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Scientists Drive to Create More Resilient Turf Grass for Golf

Idyllic settings and lush greens at golf courses are the product of a global research effort working hard to prepare the industry for global warming
extreme weather and golf


It's no secret that weather can play havoc with a game of golf. But in recent years, many U.S. courses have been pummeled by extreme weather.
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GREAT FALLS, Va. – Tom Lipscomb knows the precise spot on the 18th hole that wilts under summer's pressure. And it's not at the tees on the 544-yard par 5.

It's a plateau in the fairway scarcely visible from the clubhouse patio of the newly renovated River Bend Golf and Country Club, where members can sip cocktails as they watch golfers finish in an expanse of brilliant green. In the distance, beyond the cascading stream that trickles past wildflowers, beyond the stonework bridges, there's a high flat stretch of land that collects all the heavy rain and oppressive sun that August offers in the suburbs just west of Washington, D.C.

That's where Lipscomb still fights the battle that plagues golf course superintendents like himself in a large swath of the eastern United States. Even after the $11 million remaking of River Bend to handle extreme weather – hardier grass, extensive drainage, electric fans to stir breezes – Lipscomb sometimes faces the scourge of scald: browned-out areas of turf killed by the combination of unrelenting heat and excessive water.

Before the renovation, the scald, or wet wilt, was far worse. "Water would build up, and the root system would boil like a pot of spinach," he said. So River Bend turned down the heat, with the help of a new "super" turf grass breed, drainage systems under the greens, and other technologies undreamed of when golfers first trod these links in 1961.

It's no secret that weather can play havoc with a game of golf. But in recent years, many U.S. courses have been pummeled by extreme weather, as players could testify earlier this month at the PGA Championship in Louisville, Ky. Drenching rains provided extra hazards of mud and soggy greens, delaying play long enough that the final four golfers – although locked in battle – played their last hole together, racing against the darkness that fell as Rory McIlroy two-putted for a par and victory.

The tournament was able to conclude Sunday night as scheduled thanks to the extraordinary steps that Valhalla Golf Course had taken to gird itself for its frequent bouts of severe weather. An underground drainage and vacuum system, installed during a complete renovation of the course in 2012, suctioned the excess water from the greens quickly. Those greens, incidentally, are made from grass specially bred to handle heat and humidity as well as winter cold. It's just one example of a trend that observers say is taking hold across the golf industry – deploying technology and plant science to make courses more resilient.

How much climate change is driving these efforts is open to debate. Certainly, the desire to cut water, chemical use, and maintenance costs also is a motivator for many clubs. Another factor, some say, is that players have high expectations. "Surviving the summer is no longer the goal," Darin Bevard, director of the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. Golf Association's Green Section, said in an email. "Surviving the summer and maintaining very good playing conditions is the expectation."

He has seen courses in southern Pennsylvania convert to Bermuda grasses – warm-weather grasses that previously would only have been used farther South. "Golfers no long accept the slow recovery of cool-season grasses during the heat of the summer," he said. "Golfers' expectations are what have changed the most!"

But the USGA does acknowledge that climate change is one of the pressures facing the industry; it was part of the discussion in a 2012 summit it organized to encourage more sustainable use of water on courses. Those concerns have come to the forefront this year, as golf clubs in drought-ravaged California face mounting costs for irrigation, with one prestigious course, Diablo Grande's Legends near Modesto, shut down completely to conserve water.

But perhaps surprisingly, many experts believe the golf courses with the greatest challenges are in a region currently getting plenty of water – a vast swath known to agronomists as the "transition" zone. From Virginia south through the Carolinas, and stretching as far west as Oklahoma and north Texas, it's generally too cold in winter for warm-season grasses like Bermuda grass. But hot and wet summers pummel northern cool-season grasses like bent grass. "The toughest climates are the ones in between," said Richard Hurley, a turf grass researcher and consultant and adjunct professor at New Jersey's State University, Rutgers. "That's where the golf courses really, really struggle."

The troubles worsen when intense summer heat gets coupled with persistent rain.

"The grass does okay when it is wet; it does okay when it is hot," Bevard said of the cool-season grasses. "It doesn't do very good at all when it is hot and wet."

And much of the transition zone is in a region of the country where, according to the National Climate Assessment, the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events has increased 27 percent since 1958, and temperatures increased from 1970 by an average of 2°F, with higher average temperatures during summer months.

For Valhalla, a course in the heart of the transition zone that happens to have its front nine built in a flood plain, the soggy PGA Tournament weekend wasn't the first time Mother Nature crashed a marquee event. Tornado warnings and flooding delayed play at the Senior PGA Tournament Valhalla hosted in 2004. And in 2008, just before the Ryder Cup, the remnants of Hurricane Ike stormed across Louisville with high winds that downed tents and knocked a TV tower onto the 12th green.

Although Valhalla is a relatively young course, opened in 1986 and designed by golfing great Jack Nicklaus, its owner, PGA of America, embarked on a multi-million dollar renovation three years ago with weather in mind. In addition to the water-suctioning SubAir system beneath the greens, Valhalla installed a new variety of bentgrass bred specially to tolerate extreme heat. "Agronomically, we are in a better position to fight the hot summers," Valhalla PGA Head Professional Keith Reese said in a feature on the PGA's website.

Valhalla is not alone: It's a trend in golf. "A lot of golf courses – courses that can afford it – are going through these total renovations," Hurley said.

River Bend Golf Club, located in Great Falls, Virginia, south of a crook of the Potomac River about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C., had its overhaul the year before Valhalla. When River Bend first opened 53 years ago, its greens – like those at many old clubs – were merely built on the native soil, which happened to be impermeable clay. During periods of intense rain, water would build up on the green surface. That set the grass up for damage and failure, especially when rain was followed by the typical high heat of the national capital region. "The two most important things to survival of a golf course are the ability to give it water, and the ability to get water off," said Lipscomb, who has been superintendent at River Bend for 12 years.

He oversaw the complete reconstruction of the golf greens on a mix that is more than 90 percent sand, with a small amount of peat moss mixed in, to give the roots maximum drainage and air. Beneath it all is a herringbone system of drainage pipes. River Bend doesn't have a high-end vacuum pump system like Valhalla, but operating by gravity it is able to drain 24 inches of water an hour, which Lipscomb said has been a stellar result. "We're no longer subject to puddles of water taking the root systems out," he said.

High above two of River Bend's greens – hole 10 and hole 11 – huge electric TurfBreeze fans now oscillate slowly to stir the stagnant summer air. That's an innovation that many golf courses have been adding, based on research showing that air currents of at least 3 miles per hour are needed across playing surfaces to effectively cool turf grass, according to the USGA. Without the air movement, the plants can't transpire to cool themselves, a process similar to and just as essential as human perspiration.

Before the fans were installed, a nearby row of trees and the proximity of a large building – the River Bend club's indoor tennis bubble – used to create a stagnant mass of air. Nighttime heat would settle in, suffocating this corner of the golf course, Lipscomb said. "It would get tons of disease, lots of algae, and it would thin out really fast," he said. "They were my two worst greens, but now they are my best."

Part of the trick of renovating, Lipscomb said, is to figure what portions of the course need such tweaks. "If I wanted to get absolutely silly crazy, there's probably 10 different microclimates on each hole," he said. "I could drive myself insane trying to correct for these microclimates."

Thanks to the renovation, Lipscomb said River Bend has been able to cut fungicide use and other costs. But that doesn't mean the course is maintenance-free. One recent morning, one crew member steered a cart back and forth over greens, spraying molasses sugar, a chemical-free effort to feed beneficial soil microorganisms that break down thatch, or dead plant material, that can build up on the golf course. Another staffer toured the course, testing soil moisture levels with a digital reader to assess how much watering was needed.

But the biggest change at River Bend, and the one that involved the most science, was the installation of a new breed of turf grass, a "super-bent" called 007. Produced by Seed Research of Oregon, it was developed by Hurley and his team at Rutgers. As a cool-season grass, it can survive winter, but it is bred to tolerate heat and humidity and resist fungal diseases, like "dollar spot" and "brown patch," which thrive in warm, wet conditions. 007 has a rich green color and dense, fine leaf texture, essential for the unforgiving close-cropped surface of golf greens.

007, named because it hit the market in 2007, was bred from 24 different parent samples of bent grass, most of them culled from lush sections of golf greens throughout the northeastern United States. For 007 or any of the new breeds developed at the Rutgers program, it takes a decade to 12 years of evaluation to find the right combination of genes, said Hurley. "We're very stringent," he said. "If something looks good, but has a tendency to get some disease, we throw it out. We throw out 98 percent of what we get. And then, we go through generations, and each year, we would breed the best with the best with the best."

Back at River Bend golf course in Virginia, Lipscomb doesn't think in terms of climate change. But he aims for an environmentally friendly course, and is proud of the native grass areas established on the golf course roughs, and the fact that the water on the stream running off the course tests cleaner than the water entering the course.

For now, his focus is maintaining the investment that the club put into the overhaul. Back in July, when the course got soggy from absorbing seven inches of rain in 10 days, he stood firm and insisted golf carts stay off the turf grass, despite some grumbling from golfers. "Sometimes they don't understand," he said. "We're dealing with Mother Nature, and there's not much I can do about that."

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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