The R&A - Working for Golf

Growing the right grass

Get grass selection right and you can save time and money.

Establishing the best suited grass species for your location can dramatically enhance surface playing quality while simultaneously reducing management costs.  There are many different types of turfgrass around the world which can be managed to produce good playing surfaces for golf. Each species, however, will have its own particular favoured growing conditions in relation to climate, local environment, topography, aspect, soil composition and maintenance inputs. As such, in order to get the best surfaces from any individual species, its growing conditions need to be well-matched to those which it has naturally adapted to in its native environment. If a grass was growing in a landscape before there was ever mention of a golf course being constructed there, it can be a valuable indicator that it will be a good choice for the playing surfaces!  Trying to grow any type of grass under poorly-suited conditions will always be like fighting a losing battle; both expensive, often economically and environmentally, and with a sub-standard end result.

The essence of a ‘sustainable’ grass species choice is about selecting a species that is naturally well adapted to the environment it will be required to grow in.  Getting this right is one of the most import decisions that any golf course can make, regardless of where it is in the world. A lot of information on what grass to use is available from rigorous testing at specialist research facilities.  A well-chosen grass species will offer numerous positive benefits, including:

  • higher natural resistance to pests and diseases
  • greater resilience to local climatic extremes such as drought and high temperatures
  • lower requirements for supplemental feed through fertiliser application
  • a strong and healthy root system that can tolerate higher levels of wear through play.

Collectively, these benefits translate into a sward that can produce good, consistent, surfaces for playing golf all year round, at often substantially lower financial costs than incurred when attempting to grow non-native varieties. As such, making the right grass species selection can be the foundation of a successful golf course.

Asking the right questions
Investigating which grass species will be best suited to your particular golf course is all about asking the right questions. One of the first questions to ask is whether to use cool or warm season species. A professional agronomist or course consultant can help you to establish your requirements. For most courses, it will be a straightforward decision based on geographical location.  For those courses located in what is referred to as the ‘transition zone’, however,  it can be slightly more complicated since neither cool nor warm season species will necessarily be ideally suited to your climate. In this instance, it will be necessary to ask what the main limiting factors will be for each possible candidate species and then to cross-reference these with the factors needed for a successful operation. Issues to consider can include:

  • the main playing season for golf and hence which months will be the priorities for achieving good grass cover
  • the availability and cost of water
  • the severity of climatic extremes; for instance, are your summers so hot that cool season grasses would require unsustainable quantities of water and may even be in danger of burning off entirely? Are your winters so cold as to threaten a catastrophic winter kill of warm season species?

Having a high-level understanding of your particular climate, along with seasonal variability and also perhaps considering forecasted climate change in your area, will be imperative in allowing you to make the right decisions.

In Italy, one golf club elected to change its fairway grasses from cool season to warm season species in order to give a greater tolerance to long hot summers. For a few months over the winter, the new grass now goes dormant but the off-colour surface still provides good playing surfaces. The collective benefit has been significant, with a now far improved year-round playability of the course made possible. The replacement of the grasses was not cheap but the payback has been immediate with savings realised in the region of:

  • 60% less water consumption
  • 70% less fertiliser inputs
  • 80% less herbicide use.

Even if you have the comparatively much simpler decision of whether to select simply a warm or cool season species, there is still the task of choosing which individual variety will be the best option. Making an informed decision will require you to have access to information on the individual grass species, as well as the associated cultivars, that have been determined as potential candidates for your site. It is at this point that there will be several important factors to take into account:

  • climate – even within the ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ season categories, there is still a wide range of tolerances between individual grasses and cultivars of a single species
  • local environment – drainage and shade will have a big influence on the survival of different grasses.  No grass mown to green or tee height will tolerate poor drainage or severe shade
  • aspect – something as simple as the difference between a north or south facing site can impact on which species and cultivar will do best
  • soils – the quality and performance of soils has a massive impact on drainage and nutrition, as well as on grass selection
  • maintenance resources – having the resources to effectively manage the grasses which you have established will be a critical determining factor in the long-term viability of your site.  All grasses available for greens, tees, fairways and rough have been specifically bred to produce good quality playing surfaces for golf, provided that they are supported by the appropriate environmental conditions and management programmes. It is essential to understand, and be able to meet, the particular maintenance requirements of your selected species.

Which grass?

Having a high-level understanding of your particular climate, along with seasonal variability and also perhaps considering forecasted climate change in your area, will be imperative in allowing you to make the right decisions.

For golf greens in cool season situations, fine fescues (Festuca rubra species) and browntop bentgrass (Agrostis capillaris) are the low maintenance options. Creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera), velvet bentgrass (Agrostis canina) and annual meadow-grass (Poa annua) are relatively high input grasses, which require considerably more work in order to manage organic matter accumulation. For areas beyond the green, other species such as smooth-stalked meadow-grass (Poa pratensis) and perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) might be considered, but they too tend to have relatively high maintenance requirements compared to fine fescues and browntop bentgrass.

In Scandinavia, there is ongoing change in the grasses of choice for golf courses, with a distinct movement away from high maintenance grasses to more sustainable, low-input, options, with a particular focus on fine fescues.  Initiated in Denmark, this move is now being driven forward with the support of the Swedish Golf Federation.

In warmer climates, a single species is commonly used right across the golf course but there is a greater emphasis placed on calculating available sunlight hours since this factor can have a big bearing on the viability of some particular species.  Hybrids of Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon x C. transvaalensis) tend to be the most resilient warm season grasses but need at least 8 hours of sunlight a day in order to grow well. Regions of the world that fall within the ‘warm-season’ bracket but have a distinct wet season with associated overcast weather can therefore prove detrimental to the growth of this particular species.  Each situation needs to be thoroughly evaluated in terms of the particular climatic constraints.

Zoysiagrass (Zoysia species) tends to be the low maintenance grass of choice for warm season regions and the species is quickly growing in popularity as its benefits become increasingly evident and better understood, despite its slow rate of initial establishment. Seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum) has been cited as ‘the’ warm season grass for the future and is fast attracting interest because of its impressive visual characteristics. This species does, however, need more care in its management than others and is, perhaps, best considered as a niche grass for situations where water quality is a serious issue.

Beyond the greens, native warm season grasses, e.g. zoysias and kikuyugrass (Pennisetum clandestinum), respond extremely well to routine management and can produce very good playing surfaces under low-input management programmes.

On a course in Thailand, the use of a native Zoysia for fairways and semi-rough brought considerable improvements to the overall operation of the Club.  Meanwhile, at a Club in the Philippines, going one step further and utilising native grasses throughout the entire golf course - Zoysia on greens and carpetgrass (Axonopus compressus) on fairways – has proven an incredibly successful strategic management decision.

Selecting the best suited grass at the outset of a new course build, or even when completely renovating an existing course, is a relatively straightforward process since you can effectively start with a clean slate. It is, of course, always advisable to work closely with a professional consultant when making your decisions.

Converting existing turfed surfaces to different species is a much more complex, yet not impossible, process to undertake.  It is commonly an initiative more applicable to cool season than warm season regions but the process begins by working to produce a very healthy growing environment in order to facilitate the establishment of the newly selected grass species.  Steps may be taken, for example, to address issues with shading, drainage and thatch accumulation. Once an improved growing environment has been created, it is possible to get good species transition results through a focused overseeding programme. Nonetheless, it can take a number of years before real progress is realised and a new dominant species is established; as such, it is important that those clubs which do embark on such a project are well aware of the associated costs and disruption.

Conversion needs to be thought through very carefully, weighing up the investment required against the longer-term benefits which could be realised. If your current grass is likely to become unsustainable due to factors outside your control, e.g. rising water costs, falling water quality, increasingly stringent pesticide regulations or climate fluctuations, then an early start to a conversion process may help to keep you ahead of your competitors when these factors really do come into play.


Keeping what you choose
Achieving a cover of the most suitable grass on greens, tees, fairways or rough is really only the start of the process.  The entire maintenance strategy must then be focused around implementing the management practices that will continue to favour that grass over any others. This will require paying very careful attention to issues such as mowing heights, watering, feeding and thatch management. A failure to put the necessary support infrastructure in place to continue to favour your new grasses could quickly see you falling back to the original situation; potentially becoming only a very expensive short-term experiment. Choosing and then maintaining the right grasses for your golf course has to be seen as a dynamic process that is responsive to new pressures and challenges as they arise.