Turfgrass research: A case study

Results from university studies helped an Arkansas superintendent regrass greens and benefit his course and community.


Ben Geren golf course
At Ben Geren Golf Course in Fort Smith, Ark., Jay Randolph, CGCS used research from the University of Arkansas to help him regrass the course with more sustainable turf, switching out bentgrass greens for MiniVerde bermudagrass. Photos courtesy of Jay Randolph, CGCS

Editor's note: National Golf Day is May 7-10. GCM is covering GCSAA's involvement in the event with stories all week long. To keep up with our complete coverage, click here.

Jay Randolph, CGCS, presents a compelling case for the value of turfgrass research — and in his case, that value extends far beyond the borders of his particular golf property.

When Randolph was hired as superintendent of Ben Geren Golf Course in Fort Smith, Ark., many of the then-27-hole facility’s bentgrass greens were struggling.

Bentgrass greens in Randolph’s part of the country are resource hogs, requiring water and labor at rates unsustainable for facilities like the municipal Ben Geren GC. So Randolph, a 28-year GCSAA member, started looking at alternatives. He settled on a few varieties of ultradwarf bermudagrasses as promising candidates.

He wasn’t just throwing darts. Thanks to yearslong research conducted through the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program at plots at the University of Arkansas, Randolph eventually settled on MiniVerde bermudagrass for a greens regrassing that took place, nine holes at a time, from 2016-2018 at Ben Geren GC.

“They started (research) in about 2013,” Randolph recalls. “Prior to that, the only people with ultradwarf bermudagrass in Arkansas were in the extreme southern parts. They came out with research basically showing these varieties could survive in this area. They had done those test plots, showing the color, density, how drought tolerant they are — all this information you can glean from these plots. Not a lot of folks had these new ultradwarf bermudagrass varieties. There wasn’t a lot of research back then.

“There’s just a lot of costs associated with bentgrass and a lot of advantages of going to bermudagrass. Ben Geren is a municipal golf course. I don’t have a major, major budget. Based on that research, that’s why we picked MiniVerde to go in on our course.”

That wasn’t the only way research informed his decision.

In-season maintenance was only part of the equation. Randolph was also concerned about how well a bermudagrass would stand up to cold Fort Smith winters. Fortunately for him, other U of A research focused on cold tolerance of bermudagrass, exploring thresholds and the use of tarps and wetting agents.

“If it gets too cold, you have winterkill, then you’re in a bad way coming out the next spring,” Randolph said. “Winterkill is a bad way all around. The University of Arkansas started doing research on these cold temperature thresholds, seeing what the tolerances are, and when the research came out, it was a trendsetter. Nothing like that had been done before. Now everybody in the Southeast is using that research. That made everybody a lot more comfortable putting in ultradwarf bermudagrass greens, because then you knew when to cover it, how many times, all that. That was very, very important research to come out.”

Ben Geren golf course
Bentgrass greens in the Arkansas region require unsustainable amounts of water and labor to maintain. The National Turfgrass Evaluation Program helped Randolph determine the best alternative for Ben Geren Golf Course's greens.

Randolph’s case is a clear, tangible example of how turfgrass research — one of the Big Three asks for participants in this week’s National Golf Day activities in Washington, D.C. — benefits golf.

Specifically, participants will be requesting that turfgrass research be reauthorized via the National Turfgrass Research Initiative in the 2024 Farm Bill. Additionally, the golf industry will be asking for a $5 million appropriation to fund the NRTI, plus $2 million for a comprehensive national statistical survey of turfgrass as part of that bill, which was expected to be settled last session but was instead extended through the fall of this year.

Randolph figures it would be money well spent. Previous research proved the viability of bermudagrass at his place and gave him the confidence to make the change.

“It’s hard to say, but without that, we might still have bentgrass,” says Randolph, who says in retrospect the decision was the right one. “The main thing it’s afforded us the ability to do is … I’m director of golf and parks. I’ve got the golf course, which we now have 36 holes of golf, and over 2,000 acres of parks I take care of. When we switched to ultradwarf bermudagrass on our greens, the staff we’d been sending out checking on greens and doing all the things you have to do to keep bentgrass alive … that gave us the ability to switch labor to other things, like edging bunkers and doing other things to improve the aesthetics of the golf course.

“But it also freed us up, because we have better bermudagrass greens, we were able to mow shorter and were faster and more playable, we were able to save more money. The first year after we put them in, we broke even. Ever since then, we’ve made a profit on the golf course, and that profit goes back into the golf course and new projects there, but a lot of that has gone to other projects in the park system. Maybe you resurface a trail, put in a new trail, put in a new playground. This research, it doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a deal, that it’s kind of mundane or boring. But this research makes your golf course better and more playable, and for a lot of people like me, it gets to the point where you’re actually making money, and that money goes to better the community through the park system, and it’s all because of golf.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s editor-in-chief.