The innovation and tradition of bentgrass

Inside the legacy of a professional turf mainstay, and how it’s evolving.


Close up image of Jeff Markow, CGCS and Terry Plagmann standing outside at Cypress Point Golf Club
Jeff Markow (left), CGCS, and Tee-2-Green's Terry Plagmann at Cypress Point Club in Del Monte Forest, Calif. Cypress Point is one of the many customers who use Tee-2-Green bentgrass on the course. Photos courtesy of Tee-2-Green

Editor's note: The following article was created in partnership with Tee-2-Green. All product claims, research cited and other information is directly from the company.

Terry Plagmann has been with Tee-2-Green bentgrass for more than 60 years, now serving as the president of the board. He’s seen it evolve from being the first producer of bentgrass to to innovating new varieties found on thousands of golf courses throughout the world. But this is far wider reaching than a single business. The story of Tee-2-Green and the history of bentgrass is one of commitment to quality and transparency, labor-intensive practice, and as Plagmann describes it, “a little bit of luck, too.”

Planting the seed of a business

The first commercially successful bentgrass variety, Penncross, was developed at Penn State University in the 1950s. Plagmann shares that his father received the first plants from Penn State in 1958 to grow and produce in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. “There were growers like my dad who heard about Penncross. He was one of the first to get Penncross, and we were producing bentgrass by the early 60s,” he says.

They built their first seed mill in 1962 to clean the seed, but the production was only part of the flurry to get Penncross out to the market. Plagmann knew early on that the group of growers needed to create an association. “They formed the association because Penncross was the only improved seeded bentgrass at that time,” he says. “It was a big hit very fast in the golf industry.”

The success of Penncross made it that much more important for growers to work together to make the most of this new trend and stabilize the market. “Unfortunately, the price fluctuated,” Plagmann recalls, “so the growers got together and formed their own association, a co-op, The Penncross Bentgrass Association, because they could set the price and agree on a price structure.”

The co-op began marketing the bentgrass, and it quickly developed into the Tee-2-Green corporation that many in the golf industry know today.

Red tractor cutting bentgrass for seed harvest
Bentgrass harvesting happens once a year, typically between the end of July to the second week of August.

The difference — and beauty — of bentgrass

Creeping bentgrass, as it is more formally known, is a manifestation of the adage, “good things don’t come easy.” The creeping aspect, as Plagmann describes, means it grows from each stem: “You could actually take a length of just stems, bury them, and with a little bit of water, they will actually root from every node,” he says.

While that process may sound easy, raising bentgrass is quite difficult. Because the seeds are so fine, it ranges anywhere from 3.5 million to 7 million seeds per pound. “It’s not like all the other grasses,” Plagmann emphasizes.

In addition to the unique growing characteristics and fine seed, bentgrass tends to be susceptible to chemical damage, so there aren’t many chemicals you can use on it. Bentgrass also pollinates a month later than other grasses, so growers must harvest it in August rather than July.

The unique setting of the Willamette Valley

As it turns out, bentgrass and Oregon’s Willamette Valley are a match made in heaven. The fertile valley is about 120 miles long and 50 miles wide, between two mountain ranges, along Interstate 5 between Portland and Eugene.

“It’s a very fertile valley,” says Plagmann, “but we have four complete seasons. It’s called the grass seed capital of the world because of our climate. We get a lot of moisture — about 40 or 50 inches of rain — but the key is that you can be almost certain it’ll be completely dry from July 1 through Labor Day.”

That’s important because the grass seed needs to dry out after it pollinates before it’s harvested, so the climate perfectly matches the needs of the newly growing bentgrass.

Commitment to quality, complete with a paper trail

With an intensive growing and harvesting process, one of the selling points of top-level bentgrass is being able to track and prove quality. Plagmann explains that the process to certify bentgrass comes down to each bucket they sell into the market.

“All of our seed is raised through certification with Oregon State University”, Plagmann says. “We have the highest standards of anybody. Even in certification, you’re allowed .04 crop and .03 weeds, but we do not buy it from the growers unless it contains zero crop and zero weeds.”

He continues, “All of our seed passes certification, and that’s important because you can follow a trail from the breeder to the grower to the customer. So, if I see a certain grower number on a bucket of seed, we can track where the seed came from, what field, and when it was harvested.”

The Oregon State University blue tag certification assures the authenticity and quality of the product.

Innovation starts with the breeder

Plagmann sheds light on the unique relationship Tee-2-Green has with their breeder, Pure Seed Testing, specifically Crystal Fricker, who has 40 years of experience in breeding bentgrass. In their exclusive relationship, Tee-2-Green works with them to develop and test different varieties.

Each bucket of seed at Tee-2-Green is labeled so its location can be traced to ensure consistent quality.

lid of a bucket of bentgrass seed with grower information written on it

“They have a huge facility and experimental farm, about a hundred acres,” he says. “They also have a greenhouse where they do salt tolerance testing.”

When it comes to developing new varieties of bentgrass, Tee-2-Green and Pure Seed Testing work together to determine the characteristics that superintendents are requesting. “For example, we went to them and said that we needed one to replace Penncross, and they worked with us on the characteristics.”

Speaking of what superintendents want, Pure Seed does scientific testing, but Tee-2-Green also highly values real-world testing. Their head agronomist Lew Sharp travels around the world helping superintendents with their course builds and renovations, and he sees the performance of the different varieties firsthand.

“We’ve learned to cater to what the superintendents can and can’t do — or what they want or don’t want to do—with their grass,” says Plagmann. “We meet them where they are.”

The super benefits of bentgrass innovation

“I’m not a golf expert, but I can grow grass,” says Plagmann, smiling. Such is the posture of a professional who makes a product for a specific audience and has been learning what they need for six decades.

Over the years, Tee-2-Green has continued to innovate with the superintendent in mind. As they develop new varieties, Plagmann says one characteristic that’s been different is the germination. “Newer varieties germinate at much lower temperatures, so it gives them a much wider window to plant in the fall and have good grass for the spring, whereas before they would have lost several months, either in fall or spring.”

Another positive feature is the drought tolerance. “The other benefit is to get [superintendents] to not water as much. Probably the number one mistake golf courses make is that pretty much everybody overwaters their bentgrass. You don’t need to water it that much.”

He goes on to say, “It would scare a golf course superintendent to death to see that when we grow the bentgrass, we stop watering after pollination, and don’t water it again until we harvest, which is about 60 days of no water. They would figure it’s dead, but it comes right back.”

The drought tolerance points, in large part, to the deep roots of the bentgrass. It can capture moisture from the soil efficiently, even in a drought environment.

Warehouse with white buckets sitting on pallets wrapped in plastic wrap for shipping
Tee-2-Green's bentgrass warehouse, where seed is certified and prepared for customer orders.

Securing the future

While Plagmann is the president of Tee-2-Green, he downplays his role, saying, “I just run the meetings.” But he does provide invaluable insight as an experienced advisor. “I can make recommendations, but it’s owned by the growers, and the growers make the decisions.” Where he specifically provides guidance is in the unique track record Tee-2-Green has in always having enough seed to meet demand. It includes a lot of planning, and sometimes a little luck, he says.

“I can help provide experience on how much to produce, and have the right amount,” he adds. “For example, if you plant a field of bentgrass in 2024, you harvest it in 2025, and you’re really not selling until 2026, and then you’ll sell it for the next 6 years. It’s difficult to predict the demand, but thankfully we have never worried about having a full year’s worth of inventory. We don’t want to sell it all; we always want to have some for when people really need it.”

Plagmann has a critical voice on the team to provide context and experience for when they’re planning their growing and selling cycles.

The path forward

“We’re on our third generation of growers,” Plagmann shares proudly. “We have a good group of growers, and I don’t see that changing. But when it comes to the varieties, I’m sure we’ll see some new varieties with a focus on disease and drought resistance.”

He also shares the focus of water conservation in the future: “Water usage is going to be critical for superintendents. If you can cut the amount of water you use down, that’s going to be extremely important.”

The industry has changed a lot in the last 60 years, he recalls, but there are still things that make him proud and excited. “If you’re talking to a superintendent who loves their bentgrass, I can say, ‘let me introduce you to the grower’, that’s a special thing.”

He also shares that, while there are always variables, the experience they’ve had—and the structure of their grower-owned business—gives them more stability: “You can control your own destiny to some degree, which makes me proud of what we’ve built.”

“It may not always happen like you expect, but you’re all in it together.”