Fescue, fine or foe?

  • Book opinion
    Jaeger Kovich

    The par-four eleventh hole at Laurel Links on Long Island is now framed by a sandscape

  • Book opinion
    Jaeger Kovich

    A dune ridge has been constructed behind the par-three twelfth

Ryan Book
By Ryan Book

The sight of fescue blowing in the wind sets many a golfer’s heart aflutter. Despite stealing balls almost as frequently as less-fashionable ponds, it’s easier to accept a hazard that’s been present on golf courses since the origins of the game.

Laurel Links Country Club, a 2002 design from Kelly Blake Moran, found that fescue outgrew its rustic appeal.

“It just started eating golf balls. Looked like it could have eaten a golf cart too,” says Jaeger Kovich, golf course architect and owner of Proper Golf, who has been leading the club through a multistage removal of its fescue fields during the past few years. “It’s flat as a pancake out here and it’s a really dense area that was not really meant to be fescue.”

If one referred to Laurel’s fescue as ‘native area’, they should be sure to leave the ‘native’ in quotation marks. It’s not indigenous to Long Island’s North Fork region. Like many clubs across the United States, the native vegetation had been trees. The initial build involved opening up the areas between fairways by felling trees, a choice it doesn’t regret. More problematic was the decision to fill those open areas with introduced fescue.

The tall grass quickly settled in and, as Kovich notes, began harvesting any ball sent its way. The membership’s pleasure with the linksland aesthetic gave way to frustration as Pro V1s disappeared and rounds lengthened.

A lack of maintenance resources created a problem almost as relevant: The fescue required continuous trimming, expensive chemical spray applications and the maintenance hours could be better used almost anywhere else.

“They have a pretty small crew out here. It’s really hard for them to find guys to work maintenance crews out here on the North Fork,” says Kovich. “Having to continuously maintain this giant area of fescue was just driving them nuts.”

Fortunately, a quality concept for replacing the fescue sat nearby. Friar’s Head Golf Club, 10 miles down the road, features some spectacular dunes. They don’t cover the entire property, however, so the existing farmland was converted to sandscape.

Laurel Links shared a similar soil type to Friar’s Head: a finely textured grey clay and silt substrate that offers a linksy aesthetic but doesn’t drain like true sand.

The true sand lay four to five feet below the surface, which Kovich personally mined on his bulldozer. Keeping playability as the focus, the softer pure sand – or a blend of sand and the silky surface soil – was kept in areas farthest from play. Additional sand, combined with screenings, was brought in to create a more solid surface nearer to the fairway so that wayward balls would plug less frequently (playability remained a focus, with sand as with fescue).

“They have all the right ingredients,” says Kovich, who has handled similar sandscaping projects for Gil Hanse at Streamsong Black and Pinehurst No. 4. “They’re just mixed up the wrong way.”

The right ingredients now mixed in the right way, Kovich began shaping. He created a variety of shapes, from small pockets or more sizable landforms, created by chunking, that emulate a blown-out bunker. A few islands of fescue were left, to divert flows of water around the landscape during wet periods.

The project has included tying holes into their new surroundings, with both aesthetic and strategic purposes. On the fourth, for example, Kovich replaced a series of small bunkers with one large blowout bunker, which transitions nicely into the new waste area to its right. The work on the thirteenth involved removing trees along the inside of this dogleg left so that players would be more inclined to challenge the waste area. A constructed dune ridge behind the par-three twelfth green protects players on the thirteenth tee from overzealous tee shots.

The current trends in golf course architecture, at least those reflected in rankings, have demonstrated a move toward the removal of trees from the areas between holes. This leaves the question as to what should fill that space. Although some would prefer wall-to-wall fairway, allowing the oft-cited width and angles to take precedence over penalty, this is an unlikely option for clubs with more realistic maintenance budgets. Native areas appeal to the minimalist eye, another trend in current ratings.

Many parkland courses won’t have the sand base to create an alternative such as Kovich’s work at Laurel Links. Waves of fescue, blowing in the wind, seems like an ideal solution, especially considering its idealistic link to the links of old.

But it’s an idea some clubs may want to think about with regards to the long term, and not just a simple aesthetic.

Golf has always had spiritual associations with certain plants (particularly those that keep to the ground). None has had a more profound influence than fescue, which has led many clubs – including, until recently, Laurel Links – to wear it as a badge of honour. It’s a strange contradiction for an industry that has increasingly embraced indigeneity when creating golf courses (see Kovich’s use of local sand).

There’s an undeniable appeal in teeing off at Pacific Dunes’ par-three seventeenth with a backdrop of yellow gorse, making golfers feel like they’re playing in golf’s homeland, and not the Oregon coast.

That said, some research into Bandon’s backstory will provide a dramatically different outlook regarding the plant’s existence. The gorse at Bandon is an invasive species, introduced by an Irish immigrant more than a century before Mike Keiser stepped foot on the land. As Keiser negotiated with the local community to seek permission to build his golf resort, he promised to remove the vast majority of gorse so that native species could thrive again.

One of those species, coincidentally, was fescue, which now thrives – naturally – among the dunes at Bandon.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines thriving as the act of “developing well or vigorously”. The new, sandy waste areas are helping Laurel Links reach a new peak, 20 years into its existence.

It’s a club that’s thriving, even if the fescue isn’t.

Read more from Ryan Book on his blog www.bethpageblackmetal.com

This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.