Grass choice: a design decision


Sean Dudley
By Alistair Beggs

Golf course design, grass choice, and turf management are all intimately linked and unless they co-exist harmoniously the way a golf course plays and looks can be adversely affected for generations.

It is perhaps worth remembering that golf is played on grass and that this clever and durable plant ultimately conveys the playing character of a golf course wherever it may be in the world. Bermuda, annual meadow grass, zoysia and fescue all have a role in the right environment. However, knowledge of that environment, the suitability of the grass to it, the management of the grass and the impact it will have on playability are crucial to success. Grass choice should be one of the first discussion points in any new design project. The decisions taken will obviously be influenced by many things, not least the climate of the area in which the course is to be built. The R&A now considers this so important that it is proposing to produce information on grass selection on its website

In Britain golf began on the linksland which was of little use for anything else.

This land was endowed with good drainage and colonised primarily by fine leaved grasses. The very fact that it was less than ideal for agriculture indicated its poverty stricken nature. Although we did not appreciate it at the time, these characteristics became pivotal to the game and the way it evolved. Because we could and because prevailing conditions suited, we played golf along the ground.

As the hand of man became more influential and design was born, the early protagonists were very aware of the link between the land, the grass, and the game itself. They rarely protected green fronts and provided options and alternatives for the golfer. Where fronts were protected they gave the golfer room to play his or her shots. Indeed Alister MacKenzie, talking of hillocks and hollows on approaches to greens, said: "They create a most fascinating variety of approach shots which never bore and never tire the golfer. A golf course that merely caters for the everlasting pitch at every hole can never be entirely satisfactory." More recently, many designers and architects seem to be infatuated with protecting green fronts with lakes, ponds and streams, and/or lavish bunkering. This may look nice and may be perfectly acceptable in other countries and climates, but when brought to Britain this style of golf can create difficulties for course managers. Frontal hazards demand soft greens, otherwise the product is unplayable. Greens must be managed to be soft to allow approach shots to stop. This in turn favours particular grass types and conditions, which make day-to-day management of courses more difficult and more expensive. Too often the result is a course that is not environmentally sustainable, because it requires heavy use of water and chemicals to keep it in good order. Further, some clubs don't have the budgets to maintain the created features – therein lies another problem! Demanding forced carries, particularly on longer par four holes, require good lies from which to play the ball. In Britain, creating perfect fairways has never been high on club agendas. Most clubs achieve the best they can from indigenous grasses and are not prepared, nor do they want, to pay to undertake greens-type management on fairways. It is wrong that courses should have to be in optimum condition to allow them to be played effectively by the majority. Not many golfers enjoy forced carries with longer clubs over lakes and ponds. God forbid that we start reseeding fairways with faster growing grasses to provide better lies. This too is unsustainable for most.

In the UK grass choice is relatively straightforward. On greens, chewings and slender creeping red fescues alongside browntop bents are favoured by most.

Some high-end developments prefer the more expensive creeping bent options.

They provide high standards but at considerable cost. They may look nice and play well in early years but it is necessary to look beyond this. Firstly many of the new bent cultivars (As and Gs) have been bred to tolerate and thrive at mowing heights of 3mm and below. This means fast greens, but this can create playing difficulties in combination with green undulations and wind (very common in our climate).

Secondly natural greenkeeping, which we pride ourselves on in Britain, is largely about making the most of indigenous species which are the most suited grasses to that environment. Botanically many, courses are genuine extensions of the environment around them and this statement extends to greens as well, which are often colonised by four or five grass types. It makes no real sense therefore to impose an alien grass type on a site and then try to maintain that grass at great cost to the pocket and the environment. This is not what golf in Britain is about! Bents and fescues will always be the grasses of choice for most British clubs not least because they can't afford the newer bent alternatives and the management that goes with them. This won't stop some going down this alternative route but being aware of the consequences is so important.

Elsewhere on the course there are new and interesting grass choices to be made.

On tees, choices usually fluctuate between traditional bents and fescues and harder wearing yet higher input rye grasses. The former will provide the best results for most. On some sites the use of smooth stalked meadow grass can be considered for improved durability without the inputs required of rye.

Rhizomatous tall fescue may also find a niche for itself. Its durability and drought tolerance may make it a popular choice on some courses. Its versatility make it suited to many habitat types including both wet and dry sites.

One of the many charms of our game is the variety of sites and hole types we play.

Design has and must always reflect this.

However it must not demand that we manage courses in a wet and soft state which is unsustainable with legislative issues biting at greenkeeping professionals.

Nor should courses be designed that demand superb conditioning to be playable. This too is just not sustainable in Britain – as golfers we are not prepared to pay for it.