Going Green: Golf Courses Benefit by Painting Fairways
January 18, 2018 | Liberty Corner, N.J.
By George Waters, USGA
Golf is played year-round in the southeastern United States. When temperatures are cold elsewhere, golf courses there are often enjoying some of their best weather. There is one catch, however. The grasses found on most Southern courses typically go dormant during winter.
Dormant fairways can provide an excellent playing surface with firm conditions and extra ball roll; however, dormant turf also takes on a pale straw color that lacks the visual appeal and definition that come with actively growing grass. Dormant fairways will also experience some wear and tear from traffic during the winter because the grass is growing slowly, if at all.
For decades, winter dormancy issues in the Southeast were addressed by overseeding fairways with ryegrass each fall to provide golfers with green grass into the spring. Unfortunately, overseeding fairways has serious consequences for year-round playability. In the fall, courses are wet and soft for weeks and carts are restricted to paths as the overseed establishes. During winter, courses face increased weed issues. In spring and early summer, fairway playing conditions can be very inconsistent as the bermudagrass struggles to recover from the overseeding process.
These playability issues had long been accepted as necessary evils, but a significant shift has occurred in recent years. A growing number of golf courses in the Southeast are now painting their fairways green in the winter instead of overseeding. Painting fairways eliminates the playability issues that come with overseeding and delivers significant resource savings.
Patrick O’Brien has been consulting with golf courses in the Southeast for more than 30 years as a USGA agronomist and has advised many on making the transition to fairway painting.
“The growing use of paints has really been driven by an emphasis on year-round playing conditions,” said O’Brien. “Painting instead of overseeding fairways allows courses to be at their best in the prime fall golf season and they come out of dormancy faster in the spring, meaning late spring and summer playing conditions are better, too. If some painted fairways are a little worn during the last few weeks of winter dormancy, the improved conditions during the rest of the year more than make up for it at most facilities.”
“Then there are the savings on water, fertilizer, plant protectants and all the time and energy spent mowing during the winter. With painting, you get better fairway playing conditions at a lower cost.”
The Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.C., paints the fairways on all nine of its courses each winter. Bob Farren, director of grounds and golf course maintenance, explains what motivated the resort to begin painting:
“When I first started working at Pinehurst more than 30 years ago, we overseeded wall-to-wall. We knew that we were compromising playing conditions, but there was a perceived need to have that overseeded look in winter and early spring.”
“The restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 in 2010-2011 provided us with an opportunity to really change how we did things resort-wide. The soft and inconsistent playing conditions that came with fairway overseeding were totally at odds with everything we were trying to achieve on Course 2. Our architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were both opposed to overseeding the restored golf course and our agronomy team fully agreed, so we decided to try painting.”
“We quickly saw that our fairway playing conditions were so much better throughout the year without overseeding and our golfer satisfaction surveys confirmed that fact. Once we saw the benefits we expanded the painting program to all the courses at the resort.”
John Jeffreys, the superintendent of Pinehurst No. 2, describes the painting process:
“We typically make two or three paint applications each winter using our golf course sprayers. It takes us a couple of days to paint the fairways, but we don’t have to close the course and the paint is typically dry within an hour or two, so we never get complaints from golfers about paint on their shoes. There is no disruption to play and conditions are firmer, faster and more consistent all year long.”
Travis Crosby, the superintendent at Heritage Oaks Golf Club in Brunswick, Ga., relies on painting fairways to meet the needs of a busy, affordable public golf course.
“When I became the superintendent here in 2014 we had a lot of conversations about fairway overseeding,” said Crosby. “We wanted good aesthetics during our busy winter golf season, but we also needed to be mindful of our budget and the fact that our site has poor soils that can easily become saturated in winter. If we are overseeded and get wet weather, we could have a situation where the fairways are growing but we can’t mow them. That would be a serious issue during our prime playing season.”
“We also have a steady flow of golfers all year long and don’t want to disrupt play to overseed the fairways in fall or spend time and money repairing damaged bermudagrass in spring and summer.”
Crosby assured the ownership that he could find a paint that would deliver the desired aesthetics without the disruption and cost that come with overseeding. After a period of experimentation, Heritage Oaks found a paint that worked for them and they haven’t looked back.
“Painting instead of overseeding fairways allows us to achieve our aesthetic and playability goals over the course of the entire year,” said Crosby. “It also allows our 10-person maintenance staff to spend time in the winter catching up on projects we’re too busy for during the peak growing season. We’ve been able to renovate numerous bunkers and make irrigation improvements during the winters because we aren’t managing overseeded fairways. Those winter projects end up improving the golf experience all year long.”
The growing shift from overseeding to painting fairways in the Southeast demonstrates that improving the golfer experience and reducing resource consumption can go hand in hand. By rethinking the long-standing practice of overseeding, golf facilities have been able to deliver better playing conditions while reducing their consumption of water, fertilizer, fuel and other critical resources. It’s an excellent example of golf facilities utilizing new techniques and technologies to put themselves on a more sustainable path.
George Waters is the manager, Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.