More superintendents are talking about a need for low-input and sustainable cool-season turfgrass. Are their needs being met?

The talk about low-input, sustainable cool-season turfgrass is kind of like the talk about new golfing sensation Jordan Spieth.

Five years ago, when Spieth was an amateur golfer on the rise, there was casual talk about the rising kid golfer from Texas, with most of that chatter occurring in the Lone Star State. Now that Spieth has won two Major titles (at press time), golf fans throughout the country are talking about him as the game’s new star. The situation is similar with low-input, sustainable cool-season, says Brent Bolton, the general manager of turf seed for Lebanon, Pennsylvania-based LebanonTurf.

“It was something we talked about five years ago, but now it’s something we talk about all the time,” Bolton says, noting the “talk” is across the board, from municipalities to high-end golf courses, and focuses on establishing turfgrass that requires less water and fewer nutrients. “We have distributors asking us what we offer in terms of low-input, sustainable seed.”

Bolton believes that professionals, including golf course superintendents, fuel changes in turfgrass technology.

“Until it really means something to them, they don’t get excited about it,” Bolton says. “But it’s starting to mean something to them.”

Researchers and turf seed experts will agree that concessions will have to be made, especially on golfers’ parts, for a playing surface that can’t be flawless.PHOTO BY LAWRENCE AYLWARD 

What they want

Superintendents want turfgrass that is drought-, heat- and disease-resistant, says Lew Sharp, an agronomist and golf course consultant with Hubbard, Oregon-based Tee-2-Green. Of course, it must be playable.

“They want the whole combination,” Sharp adds. “They also want it to be resistant to Poa annua.”

In a perfect world, all bentgrass varieties would be drought-resistant, Sharp says. But needs differ from region to region.

For instance, superintendents at courses in the North, such as Michigan and Minnesota, need grass that will green up faster because of low light intensity in the spring. In the transition zone, superintendents demand varieties that are more disease-resistant, because disease is more of a threat in that region. In the coastal areas and the Southwest, superintendents are seeking more salt-tolerant varieties because they use more effluent water to irrigate, Sharp says.

“There have to be different bents to fit different needs,” Sharp says.

When a superintendent calls him and inquires about a bentgrass variety, Sharp immediately asks the superintendent a few questions, including:

What is the condition of your water?

As time marches on and water becomes even more of an issue, Sharp isn’t so sure that drought-resistant varieties will become more requested than other varieties. “But I think they will be a very big factor in superintendents’ decisions of what they are going to do,” he adds.

Doug Brede, Ph.D., research director for Boise, Idaho-based Jacklin Seed, says he gets more questions from golf course architects these days about what kind of seed is needed to recreate the links look on golf courses.

“I’m not sure why, but it seems to be something that’s geographically connected,” he adds.

Brede says architects aren’t working in a vacuum.

“They are responding to their customers who want this type of appearance and cost savings in their courses,” he adds.

Bolton says breeders are listening.

“The breeders are listening to the markets, and the markets want low-input materials that are sustainable,” he adds.

The drought-tolerant factor is at the top of superintendents’ lists, Bolton adds.

“It all starts in the South and moves North where water is less available,” he adds. “That has been the wave. If they are paying more for water, it only stands to reason that they want to use less water.”

Regarding putting greens, Brede points out that most superintendents will not allow drought conditions to occur on the most important part of the golf course. But they would surely be open to a variety that could help them reduce their irrigation by 30 percent.

Which brings to mind T-1 bentgrass, which Brede developed and has been on the market for about 10 years. T-1 handles high temperatures and low temperatures well. It also holds off Poa annua and creates a uniform surface. Brede says T-1 has been selling out every year, and is very popular on golf courses in China and Asia. Of the 600 golf courses built in China in the last 20 years, 400 of them feature T-1 on their greens, Brede says.

While there haven’t been any water efficiency studies done with T-1, Brede believes it can take less water because it can tolerate more heat – and heat and drought go hand in hand.

Sharp points out that some of the newer bentgrass varieties, such as Tee-2-Green’s Pure Distinction and Pure Select, have denser and deeper root structures, which is crucial to water management. Their roots can grow deeper in search of more water. These varieties also bounce back quickly after being beat down from traffic and other factors. In addition, the varieties offer a high tolerance to Poa annua herbicides.

“It’s amazing how long bentgrass [in general] can last without water,” Sharp says. “The grass is really resilient.”

Echoing Brede, Sharp says there may not be research to prove it, but some of the newer bentgrass varieties are more drought-tolerant.

“Look how far we have come since Penncross debuted in 1955,” Sharp says. “We are moving in a drought-tolerant direction.”

The big-money question about utilizing current and future drought-resistant varieties has to do with return on investment. Courses that are already planning on renovations will most likely seek out such varieties, which will definitely provide them an ROI, Brede says.

Courses not planning renovations must decide of the worth to renovate with a more drought-resistant variety.

“One of the questions they want to ask themselves is how much water they will have to use to sustain Poa annua in the heat,” Sharp says. “Poa annua demands a lot of water to survive. And if there are water restrictions [on a course with Poa], things could go south quickly for that course. The Poa is going to die back, and you’re going to lose turf.”

Recently, one Indiana superintendent, whose course’s greens were regressed with one of Tee-2-Green’s newer bents, remarked to Sharp that he couldn’t believe how much less handwatering the greens needed since the conversion from bentgrass/Poa mixture to the new variety.

What it takes

Bolton wonders if sustainability in golf might be outpacing seed technology. It’s a fair assessment, considering the mixed reaction the fine fescue putting greens at Chambers Bay received from the media, the public and the golf course management industry. The United States Golf Association may have led people to believe that Chambers Bay was giving people a look into golf courses of the future, featuring low-input, sustainable turfgrass.

Sharp says Chambers Bay is a beautiful golf course in an awesome setting, but people (and players) aren’t accustomed to seeing golf balls “jumping” on the greens, which is not a sign that the greens were playing smooth and consistent during the U.S. Open.

“It just came off negative to the public,” Sharp says.

“It was quite a shock when compared to what a normal [U.S. Open] championship course looks like,” Brede adds.

The sustainable golf course greens of the future may not be sporting fine fescue. One thing is for sure, though: Building the perfect seed variety is more difficult than realized, Sharp says. It can be a five- to 15-year deal.

“We have to go through a lot of processes,” he adds.

Jacklin Seed is introducing some new products, which Brede says is exciting considering the seed is something that researchers and developers have worked on for 10 to 15 years.

“Most businesspeople have a hard time thinking in terms of two to three years, let alone 10 to 15 years,” Brede says.

Brede points out that if a new seed variety is more drought-resistant, it doesn’t mean it will also be more disease-resistant.

“Sometimes, nature works just the opposite way,” he adds. “You concentrate on drought resistance, and then you lose some resistance in other areas. It’s more of matter that you sacrifice one thing for another.”

Researchers tend to focus on making seed resistant to the most popular turfgrass foes, such as dollar spot in the disease category and sod webworm in the insect category.

“So there’s always the chance that some peculiar bacterial disease will pop up that we never even thought to look for,” Brede says.

The longtime researcher said he has also noticed that some of the new drought-tolerant bluegrass is “drastically lower in seed-yielding ability,” meaning that less yield will mean more cost per pound.

Regarding drought resistance, Brede stresses that there must be more factors at work to save water than just seed.

“There have to be some changes in how we utilize water overall, not just what is coming out of the wells but also what’s coming down from the sky,” he says. “We need to conserve the moisture that is falling and channel it in something we can pump out of or use as a reservoir. A lot of courses are just designed to get the water off the surface and out of the gullies and on to others’ properties. But all of the water that comes onto a course should be utilized on that course rather than put downstream.”

As far as seed, Brede is concerned that continued seed industry consolidation may lead to lower seed prices, which could impact funding for research and development.

Researchers and turf seed experts will agree that concessions will have to be made, especially on golfers’ parts, for a playing surface that can’t be flawless. While Brede realizes that a lot of people aren’t used to seeing a golf ball bounce on a putting green, he stresses that that’s the way the game used to be played when it was created in Scotland. Brede believes the golf industry needs to “get back to a segment” of the way the game used to be, something that would provide a “unique challenge.” It might not be bumpy greens, but it could be something else.