SUSTAINABILITY
Warm-Season Grasses: Less Water, Better Turf October 7, 2016 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

Improved turf varieties can provide excellent playing conditions while using less water and resources. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

This is the first of three stories that highlight measures being taken by golf courses around the country to mitigate the issues of rising costs and restricted access to water. The USGA Water Resource Center of USGA.org contains more valuable information about golf’s use of water. You can read the second installment here and the third installment here.

Droughts may come and go, but issues surrounding water use in the golf industry are here to stay.

Growing demand, rising costs and heated political debates are making access to irrigation water increasingly expensive and unpredictable. At the same time, golfers have high expectations for consistent playing conditions and affordable green fees.

The USGA is helping courses meet these challenges through its decades of support for turfgrass research at universities around the country. This research has helped create turf varieties that provide excellent playing conditions while using less water in a wide range of climates. A growing number of golf courses are converting their primary playing areas to these new grasses.

Some of the most successful examples – particularly from a budgetary standpoint – are golf courses that have converted playing areas from cool-season grasses such as bentgrass and ryegrass to warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass. In areas where water is scarce or summer growing conditions are challenging, bermudagrass is a popular alternative. Its drought tolerance and durability have long been recognized, but concerns about playing quality, winter color and the ability to survive in a variety of environments have limited the use of bermudagrass in many areas of the U.S.

Fortunately, plant breeders have developed new bermudagrass varieties that address many of these concerns, and the growing need to save water and resources makes these varieties an increasingly popular choice. Dr. Michael Kenna, director of USGA Green Section Research, explains the potential water savings: “Suppose your golf course needs around 12 inches of irrigation for fairways during the summer months. The total for the summer would be around 30 million gallons of irrigation water. Converting to a warm-season grass would save 20 percent, or 6 million gallons of water.”

The improved cold tolerance of varieties such as Latitude 36 and Northbridge has made bermudagrass a viable alternative for golf courses as far north as Philadelphia. Elliott Dowling, a USGA agronomist, has advised several courses in the Northeast as they converted tees and fairways to bermudagrass.

“Although improved cold-tolerant bermudagrass varieties have limitations during extremely challenging winters, their summer condition, playability, water savings and reduced inputs outweigh that concern,” said Dowling. 

Photos: Courses Convert to More Sustainable Grasses

As Darin Bevard, director of USGA championship agronomy, puts it: “Bermudagrass is at its best when the summer is at its worst.”

In the West, bermudagrass is an increasingly popular alternative to cool-season grasses because of its drought tolerance and year-round playing quality. “In many parts of Southern California, courses are converting from a mix of cool- and warm-season grasses to uniform stands of bermudagrass,” said Pat Gross, director of the USGA Green Section’s West Region. “They are using less water to provide better playing conditions.”

If golf courses that take this leap are providing better playing conditions while reducing costs and realizing significant water savings, why haven’t more golf courses converted to grasses that use less water?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to turf conversion projects is the disruption and concern about lost revenue during the conversion process. Course officials must try to determine the potential return on investment. If grasses that use less water and resources perform well at the course, the cost of the project and short-term disruption can be very worthwhile.

Golf courses have made successful conversions all at once, in phases, or very gradually. The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel, Calif., converted its bentgrass and Poa annua fairways all at once, closing the course for 11 weeks to replant with Santa Ana bermudagrass. James Student, chairman of the club, said: “Our members are ecstatic: firmer, faster and consistently superior playability coupled with significant reductions in fairway water requirements. Our golf course is vastly improved and both our environment and community benefit. A win-win-win.”

New Turf Varieties Save Water and Improve Playing Conditions

Here are a few things to know about warm-season grasses:

  • They require significantly less water than cool-season grasses
  • They provide drier, firmer playing conditions during hot summer weather
  • They tolerate traffic and drought better than cool-season grasses
  • Divots recover quickly on fairways and tees during the summer months
  • Converting from cool-season to warm-season grasses often yields a significant savings in pesticide use
  • The improved cold tolerance of new varieties has made bermudagrass a viable alternative for golf courses as far north as Philadelphia

Mount Vernon Country Club in Alexandria, Va., is converting its bentgrass and Poa annua fairways to Latitude 36 bermudagrass as part of a larger project that includes water storage improvements and creek restoration. The total cost of converting the fairway turf is approximately $125,000 and the fairways are typically ready for play eight weeks after planting.

“The new fairway grass will allow us to reduce fairway irrigation by 45-50 percent, reducing our total annual irrigation requirements by 23-25 percent,” said Mike King, Mount Vernon superintendent. “Reduced labor and inputs with the new grass will save us around $65,000 annually. That money can be reinvested in the golf course through programs like fairway topdressing, leading to even better course conditions.”

Hunter Ranch Golf Course, a daily-fee facility in Paso Robles, Calif., has taken a more gradual approach. Its fairways were a mixture of cool-season grasses that required a lot of water during the hot and dry summers. This created undesirable playing conditions and left the facility vulnerable to extreme drought conditions. To address these issues, they planted Santa Ana bermudagrass into the existing fairways with a specialized machine that allowed them to do the work without closing the course.

“We began educating the partners and members about 2-3 months before we started so they understood the entire process and the desired outcome,” said Jason Pautsch, Hunter Ranch superintendent. “We also described the process on the website to inform other golfers.”

Using a gradual approach allows Hunter Ranch to save water and improve playing conditions without excessive disruption to the business. The process will take several years to complete and golfers have had to accept some scruffy patches as bermudagrass takes over, but Hunter Ranch is already realizing firmer playing conditions and 25 percent water reductions after only three years. “The response has been nothing but positive with the firmer, faster, more consistent fairways,” said Pautsch.

“It’s exciting to see a growing number of golf courses converting primary playing surfaces to these grasses as they look to conserve water, reduce costs and improve playing conditions,” said Dr. Kenna. “Golfers are enjoying the benefits of firmer, more consistent conditions and can be happy knowing that golf courses are working hard to conserve water.”

George Waters is a manager of education for the USGA Green Section. Email questions or comments to greensection@usga.org

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