Fore! A unique partnership exists between Virginia Tech and a Richmond golf course
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers partnered with Independence Golf Club to create a live environment for testing golf turfgrasses.
A satisfying thwack! and a small, white ball vanishes into the horizon. The ball slowly drops into a hole after a seemingly gravity-defying moment. These are the moments that golfers live for – and the moments that golf superintendents and their crews work tirelessly to create.
At Independence Golf Club, a unique partnership exists between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers and industry professionals that helps make these memorable moments on the putting green. The unique agreement allows research to be conducted on an active golf course, with true feedback on playing surface quality — a rarity in the field.
A few years ago, researchers from Virginia Tech were approached by Giff Breed, owner of Independence Golf Club that houses an 18-hole championship course and a 9-hole par 3 course, about using warm-season grasses at the course instead of the northern grasses typically used in the region, making work much easier for course superintendents in the hottest months.
“Not a whole lot was known about how these are going to respond in this part of the country. Warm-season grasses in varied climates were new to everyone and Giff was curious about how it would respond. It naturally evolved into trying out as many different grasses as we possibly could,” said David McCall, an assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and member of the research team.
The research started with 10 varieties of grass under consideration for putting greens and tees but has since narrowed significantly, with ultradwarf bermudagrasses as the primary turfgrass studied because of how varieties naturally rose to the top. The bulk of the research takes place on the par 3 course. The researchers work closely with Golf Course Superintendent Dan Taylor, CGCS, and Breed.
Ultradwarf bermudagrass is a warm-season turfgrass, bred to be managed at very low mowing heights, that grows best in the heat of the summer when golf rounds in Virginia are at their peak. While ultradwarf bermudagrass can be managed to provide excellent golf putting greens in warmer climates, it is a challenge to keep alive through cold winters. Creeping bentgrass, which was previously used at the course, flourishes in northern climates under moderate temperatures but is difficult to maintain in the heat and humidity typical of Richmond summers.
While creeping bentgrass remains the norm for most putting greens in Virginia, Independence is demonstrating how well-managed bermudagrass putting greens can play firm and fast during some of the heaviest play periods, desirable traits amongst golfers.
The Virginia Tech researchers have used a variety of methods to keep ultradwarf bermudagrass alive in the winter, which include regular installation and removal of blankets and plant growth regulators, chemicals that slow plant growth.
In Richmond’s climate, the combination was successful until a frigid winter in 2018, when the team lost some of the ultradwarf bermudagrass on both its research course as well as the championship course.
“The ability to evaluate grasses and winter protection methods on a functioning golf course allows us to further refine our approach,” said Mike Goatley, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist and professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “The plant growth regulator concept is something that the United States Golf Association has explored and something that Jordan Booth has been refining for Richmond’s transition climate zone.”
Booth, a certified golf course superintendent now serving as a research associate and filling an important Extension role in Central Virginia, is concentrating his work primarily on ultradwarf bermudagrass putting green management in colder regions. While cold management employs mitigation techniques during cold events, it begins in earnest earlier in the year.
“Management and cultural practices during the summer are critical to set ultradwarf bermudagrass putting greens up for long-term success,” Booth said. “We're looking at fertility programs, aeration, cultural practice management, and fungicide programs to best prepare the turfgrass for dormancy, which is the plant's natural defense system and its best defense system against the cold. These programs are also critical to providing desired playing conditions for the game of golf.”
The use of warm-season grasses could also benefit smaller golf courses with limited budgets that typically use native soil greens without internal drainage. Ultradwarf bermudagrass, despite a less-than-stellar perception, could be easier for these golf courses to maintain during the stresses of summer, providing high-quality putting greens while not requiring nearly as much water and other inputs as bentgrass greens during warm months.
“This group is showing that you can have championship-caliber golf with bermudagrass greens in Richmond,” Goatley said. “It’s not just possible and, in some cases, these may even be the best playing conditions in Richmond proper.”
The work of Virginia Tech researchers impacts how golfers can approach their game in the region. When a golfer takes a putt and watches it drop into the hole, it won’t just look like a championship moment. It will be on a championship-caliber surface.