Grass Selection for your golf course in South East Asia – Zoysia, Paspalum or Bermuda?

Read my latest article for the Hong Kong Golfer on grass selection in South East Asia. Find it here:

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The choice of grass for a new (or renovated) golf course is one of the most important decisions on any project. The cost to maintain this grass will run into millions of dollars over the years as green staff look to create play conditions that please the golfer, owner and architect  – and not always in that order.

In Hong Kong and South East Asia warm season grass dominate the play areas. These grasses are typically able to withstand high temperatures and large volumes of precipitation. The most popular grasses include: manilagrass (Zoysia matrella) bermudagrass (Cynodon spp.) seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum)

I have had the good fortune to travel extensively throughout South East Asia these past few years. This has afforded me the opportunity to visit many golf courses as well as the chance to speak directly, and in detail, with those involved in golf course maintenance and upkeep. When it comes to grass selection (and the maintenance thereof) there are very few people more informed than the golf course superintendent? I personally enjoy listening and absorbing what these qualified individuals have to say about grass and maintenance….I mean this is their bread and butter and they know their conditions better than anyone?

In fact if the choice of grass, on any new project, was left to a ‘local’ golf superintendent then I am willing to bet that the choice would be the most responsible one most of the time – maybe even all the time.

What may surprise you is that some of the superintendents (and this number is bigger than you think) have to manage a grass type that may not altogether be best suited to the situation. It’s not that anyone of the warm season grasses won’t grow in South East Asia more the maintenance cost differential between each one of these grass types. Let me explain in a little more detail:

I have seen more golf courses in Asia with bermudagrass than any of the other grass types. Bermudagrass is more than adequate as a play surface but frequent mowing and large amounts of fertilizer is required to keep it adequate. To go further bermudagrass is a non-native grass and so susceptible to invasion from native grasses. It’s a high maintenance grass but establishes quickly and this I can’t help but think is the main reason why it’s so popular with architects and owners alike.

Seashore paspalum is “greener” than bermudagrass and zoysiagrass. Some may even deem it to be visually more striking than the other warm season grasses which very likely contributes to its popularity. It’s a more salt tolerant grass which helps if the water source is unsatisfactory but it’s much more maintenance intense than bermudagrass and zoysiagrass and requires a lot more water to keep the play surfaces in good condition.

Zoysiagrass is not as popular on golf courses as bermudagrass and seashore paspaulum which is hard to fathom given that it requires less in every way when compared to the other two grasses. If it’s not the grass of choice for golf courses it’s certainly the most popular grass in the suburban areas where it grows haphazard on the sides of roads, in people’s backyards and even on the beach it’s a low maintenance grass that is drought tolerant and very adapted to the climatic conditions prevalent in South East Asia. Many superintendents (and builders) regard zoysiagrass as the king of grass in South East Asia. But zoysiagrass is slow establishing and this I know contributes to its lack of popularity.

Choosing the right grass is more complicated than picking a favorite girlfriend – although at times I wonder if it’s not made to be over complicated. Indeed one needs to understand factors such as water quality, local climatic conditions and architectural intent but if common sense prevailed you would choose a grass that historically has grown well in the existing conditions and ideally with as little input as possible. SURELY…and surely the best people to advise on this would be the local superintendents as well as those people particularly well versed in the specific grass types – having lived in the region and studied these grasses in great detail?

But today I can’t help but think that the decision to go with a certain grass type is too focused on the short term value rather than the long term benefit. For instance it’s understandable that an owner will want their golf course open for play as quickly as possible but I bet if that very person (s) were made aware of the long terms costs benefit of choosing a specific grass (at the cost of opening a month or two later) they would reconsider. I am also of the opinion that there is too much emphasis on grass appearance and its perceived visual appeal. Many of the best golf courses in the world, including St Andrews, are browner than green in the dry months and there is no problem with this.

We in the golf business are charged with ensuring our golf courses today – and into the future – are sustainable places of practice. It’s our responsibility to ensure that they are environmentally friendly and the choice of grass plays a big part in this. This is proven by the fact that grass can cover anywhere upwards of 25ha for an 18 hole golf course.

To conclude, our climate is as erratic as it’s ever been and there is no reason to think things will get any better. Hence we need to be much more conscious that our golf courses are adaptable into the future and this includes the grasses we choose. I know if I was a golf course owner I would want a grass that can stand the test of time with as little input as possible. Less is more in my opinion and this applies to most things in golf including grass.

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