John Genovesi, director of grounds at the Maidstone Club on Long Island in New York, manages one of America’s oldest and most storied clubs, founded originally in 1894. But that great age is only a part of what makes Maidstone exceptional. “The course has not been regrassed since Willie Park was here in the early 1920s,” says Genovesi. “There are no records of any efforts to regrass the golf course in any meaningful way that I know of.”
Until 2015, Maidstone was one of a tiny number of courses in the United States with no fairway irrigation. The only water the fairways received was what came from the sky. Consequently, natural selection means that the turf is incredibly well adapted to its environment. “Our grass is very low maintenance. Fairways and roughs are extremely low input,” says Genovesi. “Sometimes with fairway irrigation, you get lush, rich grasses. Because we didn’t have it, we have mostly fescue that is tough and wispy.”
Design firm Coore & Crenshaw was hired to renovate Maidstone in 2012, principally to return the fairways to their historic widths in preparation for the installation of Maidstone’s first fairway irrigation system. Normally, when American courses undertake significant renovations, they regrass almost as a matter of course, and certainly when making significant changes to grassing lines. Not at Maidstone. “It wasn’t a question of mowing down native grasses, there was already turf in those areas, it had just been converted to maintained rough,” says architect Bill Coore. “It had got quite a long way away from where it was, but the turf was still the same, essentially natural mix that it had been since it was seeded more than a century ago.”
“The course has good bones, and they just tried to uncover it,” says Genovesi. “Fairway expansion took place by cutting down what was there and grooming it. After the renovation, we installed fairway irrigation, but we wanted to expand the fairways first so that we could ensure the heads were where they should be. The motivation behind installation of irrigation was to be able to manage inputs such as herbicides or grub control products that need watering in. Previously we’d have had to rely on rain. We needed a little more control. But the members were very clear: they didn’t want a green golf course. During the growing season, my plan is to water about once a month, around applications. If the fairways are in need of a feed, I will put down a bit of nitrogen and water it in. Most years in July and August, the fairways will go dormant and I don’t end up putting it down. Colour is not a driver for the membership. We will turn on a single head here and there rather than running the irrigation overnight.”
“We encouraged the club to put in fairway irrigation, but with a very strong caveat that it shouldn’t be used to water the turf regularly,” says Coore.
But few courses are in Maidstone’s position, and retrofitting turf that is over a century old is not possible. Research into new turfgrass species that offer better performance in terms of water requirements, disease resistance and the like, though, offers a potential lifeline.
Golf’s use of water is such an old story that readers over the age of about five could be forgiven for seeing this article and yawning. But we make no apologies for returning to such well-covered terrain, because it is very possibly the most important factor in determining whether the game will remain successful in future years.
Across the world, the pressure on water resources is getting stronger and stronger in almost every location. And golf, as a game that is widely perceived as being elitist and exclusionary, is well advised to take any opportunity to improve its PR profile, which reducing water usage certainly does. There are those within the game who feel golf already does its share: “We’re not as bad as agriculture” is a common cry from such people. But comparing golf and farming is not a strategy for success: food is a little more important to the world as a whole than golf. Better to do the right thing, and shout about it. In the US state of Utah, for example, a bill requiring both public and privately owned golf courses to publish their annual water usage recently came before the state’s legislature. The bill was opposed by the industry, and up to press has not passed, but its sponsors are still hopeful of getting it through. In the California desert areas around the large golfing centre of Palm Springs, disquiet is rising at the prevalence of ornamental water features on golf courses. “They wanted to basically fabricate this mirage oasis of what they thought the desert could be, with these never-ending golf courses and lagoons,” local conservationist Hernández Orellana recently told the LA Times. “But the reality is that with climate change, we need to start walking away from that.” She added that means rethinking some of the “unsustainable decisions” that cleared the way for water-intensive developments, and starting to put restrictions on the wasteful misuse of water.
Today’s turfgrasses, the product of many years of research, are potentially able to reduce the amount of both water and other inputs needed to keep them in prime condition. “In North America, the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance (TWCA) is using peer reviews to determine which are the most drought-tolerant cultivars – focusing on cool season grasses at the moment – and certifying them as such,” says John Holmes of Atlas Turf International. “TWCA-approved varieties are starting to be built in to the specifications of golf course architects in the US, and I suspect that a similar push will take hold in Europe before long. Also in the US, it won’t be long before new golf courses get tax breaks for using TWCA-approved varieties. And there is a stick to go along with the carrot: in certain states, legislation will compel the use of such varieties.”
It isn’t just within the cool season space, either. Recently in the US, a new federal grant programme has provided a boost for turfgrass breeders producing species that resist droughts. Increasingly severe drought restrictions in warm season golf markets are forcing courses to find lower input options, and pushing the use of treated effluent water for irrigation. As this is purified to a lower standard than mains water, its use mandates cultivars that have good resistance to salts and the like. At another Coore & Crenshaw project, Trinity Forest in Dallas, built atop a former landfill site, one such grass, the Trinity strain of zoysia from Bladerunner Farms (named because its first major use was on that course) has been doing precisely that since the course opened in 2016. “We knew that the course couldn’t be watered too much, because the cap on the landfill meant there was nowhere for the water to go,” says Bill Coore.
Kasey Kauff, Trinity Forest’s director of grounds, says that the first challenge is to pick the right grass. “First off it’s important to select a turf that is right for your location,” he says. “We picked a zoysia that was created at Texas A&M, so literally right down the road. By choosing a turf that is used to our extreme weather, we can keep our water usage low during our months that the temperatures are over 100F on a regular basis. We water based off evapotranspiration (ET) every night during the growing season. Every head on our course is specifically adjusted to put out the correct amount of water for the area it’s in. Then we set up the irrigation to water 60-70 per cent of the daily ET: basically we are watering on a 30-40 per cent deficit daily. That’s just what is right with our soil conditions and environment here. We do hand water dry areas during the day to try to keep moisture levels consistent, but in reality, over 100-plus acres, that’s impossible.”
Kauff isn’t in favour of planting older turfgrasses, just because their behaviour is well known. “If you put in something like 419 bermuda, it’s like buying a 1990 Honda for the same price as a 2023 Mercedes,” he says. “Why not just buy the Mercedes? Millions of dollars are spent researching turf grasses, use the people smarter than you. If you plant a turfgrass that is supposed to grow somewhere, you can stress it and water less. It’s my opinion that water management is the biggest issue when it comes to maintaining turfgrass. Last year we went more than 70 days with no rain and over 100F. The biggest key is plant turf that is supposed to grow where you are and push it. It’s all site/soil specific.”
Read more: California-based turfgrass specialist Jim Culley provides insight into his work at LACC and Pebble Beach.
At the Tiger Point course in Gulf Breeze, Florida, a former host of the Pensacola Open, architect Nathan Crace has recently completed a project to transform more than thirty acres of hybrid bermuda grass in out of play areas into naturalised areas to give more of an authentic Florida feel. “In that 30 acres, the superintendent can now stop watering regularly,” says Crace. The architect also completed a full course bunker renovation, in which he used TifTuf turf that uses 30 per cent less water on the bunker faces. “Additionally, a number of large bunkers were turned into waste areas and they cut back on watering around them to keep them looking more native and less manicured. This frees up water and manpower to reallocate to greens, fairways and tees. In fact, I’ve been using the TifTuf sod on all my bunker renovations because it uses so much less water,” he says.
This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.