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Golfers May Benefit From New Putting Green Grass

GAINESVILLE—A velvety, short-growing turfgrass specimen collected on a municipal golf course in Hawaii and developed at a University of Florida laboratory may bring hole-in-one success to the nation’s golf courses.

The Bermuda grass, named FloraDwarf for its height, is the first variety of turfgrass from UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to receive a patent. Used primarily for putting greens, FloraDwarf shows so much promise that one professional golfer joined forces with UF scientists to grow it on his sod farm and plant it on a golf course he helped design.

“I think it’s going to have great impact,” said professional golfer Jerry Pate of Pensacola. “I think it’s going to be a grass like no other grass we have seen for Bermuda grass putting greens.”

UF/IFAS turfgrass Professor Al Dudeck developed FloraDwarf. He was on sabbatical in Hawaii in 1988 when he saw it growing in a small patch on a municipal golf course on the island of Kauai. He thought the grass was unusual and brought it back to his Gainesville laboratory. It was approved for release by UF/IFAS in 1995, after several years of research.

“Its growth habit was so unique, it was patented,” said Dudeck, of UF/IFAS’ environmental horticulture department.

Several qualities make FloraDwarf different from other grasses currently used on putting greens, Dudeck said. It grows shorter than other varieties on the market, hence it’s name, and because of its height, helps the ball roll faster.

“This grass is very tight without a lot of grain,” Pate said. “It’s more dense, so you have more cushion for the ball and speed.”

Turfgrass height is important to putting surfaces. But cutting some varieties of Bermuda grass at an eighth of an inch puts the grass under tremendous stress, Pate said.

“When you put it under that stress, every problem of turfgrass maintenance on a golf course comes into play,” Pate said, including fungi, adding nitrogen and more water, which creates algae, and more vertical mowing.

With FloraDwarf, “course maintenance should be much simpler,” Pate said. “In my opinion, it should produce a much greater quality of putting surface.”

Pate had so much confidence in FloraDwarf that in early summer, he planted one acre at his sod business, Wausau Farms, located in Wausau, a small town south of Chipley in the Florida Panhandle. From that planting, he harvested the grass sprigs and handplanted them on 18 greens at the Lost Key Plantation golf course at Perdido Key near Pensacola.

“We convinced the owners that we wanted to put this grass on the golf course and once they saw it, mowed at putting green height, they were convinced it was going to be the wave of the future,” Pate said.

UF/IFAS scientists are now focused on producing enough FloraDwarf to supply Florida golf courses and others around the nation. With more than 1,400 courses in the Sunshine State alone, the turf could be in high demand. Turfgrass is already big business in Florida where the value added to the state’s economy by all sectors of the turfgrass industry totaled $7.3 billion in 1991- 1992, said Terril Nell, chairman of UF/IFAS’ environmental horticulture department.

However, because the grass is sterile and doesn’t produce seed, Dudeck said it must be propagated vegetatively, which means grown as sprigs or sod, in order to produce enough grass to meet the nation’s demand. The grass is fast growing with the potential to produce a new crop in three to four months. ” A little material goes a long way,” Dudeck said. “We’ve found that a planting rate of one to 40, where one acre of shredded FloraDwarf will provide enough sprigs to plant 40 acres, is adequate.”

Scientists hope to ensure that consumers who buy the grass get authentic material. Along with Pate, two other Florida sod growers have permission to grow FloraDwarf: Dave Barnes at Greg Norman Turf in Avon Park, and Homer Greene at South Florida Grassing in Hobe Sound.

Grasses grown on these farms are certified as authentic and true to type and are available to consumers through an agreement with the Florida Turfgrass Association and the Southern Seed Certification Association, a cooperative venture between UF, Auburn University and the Florida Foundation Seed Producers Inc. of Greenwood.

Some additional turfgrass has also been sent from UF to sod growers in Texas. As FloraDwarf makes its way to more growers across the country, Pate says he’s pleased to join forces with UF and to be allowed to get involved from the beginning.

“I’m just lucky to be a recipient of this grass and to be able to provide it to people who want good quality putting greens,” Pate said. “Something I’ve always enjoyed is the agronomic end of the golf industry. The turf program at UF has a great history.”