RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links

The Grass Expert: James T. Snow

By John Barton Photos by Kagan McLeod
March 23, 2008

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.

How have golf-course grasses changed over time? How are they changing now?

Well, 100 years ago, golf was all in the North. There was almost nothing in the South. Then Dr. Glenn Burton in Georgia developed the first really good Bermuda grasses for fairways and roughs and even greens, in the '50s. When I joined the USGA in 1976, everyone was talking about Penncross. It was the only bent grass anyone was using. But by 1980 there were new grasses that were better than Penncross. So every decade has its innovations. Today there are a lot of new strains and new species that are being used. Seashore paspalum is making a huge change. It has extreme salt tolerance, so you can irrigate it with sea water. It looks nice and it plays very well, so it's really catching on in the Southeast, primarily, and the Caribbean islands and Mexico -- anyplace that's coastal where it doesn't ever get too cold.

There's a huge number of new, improved grasses, but you really need to spend money to have good results. Through our research program we've developed cold-tolerant Bermuda grasses, and you can use them all the way up into Kansas and Iowa, which is remarkable. That saves 50 percent of the water that you would otherwise have to use in those areas, and you hardly have to use any pesticides. That's pretty good. When the time comes, when water truly becomes a major issue -- and it is in some parts of the country already -- that's when we'll switch to these new grasses. There are constant incremental improvements. Salt tolerance, heat tolerance, cold tolerance, disease, insect tolerance -- they're working on these all the time. They're producing a lot of great new grass products. And there are new turfgrass diseases every single year. You've got to keep on it or you'll fall behind, and if you fall behind you'll have a lot of dead grass.

Mostly fungal diseases?

Yeah. And the other thing is, as soon as you get an improvement, golfers demand more. They want faster, more uniform, darker green. It never ends. Courses used to mow at a quarter of an inch; now we're down to a tenth of inch. Every time you take it down, the poor grass gets weaker and weaker and weaker, and more susceptible to disease -- probably a lot of the new diseases have come about because of that. It's like people -- you wear yourself out, and that's when you get sick.

So the more technology advances, the more people's demands advance, and the more diseases advance. It becomes like a crazy arms race.

It does, that's right.

What about low-mow grass -- wouldn't it be a benefit not to have to mow as often?

It's a farce. For a golf course, it's all about traffic. If you can't regenerate the leaves of the grass fast enough when people are playing, you're going to end up with no grass. With a home-lawn situation, if you don't have dogs and kids running all over the place, you could have a low-mow type of grass and not have to mow it as often. But -- here's the "but" -- if it gets diseased, the grass can't outgrow it, and the disease will kill it right down to the ground. So low-mow stuff doesn't work very well. Grass needs to grow.

How about the genetically engineered so-called "Roundup Ready" grasses, which haven't been approved -- could they help?

Roundup Ready grass could be very useful on a golf course. You would just have one application of Roundup and take out the annual bluegrass, crabgrass, clover; you could get rid of the Poa annua, and the bent grass would be unaffected. It would save a huge amount of pesticide use. And Roundup is a product that, once it dries on the leaf, is not going to go anywhere, and it degrades fairly quickly. It wouldn't solve everything, though. You're still going to have new diseases develop. It's like if you use the same antibiotic time after time, eventually it becomes worthless. But overall, if you look at the potential problems, they aren't there. There's a big potential benefit.

But the genetically modified grasses are hugely controversial. There have been cases of protestors doing damage to research facilities, and Scotts was recently ordered to pay a fine of $500,000 after some Roundup Ready grass escaped from a research facility in Oregon.

It's a political issue, not a scientific issue. From our perspective, it's like anything that's new: People are worried about it until they see it. It's just like when they came out with Roundup Ready corn. It was a huge thing; there was worldwide screaming and hollering. Well, people have been eating Roundup Ready crops now for decades, and there's no apparent issue with it. Not to say you shouldn't be careful, but if you look at the rationale with creeping bent grass, it's just not a threat to the environment. If it spreads, we already know that there are five other herbicides that can kill it. So what's the problem?

Will it be approved?

It's going to take a long time.

What about artificial surfaces? Any future for golf? They're low-maintenance, don't need pesticides, chemicals, water.

It certainly is possible to do this. But installing and maintaining artificial surfaces can be very expensive. Plastic can get very hot, and for a whole fairway that would be unbearable. So now you have to install a cooling system. They have algae problems, so you're out there spraying anyway. They have wear problems. For golf it's not going to happen soon.

Do you think pesticides are OK if they're used correctly?

Well, you'd rather not have any if you had a choice, but you're not going to have a golf course if you don't use some. We've done all this research on pesticides and nutrients, and we've found that if you do it the right way, the effect is really minimal, benign. If you do it the wrong way, it can be disastrous. And everything in between. So the key is to get people educated to do it the right way. We're working with the GCSAA and others to come up with a characterization of the pesticides that we use. Because some are benign, they degrade quickly; they don't really have any impact on anything. And then there are some that are really nasty. We just pick the one that we think works the best, without necessarily knowing that one could be better for the environment than another. Pesticides today certainly are a lot better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Oh my gosh, back in the '20s they literally cured dollar spot. They eliminated dollar spot from golf courses. But they used mercury, cadmium and lead arsenic to do it. How do you like that? All you had to do back in the 1960s was put chlordane on the greens and you wouldn't have an insect problem for 25 years. [Note: All uses of chlordane were banned by the EPA in 1988.]

How about water use -- how do you justify the massive amounts needed for irrigation when there's such a shortage of clean water?

Well, you know, golf is a $65 billion industry in this country. Now there are plants that make little plastic toys for kids. And they use a huge amount of water to do that. Is there any difference? They make cars -- that uses huge amounts of water. We're sitting on furniture that required water to be made. Think about it: Industries are industries, and they all use water, and they all use fuel. Golf just happens to be apparent. Visible. You can't dismiss a $65 billion industry.

Right. But water shortages are a huge problem.

Sure it's a problem. It's a problem anyplace you have drought. Georgia typically has a lot of rain, but the last two years they've had a severe drought. And it can be that way in any part of the country. I was visiting golf courses in California one summer in the late '70s when a horrible drought occurred. They cut off the watering of golf courses except for a little bit on greens and fairways. The roughs were totally gone, literally no grass, not even weeds. Nothing would grow. They had had six months with no rain at all. Drinking water was declining badly. So it really got us to start thinking about it, and in 1983 we decided to take a look at these environmental issues, and we established the Turfgrass Research Committee. And we've guided the research since that time. We've developed all these grasses that can be tolerant of drought and heat and salt and require far less fresh water.

There's a lot that can be done to improve water use. In the Southwest, I'd say they're doing a really good job. They do the best they can. They're increasingly using effluent water. Irrigating less and irrigating smarter. Switching to better grasses. But it's a problem. People are continuing to live in places like Las Vegas. How many million people live in the desert today? And more every day. And with the water, it's just going to implode. It can't go on. The aquifer is declining. Unless some miracle happens, people will have to leave those areas. There will be no water.

And when that happens, golf will be the least of anybody's concern.

That's right. It's going to happen in Phoenix and Tucson and Las Vegas and all those places, because people aren't going to have water. It's just going to get worse and worse. Water will be the key issue for most of our country for a long time.