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How the Game of Golf Adapts to Global Warming

Hot weather combined with intense downpours – one of the signature signs of a changing climate – has flummoxed duffers and greenskeepers alike on East Coast golf courses. But don't handicap them yet
turf grass


The USGA has spent about $35 million since the mid-'80s on scientific research for improved and more resilient turf grass.
Credit: Simon Jardine via Flickr

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Want to see the future of turf grass? It's growing at Rutgers University in a "library" of grasses on thousands of 4-foot by 6-foot research plots – 12,000 plots exclusively for bent grasses destined for golf courses.

Samples come from around the world, especially Europe, where most turf grasses used in the United States originate. University researchers work with some 25 seed companies to develop new varieties; the university earns royalties through licensing and marketing agreements.

Varieties developed at Rutgers have been used on Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, host of The Masters each spring, and in Yankees Stadium.

"We have by far the largest reserve of genes of cool-season grasses anywhere in the world," said William Meyer, director of Rutgers' turf grass breeding program. "Our whole breeding objective is to develop turf grasses that require lower inputs – of energy, fertilizer, fungicide, and insecticide. We're working on all angles."

One of those angles is climate change. Meyer believes that increasing the genetic diversity in turf grass will be key to making golf courses more resilient.

One promising area of study: Funguses that live within the plants, known as endophytes, that appear to make turf grasses more resistant to insects and more heat-tolerant. "Every time we bring samples from these old turf areas in Europe, usually they're loaded with endophytes," he said. "That's a really exciting area of research."

The USGA has spent about $35 million since the mid-'80s on scientific research for improved and more resilient turf grass, working with dozens of state universities like Rutgers, said Michael Kenna, director of the USGA's Green Section.

In addition to funding research into cool-season grasses at Rutgers, USGA worked the other end of the turf grass climate spectrum, helping development of warm-climate grasses that can withstand winter cold. Latitude 36 Bermuda Grass, developed at Oklahoma State University, has been rolled out not only on golf courses in the so-called "transition zone" – a belt from Virginia to South Carolina and west to Oklahoma and Texas – but in professional football stadiums of the Washington Redskins and the Tennessee Titans. Bermuda grass's geographic range has been moved 100 to 150 miles north as a result of the research USGA has helped to fund over the past decade, Kenna said.

The USGA recognized as far back as the 1970s, during the severe drought that then gripped the desert Southwest and California, that golf grasses needed to do better with less water, Kenna added. That was also when awareness of other environmental concerns began to grow, and the golf industry sought ways for courses to cut use of chemical applications.

"When people talk about climate change, or droughts, or are worried about wildlife habitat, these are all things we've been working on the last 20 or 30 years," said Kenna. "What's changed more than anything else is that the golf courses, individual golfers and club leadership are becoming aware that these are real issues."

"Our industry, if it is going to survive, has to respond."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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