Selection superheroes

Features - Turf

What do an architect, a researcher and an agronomist say about picking the right turfgrass for your course? Their experiences yield plenty of trendy insight.

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September 1, 2020

If you could have one superhero help with turf maintenance and selection it would be the Hulk, right? (Because he’s got a green thumb.) Unfortunately, superheroes are in short supply (see: labor issue), so you will need to find other ways to create optimal playability. Given the chance, select the best turf variety and species for your property.

To provide perspective on warm- and cool-season turf trends in golf course construction and renovation, Tripp Davis, Leah Brilman and Jeff Spangler share what they know, which is a lot more than your average superhero (see: decades of experience).

Tripp Davis, Architect, Tripp Davis and Associates Golf Architecture

“With clients from Southern California to Texas to Florida and up the East Coast, we have worked on new build and renovation projects involving all kinds of grasses. The quality of playing surfaces that you can create, especially with warm-season grasses, is night and day compared to what it was 25 years ago. This can be a significant factor in the real and perceived quality of one course over another while also allowing us to better tailor strategic design intent with how the course is maintained.

“The trends in cool-season grasses seem to be moving to turf-type tall fescues and away from the bluegrasses in roughs in the Northeast. The turf-type tall is more heat and drought tolerant and isn’t as susceptible to being taken over by bentgrasses. Some courses in the Northeast are moving away from Poa annua to newer bentgrasses on greens in order to have smoother, more predictable putting surfaces. Greens in other parts of the country that are using bent as opposed to Bermuda are finding an array of new options such as 007 and Pure Distinction, both of which have been used in our projects successfully.

“Recently, we have seen more warm-season grasses moving north rather than cool-season grasses moving south. Latitude 36 and Northbridge Bermudagrasses were bred to better handle cooler winters with zoysias also being bred to have better turf quality farther and farther north. We have even used zoysias as far north as Long Island to provide greater heat tolerance and density in bunker surrounds. You do have to be careful with the varieties of warm-season grasses you use farther north though as some just can’t take cold and dry.

Selecting and installing the proper turfgrass variety is a key part of a golf course renovation project.
© courtesy of Troon Country Club

“In the South, there is a difference between hot and humid and hot and dry. In the hotter, drier areas, we are seeing more use of the zoysia grasses, especially the newer finer varieties, as they’re not as susceptible to disease in drier climates. In hot and more humid areas, we are seeing more options with Bermuda to provide better playing surfaces, especially when they are dormant to almost dormant. Although Latitude 36 and Northbridge were bred to work in the upper parts of the Transition Zone, we are finding their density and high-quality playing surfaces are working further south. They are active at lower ground temps than the more traditional bermudas which can lead to them staying greener with better playing quality in the winter.

“The Northeast has not changed much regarding difference in cost for different types of turf. In the South, we’re seeing that there can be a big difference. Zoysia is best sodded while you can sprig the bermudas more easily. This can be a significant difference in cost, but we’re seeing more clients choose to sod over sprig anyway.

“With wildlife habitats or low-maintenance areas, they can be aesthetic or truly environmental. Wildlife naturally prefers native grasses such as Buffalograss, bluestem and others, but the look can be attained with a fine fescue farther north or Coastal Bermuda farther south. Frankly, the fine fescues and Coastal Bermuda are a lot easier to establish but it also depends on how close to play you are going to locate these areas. Native grasses can be harder to maintain properly close to play where finding a ball is desirable.

“Selecting turf requires a collaborative discussion with everyone involved so that what is efficiently maintainable fits with strategic design intent. Ultimately, I like the superintendent to make the turf decision and I simply want to make sure the superintendent understands what we would like to do from a design perspective. The superintendents are going to be responsible for taking care of the property long term and from that perspective we will design and build to give them the best opportunity to be successful.”

Dr. Leah Brilman, Director of Technical Services and Product Management, DLF Pickseed USA/Seed Research of Oregon

“I have been doing this type of research for more than 30 years and I still love to walk a breeder’s block. Lately, there’s been an increase in using ultradwarf Bermudagrasses farther north and using new bentgrasses farther south. Superintendents were told ultradwarfs would be much easier but they had to use almost as much fungicide on the ultradwarfs as they did on the old bentgrasses. The new bentgrasses need less fungicide than the old ones.

“Large and small renovations are happening but there isn’t much new construction. People are renovating to reduce water usage and managed acres of turf. Drought tolerance is always a concern and many properties have irrigation caps or are simply conserving water. Turf-type tall fescues have deep roots and are very drought tolerant. They are getting tighter, denser and can be mowed down to half-an-inch so they can be considered for fairways. Bluegrasses, though not as drought tolerant, sometimes recover better than tall fescues.

“In the South, there is less overseeding than there used to be. There is some Bermudagrass breeding to create species that are more drought tolerant but that also keep their color better in the winter so there is less incentive to overseed. Some new Bermudagrasses are doing well with very low water inputs. Bermudas are not shade tolerant but sometimes the lack of air movement is more detrimental than the shade. Zoysias tolerate shade better and in a warm-season market it makes it possible to eliminate overseeding.

“For creeping bentgrass, dollar spot is the struggle but in each breeding cycle there are improvements in resistance. Creeping bentgrass also has to establish well, be aggressive against Poa annua, tolerate low heights of cuts and recover from verticutting. There must be some cool weather active growth at the same time of year as Poa annua. There should be all of these things in a cultivar.

“To create a new cultivar of grass it takes a minimum of eight to nine years from beginning through field testing in multiple locations. Strengths and weaknesses cannot be ascertained until it has been in use for five to six years. The 007 cultivar of bentgrass is one of the most extensively used creeping bentgrasses and there are newer ones coming to market. Today, I would recommend a blend of 007 and something else because I know we have grown it far south, in Siberia, in Japan and up and down the East and West Coasts. We have had it all over and we have been successful in all of those places.

“For environmental areas, fine fescue blends have that look like a classic Scottish links course when the seedheads come up. Fine fescues tend to be lower maintenance but they are not zero-maintenance as there are concerns with weed invasion and density. For instance, if a ball lands there, do you want it to be able to be shot out or not? Will it be mowed occasionally or not at all? There are areas where it’s appropriate to use more native grasses but they still have maintenance needs.

“During selection, superintendents need to think about when they have their players. When do they need to look their best? Elevation is a consideration that can’t be overlooked. Superintendents need to put trials on their own course or go and see something close to where someone manages it the same way. We try but what is important to a superintendent is not the exact same as what is essential for research. Everyone needs to remember there is no such thing as a perfect grass!”

Jeff Spangler, Senior Vice President of Science and Agronomy, Troon

“Troon manages more than 470 golf courses globally and its founder, Dana Garmany, gave me a lesson years ago when I was the superintendent at Troon North in Scottsdale, Arizona. During a course renovation, we were discussing turf varieties and I wanted to install something new and unproven as opposed to using the variety already on the course. Garmany said, ‘You need to give me a thousand reasons why we would switch from something performing so well and that is such high quality for something that hasn’t been proven at all.’ That stayed with me.

“There was a trend in golf course architecture 20 to 30 years ago with different textures, looks and colors where everything became convoluted. There was intrusion from one species into another, so it was hard to keep a uniform, clean golf course. People no longer have the desire to plant, grow and maintain a course with elements that aren’t adapted to their environment. Through science, trial and error, and cost control, the selection of the species is more in line with what is most desirable for a specific place.

“For cool-season grasses, it’s Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass or creeping bentgrass and for warm-season grasses, it’s paspalum, Bermuda and zoysia. There’s nothing really new, those are the same. Paspalum is an example of an expanded variety. Paspalum wins the beauty contest every day. It’s beautiful grass and it has a very high salt tolerance. It was bred for salt-affected turf sites where it can perform at a much higher level than other varieties or species. Because it looks so good, its use spread to other non-salt-affected sites where people wanted something new and innovative. Its use was stretched beyond its ideal physiological characteristics and there is some pulling back on that today.

Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona, installed tall fescue (front) and bentgrass (back) as part of a practice area turf demonstration.
© Dr. leah brilman

“Zoysia has become well-proven in the Transition Zone, and if there are any species that has been refined over the last 15 years, it’s zoysia. The breeding programs have developed much finer leaf-blade varieties and there are varieties for greens now. There’s always an argument why cool- or-warm season turf would work but you’re still out of place at a certain period of the year. Zoysia eliminates much of that dilemma.

“Choosing the species and the variety requires research and thought. What is working well near the property being re-grassed? The agronomists make the decision about what turf to select but they consult with the other stakeholders, such as the course owner and the developer, trying to determine everyone’s needs to find the best adapted species and variety for a particular property. Anything more complex adds to the labor budget and everyone is trying to reduce labor costs. Simply put, there is a lot of risk in something that hasn’t been proved over a long period of time.

“Sure, courses need to be re-grassed every 30 years or so, due to contamination and how robust the plants are genetically after that length of time. Courses are usually re-grassed alongside other renovation work. The biggest trend in renovations is making the golf course more player- and maintenance-friendly. Fewer short hills and mounds, lower bunker square footage and keeping everything in a golf course that looks good but that plays better and is easier to maintain. That’s the big trend.

“You don’t want to shut yourself down to innovation and new ideas so there’s a balance. With all of the ancillary decision-making processes as a superintendent, leadership is paramount. Ability to lead a crew is going to impact the standard of the course more than a slight miss in the agronomics. It’s all these other things — recruiting, training, teaching and consistently displaying a solid work effort. These things affect golf course quality to a much greater extent than the turfgrass choices, so Troon spends a lot of time on that. We don’t get hung up in the selection process with our species and varieties because we know the quality of the course reflects the quality of the superintendent.”