Splendor In The Grass

When fine fescue meets firm and fast conditions, it’s a family reunion

By Evan Rothman
June 1, 2011

Fine fescue is a predominant feature in the roughs and native areas at Erin Hills, site of the 2011 U.S. Amateur and 2017 U.S. Open. (Kirk H. Owens/USGA)

Under the right circumstances, fine fescue is “probably the best playing surface in the world,” says renowned designer Tom Doak

“Firm and fast” has long been a strong first choice for the USGA when it comes to course conditions. This year’s slate of 13 USGA national championships highlights one way to help produce such playing grounds: the use of fine fescue turfgrass.

Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (host courses of the U.S. Amateur Public Links and U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links) in Bandon, Ore., and Erin Hills (U.S. Amateur) in Erin, Wis., will all offer fine fescue and firm, fast conditions. In golf, fine fescue is about as new as a mashie-niblick – it’s an integral component of the grass mix on fairways and greens on most courses in Great Britain and Ireland, especially links courses. But its star turn in 2011 in the U.S. comes at an opportune moment.

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“The great thing about fescue, why we love it, is that you can really shut off the water and the plant doesn’t die on you,” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis says of the green-friendly grass. “It just goes dormant quickly.”

As Davis and others note, this has advantages both in terms of playability and sustainability. Fescue doesn’t require as much water – or fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides or mowing – as other golf course grasses, and that is a clear positive for the future.

“It’s the right thing for the environment,” says Dana Fry, one of the designers of Erin Hills. “It got to the point in the last 20 or 30 years where people thought if grass wasn’t lush it was bad, not taking into account the money it takes to maintain something like that or its impact on the environment. I agree with the USGA that fescue is doing a lot of good things for the game.”

Tom Doak, co-designer of Old Macdonald, used fine fescue for his very first course more than 20 years ago. He emphasizes that the grass thrives only in the proper conditions of sandy soil and a relatively mild climate – and only with proper maintenance practices. As such, fine fescue isn’t a panacea, but when those circumstances come together, Doak says he believes, “it’s probably the best playing surface in the world.” He cites the tight lies and bounciness of its fairways; the variety of shots that can be employed around the green due to its very fine blades; and the tall, wispy rough it can produce, providing the chance to find one’s ball and, possibly, escape.

Architects as different as two of golf’s best-loved designers, Ben Crenshaw, co-creator of Bandon Trails, and Tom Fazio, the architect of Bayville Golf Club in Virginia Beach, Va. (site of this year’s U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur), agree that firm and fast conditions, resulting from fine fescue or otherwise, add something important to championship golf.

“While the test of a course’s quality is that it plays well no matter what the conditions,” Fazio says, “firm and fast conditions put added demands on players and help identify a worthy winner.”

“When golf can’t simply be played through the air and there’s that extra dimension of the ground game, extra planning is involved and the imaginative part comes in,” says Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and the recipient of the USGA’s Bob Jones Award in 1991. “Some pick that up more quickly than others, to their benefit.”

 

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