Why grass isn’t always green.
Occasionally during the winter months I’m asked by visiting golfers why the fairways and roughs on some Portuguese courses are yellowy brown but the putting surfaces a verdant green. Well this colour difference is usually due to the grass varieties widely used here – some become dormant while others remain active depending on the ambient temperature.
However, it’s not just golfers from Northern Europe who are blissfully unaware of the types of grasses they’re walking on, local players often ask me why the campo looks the way it does, or why a particular form of maintenance is necessary.
Now I’m no expert on these matters, but I have picked up a little knowledge over the years, so I thought it might be useful to provide some basic information about the various grasses and some of the maintenance procedures which enable us to enjoy terrific playing conditions in Portugal throughout the year:
Fairways: The vast majority of courses opened here during the past thirty years use bermuda grass on their fairways. Bermuda actually originated in the Middle East and arrived in North America via the island of Bermuda – hence its name. The reason bermuda is so widespread in Portugal is because it’s ideal for warmer climes: it requires minimal watering, it’s able to survive extreme temperatures, it’s hardwearing so it can withstand buggy traffic, and it grows rapidly. The downside is that it only grows at temperatures above 15°C, so during cooler periods it remains dormant and loses its green hue.
Older clubs, such as Estoril and Lisbon Sports Club, were built before bermuda became fashionable and consequently they have traditional bent grass on their fairways - similar to grass found throughout Northern Europe. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why local players often refer to these courses as being typically British. The fairways at Penina, the oldest 18 hole course in the Algarve, also pre-date the introduction of bermuda and consist of rye and poa – again very British.
Greens: Almost without exception bent grass is used for putting surfaces (the name bent refers to its shallow roots which bend just below the surface of the soil and propagate laterally). As a grass for greens bent ticks all the boxes: it can be mown to a very short length without damage, it can handle a great deal of foot traffic, it has a shallow root system that is thick and dense allowing it to be seeded and grow easily, it survives in extremes of temperature, and it has an attractive deep green appearance. It also provides a smooth, relatively grainless putting surface. By the way, that’s also one of the reasons why greens are frequently top dressed with a light covering of sand because it fills in irregularities such as pitch mark indentations and helps to keep the surface even.
One of the most important maintenance procedures for healthy greens is aerification. In order for grass to grow at just 3-4mm in height it must have healthy roots and they demand oxygen. In good soil they get this from tiny pockets of air trapped between soil and sand particles, but over time the traffic from golfer’s feet and mowing equipment causes compaction and the air pockets get crushed. Aerification creates more air space and promotes deeper rooting, helping the grass to stay healthy - it normally takes place in Portugal during July and August when courses are not so busy and the higher temperatures promote rapid growth and a shorter recovery period.
One final topic regarding greens which is often discussed in clubhouses but not always fully understood, is Stimpmeter speeds. Designed by an American amateur golfer, Edward Stimpson, in 1935, the Stimpmeter measures the relative speed of a green. It’s basically an angled track, 36 inches (91 cm) long and 1.75 inches (4.4 cm) wide, with a V-shaped groove extending along its entire length. After placing the meter on the green it is slowly raised to release a golf ball from a notch 30 inches (76 cm) from the end, the distance the ball rolls is then measured in feet. To obtain a truly accurate reading, six distances (three in each of two opposite directions) should be measured and averaged on a flat section of the putting surface.
Most greens in Portugal stimp at between 8.5 and 11.5 depending on the time of the year. However, on undulating putting surfaces speeds above 10 can often render them almost unplayable for the average golfer, so club directors and green-keepers rarely set the speed beyond 10.5. And if you think 10.5 is fast spare a thought for the members at Oakmont Country Club, the inspiration for Stimpson’s invention, where the greens regularly stimp at over 14 - it must be like trying to putt on a glass table.