The work I do is focused on turfgrass information. I conduct research to obtain new information and I share turfgrass information through training programs and advisory work.“
I can certainly provide a general overview of the grasses used on greens and fairways, with thoughts on what works well.
This involves frequent travel. I am usually in about four countries each month and I consequently have a chance to see many grasses and how they perform as golfing surfaces in a wide range of environments.
What I write here must be prefaced with a note – Asia is a vast area with a wide range of climates, so one can find exceptions to just about everything I write here! But I can certainly provide a general overview of the grasses used on greens and fairways, with thoughts on what works well.
In locations where the average annual temperature is less than 20°C, it is customary to use creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera) on putting greens. This is usually the right choice in places such as Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, or Beijing. The summers in East Asia are too hot for annual bluegrass (Poa annua) or fine fescue (Festuca spp.) to have a place on putting greens here. It is not easy to manage creeping bentgrass during the hot summer months in most parts of Asia where this grass is used, the main reason being nighttime temperatures that often remain above 25°C during summer, but successful management during the two or three months of extreme heat allows for an excellent playing surface during the rest of the year.
When the average annual temperature is more than 20°C, putting greens will be one of four species: hybrid bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon x C. transvaalensis), seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum), manilagrass (Zoysia matrella), or serangoon grass (Digitaria didactyla). Most people would be familiar with bermudagrass greens, as that is the standard in warm-season areas around the world.
What about these other grasses? Why are they used? They can produce a better putting surface than bermudagrass in a low light environment, and a distinguishing characteristic of the climate across many parts of East, South, and Southeast Asia is the cloudiness. Clouds can block more than 50% of the light that grasses use for photosynthesis. This can really be a problem for grasses on putting greens, and in general, seashore paspalum, manilagrass, and serangoon grass tolerate such weather better than does bermudagrass.
But bermudagrass remains the most common grass on putting greens in these areas, and many courses have superb surfaces of this grass even with the low light environment.
Putting greens cover about 10,000 m2 (1 ha) on the average course, and no matter what grass we choose, the greens are always going to be intensively maintained. So it is possible to produce good surfaces with bermudagrass, although it can take more work than would be required for some other species.
Grass selection for fairways is more interesting. I’m convinced that it is best to use a grass that won’t die. On the putting greens, I can plant a grass that will die without intensive maintenance, because I am always going to provide intensive maintenance to the greens. But fairways cover well over 10 ha on most courses, and it just is not possible to provide intensive maintenance over such a large area.
If I plant a grass that won’t die, the surface can be maintained aggressively to create the desired playing surface. I can mow the fairways shorter, but the grass won’t die. I can keep the fairways dry, even going without supplemental irrigation during the dry season, but the grass won’t die. I can maintain the fairways with a slow growth rate, avoiding frequent applications of water and fertilizer, and still the grass won’t die.
In northern China, parts of Korea, and Hokkaido and the northern prefectures on Honshu Island in Japan, these fairways will be cool-season grasses. But I soon find warm-season grasses, especially manilagrass and its more cold-tolerant relative, Zoysia japonica, as I move south through Japan and Korea, with thousands of courses using those grasses. Then in southern China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, it is all warm-season grass – hybrid bermudagrass, seashore paspalum, manilagrass, or broadleaf carpetgrass (Axonopus compressus).
Manilagrass and broadleaf carpetgrass – and in some locations, bermudagrass – are the grasses that don’t die on fairways in South and Southeast Asia. If I would try to manage seashore paspalum fairways without supplemental irrigation, they would die. If I managed bermudagrass fairways in most areas by cutting the grass short and keeping a slow growth rate by withholding fertilizer and water, the fairways would be overcome by weeds and the bermudagrass would die. But with just a little irrigation combined with close mowing and a minimum of fertilizer, manilagrass and broadleaf carpetgrass don’t die. The implication of this is that I can manage these grasses to produce the desired playing surfaces with less effort and cost than if I were to plant a grass on fairways that dies with such management.
I expect to provide intensive management to putting greens, but I don’t want to do that to the entire golf course. To do so requires extensive work and cost, and only in rare cases produces good playing conditions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.
Note. The author of this article has also written 'Why manilagrass (Zoysia matrella) is the best choice for links-style golfing surfaces in East and Southeast Asia, which is available here.