The Grass Expert: James T. Snow
How Green Is Golf?
The Green Section is the least-loved resident of the U.S. Golf Association's headquarters at Golf House in Far Hills, N.J. "Everyone's much more interested in equipment, or the rules, or the U.S. Open," says the department's national director, James T. Snow, 56. "But what's more important than the surface that we play the game on?" The Green Section, founded in 1920, is designed to make sure that surface is as good as possible. According to the USGA website (usga.org), the Green Section "remains the nation's chief authority regarding impartial, authoritative information for turfgrass management." Among its activities is the funding of all kinds of turfgrass-related research, including the creation of better, more eco-friendly golf-course grasses and maintenance practices. Since 1983, more than 370 projects have been supported at a cost to the USGA of $27 million. (You can find summaries of all the projects online, including such headliners as "Interpreting and forecasting phenology of the annual bluegrass weevil in golf-course landscapes.") Such matters were discussed at length in a meeting room in the Green Section, whose walls were lined with tomes about grass. Through the window, we could see the real thing.
Golf Digest: Let's start with a basic primer on the grasses used on golf courses.
James Snow: The United States is a huge geographic area with all kinds of climatic conditions. In the northern parts of the country, golf courses use cool-season grass, mostly creeping bent grass for their fairways and greens. You also end up with annual bluegrass just about everywhere, with Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and fine fescues in the roughs. In the South, you get the warm-season grasses -- it's going to be Bermuda, primarily, but people do use zoysia as well. These are very good for that part of the country, but in the winter they go dormant and look deader than a doornail, and people don't like that. And then in the middle of the country is what we call the transition zone, where warm-season grasses don't do that great, and the northern grasses don't do that great, either, so you have to work hard to make it work. So let's say overall, 40 percent of America's fairways might be bent grass, 40 percent Bermuda grass, with the rest being various other grasses. Greens, more like 70 percent might be bent grass. You'll find a lot of courses with bent-grass greens as you go farther South into that transition zone, but it can be a difficult grass to grow in the summer in those areas. Augusta has bent-grass greens.
Why do courses in the British Isles, even the best, big-name famous ones, have tiny maintenance budgets and staffs compared to America?
It's climate. It's about having weather that's conducive to growing grass. I spent some time in the U.K. in 1992, when the Open was at Muirfield. The greens were spectacular, and the fairways were just as tight as they could be. And I said, "Well, where's the irrigation system?" And they said, "Oh, we don't have an irrigation system." And I said, "For crying out loud!" In the U.K. the problems are minor. They have the right climate, they don't have the problems we have with weeds, with insects, with disease, and they don't even have to irrigate their fairways. Well, geez! Gosh. We're jealous. The British guys were always telling us that we use too much water and too much pesticide, and I always felt kind of guilty until I saw Muirfield. I don't feel guilty anymore. Give me a break! You guys complaining about us? If we didn't have irrigation, we'd have nothing; we'd be playing on crabgrass and goosegrass. Nobody would play golf in the southern United States -- all those aggressive warm-season weeds are just horrible; if you didn't spray, you'd have nothing but junk. There are a lot of low-budget golf courses in the northern United States, but even there we have pest problems that you don't have in the U.K., all kinds of grubs: Japanese beetle grubs, oriental beetles, a host of them that'll eat the roots of the grass and can kill the fairways.
How controversial is the practice of golf courses in the South overseeding their fairways and greens with cool-season grasses in the winter? Is it done just for aesthetics?
It's not controversial to the golfers. They wouldn't play much golf if it wasn't done, and there wouldn't be 1,200 golf courses in the state of Florida without it. If you don't do it, people won't play golf. The majority of courses in the South would overseed. It's not purely an aesthetic thing. If you have three or four or five months of play on dormant grass, the traffic from golfers can really do a lot of damage and can even kill it. If you had a lot of play, it could be a disaster without overseeding. Overseeding has evolved this way for a reason. If you don't give people what they want, they're not going to buy it.
What about the practice of painting the Bermuda grass instead of overseeding?
It's gaining momentum. It doesn't solve the problem, but as long as you don't have a huge amount of play, you can get by with it without damaging the Bermuda grass. A public course that has 80,000 or 90,000 rounds a year couldn't do it. But a private club that gets 20,000 or 30,000 rounds a year, you could do it. It's a lot cheaper.