Saturday, February 6, 2010

USGA Greens and The Emperor's New Clothes

USGA Greens and The Emperor's New Clothes
February 2010
Armen Suny

In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, two weavers promise the Emperor a set of clothes that only the privileged or enlightened can see. There is a child that cries out “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”

For decades now the USGA with its naked greens construction method has bullied courses and Architects into the most expensive green construction method in common use with no empirical evidence that its method is better. We are supposed to blindly go along with their green construction method despite the fact that with their tens of millions of dollars spent on research that they have not adequately investigated alternative green construction methods. Yes, there have been studies but as we all know, research has become highly politicized and results can, unfortunately, be based upon funding and future funding.

Typical USGA Greens construction can cost anywhere from three to six dollars per square foot more than other construction methods. If we use five dollars for the sake of our discussion and assume 120,000 square feet of greens, they will add $600,000 to the cost of construction. If we use typical “ballpark” golf development and operations numbers, each $100,000 of construction cost equates to $1 of greens fees. So the USGA's pressure on Architects and the golfing public has caused an average increase in green fees of $6 per round. Is this good for golf? The USGA will put forth the suggestion that other green construction methods are unproven and more costly to maintain. It simply is untrue. If USGA greens are truly superior and the only way to ensure success, why don't the USGA's favorite venues for US Opens all have USGA greens?

The USGA is just like the two weavers in Andersen’s tale. The USGA green is just like the Emperor’s new clothes and I am like the child, only my cry is, “But it makes no agronomic sense and cost too much to build.” The USGA has stood by its guns with each version of its latest recasting of the specifications. Let me ask the question, what percentage of USGA greens have been rebuilt? Is the IRS correct in letting us depreciate USGA greens over 30 years? They won’t let us depreciate a push-up green. Can one green construction method be right for the entire world? It may not be right for anything! The USGA keeps telling us that the Emperor’s clothes are beautiful and that furthermore, that if we disagree that we are heretics and bad for the monarchy of golf.

Dr. Michael Hurdzan and I have had discussions for years about his righteous attempts to look at other green construction methods. His has been a lone voice in the industry to challenge the USGA green. What Mike and I have disagreed on was sterile green mixes as a growing medium. He is an advocate of straight sand California type greens and I am an advocate of green construction methods tailored to the specific agronomic conditions and always adding life and nutrient reserves to soil mixes.

Let me explain to you, that I grew up growing grass on push up greens in the Philadelphia area at Aronimink, Merion, and Rolling Green. And that then I had push up greens at Cherry Hills, inferior USGA Greens at Castle Pines, and USGA greens at Shadow Creek. I’ve grown grass in lots of different places on lots of different soil and construction types. I've generally found that if your water was good, adequate surface drainage, and you had lots of sun and air movement, that virtually any green construction method was acceptable.

As a turf consultant, I used to enjoy taking Superintendents to one of their better USGA greens and looking at the collar on the far side of the green that got very little traffic and then looking at the adjacent men’s tee that got a lot of traffic. Invariably the highly trafficked tee turf, that often had the same grass, mowing height, and schedule as the green collar was in far better condition even though it was typically built with less grade, often no drainage, and only 4-6 inches of sand. The tee construction cost 25% of the green construction and was in better shape. I used to ask Superintendents if maybe we should start building the greens like the tees so that they would be in better shape and cost less to build. They would usually pause and then start regurgitating what they had learned in school. Maybe we should teach deductive reasoning as a turf course.

What I am about to expound upon is part conjecture and all opinion on my part. The concept behind the USGA green was to build a green that could be saturated from a rain event or by over-irrigation from man and still provided an acceptable putting surface. They also wanted a green that could be irrigated with low-quality water and still support turf life.

So logically, they piled some sandy materials on top of gravel and assumed that things would drain. Well, it didn’t work. The sand on top of the gravel created a false water table, later renamed a perched water table because it sounded better. So instead of going back to the drawing board, to create a construction method that would drain and not create a false water table, these scientists started touting the virtues of a “perched” water table and how this was the ideal method of growing grass.

Now, nowhere have I ever seen their proof for this statement that we have all come to regard as the “Holy Grail” of green construction. A false water table is not the ideal method of growing grass. In all of agriculture, other than rice patties, I am unaware of any other growth system in agriculture that relies on a false water table.

Many Superintendents have come to realize that in order for a USGA green to drain, that you have to fill up much of the big pore spaces of the sand with water until the weight of the water and gravity cause the false water table to be broken. At that time the green will start to drain and the pore spaces will be filled with atmosphere.

Now we have many courses hooking up vacuum systems to their USGA greens to break the perched water table and pull the water out of the green. So, we designed and constructed a green with a perched water table and then because we don’t want the water there, we vacuum it out. Does my earlier statement about a deductive reasoning class being a requirement in a turf education start sounding more reasonable? Ben Franklin is quoted as saying “Common sense is uncommon.” He spent his time in Philadelphia too…maybe its something in the water there.

The solution to this one construction method fits all, USGA green, is to utilize our agronomic skills and design site and condition-specific green construction methods. The highest level of green construction would be utilized to grow bentgrass greens in the humid south with bad water. This is the most demanding situation that can be arrived at. What method would be utilized for this difficult situation? I would propose that the high performance push up green construction method be used.

High Performance Push Up Green Method

Core Out Green to 8-10 inches below grade
Rough up or rip subsurface
Install drainage, Herringbone and smile drains in all runoff areas
Fill Drainage trenches with pea gravel
Install green mix or sand, amendments can be tilled in.

This method of construction will perform very well under adverse conditions. The tighter the subsoil, the more rainfall received and the poorer the water quality, the closer the drainage spacing.

Lesser environmental demands will require less intensive construction methods. I have built green nurseries on native soils and then topdressed them. They always performed better than the USGA greens. I have seen greens built on native soils which were ripped and then capped with a few inches of sand that have outperformed USGA greens in the same region. Every agronomic situation is different but in my opinion, none of them need USGA greens.

Green mixes need to have life in them. The sterile environment that the USGA has dictated for too long is just bad agronomics. It is reductionism and the application of an engineering solution that is silent and even disdainful of the life that soil must have to be productive. It is hydroponics. We create a sterile soil with no nutritional reserves and then wonder why we have odd patch diseases for the first three years. If we add life and nutritional reserves to greens mixes through the incorporation of composts, natural organic fertilizers, and inoculants, we will have healthier turf and need less pesticides.

Has anybody ever considered the pollutants in the leachates from USGA greens compared to pushup greens? We should voluntarily mandate that we won’t put this contaminated leachate into drainage ways.

And now, many clubs and Superintendents are finding that the gravel/green mix interface is becoming sealed off by an iron oxide or other metal oxides, totally restricting drainage into the gravel. We've been digging these layers out for 30 years, it isn't new, and it isn't a surprise.

Now that you’ve read this, shouldn’t the Emperor put on some clothes? Shouldn’t we as responsible professionals use our expertise and experience to design region and site specific green construction methods that perform better, cost less to build, and pollute less? Perhaps the USGA can worry about rules, square grooves,   anchored putters and the ball and leave the green construction methods to us.

One final question: Does the USGA have any liability for damages to clubs whose USGA Greens have failed? Probably not, since the USGA Green is merely a recommendation, not a specification; still an interesting question.


  1. Im currently dojng a turf grass degree, my current module is too design 9 sustainable golf greens for a new build..this is golden!
    thanks very much