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August 2019

Turf Wars: Can Golf (Someday) Win Its Battles Against Disease and Other Disasters?


By David Gould

When disease brings misery to humans, well-funded researchers roll up their sleeves to find a solution. We’ve seen this process end triumphantly in the case of smallpox — eradicated four decades ago. Behind it is an impressive list of other dread diseases scientists expect to dispense with — malaria, mumps, measles and rubella among them.

If you’re busy running a golf operation, you may have begun to feel something similar going on with turf disease. One reason for harboring those positive thoughts would be the USGA Green Section and its pivotal role in marshaling turf-protection efforts. As the organization has gone about distributing $40 million in research grant money, it has spoken highly of the scientists and universities where the various blights and infestations have been studied and battled.

Likewise, the agro products companies continually develop new formulations and tout their improved results. We also hear about new hybrid grasses, bred to resist the classic problems superintendents lose sleep over. It’s been a multi-decade period of progress and much more enlightened practices, so is a utopian future for fairways and greens at hand?

“We’ve made a lot of progress through the years,” says Dean Miller, vice president of agronomy at Arcis Golf, with its 60-plus courses in 14 states from coast to coast. “Definitely the grasses have improved — they’re more drought-tolerant now, and they’re better able to fight off diseases.”

Miller actually speaks in the past tense about dollar spot, considered the most pressing problem faced by course superintendents in much of North America. His point wasn’t that the fungal pathogen that causes the condition was now extinct; more that prevention of outbreaks had come a long way.
A recent Minnesota case study reported by BASF described use of its Group 7 fungicide Xzemplar to virtually eliminate dollar spot from fairways on StoneRidge Golf Club that had been ridden with it. As nearly always happens in these cases, the value of the chemical application was abetted by other maintenance practices. Increased core aerification and decreased nitrogen fertilization — measures taken to reduce thatch levels — contributed to the happy outcome.

Eliminating dollar spot, brown patch or pythium blight from golf playing surfaces isn’t properly analogous to wiping out measles and malaria, observes Dr. John Kaminski of Penn State University. Kaminski, who directs Penn State’s prestigious Golf Course Turfgrass Management Program, points out that homo sapiens are the only ones that need to be saved from those mortal threats, meanwhile the varieties of turfgrass on golf courses are multiple and still proliferating. And human health is pretty straightforward — the health of grass on a fairway or green is subject to a moving-goalposts scenario.

“The superintendents of today are pretty amazing at what they do,” says Kaminski, “and they’re backed up by their vendors and by researchers at universities. As a result, golfers expect them to produce healthy turf at a lower and lower mowing height. They expect the same great conditions during a long summer heat wave that they get during cool, sunny days in the fall.”

The superintendents know when to back off, according to Kaminski, they just don’t know if their decisions will be understood and accepted.
As for those new hybrid strains of grass that Miller mentioned, Kaminski calls them a key ingredient in the overall fight against turf disease — when the experiment works and no major surprises come along.

“When breeding works, it can take you from a 50 percent chance of damage caused by a certain disease down to maybe 20 percent,” says Kaminski. “Then you implement your cultivation practices — mowing, fertilizing, irrigation, etc. Chemicals are part three of the process.”

Unfortunately, breeding is a slow process, involving trial and error. While you’re at it, nature isn’t standing still. Kaminski himself has been involved in the discovery of four new turfgrass diseases. Furthermore, new turf cultivars that are bred in the lab will continue to alter themselves genetically in the field, mutating in such a way that their properties of hardiness may diminish. Mysteries of this sort were likely part of the multi-year saga in which turf conditions at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, went from world-class to miserable to fine-but-worrisome back to world-class — thanks to a couple of full-scale resurfacing projects in which one bentgrass strain and two different Bermuda strains had to be deployed.
We think of technology as critical to the battle against turfgrass blights and scourges, a viewpoint certainly shared by Mark LaFleur, communications lead for turf at the U.S. operation of Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural products giant. But the form of technology that LaFleur sees impacting golf course turf goes far beyond “product in a jug” to include communications and microclimatic monitoring.

One example would be the “dollar spot alerts” any course can sign up to receive, based on a data tool called the Smith-Kerns Dollar Spot Prediction Model. It was developed in a fairly basic form by Damon Smith and Jim Kerns, two Ph.Ds who wanted to add a new level of science to the turf-protection practices that counter dollar spot.

“We took what Smith and Kerns built and decided to develop a model that plugs in weather forecasting data and goes a week or so to project risk levels,” says LaFleur. “Superintendents can see the data then fine-tune their decision-making. The result is that they get enhanced control of dollar spot using the same amount of product they used to use.” 

The enthusiastic response to this initiative didn’t surprise LaFleur and his team, given that Syngenta had already scored a similar hit with a pest-countering mission known as Weevil Track. That’s a web-based program that gathers highly extensive, granular field data from university scientists and crunches it to guide decisions about spraying to fight the annual bluegrass weevil, a devilish form of beetle that can brutalize golf courses.

“The heritage of a company like ours is scientific research to produce the most effective products,” says LaFleur. “That fact that we can also leverage technology to make the timing of applications much more precise is very satisfying — it motivates us to keep improving on all fronts.”

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.


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