venture out to the state parks and national parks. It's huge for us."

Like nearly every turf or club manager in the area, Steed hails from elsewhere. He developed a passion for golf as a child playing at Mick Riley Golf Course, a 9-hole, par-3 layout in suburban Salt Lake City, the state's largest city. Salt Lake City is 300 miles north of St. George. Neither the climate nor the growing conditions in St. George mirror what Steed experienced as a child.

Cool-season turf thrives in Salt Lake City. Warm- and cool-season turf thrive — and struggle — in St. George depending on the season. There's no right or wrong turfgrass answer in a region that receives less than eight inches of annual rainfall and experiences average temperatures ranging from 54 degrees in January to 102 degrees in July. "If I had to describe it," says Josh Kent, the superintendent at Coral Canyon, "we’re right on the border of that Transition Zone."

A Minnesotan who worked in Nebraska before relocating to southern Utah, Kent leads the maintenance of a 23-year-old course routed around and through colorful canyons. His team manages cool-season turf year-round on all playing surfaces in a desert. Greens are bentgrass; fairways are predominantly ryegrass. Spending 2½ years under superintendent David Buckner at Conestoga Golf Club in nearby Mesquite, Nevada, introduced Kent to the nuances of desert turf maintenance. Mesquite is 43 miles from Coral Canyon, a distance qualifying as nearby in the expansive West.

"My first impression was: How do they grow grass in the desert?" Kent says. "How do you have desert terrain, desert plants, dry and hot, then a nice green golf course in the middle of it? I didn't understand how that worked."

Kent proved a quick learner. He became a head superintendent before ending his third full year in the desert. Keeping cool-season turf alive during a southwestern Utah summer requires persistence, planning and patience. Kent's crew arrives at 4:30 a.m. and begins preparing the course for around 30 to 60 hardy golfers depending on a typical summer day. Making the irrigation decisions required to protect ryegrass and bentgrass while enduring the July and August monsoon season determines summer success.

Scouting is also part of the summer routine. Yes, disease and pests can damage cool-season turf in southern Utah. And yes, Pythium is a significant disease concern. But no potential pest or disease issue perplexes Kent more than the flea beetle, which hasn't been studied as extensively as other turfgrass pests. "It's such a nuisance," he says.

March, April, May, October and November are considered peak golf season in southern Utah, with courses often accommodating more than 200 players per day. Kent says the cool-season turf he maintains continues actively growing through November. The lowest winter temperature he has encountered since relocating to southern Utah is 21 degrees.

Todd Rummins can handle cold winter stretches and has adapted to punishing summers. A northern Ohioan who worked in Las Vegas for six years before arriving in southern Utah in 2018, Rummins is the superintendent at Entrada at Snow Canyon, a private course that reopened last April following a giant David McLay Kidd-guided makeover. The project resulted in a turf palette with 65 acres of bentgrass greens, fairways and tees in a desert.

Only 120 miles along Interstate 15 separate Las Vegas and St. George, and the drive includes a surreal dash through the Virgin River Gorge. The Mojave Desert cities possess subtly contrasting growing environments.

"Here," Rummins says, "it's all about the nighttime temperatures. The difference from here to Vegas is about eight to 10 degrees cooler in nighttime temperatures. When you are trying to get your bentgrass to survive through three months of brutal summer heat, the recovery period during the nighttime is everything. Most of the courses in Vegas have bentgrass greens, but it's only four acres of your course. Nobody has 65 acres of bentgrass there. It's too much to take care of."

So far, Rummins has learned bentgrass prospers from late February until about mid-June in southwestern Utah. "You’re trying to just not go backwards at that point," he says. "It gets 115 degrees in the summer and you’re trying to hold on, and there's every pest in the world out here." Fall temperatures, according to Rummins, emerge in October, which coincides with the arrival of the region's snowbirds. Peak bentgrass performance aligns with the peak golf season.

"If you were here every day, your favorite days of playing would be from mid-February to mid-May," says former Entrada at Snow Canyon interim general manager Michael Rushing, who recently launched a St. George-based consulting firm. "Your next favorite window would be the third week of September through about the third week of November."

Entrada at Snow Canyon's immediate and new golf neighbor features 70 acres of bentgrass greens, fairways, tees and practice areas. Black Desert Resort is the final project in the late Tom Weiskopf's career. Both courses are along the base of Snow Canyon State Park and managed by Troon.

Greater Zion's population has more than doubled since 2000 and Zion National Park attracted 2.1 million more visitors in 2022 compared to 2002. In response to the growth, developers introduced a pair of new courses over the last three years: Copper Rock Golf Course in Hurricane and Black Desert Resort in Ivins. Six of the region's 14 courses were built this century.

Can the region support more new courses?

Utah is currently less restrictive in curtailing development than surrounding desert states. But the southwestern Utah golf community is bracing for discussions involving water resembling the ones in parts of Arizona, California, and Nevada.

"I think the struggle — and I know our leaders are aware of it — is water," Sunbrook Golf Club superintendent Ken Steed says. "That's what it's going to come down to. I hope we don't overgrow our water, but the people in charge in this area seem to be very on top of it and we are watching every drop. I’m glad to see that."

Sunbrook is one of four courses owned and operated by the City of St. George. Steed's goal involves decreasing the 27-hole facility's reliance on overseeded ryegrass fairways. He envisions future scenarios where Bermudagrass covers fairways for longer stretches.

"Our overseeds are getting lighter and lighter every year due to the cost of seed and water," says Steed, who became the superintendent at Sunbrook in 2022 after eight years leading the turf team at city-owned Southgate Golf Club. "We are cutting back, and we’re in a learning process of how we are going to do that and make it work for everybody."

St. George-based consultant Michael Rushing encountered water cost and availability concerns while holding club management positions in Arizona and Texas. He's observed a different dynamic since relocating to southwestern Utah in 2021.

"Water is still less expensive here," Rushing says. "In Tucson, for effluent water at the golf course I was at, we spent three quarters of a million dollars. I’m kind of waiting for St. George or Washington County to say, ‘We need to charge more.’"

Despite nearly 8 inches of precipitation through the first five months of 2023 refilling snowpacks and reservoirs, water conversations are likely to intensify as southwestern Utah continues to expand. "Golf is important, and tourism is the No. 1 draw," Rushing says. "Water resources will determine how many people can live here and how commerce grows."

Black Desert Resort superintendent Ken Yates worked in Alabama, Texas, Nevada and Mexico before landing in southwestern Utah last February. He led a pair of phased grow-ins — Black Desert Resort unveiled its first nine holes in 2022 — in conditions ranging from snow to heat exceeding 110 degrees. "It's a very special project," says Yates, a St. Louis native. "It's such a different course than any of my friends have worked on."

Weiskopf and partner Phil Smith routed Black Desert Resort atop black lava rock. Less than six miles to the south, Steed maintains holes at Sunbrook routed on cliffs, atop black lava rock and blue clay, around a river, over ponds, and past hundreds of modern homes in a desert.

Steed knows the St. George scene well enough to avoid playing during the peak season. "This time of the year, we are just booked solid," he says following a course tour on a comfortable and crowded mid-March morning, "I can't even get a tee time — nor do I want to take the playing chance from somebody who's down here to play."

Asked what he thinks when he sees the crowds and homes, Steed responds, "They found a good place."

"Somebody let the secret out and here we are," he adds. "I’m somebody who moved from out of town, so I can't complain about it. It's sad in some ways, but that's how economies grow."

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry's editor-in-chief.

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Ken Steed Josh Kent David Buckner Todd Rummins David McLay Kidd Michael Rushing Tom Weiskopf Ken Yates Phil Smith