At the 118th U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills, native grasses blowing in the wind provide a striking frame for the action on the course. It’s an appealing aesthetic that harkens back to golf’s earliest days on the coastal links. But it’s important to know that areas of tall grass and native vegetation on a golf course are for more than just looks. Naturalized areas help golf facilities reduce inputs, focus resources on primary playing areas and enhance wildlife habitat.
Today, naturalized areas are increasingly common on golf courses. In fact, according to a recent USGA-funded survey, 46 percent of golf courses are increasing their acreage of naturalized areas. This trend brings many benefits, but establishing more areas of tall grass and native vegetation requires careful planning to avoid playability issues.
Jim Skorulski, who has worked as a USGA agronomist for nearly 30 years, has helped many golf courses in the Northeast establish naturalized areas and is very familiar with their benefits and challenges.
“The first thing to know is that these are not ‘no-maintenance’ areas,” said Skorulski. “The level of maintenance depends on golfer expectations and the local environment. Golfers often envision naturalized areas being composed of thin, wispy turf that looks great and allows them to find their ball with relative ease. Achieving that in reality can require a lot of time and resources and it may be impossible at certain courses because of the soils, climate and vegetation. It’s also important to recognize that not all environments necessarily support an open grassland; sometimes other native plants are a better choice.”
“Even with a good management program, if naturalized areas are not carefully located, and if golfers are not well-informed about how they will perform, these areas can become a real headache.”
At Shinnecock Hills, managing 125 acres of native rough to a very high standard requires a lot of planning and hard work.
“The native areas at Shinnecock Hills are one of the defining features of the golf course,” said Jon Jennings, superintendent since 2012. “We take a lot of pride in their appearance and in the environmental value they bring, but it takes a lot of work to maintain them.”
“Each spring, before the grasses start growing, we go through the native areas and transplant any young trees we find to the perimeter of the property,” said Jennings, who was previously the superintendent at another founding club of the USGA, Chicago Golf Club. “This enhances screening and helps keep our open grassland from becoming a forest. We mow the native areas once in the spring to keep them from getting too tall during the season, then we mow them again starting in late fall. The mowing process can take two operators using specialized machines five to six weeks to complete. The machines gather all the clippings to limit the nutrient content in the soil.”
“During the season, we mow native areas that come into play on an as-needed basis and we periodically send a large contingent of staff out to hand-pick weeds. We also apply sand to key areas to help them remain as thin and playable as possible.”
The native area management program at Shinnecock Hills produces excellent results, but Jennings is quick to point out that his team operates in special circumstances.
“We have the great benefit of sandy soils and the support of our members to invest the resources needed to maintain these areas according to expectations,” said Jennings. “Even with those advantages, we still get comments about playability and we have to continually monitor the condition of our native areas to make sure they don’t get out of hand.”
“I think naturalized areas can be a wonderful asset to almost any golf facility,” said Jennings. “It’s just important that expectations be in line with the realities of each unique situation.”
At Todd Creek Golf Club in Thornton, Colo., naturalized areas enhance the golf experience while playing a critical role in conserving resources. Todd Creek is in an area that receives limited rainfall each year and expanding naturalized areas has played an important part in water conservation for the semi-private facility.
Jeremy Casebolt became Todd Creek’s superintendent in 2013. Since that time, his staff has converted 25 acres of mown rough to naturalized areas. Those efforts have helped reduce annual water use by more than 20 percent, while allowing the staff more time to focus on the primary playing surfaces. With a maintenance staff of 10-12 people during the busy golf season, time is a valuable resource.
Casebolt began expanding the naturalized areas at Todd Creek by focusing on locations that were clearly out of play. “We started by converting mown rough around the tee complexes that wasn’t providing much benefit. We probably added 9 acres of naturalized areas just by converting turf around the tees.”
As Todd Creek looked to expand naturalized areas even further, Casebolt reached out to the USGA’s Larry Gilhuly to help identify locations that would be good candidates.
“It’s location, location, location when you’re talking about establishing naturalized areas at a golf course,” said Gilhuly, an agronomist with the USGA’s West Region for 35 years. “Golfers are generally very supportive of reducing the amount of maintained turf to conserve resources as long as the end result isn’t countless lost balls and pace of play grinding to a halt.”