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Classic Roots: Fine Fescue Fairways at Erin Hills and Beyond

June 8, 2017 By USGA Green Section
Fine fescue can deliver high-quality playing conditions with less water and fertilizer than other fairway grasses, as seen here on the 10th hole at Erin Hills. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

One of the most interesting features of Erin Hills, the site of the 2017 U.S. Open Championship, is that the fairways are predominantly fine fescue. Most golfers associate fine fescue fairways with links courses in the United Kingdom and Ireland; but fine fescue can be successful in a variety of locations, including Wisconsin. Fine fescue can deliver high-quality playing conditions with less water and fertilizer than other fairway grasses, but it requires specific growing conditions and careful management to be successful.

Bob Vavrek, director of the USGA Green Section’ s Central Region, explained: “Fine fescue requires a well-drained soil for optimal performance. It will survive in heavier soils but has difficulty competing with other grasses when plenty of moisture is available.”

Fine fescue also requires careful irrigation management, even when the soil conditions are favorable. “The only way to maintain a high percentage of fine fescue in fairways is to limit irrigation,” said Vavrek.

“Water management might be the most important part of our fairway management program,” said Zach Reineking, superintendent at Erin Hills. “We have a variety of soils at Erin Hills and must be really careful to make sure that our fine fescue only gets the water it needs. We irrigate the higher, well-draining areas much differently than the low-lying areas where we might find heavier soils. We use sophisticated irrigation technology and a lot of observation to make sure that each individual sprinkler head is watering the right amount. This is critical to maintaining a good stand of fine fescue.”

Fine fescue is also particularly vulnerable to traffic damage, whether it comes from golf carts, maintenance equipment or even walking golfers. In areas of heavy traffic, fine fescue can wear out and be quickly replaced by other grasses. For this reason, most courses with fine fescue fairways – such as Erin Hills and 2015 U.S. Open site Chambers Bay in Washington state – have extremely restrictive cart policies and are careful to limit maintenance traffic.

At Erin Hills, golfers must walk unless they present a medical note. This policy, combined with the undulating terrain, makes caddies an important part of the golf experience at Erin Hills. Reineking, who began working at Erin Hills in 2005, even before it opened, communicates with the caddies regularly to help manage traffic and steer golfers away from vulnerable areas.

Reineking is equally mindful of maintenance traffic. “We try to be really proactive with traffic management. If we see signs of trouble we adjust our maintenance, skip mowing for a little while and re-evaluate.”

Another important reality of fine fescue fairways is that they are seldom comprised of entirely fine fescue. This is true of the classic links and of modern courses with fine fescue fairways.

“What golfers perceive to be a pure fine fescue fairway is typically a mixture of fine fescue and other grasses,” said Vavrek. “Fine fescue will dominate where the turf is driest and subjected to the least amount of wear, and the other grasses will dominate where more water and traffic exist.”

Erin Hills uses carefully selected perennial ryegrass varieties to complement the fine fescue in the fairways. “Fine fescue performs well at Erin Hills,” said Reineking, “but we have some low-lying areas with heavier soils and areas of heavy golfer traffic where fine fescue does not thrive. We found a couple of ryegrass varieties used on links courses in the U.K. that blend really well with our fine fescue and help us manage these difficult areas. We utilize the strengths of both grasses rather than fighting their weaknesses.”

At Wine Valley Golf Club, a public facility near Walla Walla, Wash., a fairway mixture of 60-percent fine fescue and 40-percent Kentucky bluegrass provides the desired playability at a sustainable level of maintenance.

“Giving golfers a variety of shot options and firm, fast playing conditions are important goals at Wine Valley,” said Tyler Daniels, the course’s superintendent. “Fine fescue helps us achieve those goals. It also helps us keep up with maintenance because it requires fewer inputs than other fairway grasses. We have a nine-person maintenance staff, including myself, and double the fairway area of most golf courses. If we can fertilize less, mow less frequently and make fewer plant protectant applications, it makes a big difference in what we can achieve.”

At Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash., predominantly fine fescue fairways provide the desired playing conditions at a sustainable level of maintenance. (Wine Valley Golf Club)

“Fine fescue can be a great fairway grass for golf courses in a variety of climates and with a range of budgets,” said Larry Gilhuly, a USGA agronomist who has advised numerous courses with predominantly fine fescue fairways, including Chambers Bay, Wine Valley and Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon. “Having well-draining soils and the ability to manage traffic are two critical factors for success.”

“It is also important to understand that fairways do not need to be pure fine fescue for a facility to enjoy the playability and resource savings that fine fescue can offer,” said Gilhuly. “It may not be ‘fescue to the rescue’ for all golf courses, but with the right conditions and management, fine fescue can be an excellent choice for golf course fairways.”