Transition time

Features - Cover Story

Are more facilities in a cruel grass-growing zone finally ready to adopt zoysiagrass?

Subscribe
July 3, 2018
Guy Cipriano
illustration: Graham hutchings Sinelab

In summary, an ever-increasing number of golf course superintendents in the Transition Zone are turning to zoysiagrass for fairways and tees … It offers a solution to an old problem.

Stan Zontek, USGA Green Second Record, July-August 1983


Zoysiagrass continues to be an option for fairways in the Transition Zone. Recently, the use of this grass has declined, rightly or wrongly.

Stan Zontek, USGA Green Section Record, January-February 2002


I imagine it will increase in popularity as they get these new varieties better and better.

David Stone, Phone Interview, June 12, 2018


Stan Zontek and David Stone. A pair of turfgrass and golf advocates willing to share information with anybody willing to listen.

Zontek, an enthusiastic USGA Green Section agronomist, died in 2012. He was 63. His writings about the cruel climatic stretch known as the Transition Zone endure.

Stone retired as the superintendent of The Honors Course in 2016. He oversaw the maintenance of the famed Tennessee course for 34 years. His messages resonate with colleagues at all levels, including hundreds of superintendents who have approached him about establishing and maintaining zoysiagrass.

Bellerive Country Club was one of the first prominent courses to install zoysiagrass on fairways and tees.
illustrations: adobe stock

On a sweltering day last month, Stone is driving a golf cart near his Tennessee home. His dog barks while he fields impromptu turf questions. Thirty-three years after The Honors Course converted from Bermudagrass to zoysiagrass fairways via intricate sodding, Stone is still discussing zoysiagrass. “I have learned a bunch,” he says. “Initially, I didn’t know much about it when I came to The Honors Course.”

Stone describes the origins of zoysiagrass at The Honors Course; Pete Dye wanted to sprig fairways with it from the beginning but was forced to wait until winter damage to Bermudagrass convinced ownership to adopt zoysiagrass. He describes the mechanics of the grass; fewer trees and ample drainage create an ideal growing environment. He reveals he follows the research and breeding efforts conducted by land-grant institutions; varieties with improved cold and wear tolerance might click with superintendents, owners and members, he says.

Today’s Transition Zone superintendents resemble Stone in the 1980s: curious whether zoysiagrass can make a tough job a bit easier. But the difference of tone in Zontek’s writings from 1983 to 2002 suggest no guarantees exist when it comes to widespread adoption.

Labeled a grass of the future in the region numerous times since superintendent Mel Anderson installed Meyer zoysiagrass, a Z. japonica cultivar named after USDA plan explorer Frank N. Meyer, at Kansas’ Alvamar Golf Club (since renamed The Jayhawk Club) in 1968, zoysiagrass remains an anomaly in the Transition Zone. The region, according to the GCSSA’s Golf Course Environmental Profile, had a nation-high 20,101 acres of zoysiagrass on golf courses in 2015, an increase of 62 percent from 2005. But the region also had 119,200 acres of Bermudagrass and 111,176 acres of cool-season grasses, meaning zoysiagrass accounted for just 8 percent of total golf turf.

The Queen City of zoysiagrass?

The majority of zoysiagrass in the Transition Zone is found on fairways. Meyer is the predominant variety. And most superintendents responsible for maintaining zoysiagrass praise its performance.

“It’s to our advantage from a competitive standpoint,” says Pat O’Brien, the superintendent at Hyde Park Golf and Country Club in Cincinnati, Ohio, a market with little zoysiagrass. “It gives us an opportunity to shift inputs from 22 acres to other surfaces.”

O’Brien arrived at Hyde Park in 2004 after serving as an assistant superintendent at nearby Camargo Club. Besides working with it on a pair of bunker faces at Camargo, he knew little about zoysiagrass, so he called numerous colleagues, including Stone. “Good dude,” O’Brien says.

Fortunately, one of his Hyde Park predecessors, Tom Brehop, worked with the membership to establish zoysiagrass fairways via sprigging. Establishment cost $21,000 ($954 per acre), but instant success proved elusive.

“It was really cutting edge,” says O’Brien, who inherited extensive project records. “It hadn’t been in the area. It was a painful process, no question about it. I saw some of the pictures and slides from it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Thank you, Tom, for doing it.’ I don’t know how I would have sprigged zoysiagrass on a golf course.”

Because it’s slow to establish, zoysiagrass is primarily installed in the Transition Zone via sod these days. Hyde Park embarked on a practice range expansion this year and the project included adding 35,000 square feet of zoysiagrass. Finding sod proved difficult, with the club eventually securing the desired amount from a producer on the Missouri-Arkansas border. O’Brien created a stir when he posted a picture on Twitter of sod-carrying trucks arriving at the course. “People saw the trucks on Twitter,” he says, “and they started asking, ‘Where did you get it? Where did you get?’”

Cost and availability of sod, O’Brien says, are the two biggest deterrents from Transition Zone facilities installing zoysiagrass.

Gateway to zoysiagrass?

The impetus for Hyde Park’s zoysiagrass stems from St. Louis, the largest Transition Zone market with widespread usage. In fact, Zontek’s 1983 article is titled, “The St. Louis Solution – Zoysiagrass for Fairways!”

Like Stone and O’Brien, Carlos Arraya possessed scant zoysiagrass knowledge before settling into his current job. A Floridian, Arraya arrived at St. Louis’ Bellerive Country Club in 2016 and became head superintendent last year.

Bellerive is perhaps the most prominent Transition Zone course with zoysiagrass. The club hosts the 100th PGA Championship in August. The club also hosted the event in 1992.

Bellerive opened at its current location in 1960 with Bermudagrass fairways. Conditions were less than ideal for the 1965 U.S. Open following a cool spring, so the club experimented with zoysiagrass. A conversion to Meyer was completed before the course reached its 10th anniversary. When the PGA Championship begins Aug. 9, players will be competing on the same zoysiagrass installed in the late 1960s. The tournament coincides with the period when zoysiagrass offers peak performance and aesthetics in St. Louis. “From late July to the middle of August, we get about six weeks of absolute purity,” Arraya says. St. Louis temperatures can exceed 100 degrees in early August.

As Arraya discusses zoysiagrass on a mid-June afternoon, he checks the temperature. It’s 98 degrees. “We never had spring this year, so you’re looking at grass that sees summer conditions in July at the end of May, early June,” he says. “But the grass has the ability to adapt.”

Steamy weather also leads to less mowing, an adjustment Arraya has learned to make as he becomes more familiar with the grass. “Say we are mowing three or four times a week when it’s 85, 90 degrees, well, when it gets 95 to 100, we only mow it two or three times a week,” he says. “You can create a lot of stress despite it being a warm-season grass. You can’t be out there mowing it in extreme heat. You shouldn’t be – at least on our property we don’t.”

Winter management has proved more enlightening. Arraya calls Bellerive’s Meyer “pretty hardy,” although winter desiccation on low- and high-sitting parts of the course remains a concern. Shorter days as winter approaches results in raising heights of cut, drying the turf and preventative fungicide applications for large patch control. A five-decade history with zoysiagrass means Bellerive members understand the straw-like appearance associated with dormancy.

“I think it’s one of the best playing surfaces,” Arraya says. “You just have to deal with the visual aspect. Not everyone is OK with seeing something brown or strawing. Our members are used to it and it’s great. If you’re converting from something that’s overseeded or a bentgrass fairway, you have to understand that there will be a distinct difference in the visual aspect of the grass.”

City of brotherly zoysiagrass?

Across the Transition Zone, Philadelphia Cricket Club director of grounds Dan Meersman has watched a membership quickly embrace zoysiagrass. Yes, Meersman considers Philadelphia, which sits at the 40th parallel north, a Transition Zone growing environment. Bermudagrass practice tees are common in the region. “You can definitely grow warm-season turf here if you want to and if you feel like it matches the function of what you are trying to achieve at your facility,” Meersman says.

Philadelphia Cricket Club has 45 holes, including the St. Martins Course, a nine-hole layout opened in 1895. The course expanded to 18 holes and hosted the 1907 and 1910 U.S. Opens before the club moved its golf operations to suburban Flourtown, where the famed A.W. Tillinghast-designed Wissahickon Course opened in 1922. St. Martins was reduced to a nine-hole course and the club continued its suburban expansion by adding the Militia Hill Course in Plymouth Meeting in 2002.

Restoration plans for Wissahickon sparked dialogue about the future of St. Martins, which had received little capital investment – think no fairway irrigation – for nearly 100 years. A past superintendent placed zoysiagrass and Bermudagrass trials on the course and Meersman noted how the grass fared each season. Meyer’s breeding history – the cultivar was developed in Beltsville, Md., 130 miles from Philadelphia – and its presence in the yards of Philadelphia row homes intrigued Meersman enough to pitch expanding the scope of zoysiagrass experimentation to half of the first fairway. The fairway faces south toward the clubhouse, making it among the hottest spots on the course.

“I would get to the point of, ‘Why don’t I see more of it around here?’” Meersman says. “The final straw that told me that it was perfectly fine to do here was driving through the row homes in Philadelphia. They didn’t have expensive lawncare companies taking care of their yard and they were probably spending nothing on them. And sure enough, come August and September, their lawns looked the best. I started to think this winterkill thing that people are trying to scare me about wasn’t that big of a factor (in Philadelphia).”

With no fairway irrigation, the zoysiagrass flourished during the 2011 trial, convincing the club to allow Meersman to work with architect Keith Foster, who led the Wissahickon restoration, on a St. Martins renovation that included sodding fairways with Meyer. The renovation also involved expanding greens, reconstructing bunkers and installing a new irrigation system. The 2,681-yard course supported 1,600 rounds in 2010, according to Meersman. That total has more than quintupled, with the course now supporting 10,000 annual rounds. St. Martins hosted the World Hickory Championship in 2016, followed by the National Hickory Championship in 2017.

“Zoysiagrass does like water. I have heard people say before, ‘You don’t have to water that stuff.’ Well, if you put 30,000 rounds a year on it, it does need water on it. It needs something to keep it going.” — Ron Freking, Devou Golf & Event Center

“The tournament director of the World and National Hickory Championships calls it the, Augusta National of Hickory Golf!’” Meersman says. “He laughs about that, with how good the zoysia is in the summer and how you get those flier lies. When you play with those old clubs, you appreciate those flier lies even more.”

Meersman, a third-generation superintendent, contacted numerous colleagues during his research, including Stone. He also studied and placed Zeon zoysiagrass, a Z. matrella released by Texas-based Bladerunner Farms in 1996, on a range tee. Neither Meyer nor Zeon has experienced winterkill at Philadelphia Cricket Club, Meersman says. Availability at the time of the renovation led to the club selecting Meyer.

“I think one of the reasons we don’t see a lot of it up here is that there’s not a lot inventory of it and the inventory that does exist people would rather stamp out their field and send it FedEx to homeowners and get a higher price per square foot,” Meersman adds. “The golf course superintendent is pretty picky about the quality and you have these big rolls they need that ruin fields for a longer period of time.”

Philadelphia Cricket Club is in a fortuitous position to try zoysiagrass on nine holes because it has two high-caliber, 18-hole courses with splendid cool-season surfaces. But what if Meersman had to recommend a grass variety for a Philadelphia facility with just one 18-hole course?

“I ask myself this a lot, ‘Would I put Meyer on a championship golf course here,’” Meersman says. “I think you could do it because you could take your maintenance up to another level on it. Obviously, cool-season works, as well. Most clubs want to play their golf course whenever they can get on it if there’s no snow. I think there’s something to be said for cool-season grass. But the average golfer likes zoysiagrass more than they like a low-mow bentgrass. The average 18-handicap loves that zoysiagrass.”

Zoysiagrass in the bluegrass state?

Establishing zoysiagrass via sprigging takes too long – at least two and likely three years to receive adequate coverage – for most Transition Zone facilities. Establishment via solid sodding is too expensive. Estimate costs of fairway-quality sod, according to research by Purdue University’s Dr. Aaron Patton, exceeds $15,000 per acre – and that’s if a golf facility can find it.

“I have yet to find a grower where zoysiagrass is the predominant grass at their farm in the Transition Zone,” says Dr. Ambika Chandra, who leads the Texas A&M AgriLife Research turfgrass breeding program in Dallas and collaborates with Transition Zone colleagues at Kansas State and Purdue on cultivar development. “Most of these growers will have some acreage of Meyer and more recently Innovation, but they are still doing cool-season grasses and they are still doing Bermudagrasses. It’s limited at this point in time, but that’s because we only have limited varieties that are available for these growers to grow.”

One daring Transition Zone superintendent managing a tight capital improvement budget found a way to avoid the outside production cycle.

Ron Freking was raised within walking distance of Devou Golf & Event Center in Covington, Ky. He played the course, a nine-holer in its first 73 years of existence, frequently as a child. Freking made golf course maintenance his career and became Devou’s superintendent in 1989. The course Freking played as a child included hilly terrain, a quick-coupler irrigation system and meager maintenance budget. Nobody said maintaining the fairways of your childhood is easy.

Devou added nine holes in the mid-1990s, but fairways remained problematic. A past superintendent had experimented with zoysiagrass in a wayward area on the first hole. At the urging of a previous course operator, Ralph Landrum, a former PGA Tour player who relished competing on zoysiagrass, Freking created a one-acre nursery. Lacking funds to solid sod the course, Freking and his team started strip sodding fairways in checkerboard patterns.

“Once we did that to a fairway, even though there wasn’t that much zoysiagrass out there, we treated that fairway as a zoysiagrass fairway from then on,” Freking says. “We didn’t do anything to encourage the cool-season turf.”

The process proved methodical. The in-house crew squeezed in conversion work between regular maintenance and supply never exceeded what their nursery could produce. In a good year, they could strip sod as many as six fairways. Freking learned plenty about growing conditions along the way. “Some fairways were more difficult to establish than others,” he says. “But as a rule of thumb, the worst the soil was, the better the zoysiagrass did.”

A methodical sodding process has resulted in zoysiagrass fairways at Devou Golf & Event Center.
© guy cipriano

Finally, in 2011, Devou had full zoysiagrass coverage on 16 acres of fairways, ending an era of what Freking calls a “Heinz 57” mix of cool-season grasses. Now owned by the City of Covington, Devou has summer fairway conditions to match park surroundings within skyline shadows. Views of Cincinnati and the Ohio River lurk behind multiple greens.

“It has helped us tremendously because now we actually have turf in our fairways,” Freking says. “It’s important to have a good stand of turf in the fairway just to keep the golf ball from rolling down the slope a lot of times. The golfers love it. I won’t say the golfers really understand it. They just know that we have good grass. They don’t really care what it is or know what it is. They just know that it’s good and they like to play off it.

“They will show up in August when summer has been tough and bentgrass courses are struggling a little bit and they’re like, ‘What are your fairways? These are incredible.’ That’s been a great marketing tool for us.”

Devou mows fairways at least twice, and sometimes three times per week, and Freking says zoysiagrass can be “tough” on equipment. But he adds maintenance requirements are more advantageous than anything he experienced with cool-season turf. Freking doesn’t spray fungicides on fairways; insecticide applications are limited to billbug and grub control. While it’s not as thirsty as cool-season varieties, Devou’s zoysiagrass requires regular irrigation. “Zoysiagrass does like water,” Freking says. “I have heard people say before, ‘You don’t have to water that stuff.’ Well, if you put 30,000 rounds a year on it, it does need water on it. It needs something to keep it going.”

Regular customers understand how zoysiagrass looks in the winter, although Facebook posts from infrequent visitors shocked by dormant turf are inevitable. Freking prepares zoysiagrass for winter by applying potash in late summer, raising late-season mowing heights and pursuing in-house drainage projects.

Converting to zoysiagrass, Freking says, represented a “100 percent home run,” for Devou, because it has provided a competitive advantage in a crowded public golf market. But he’s unsure if an abundance of Transition Zone courses in similar situations will pursue zoysiagrass conversions. “I have a feeling people have been struggling with this for forever,” he says.

The writings of a turfgrass legend prove how the struggles evolves.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.