GCSAA research examines nutrient use on golf courses

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) has released the results of a nationwide survey of golf courses examining nutrient use and management on golf facilities. The results indicate that superintendents apply fertilizers at rates that fall within the guidelines recommended by university scientists.

These findings are contained in the article “Golf Course Environmental Profile Measures Nutrient Use and Management and Fertilizer Restrictions, Storage, and Equipment Calibration” published in the December 2009 edition of Applied Turfgrass Science. The article was authored by GCSAA Director of Research Clark Throssell, Ph.D.; Director of Environmental Programs Greg Lyman; Senior Manager of Environmental Programs Mark Johnson; Senior Manager of Market Research and Data Greg Stacey; and National Golf Foundation Director of Research Clark Brown.

“Nutrient use and its impact on water quality is a hot topic across many industries,” Throssell says. “Those who are familiar with golf course management have long felt the industry has been a good steward when it comes to the management of fertilizers. With this study, we now have a much better picture of nutrient use across all regions of the country and how superintendents make application decisions. The report indicates where improvements can be made, but by and large the information is positive.”

The information comes from the GCSAA’s Golf Course Environmental Profile, a first-of-its-kind collection of data on property features, management practices and inputs associated with golf courses across the United States. The golf course environmental profile is actually a series of five surveys that were completed earlier this year. The process of conducting the five surveys will be replicated in the future to document change and identify key issues for potential research, programs and tools needed by the industry. The project is funded by The Environmental Institute for Golf made possible through a grant from The Toro Giving Program. Non-subscribers of Applied Turfgrass Science can receive a copy of the article by contacting Throssell at

“Just as we found in the first two surveys (regarding the physical characteristics of golf courses, and water use and conservation) this one provides a valuable baseline of data regarding nutrient management on golf courses,” Lyman said. “The data will help the industry when participating in policy-making decisions and communicating with a variety of constituents.”

Among the key findings:

For all golf courses in 2006, a total of 101,096 tons of nitrogen were applied to 1,311,000 acres (154 pounds of nitrogen per acre); 36,810 tons of phosphate were applied to 1,131,000 acres (65 pounds of phosphate per acre); and 99,005 tons of potash were applied to 1,260,000 acres (157 pounds of potash per acre).
Of 18-hole golf facilities in the U.S., 49 percent had a written nutrient management plan or written fertilizer program in 2006, but only 6 percent of facilities were required by government or tribal authorities to have such a plan. A higher maintenance budget correlates with the likelihood that a golf facility would use a written nutrient plan or fertilizer program.
For 18-hole golf facilities nationally, slow-release nitrogen sources accounted for 64 percent of the nitrogen applied, and quick-release nitrogen sources accounted for 36 percent. Organic nutrient sources were applied to 66 percent of 18-hole golf facilities in 2006. Organic sources of nutrients comprise 24 percent of the total annual amount of nutrients applied on 18-hole golf facilities.
In 2006, 43 percent of 18-hole facilities did not use soil amendments. The highest use of soil amendments was in the Southwest, where it’s common for soil and irrigation water to have high sodium content. A much larger percentage of respondents, 74 percent, use a turfgrass supplement such as biostimulants, humates and amino acids/proteins.
Nationally, only 9 percent of 18-hole golf facilities reported restrictions on fertilizer applications. Restrictions were most likely in the North Central (16 percent) and Pacific (10 percent) agronomic regions. Sixty-two percent of 18-hole golf facilities in the U.S. with restrictions report restrictions on phosphorus either in the total yearly amount applied or the amount per application.
Superintendents consider multiple factors when making nutrient application decisions. Integrating many variables into their decisions leads to effective applications for the turfgrass while protecting the environment. The most common factors superintendents used to make decisions about nutrient applications and the percentage of 18-hole golf facilities using that factor were: visual observations of turfgrass (85 percent), previous product performance (84 percent), soils/soil analysis (84 percent), precipitation/temperature/weather (83 percent), turfgrass species (81 percent) and disease pressure (79 percent).
From 2002 to 2006, 95 percent of 18-hole golf facilities performed soil testing on greens, 75 percent on tees, 80 percent on fairways and 26 percent on rough.
On average, superintendents at 18-hole golf facilities calibrated their fertilizer application equipment before 67 percent of applications, thereby improving the accuracy of their fertilizer applications. Nationally, 91 percent of 18-hole golf facilities stored fertilizer on site for three consecutive calendar days or more in 2006. Half of those golf facilities used a dedicated storage area.
From those findings, the following actions were recommended:

GCSAA recommends that all golf facilities use guidelines developed by university scientists to develop written nutrient management plans based on the characteristics and expectations unique to each facility.
In order to foster sustainability at the golf facility, superintendents making nutrient management decisions should consider the location, climate and condition of the turfgrass, as well as the rate, time of year, and products to be used.
GCSAA recommends that superintendents routinely conduct soil tests on the rough because it receives the greatest total amount of phosphate and potash. Soil testing has the potential to curtail costs and promote fertilizer programs that meet, but do not exceed, the nutritional needs of the turfgrass.
GCSAA recommends that golf facilities that store fertilizer should use dedicated fertilizer storage areas designed for that purpose.
An article addressing the article published online by Applied Turfgrass Science appears in the December 2009 edition of Golf Course Management magazine. A full report of the study, including narrative, graphs and tables, is accessible via The Environmental Institute for Golf’s Web site at Also available online are the first two survey reports, focusing on land use and physical characteristics, and water use and conservation. The fourth (pesticide use) and fifth (energy use and conservation, and environmental practices) surveys are expected to be compiled and released in 2010.

“The surveys provide the building blocks for documenting the progressive nature of golf course management,” Throssell said. “They reveal the advances that have been made and the areas where we have opportunity to innovate for improvement. The participation we have received from GCSAA member and non-member superintendents is appreciated and crucial to our success. We appreciate the support facility leaders gave to superintendents in providing us this data. And just as important, this project could not have been undertaken without the support of The Environmental Institute for Golf and its donors, and grants from The Toro Giving Program.”

The National Golf Foundation was contracted to conduct the survey, manage the recruitment of participants and complete the analysis of the data in collaboration with GCSAA. Golf course superintendents at all golf facilities in the U.S. (16,386) were invited to participate in this survey. A total of 2,561 completed surveys were returned, yielding a 15.6 percent return rate. The data were analyzed and compared across facility types, maintenance budgets and across seven agronomic regions … Northeast, North Central, Transition, Southeast, Southwest, Upper West/Mountain, and Pacific.

GCSAA is a leading golf organization and has as its focus golf course management. Since 1926, GCSAA has been the top professional association for the men and women who manage golf courses in the United States and worldwide. From its headquarters in Lawrence, Kan., the association provides education, information and representation to more than 20,000 members in more than 72 countries. GCSAA’s mission is to serve its members, advance their profession and enhance the enjoyment, growth and vitality of the game of golf. Visit GCSAA at

The Environmental Institute for Golf, the philanthropic organization of the GCSAA, is a collaborative effort of the environmental and golf communities, dedicated to strengthening the compatibility of golf with the natural environment. The Institute concentrates on delivering programs and services involving research, education and outreach that communicate the best management practices of environmental stewardship on the golf course. For more on The Institute, visit

For more information contact:
Clark Throssell, Ph.D., GCSAA director of research, at 800-472-4429 or

Greg Lyman, GCSAA director of environmental programs at 800-472-3625 or

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