Low-maintenance turfgrass - the practical choice for golf-course roughs

In The Dictionary of Golf, Spencer David defines "rough" as the "undesired playing area where grass is maintained above 1.5 inches in height." This is a fairly good general definition, though it is open to different interpretations. My first game of golf and my first golf-related job were, admittedly, a long time ago. I can still remember what the rough was like on the two courses where I learned to play the game. One course had a well-maintained rough with 3 to 5 inches of thick bluegrass, and the other course had a minimally maintained rough with little turfgrass and a lot of weeds. Both roughs accomplished their purpose: punishment for making a poor shot. The purpose of a rough is the same today. As I play golf with my 13-year-old daughter, I encourage her to keep the ball on the short grass, because once she hits into the 3-inch-tall fescue rough, she is in serious trouble.

I wrote this article from the standpoint of a turfgrass breeder who is working with low-maintenance species well adapted to rough areas. However, my interest in turfgrasses for roughs stems from my long-term involvement with the game of golf and my knowledge of the rough, whether it be agronomic, aesthetic or functionally related.

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What is an ideal rough? You must evaluate the qualities of a rough from several perspectives. The golf-course professional looks at it from the viewpoint of trying to maximize and speed up play. Golfers and, perhaps, tournament officials know that the course should penalize poor shots, but not too much. (Of course, how much is too much depends on whether you are the golfer or the official.) Finally, the rough must fit the requirements of the golf-course superintendent, who must work with limited resources to maintain this peripheral but significant portion of the golf course.

The ideal rough should address the viewpoints of all individuals concerned about the rough. My thoughts on the ideal low-maintenance rough include the following points: The rough should allow the golfer to quickly find the golf ball. The rough should impart a penalty for an errant shot. The superintendent should be able to adjust the severity of the penalty by varying the mowing height. The rough should allow reduced levels of inputs and time for maintenance of the area. At these lower input levels, the quality of the rough should be acceptable - good uniformity, few weeds and aesthetics that fit the character of the golf course. The rough should tolerate cart and foot traffic (or adequate cart paths should be available). The turfgrass species should have qualities that allow you to maintain it as primary, secondary or tertiary rough, depending on proximity to the fairway. (A trend on golf courses in our area calls for leaving certain out-of-play areas of the rough completely unmaintained.)

Species and cultivar selection Most turfgrasses are adaptable to many management systems. This makes them good choices for golf-course roughs, and it is my opinion that most species used on golf courses are potential candidates for the rough (an exception might be creeping bentgrass). In the North, my choices for a low-maintenance rough are Kentucky bluegrass, bluegrass/ryegrass mixes, tall fescue, fine fescue and buffalograss. In the South, I recommend bermudagrass - vegetative or seeded - and buffalograss. Each of these species has advantages and disadvantages in the rough. Let's discuss each of them and how they function in the rough. Do not consider the order of discussion a preference ranking. Each golf-course situation is different, leading to different choices.

Kentucky bluegrass If climatic conditions allow it, Kentucky bluegrass provides an outstanding rough with a great deal of flexibility for various levels of quality and degree of penalty. Kentucky bluegrass prefers fertile soil in the cool, humid regions of the United States and can provide golf courses with a high-quality rough or even a good low-maintenance rough. I have long felt that Kentucky bluegrass is a stronger plant when you maintain it at a lower level of management. This suggests that bluegrass in the rough with some fertility and water will provide a functional rough at reduced management levels. Bluegrass also has the ability to adapt to low, medium and higher mowing heights, making it suitable for areas close to the fairway or completely out-of-play.

The major disadvantages of bluegrass are that it does have higher input requirements than some other species, and it may perform poorly if unirrigated in drier areas.

Kentucky bluegrass/perennial ryegrass mixtures Superintendents often use this mixture in rough areas with results similar to Kentucky bluegrass alone. Perennial ryegrass significantly speeds establishment of the rough, but with the maintenance designed for the rough (low to medium inputs), the Kentucky bluegrass predominates and the rough performs much as if it was entirely bluegrass.

When using this mixture, remember that perennial ryegrass is a vigorous seedling and plant, and seeding rates and mix percentages should encourage Kentucky-bluegrass establishment. Under rough conditions, 30 percent perennial ryegrass and 70 percent Kentucky bluegrass should provide excellent establishment and enough bluegrass to provide a good long-term rough.

Much of what I say about the maintenance of a Kentucky bluegrass rough also applies to a perennial-ryegrass/Kentucky-bluegrass rough. However, if you maintain the rough at a high management-input level, it will require extra mowing to stay under control. Without additional mowing, the extra growth from the ryegrass will affect function and playability.

Tall fescue In the drier areas of the Great Plains and even into the Transition Zone, tall fescue is ideal for the rough. Tall fescue tolerates a variety of management extremes and is relatively drought-tolerant in areas with adequate subsoil moisture. On the golf course that I play (Firethorn, a highly rated Pete Dye design that is much too hard for me), they use turf-type tall fescue adjacent to the fairways at a 3-inch mowing height and a 6-inch height in the secondary rough. In the out-of-play tertiary rough, they use unmowed K-31 tall fescue. This course hosted the Women's U.S. Amateur last August. The course was beautiful: The rough at different heights created an attractive background for each hole, while still functioning to penalize misplaced shots.

Management of tall fescue usually is not a problem in our area (Zones 4 and 5), but occasionally some stand loss occurs during severe winters. Also, especially in a wet spring, the unmowed tertiary rough can be so thick that you're unlikely to find a lost ball. The members play this area as a lateral hazard.

The maintenance level of the tall-fescue rough at Firethorn is low to medium. They apply fertilizer in the spring and summer and irrigate the primary rough only when necessary. I consider the 3-inch primary rough playable, but it is a much harder shot to make.

Fine fescues Courses have used fine fescues in shade mix in golf-course roughs for many years. However, a newer trend of using unmowed fine fescues on slopes, where the species is well adapted, is occurring. This approach has some merit, because it reduces maintenance, the species functions well when you maintain it as rough, and it supplies a penalty for hitting there. Golf balls typically don't settle into it, so you can usually find them. Aesthetically, the unmowed fine fescues have a pleasing appearance. This use of fine fescues was successful at the Prairie Landing Golf Course near Chicago. The superintendent's main concern was adequate weed control, but I am confident he will resolve this issue by trying different herbicides and application strategies.

The fine fescues are well-adapted to low maintenance. This suggests that they should provide good long-term performance in the rough, but certain concerns exist. For example, one area that may require a new management approach is the removal of the previous year's growth. An annual mowing might be adequate to keep the fine fescues actively growing, but it may be that an annual burning such as those that growers use in seed-production fields would be better.

Bermudagrass Although most of my experience is with the cool-season areas of the United States, my first position out of school was in Florida. This allowed me to have first-hand experience with the roughs of the South (at an age where I could hit the golf ball farther off line).

In my experience, most southern bermudagrass roughs are common, seeded bermudagrass or Tifway 419 (on some high-end courses). Usually, the most significant change from the fairway to the rough is the increase in mowing height. However, you can reduce other inputs as well.

Bermudagrass makes a satisfactory-to-good rough that functions well but doesn't have the sharp color transition some other species provide. However, in winter, when the bermudagrass is dormant and the fairways are overseeded, it provides an outstanding contrast (see photo, page G 44). It also holds up better than other species when dormant.

The main disadvantage of bermudagrass as a rough is that it requires more water and nitrogen than some other species to perform well. Ideally, however, we should not require such a high level of quality in roughs, and reduced inputs should provide an acceptable turf.

Buffalograss Buffalograss is an ideal species for roughs in arid and semi-arid areas or even areas that have occasional drought or water shortages. Buffalograss is native to the Great Plains and well adapted to reduced-input management systems such as roughs. Buffalograss requires low inputs of water, fertilizer, pesticides and has slow vertical growth, which translates to a reduced mowing requirement. However, you also can maintain buffalograss at a higher level of inputs, and you can even mow it as close as 0.625 inch.

A golf ball is relatively easy to find in a 3- to 4-inch buffalograss rough, and it also is much easier to hit the ball out of buffalograss than bermudagrass. Buffalograss should be relatively tolerant of traffic, but I have seen stands that were kept fairly wet that suffered from traffic effects. Thus, traffic tolerance may depend, in part, on soil-moisture status, but shouldn't be a problem in drier areas away from greens.

Golf courses in the South and Transition Zone are only just starting to use buffalograss in roughs. We still have a great deal to learn about its use and management in this situation. My major concern is that because it is a warm-season species adapted to the North, where spring is delayed, it will stay dormant while other species (except bermudagrass) are actively growing. Also, the use of buffalograss in the rough is a major change: Golf-course managers need to be willing to make the change and learn how to manage this new species.

You must remember that the rough is a large, important area of the golf course. As the game of golf flourishes and we make changes in our management programs due to changes in budgets, environmental concerns or turf-quality issues, superintendents should not overlook their roughs. Golf-course managers probably have more rough-management options than ever before. As long as you remember its purpose, you can have a great rough with a species and maintenance level that suits your operation.

Dr. Terrance P. Riordan is professor of turfgrass science at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln.

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