Grass by Design: Pure Research Yields New Strains of Drought-Tolerant Grass
What are UCR 17-8 and UCR TP6-3, and why are they worthy of being the lede in a story about research’s role in golf’s capacity to survive in an increasingly arid environment?
In short, these two nondescript letter/number combinations are emblematic of the kinds of innovations that have enabled the California golf community to dramatically reduce water consumption over the last 20 years — innovations born, in this instance, from the research conducted by Dr. James Baird and his UC Riverside Turf and Landscape Team — discoveries funded in large part by the golf community, including the SCGA, USGA, PGA and GCSAA.
More specifically, UCR-17-8 and UCR TP6-3 are strains of Bermudagrass that are drought-tolerant to the point of requiring 50 percent less water than most lawns in Southern California, soft enough to use for recreation, attractive enough for customers to want to buy and suitable for use on tees, fairways and rough.
And more to the point (at least from a golf perspective) they maintain green color during the winter, when most other Bermuda strains go semi-dormant. That’s the Holy Grail of desert golf, as it were, to the extent to which they can eliminate water consumptive overseeding practices. And these new cultivars meet California’s requirements for commercial use and sale.
They should be available for limited use and sale sometime in 2024. Of course, when they do hit the market, their current letter/number descriptors will be replaced by sexy, California-centric product names.
When they do hit the market with their sexy names, they’ll be but the latest addition in a long line of additions that golf facilities and their agronomic teams have employed for years in the pursuit of a reduced water footprint. So much attention is paid to the obvious benefits of turf reduction that we sometimes forget that using less water on remnant turf is another key tool in the game’s conservation toolbox.
And it’s an essential tool. Home, business and HOA common areas can rip out turf in favor of California-friendly, drought-tolerant landscapes that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional. Golf can only be played on turf, and while it can be played on less turf, we’re still talking about turf, which nature has assigned a certain biology-cum-evapotranspiration factor that cannot be altered by government diktat.
However, human ingenuity driven by research can produce strains of turf that are able to thrive and remain passably green with much less water, consistent with nature’s assignments. Strains already in wide use, such as the TifTuf variety developed by the University of Georgia, have more than demonstrated that.
From Trial to Market
Lest you think getting to this point was a quick and easy process, please know that getting from concept to reality was nearly a 10-year process that was punctuated in its last years by trials at several locations in both Southern and Northern California: The Farms GC, Rancho Santa Fe; Wilshire CC, Los Angeles; California State University, Titan Sports Complex, Fullerton; Cinnabar Hills GC, San Jose; and Yocha Dehe GC, Brooks.
UCR 17-8 was included as a local check in the USGA/ National Turfgrass Evaluation Program Warm-Season Water Use Trial, as well in as many other double-blind trials. The process for figuring out which of the 400-500 experimental trials
are worthy of moving from trial to proposal is onerous enough but the peer-review process of moving from proposal to market is even more so.
Lest you think that getting to a point like this is an inexpensive proposition, think again. It’s a pricey one that the University of California funds less and less with public sources with each passing year. The communities and stakeholders that benefit from research have to pony up more and more money to offset public purse cuts, lest their research get displaced by those stakeholders whose appetites for investment are greater.
California’s agricultural sector, which has long benefitted from state organized/sanctioned “commissions” that allow for the pooling of resources to fund the kinds of pure research that lead to greater crop yields and more efficient business practices, competes for limited UC bandwidth with golf and other sectors that don’t have the benefit of these government-sanctioned institutions.
And by the way, because it is tied to the land in the same way that agriculture is — something that few other business sectors can claim — golf is allowed under California law to establish a California Golf Commission that could allow for something as small as a 0.25 percent surcharge on greens fees to fund not just research, but also advocacy, education and marketing. But that’s a big subject for another story and another day.
Doing More with Less
Not too long ago, California had the benefit of two UC turf research programs: Baird’s UC Riverside program and another one at UC Davis. Baird’s program is the last one standing. This is in stark contrast to the turf research programs that proliferate at the many land grant colleges that dot the Northeast, Midwest and plains states. With those programs come many more practical education programs for the agronomists and golf course superintendents that a golf-saturated state like California constantly needs, no more so than now, when the game is enjoying more popularity than it has in a generation.
Other than some substantial grants from GCSAA, USGA and the occasional water district, the UCR Turf Research Program relies almost entirely on the California Turf & Landscape Foundation (CTLF) for funding. Straight from the website of the Foundation (catlf.org) is the following, which explains in the Foundation’s words what it does, why it does it and how it does it:
California Turfgrass & Landscape Foundation near Los Angeles, California, provides funding for practical research project development in the areas of turfgrass science and landscape management. Founded to support the cultivation and growth of resilient turf strains for golf, sports turf or landscape management, our backing is essential for recreational initiatives and local conservation efforts.
The SCGA has been a contributor for more than 20 years, as have many of the state’s golf clubs, GCSAA chapters and private-sector businesses. But those contributions are hardly enough, given the competition not just from the agricultural commissions but from other water-dependent sectors that, along with golf, have recognized that reductions in water consumption are central to long-term survival in a drying and warming state.
The central theme of last August’s big golf & water summit in Chino Hills was this: As much as the game takes great pride in what it has been able to accomplish in water conservation the last 20 years, it has no intention of resting on that record, but rather using it as a springboard to take what it learned in achieving that record to achieve considerably more in the next 20 years, not as a “do-good” proposition, but a survival proposition.
And one of the key lessons golf learned was the value of investing in pure research.