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Greening-up golf is all in the grass

Switch to bentgrass saves water, energy, time and pesticides


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Heron Lakes Golf Course in North Portland is slowly switching to bentgrass on its greens, lowering its maintenance costs and its use of pesticides. Jesse Goodling’s work is about as green as it can be, and in the process of becoming greener all the time.

The greens superintendent for Heron Lakes Golf Club, Goodling

is eight years into a project aimed at making Portland Parks & Recreation’s two 18-hole courses among the nation's most sustainable. Golf courses aren’t the most environmentally friendly use of property. Heron Lakes encompasses 300 acres in North Portland, about 200 of which require regular maintenance by Goodling and his crew. Most of that is grass.

Keeping all that grass in golf course-suitable shape normally takes a lot of water, energy, fertilizer and pesticides. Eight years ago, Goodling decided there had to be a better way, though he’ll admit sustainability wasn’t the original reason for Heron Lakes embracing what is called the Greenway Program.

Goodling’s first priority was providing better putting surfaces, so he started shifting the greens on the courses to bentgrass.

Heron Lakes, like almost all golf courses in the northern half of the United States, is dominated by poa annua grass. Poa, when cut putting-green short, tends to go to seed, which produces a bumpier putting surface.

Bentgrass, which was commonly used on golf courses 70 or 80 years ago, needs less water because its roots go deeper. It’s also more tolerant of hot and cold weather, and less susceptible to disease, which means it needs less pesticide to stay healthy.

As for why almost all the country’s golf courses are now poa, well that has to do with one of golf’s enduring appeals — tradition. In the 1930s Goodling says, blended fertilizers that contained nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium became popular. Poa especially likes phosphorous.

As poa overtook bentgrass on golf courses, the people maintaining courses began using more fungicides, fertilizer and water. It became a cycle that nobody bothered to question.

“It was kind of a lost art to grow bentgrass,” Goodling says.

Changing a green from one grass to another is risky, because it can lead to a few years of dead patches before the transition is complete.

“Since it hadn’t been done, a whole lot of it was unknown,” Goodling says. “When guys maintaining greens have had success, to change is a hard thing to do. If you have troubles with greens, a lot of guys could lose their jobs, especially at country clubs.”

That all changed in the last decade, since a Stevinson, Calif., company, Greenway Golf, began leading a “back to bentgrass” movement. Greenway Golf developed a method for a slow transition, which doesn’t require taking courses out of commission.

For the last eight years, after consultation with Greenway, Heron Lake groundskeepers have been spreading bentgrass seed over the course greens to slowly encourage the transition. The process includes carefully cutting back on fertilizer and fungicide use. To keep Heron Lakes playable for the last eight years, Goodling had to keep the old grass alive while nurturing the new.

This year, greens on one of the Heron Lakes courses are between 80 and 90 percent bentgrass. The second course, where the transition has gone slower, is 50 percent bentgrass.

As far as Goodling knows, Heron Lakes is the only golf course in the Portland metro area — public or private — that changed over to bentgrass. He’s convinced that his greens rival those at any private country club in the area, and he knows he puts in a lot less maintenance.

Unlike poa, bentgrass does not need to be cut every day with a fleet of gas-powered motors. Goodling estimates he saves about a gallon of gas a day, while reducing exhaust from the mowers.

Eight years ago, Goodling says, he was applying fungicide to the courses nine to 12 times a year. Last year, on the course that has transitioned fully to bentgrass, he had to make only three applications, and only one so far this year. Instead of spending $30,000 a year on fungicide, he’s now spending about half that amount.

Goodling estimates he is using one-fourth less water than he once did. And he’s cut back his fertilizer use by the same amount — from four tons a year to three tons — and the new fertilizer contains virtually no phosphorous, which stimulates algae growth in lakes and ponds.

Greenway Golf has helped 30 to 40 courses around the country convert to bentgrass, says Marc Logan, Greenway's president of agronomy. That’s out of about 16,000 courses in the U.S.

Getting course managers to make the change is difficult, Logan says, despite the obvious environmental advantages.

“It’s difficult individually to change people’s perceptions,” he says. “The superintendents don’t want to think outside the box.”

Inevitably, more courses will make the change to bentgrass, Logan says, because maintaining courses has become so financially and environmentally costly.

Logan says he’s worked with courses that use too many chemicals to grow their grass, and also turn to arsenic and strychnine to kill squirrels and gophers on their courses. Those toxins, like pesticides, can make their way into the water supply. Greenway offers alternatives such as pumping wet sand into gopher holes.

The best indicator of the success of the Greenway program, Goodling says, are the 50,000 golfers who play on Heron Lakes each year.

“We’ve heard lots of them say they’re the nicest greens around,” he says.