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[Course management] Changes in the rough

Features - Feature, Roughs Maintenance, Turfgrass

Jim Connolly | April 5, 2006

Even though many golfers might not be too concerned about roughs, golf course superintendents are because they can affect their budgets significantly.

The appearance of roughs are changing through maintenance alterations and regrassing. Political pressure to conserve energy and reduce water use is influencing golf course owners, architects, land planners and superintendents to convert parts of golf courses, primarily roughs, to low-maintenance areas. In some cases, the push is beyond low maintenance to no maintenance.

Additionally, there are many golf courses that are regrassing to improve playing conditions, disregarding increased maintenance costs.

Not that easy
Converting parts of a golf course to natural, low-maintenance areas isn’t as easy as it sounds. The typical expectation of low-maintenance areas is tall grass with golden seed heads wafting in the wind. However, this might not be the result, especially during the first few years of conversion.

Low-maintenance grasses, such as hard fescue, can easily reduce water use in roughs by 50 percent and eliminate mowing. However, one fallacy about maintaining native rough is irrigation isn’t needed. Depending on the annual precipitation, irrigation is required often for the maintenance of native rough areas. Irrigation might not be used every year, but it’s needed to maintain plant density.

Another issue, which might seem contradictory, is not allowing irrigation from adjacent fairways, tees and greens to enter native rough. The disadvantages of establishing native grass areas are the high initial cost of extra irrigation and restriction of golfer traffic. Native roughs require the installation of part-circle sprinkler heads, extra valves and computer control stations. In most cases, golf carts are restricted from  native areas. Some golf courses restrict foot traffic to maintain a pristine environment and preserve wildlife habitat.

Allowing areas to go wild within the golf course borders is a difficult thing to sell because:
• Almost any tall grass will receive the errant shot from a golfer;
• Native areas often look like unkempt weed patches;
• Newer grass types don’t grow well at higher heights;
• Irrigation systems aren’t capable of selectively irrigating tall grass areas;
• Some members don’t like the appearance of tall grass; and
• Many superintendents aren’t skilled at designing native areas.

Matt Nelson, agronomist for the USGA Green Section Northwest Region, cautions superintendents to go slowly when establishing native areas.

“Start with a couple of acres to test seeding dates, plant types and methods of establishment,” he says.

Establishing native grasses in the West usually requires irrigation, and depending on natural rainfall, it might or might not work.

“Try dormant seeding, and fall seeding to take advantage of natural rains, and be sure to communicate that establishment might take several years,” Nelson says.

Some roughs are being converted to enhance aesthetics. The introduction of ornamental grasses, tall grasses, other creative rough grasses and various plant materials, as well as contour rough mowing, add beauty and interest to the landscape. New golf courses have the advantage of starting with a creative rough grass design, but changes are always needed after the course is opened.

John Anderson, superintendent at The Club at Pronghorn in Bend, Ore., worked closely with Nicklaus Design to plant natural areas that blend in with the surrounding high desert.

“While it was great to start with a good design, establishing native areas is an ongoing process,” Anderson says. “We have recently reviewed the grass lines and native areas with Nicklaus Design to make these areas more playable for our membership.”

The native areas receive no water, and the fescue rough areas are irrigated, but Anderson uses 50 percent less water in the fescue rough than on the bluegrass short rough.

More reasons to convert
Other reasons why roughs are converted include:

1. Government regulations about water use or restrictions on total irrigated acres per golf course. In the Southwest United States, where water is limited, golf courses are converting roughs to low- or no-maintenance areas. Fueled by water shortages and politics, golf courses in the Southwest have removed hundreds of acres of irrigated turfgrass and regrassed with drought tolerance plants or xeriscapes.

2. Changing the playing strategy of a hole. Regrassing with tall grass can change the playing difficulty of a hole when used to extend the carry distance of a golf shot. Regrassing or conversion can be used to reduce the width of mowed rough areas in landing areas.

3. Reducing maintenance costs, mostly mowing time and labor. The cost per acre to maintain a golf course varies throughout the country. Rough maintenance costs can represent a considerable part of the budget. An Iowa Turfgrass Association study reports 69.5 percent of golf course maintenance costs are related to labor and equipment costs. A 2000 study by the University of Florida reports an average maintenance cost of $7,139 per acre. Considering 30 to 40 acres of rough per 18-hole golf course, the potential savings of maintenance costs is substantial.

4. Development of environmental benefits such as wildlife habitat or erosion control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has promoted converting a rough or field to an area of diverse tall grasses that provide cover and food for wildlife. Each year, farmers convert millions of acres to native grasses and establish wildlife habitat. Superintendents can do the same on golf courses.

Keeping it separate
Many times, rough areas in bad condition because of weeds, poor soils, ill-adapted grasses and lack of drainage are sodded or seeded. But before regrassing an area that has suffered deterioration, it’s important to identify the source of the problem and correct it. It could be lack of drainage, poor traffic distribution, no irrigation, old grass varieties or poor soils.

Perhaps the most notorious weed in cool-season roughs is creeping bentgrass. At heights above one inch, creeping bentgrass is an unsightly weed. To date, selective chemical control hasn’t been effective. Even nonselective attempts with glyphosate don’t completely eradicate creeping bentgrass from roughs.

The most common method of bentgrass eradication is to remove the sod and thatch and resod with bluegrass. This usually requires installing a sprinkler system. The cost to do this is between $650 and $1,000 per acre. Removing sod, soil preparation and laying new bluegrass sod can cost $15,000 per acre.

Researchers at Washington State University conducted a field study at Prairie Falls Golf Course in Post Falls, Idaho, during the summer of 2005 to evaluate the efficacy of mesotrione to selectively control creeping bentgrass growing in a Kentucky bluegrass/annual bluegrass fairway. High levels of bentgrass control were attained with various treatment schedules indicating promising possibilities. More tests are needed because mesotrione can be phytotoxic to fineleaf fescue, perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass.

The regional factor
Introducing low-maintenance grasses or allowing existing grass to grow tall is dependent on geographic location.

“Establishing fescues and other low-maintenance grasses into existing turfgrass isn’t easy, and success depends on soil conditions and climate,” says Doug Brede, Ph.D., director of research for Jacklin Seed Co.

Golf courses in areas with low precipitation will need some irrigation during establishment. The irrigation might be temporary above ground lines or permanent hard line systems. Allowing existing grass to grow tall doesn’t work in all regions of the United States. The Northeast is one region where existing grass in roughs can be allowed to grow and results in an acceptable look.

“It’s better if the soils are impoverished and the existing grasses have been there for many years,” Brede says. “Bethpage Black is a good example of converting roughs to tall grasses simply by not mowing.”

Additionally, soil fertility plays a big part.

“When soil fertility is increased, contaminating grasses such as bluegrass, bentgrass and tall fescue compete with fine fescue and other low-maintenance grasses,” Brede says. “If the climate is right, the soil fertility is low and the grass type is correct, then the formula can work.”

Plush roughs
Despite all the rough conversion to low-maintenance areas, converting unirrigated areas to irrigated and maintained rough improves playing conditions.

Expectations for high-quality turfgrass continue to increase. Turf that was once considered good for greens is now what golfers expect on tees. What golfers once considered acceptable fairway turf now barely passes for rough. Even though labor and materials costs continue to increase, there still are many golf courses in America adding acres of maintained turfgrass. The cost to do this is between $650 and $1,000 per sprinkler head, according to the Irrigation Association. And the yearly maintenance cost is between $4,000 and $7,000 per acre, according to the Iowa Turfgrass Association and the University of Florida.

Rough areas represent as much as 50 percent of the total area of most golf courses and considerably influence budgets, course playability and appearance. Superintendents should evaluate the current condition of the rough areas on their golf courses and develop a plan to spend more or less money on them. GCN

Jim Connolly is president of JCC, Ltd. A former USGA agronomist, he’s a consultant and can be reached at