The legendary course at Augusta National Golf Club is so lush, it’s no wonder they give the Masters Tournament winner a green jacket.
The Georgia club is an exclusive place, with membership limited to the high and mighty — not to mention wealthy — of American business, political and celebrity circles. But as the Masters unfolds on television this week, Oregon grass seed growers and turf management students can feel a connection to the proceedings.
The incredible green of Augusta’s fairways comes from being overseeded each fall with perennial ryegrass grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
At least, that’s what everyone says. Augusta National is private with a capital P, even secretive, and its media handlers didn’t respond to emails asking about its groundskeeping practices. The Augusta Chronicle newspaper reported as recently as 2012 that Augusta overseeds with perennial ryegrass, however, and it’s a matter of faith in Oregon that the seed comes from the state that leads the world in production.
Augusta’s Bermuda grass is a warm-season grass, and goes dormant during the winter, explains Alec Kowalewski, director of the turfgrass program at Oregon State University. Perennial ryegrass, on the other hand, is a cool-season variety that does just fine in winter.
“They seed it over the top of the dormant grass,” Kowalewski said. “It’s one of the big overseeding grasses they use in the south.”
The result is a lush green appearance when other courses, athletic fields and lawns might look patchy or brown. Perennial ryegrass is favored on golf courses in particular because it’s deep green, germinates relatively quickly, grows upright to give golfers the fluffy lies they prefer to hit balls from and tolerates low mowing heights. Fairways typically are cut to a half-inch height, and greens to a tenth of an inch.
The conditions at Augusta, site of professional golf’s first major of the season, draw studied looks from Kowalewski and the students in the turfgrass program. It’s a niche area of study within OSU’s horticulture department, with only about 20 students, but it counts more than 300 graduates working as golf course superintendents or at athletic complexes, parks and lawn care companies, according to a program website. About 90 percent of graduates find work at golf courses, Kowalewski said.
The program’s research site is off campus at OSU’s Lewis-Brown Farm. There, students tend and do research projects on three over-sized putting greens. Groups of students are put in charge of sections of the greens for a term, and must roll it, mow it and manage the “speed” of the putting surfaces — how quickly a golf ball will roll.
“The idea is to get them into the mindset of a superintendent,” Kowalewski said.
On-going experiments include a “wear” test, in which Kowalewski and students put on spiked golf shoes and tromp around on the greens to see how they hold up. A more sophisticated project involves testing alternative treatments for a common winter pathogen called microdocium patch, which leaves dead spots on greens.
Kowalewski and Clint Mattox, a graduate research assistant, are testing combinations of a crop oil, sulfur and potassium phosphite. The work is noteworthy because regulatory agencies take a dim view of heavy fungicide applications — the current method of controlling microdocium patch. Some course superintendents believe fungicides may eventually be banned for ornamental use such as golf courses, and want to find an alternative treatment.
Such intensive management is par for the course. “When you take it down to mowing heights, it becomes more susceptible to disease,” Kowalewski said.
Even at Augusta National, considered a showcase — maybe an unrealistically expensive and time-consuming one — of golf course management.
“It’s an anomaly,” said Dave Phipps, Northwest regional representative for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Course superintendents everywhere else take their lumps when Augusta National goes on display during the Masters.
“That’s what people want,” Phipps said. “Every year at this time of year we get pounded on: ‘Why can’t we have fairways like at Augusta?’”