Is a Green and Firm Golf Course an Attainable Goal?

In recent years, dozens of articles asserting that brown is the new green on golf courses have appeared in publications seeking to make the point that: 1) Courses need to use less water, and 2) Brown means firm, and firm is desirable.

It followed that brown was desirable and, in some respects, that is surely true. Firm golf courses are more interesting and fun to play than soft, spongy ones. But the majority of golfers—in the U.S. anyway—undoubtedly prefer green grass. Green and firm then would appear to be the ideal.

With turf science where it is, and with plenty of hardy, hi-tech grass varieties now promising consistent color without the need for frequent watering, is green and firm now the attainable goal?

“Absolutely,” says Scott Stambaugh, superintendent at the Peninsula Golf and Country Club in San Mateo, Calif. “Green and firm is the perfect combination.”

“Yes, I think the premise that green and firm is the ideal is correct,” says Cory Brown, the man in charge of the turf at Overlake Golf and Country Club in Medina, Wash.

“Of course,” says Tim Moraghan, a course maintenance consultant and former Director of Championship Agronomy at the USGA. “And to suggest brown is the new green is entirely incorrect.”

However, green and firm might not always be possible, regardless of how advanced agronomy has become. “There’s definitely an asterisk,” says Stambaugh. “There are so many factors at play—climate, soil, turf, golfers’ preferences, budget, available water, cart traffic. And in a place like Northern California, where the typical summer day can mean 15 hours of playing time, it’s challenging to provide green and firm for the first golfers in the morning as well as those last out in the evening.”

“Another potential problem is the course’s topography,” says Brown, whose twitter handle—@Brown_golf—isn’t merely a nod to his last name. “In an attempt to maintain uniformly green conditions, some parts of the course will inevitably see too much water while others will get too little.”

Moraghan concedes that producing firm, green surfaces isn’t always straightforward, but says it should be easier than some superintendents believe. “All growing plants are inherently green, so you have to do something unnatural and harmful to prevent them from remaining so.”

Adhering to good cultural practices should go a long way to achieving green and firm, says Moraghan. “Remove much, but not quite all, of the biomass from the surface,” he adds. “Apply sand and top-dress at the correct intervals. Do everything in moderation. You don’t need to turn the water off to get firm surfaces.”

Maybe the soundest advice comes from a course architect. John Fought, designer of Sand Hollow in Utah and The Gallery in Arizona, among others, advises superintendents to train their turf.

“If you eat a lot, you get fat,” he says. “The more chemicals and water you apply, the more the turf wants, and the harder and more expensive it becomes to maintain the course. Give it just enough to keep it alive. Keep it lean and mean.”