So, your golf club has decided to get new fairways and greens. What’s next?

It’s something most golfers take for granted, but have you ever stopped to wonder how your club’s lush fairways and firm greens came to be? 

We’re not talking about the many hours of labour put in by your club’s committed green staff to get them looking prim and proper. That, of course, is a given that we’re all very much grateful for. No, what we mean here is, how did the actual grass arrive at the course and why, of all the sod and seeded varieties on offer, was it the chosen turf to withstand those steep swings of yours? 

According to Lawn Solutions Australia turf specialist Joe Rogers, the turfgrass used by courses is a critically important component that’s too often overlooked by those not directly involved in the decision-making process.

“The condition and quality of the playing surface can be the difference between the round of your life and a round to forget,” Rogers says.

Indeed, we all crave that picture-perfect lie, the kind the leaves your ball sitting high and ready for crisp contact. For the greenkeeper, however, it can be a juggling-act trying to combine a top-quality playing surface with tightening budgets and lower inputs – fertiliser, pesticides and irrigation. 

The majority of golf course turf cover in Australia has traditionally been either a couch or kikuyu variant, depending on location. But the turf game is changing rapidly. There are new players in town with new grasses, which you’ll read more about later. But first, Rogers explains the steps your club must take when the time comes to upgrade its green stuff. 

Step one: Identify the need for change

Obviously, clubs first have to find a need for change. It’s a big job to rip up a course, particularly the fairways, but even the greens and tees can be difficult to replace because you’ve got to put these areas out of action for an extended period of time. The first thing clubs have to consider is the ‘why?’ and the need to change the grass. One of the main catalysts for a change in turf, evidenced most recently by Killara Golf Club in Sydney’s north and Club Catalina on the New South Wales South Coast, is overshaded areas and its impact on growth. Shade is a huge factor, particularly for these older golf courses in leafy suburbs like Killara, where big trees can encroach fairways and greens. Most traditional course grasses, be it couch or kikuyu, do not have good shade tolerance at all. Areas that are heavily shaded with either turf won’t work. It’ll become thin, sparse and you’ll have dirt in no time. 

The other thing clubs must consider is climate. Clubs have to understand that in cooler climates, warm-season grasses like couch, kikuyu and zoysia will lose colour, and it’s not that aesthetically pleasing for a club. 

The other important factor to keep in mind is usage. Usage and budget combined is a big factor when it comes to selecting turf. If you’re a small community course and you don’t have a big budget, but you’ve got a lot of play, you have to consider turf options that can handle high traffic, but also within the constraints of restricted budgets. 

Step two: Which planting method is preferred?

When changing turf, clubs must consider how they want to put the grass down – do they want to put it down as sod, as instant turf, or sprig-plant it? This generally depends on what you’re returfing. If you’re returfing fairways, to sod or instant turf them is an expensive process because it requires so much instant turf (ready-grown rolls of lawn), but the pros to that is you get a playable surface within four to eight weeks. Whereas sprig-planting, where you break the grass up and you plant the runners out, is no more than a quarter of the cost of solid turfing, but about a 16-week wait until it’s fully playable. And if you’re an 18-hole course and you want to redo nine fairways, you are putting nine holes out of action for four or five months, depending on the turf. So that’s a cost-versus-usage scenario to weigh up. 

Step three: Out with the old

Clubs need to consider whether the shape or design of the course is going to remain the same because this is generally the perfect time to implement architectural changes to the layout. Many courses we’ve been involved with lately have used the grass changeover as an opportunity to change the shape of their fairways and green complexes because they have to remove the grass that was initially there anyway. And the majority of golf courses out there at the moment are a type of couch or a type of kikuyu. The reason they’re replacing these varieties is because they’re so aggressive in their growth and so invasive. That means you’re mowing your fairways two to three times a week in growing season and you’ve also got a lot of encroachment on your greens because the couch and kikuyu runners will just overtake if you’ve got a bad grass green, for example. They’re really, really hard to keep out.

So, what that means is, let’s say you’re ripping out kikuyu and replacing it with the new Sir Grange Zoysia. Because kikuyu is so aggressive, you have to make sure you kill it off well enough that it doesn’t just come straight back up through your Sir Grange in a couple of months’ time. Being such an aggressive grass, it can do that. During this step, clubs will kill off what’s there. That’s done by spraying glyphosate and a bunch of other chemicals to completely eradicate the existing vegetation so there is nothing left. 

Step four: Regenerate the soil

By now clubs will be thinking about the actual soil preparation. In most cases this involves turning the ground over to really aerate that existing profile. But it’s another great opportunity to amend the soil that’s there. What a lot of golf courses will do is get a soil test done. They can see what they’re deficient in and what they’re proficient in and add soil amendments to get their soil pH and balance just where it needs to be. They can also now incorporate more sand in their profile if they need to, for example, and add wetting agents and that sort of stuff to give the new grass the best shot of being a healthy fairway, healthy approach or whatever it may be. Once they’re in their soils, it’s time to re-level and then either install or lay or plant the turf out, whichever method they want to take.

Step five: Delivery and installation

If clubs are laying their new turf, it’s really a matter of rolling the grass out onto the prepared surface. There are a couple of ways they can do that. They can get small rolls or big rolls. Small rolls or “slabs” are the domestic-size turf rolls, which are generally 1.8 metres long by 600 millimetres wide. But what turf farms can also do now is harvest big “maxi rolls”, which are rolls of turf up to 20 metres long by a metre wide.

The delivery process of turf can often blow peoples’ minds. On a standard semi-trailer, you can get about 1,000 square metres, depending on the weight of the grass and the size of the pallets you cut. If they were to cut golf-course grass straight after a week of rain, you might get only 600 metres on that truck because of the weight of the turf with all the moisture in it. But the general rule is it’s about 900 to 1,000m2 you can fit on a semi. So when you look at the 48,000m2 Killara ordered for its recent work, it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 50 truckloads arriving through its gates. Killara also brought in a lot of its grass from Brisbane. So when you’re transporting grass a long way, you need to think about the logistical measures that have to be put in place. Grass is a perishable product. It has a shelf life, particularly in the heat of summer. Just 24 hours after harvest, it can be unfit to use. It can actually decompose on the pallet because it’s so hot. There is refrigerated transport, which they can utilise, but also when they harvest it on farm, a lot of the time they’ll harvest at night or really early in the morning. A big factor as to how quickly turf perishes is when it’s harvested in the day. If it’s harvested in the cool of the day, you can get two to three times the longevity than if it was harvested at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In Killara’s case, its turf would have been harvested between midnight and 5am and probably packed with bags of ice within the pallet itself to keep the core temperature down for the duration of its journey. 

Grass. Who would have thought it would be so interesting? Remember that as you’re standing over your next shot.

Joe Rogers is the commercial manager of Lawn Solutions Australia, the country’s largest network of turf specialists offering consolidation and consistency for its national network of turf production, product and research facilities.

IMAGES: Getty images: Jack Riddle/The Denver Post, iStock