Growing, grooming and maintaining great tuft is hardly just an “open box, add water” exercise.
A golf course superintendent’s to-do list is seemingly never-ending: find cost-effective ways to maintain high-quality turf; comply with regulations on water usage and fertilizer and pesticide applications; build a reputation for course quality and playability.
At the same time, the increased emphasis on sustainability is another important consideration in maintaining healthy turfgrass.
The two, however, are hardly mutually exclusive.
“There’s only one thing that gives you sustainability, and that’s healthy turf,” says Dan Dinelli, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill.
SUMMING IT UP
• The push for sustainability and the development of new grass varieties from university breeding projects are giving courses a host of new turf-building options.• Advances in mowing equipment technology have led to improved techniques for turf growth and maintenance.
• Weather cycles drive the direction of turfgrass research; this year’s excessive heat and humidity has put renewed emphasis on turf that offers good drainage and good gas exchange in the root zone.
As a result, grasses that require fewer inputs are becoming increasingly attractive to golf course superintendents.
More varieties of grasses have become available recently because of university breeding projects, notes Tim Anderson, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Naperville (Ill.) Country Club. And many of these new grasses are proving to be more tolerant of heat and shorter mowing heights.
“Agronomically, today’s grass varieties are stronger than they used to be,” Anderson says. “Nitrogen needs are different. Even the watering requirements are different, depending on the kind of soil. There’s also a difference in equipment that allows us to maintain the turf better and differently than we once did.”
When its course was renovated a couple of years ago, Naperville CC converted to A1 bentgrass greens, T1 bentgrass tees and a blend of bentgrass on the fairways.
“We knew we would have to re-establish new grasses, and that’s why we went with the newer varieties,” explains Anderson. “It’s helped the playability of the course quite a bit, because they give us more uniform greens and tees.”
The rough at Naperville CC features native grasses and native prairie plants. “They require less mowing time, and they do better if they’re not irrigated,” Anderson reports. “But it’s a tradeoff. We have to be more diligent about weed control, and the prairie plants require a lot of hand-weeding.”
|The rough at Naperville Country Ciub features native grasses and native prairie plants.|
The Beltsville, Md.-based National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP), one of the most widely known research projects in the world, evaluates turfgrass species through on-site testing at golf courses in the North, South and transition zones of the U.S., to determine the adaptability of grasses for golf course use.
North Shore CC is one of these testing sites, and Dinelli says the test plots at his course help his staff learn what can be added to soil to improve moisture and nutrient usage. “It lets us grow on-site in real-world conditions,” he reveals. “The members here enjoy seeing what’s new and how it performs under our care, and personally, I enjoy doing the research.”
Quality ratings on test sites are conducted each month during the growing season on variables such as color, density, disease, insect problems and winter damage, reports Kevin Morris, Executive Director of NTEP.
The drawback of on-site testing, he reveals, is that golf course properties, unlike universities, cannot always allow disease to occur. However, he adds, the test plots that perform well at universities generally perform well on the golf course, too.
North Shore has field-tested most of the creeping bentgrass cultivars available today, including some varieties that have not even been named yet. Dinelli says there are great differences in their susceptibility to disease, particularly dollar-spot; color; texture; fertility requirements; production of organic matter; tolerance to ultra-low mowing heights; segregation; and competitiveness against weeds such as Poa annua and moss.
A1 and A4 bentgrass have been around for a dozen years, notes Dinelli, and both varieties have proven themselves out in the field. Other creeping bentgrass varieties that “are showing good results and creating a lot of interest” include 007, which boasts high turf quality, stress resistance and improved levels of dollar-spot resistance; MacKenzie, a multi-use variety that performs well under summer stress; T1, which retains ground coverage under tough growing conditions; and Alpha, which also retains ground coverage and resists Poa annua invasion, provides a uniform surface, and offers disease resistance that reduces the need for fungicide applications.
“There’s nothing better than doing it right from the ground up—and in the long run, that saves you money,” Dinelli notes.
|“There’s only one thing that gives you sustainability, and that’s healthy turf,” says Dan Dinelli, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at North Shore Country Club, Glenview, Ill.|
With the economy forcing properties to do more with less, superintendents are being driven to use sustainable practices that reduce the environmental impact on their turf, Morris adds. These tactics include water conservation; reducing pesticide use and fertilizer requirements; and taking the sensitivity of nearby bodies of water into consideration.
“It’s been an evolution over the years,” Morris says of the development of new products. “But now superintendents can’t afford to do as much. The cost of inputs is high. The cost of water, and of pumping it, is high. It’s better than it used to be, but we still have a long way to go. We need grasses that will take one-third the amount of water they take now.”
Weather conditions also can drive the qualities that breeders try to develop in new turfgrass varieties.
“In this industry, it all goes in cycles,” adds Dinelli, who has spent his 35-year career entirely at North Shore. “When it’s hot, we look at what does best in the heat. If we have a hard winter, we talk about winterkill. If there’s a drought, we look at the best design in irrigation systems, and at wetting agents.”
After a hot, wet summer like many parts of the country experienced this year, superintendents are looking for turf that offers good drainage and good gas exchange in the root zone, Dinelli says. “Heat and humidity is not a new item,” he notes, “but it hasn’t been talked about in the last three years.”
When it comes to soils, Dinelli adds, high-quality, mature composts stand out because of their ability to improve most soil characteristics.
“There’s a science behind using a compost, as well as an art,” he says. “Compost will not fix all problems, but in many soil types, compost will improve plant health and soil properties. The challenge is to develop standards for compost, and protocol for its use.”
The latest trend, Dinelli says, is to develop products that react favorably to inputs such as phosphites, growth regulators and wetting agents that help hold or drain water, depending on a property’s needs.
Water usage, as it becomes more and more restricted, will continue to be a factor in the development of new products, Morris notes. He also expects that new pesticides will offer lower toxicity levels and require smaller amounts per application. The industry is testing plants for drought tolerance and studying how long plants will stay green in drought conditions. As more golf courses turn to recycled water, which has increased salinity levels, the industry will also continue to test the salt tolerance of plants.
Buffalo grass, native to the Great Plains states, has potential for fairways or tees in states that are west of the Mississippi River and have an average annual rainfall of up to 30 inches, Morris says.
“The grass is ready to go,” he declares. “It works in some areas pretty well. It’s ready for prime time.”
The bluish-green grass requires less water than other varieties, he says, but looks and plays differently than other grasses. And this unfamiliarity can pose problems.
“Superintendents have to manage it differently,” notes Morris, “and they have to overcome their fears about it.”
Brave New Worlds
Golf Course Superintendent Dave Hensley, had to change his thinking when he started working as an Assistant Superintendent at Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club in Holyoke, Colo., during the course’s 2005 grow-in. Ballyneal has wall-to-wall fescue with colonial bentgrass mixed in on the greens and bluegrass mixed in on the fairways.
“I had to grow grass that I had never thought about,” reveals Hensley, who took over the Superintendent position during the construction process. “Whatever took and could survive in that little micro-climate it’s in is what we’re letting evolve. If you step foot on the property, you think you’re on the coast of Ireland. The only thing that’s missing is the ocean.”
Hensley, who previously had worked with perennial rye grass, bluegrass and creeping bentgrass, has learned how far he can stress the fescue and discovered the inputs he really needs at Ballyneal.
The maintenance of the golf course has become a trial-and-error exercise. The maintenance staff has varied water applications, tried different seed blends, and watched the grass turn different colors. Fairways have been neglected for weeks at a time, to see how much the turf would decline—and if the grass would come back. The course has also conducted trials with seed companies, to see which varieties of fescue work with different inputs.
“We let nature dictate what we do,” Hensley reports. “The course is different every time you come, and that’s what we like about it. We’re learning as we’re going.”
Fescue greens are slower than other putting surfaces, the superintendent says, but the trueness of the roll makes up for the slower speed. Fescue also requires less nitrogen and fewer nutrient inputs than other grasses. Hensley says he has cut his water usage by one-third every year for the past three years.
During the grow-in at Ballyneal, it took time for the soil to balance out and for the grass to take hold, Hensley says. But, he adds, the course has gotten better as it has matured with each passing year.
“Golf courses become what they are not in five years or 10 years,” he notes. “The great golf courses have been around for a while. Our grass just keeps getting stronger. As it ages, it gets better—like a good wine.”
The Human Factor
Conducting field tests on turfgrass varieties at golf courses offers valuable information for new product development. However, notes Kevin Morris, Executive Director of the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program in Beltsville, Md., these tests are driven by more than the sustainable techniques that are now a necessity for today’s superintendents.
“You also have to consider the management [of the property] and the level of play,” notes Morris. “Golf courses need to make money. There’s a balance between sustainability and providing the product that people want. You have an idea of how you’d like to do it, but in reality, you can’t always do it that way.”
Sometimes, Morris adds, it’s hard to tell if test results obtained under conditions where variables cannot be controlled are real, or by chance. And if golfers feel that the quality of a course has declined, he says, the property will lose its clientele to competitors.
The development of new turfgrass varieties that need fewer inputs and alter the look of a golf course will require some level of acceptance by the golfer, Morris believes. “You need to be a sociologist, not an agronomist,” he says.