Should You Go Natural?

Trail Inception

When Dr David G. Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, started the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail years ago he made the decision to build to a massive scale. He wanted to create something different, memorable, and awesome. First generation Trail courses were primarily bermudagrass with natural grass accents. These large expanses of uniform turf did make an impressive statement, but proved difficult and expensive to maintain with increases in water restrictions, pesticide regulations and an overall decrease in available maintenance funds. Because of these issues, design concepts evolved and the subsequent Trail courses began using increased natural acreage. This shift resulted in a stunning new look at Capital Hill in Prattville, AL. There, large stretches of bahiagrass replaced high maintenance turf areas. Early Trail courses were also adding natural areas. Jeff Olemann, Superintendent of Grand National in Auburn/Opelika put great effort into converting bermudagrass to natural areas where possible and a current reconstruction project at Magnolia Grove in Mobile AL is removing maintained areas on a large scale.

Course Construction

One of the most recent additions to The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is The Shoals, located in Northwest Alabama on approximately 600 acres and adjoining the Tennessee River. Long time Trail visionaries and architects Bobby Vaughan and Rodger Rulewich used their considerable experience and a new sensitivity to the changes in economic and environmental challenges to construct an impressive testimony to modern design. Vaughan used natural areas to replace large expanses traditionally planted in bermuda grass. The enormous, hard to mow, tee complexes were removed and replaced with wandering natural areas and pods of tees. Vaughan was also careful not to create hole after hole of forced carry and while natural area does exist between some tees and fairways, the use of 5 sets of tees gives golfers of all skill levels the ability to have a fun and memorable experience. Natural areas are also used between golf holes and in far roughs where large amounts of unnecessary turf can often be found. Vaughan was careful in these areas to create visually appealing and functional natural areas without shrinking landing areas or making things too difficult for the high handicap golfer. Upon first glance, the links style Fighting Joe Course, named after General Joe Wheeler, appears tight and treacherous due to the expanse of natural grasses. This is actually deceptive as most golfers are just not familiar with a property of this scale. The second course or Schoolmaster, named after Woodrow Wilson is a more traditional layout. The tall grasses have much more bark than bite on this 18.

The Rest of the Story

The term natural area has been misused by most in the golf business (even in this article). The natural areas at The Shoals were planted with specific grass species in an effort to produce a natural effect while attempting to discourage unwanted species of plants. Victor Maddox of Mississippi State University offered guidance on possible options for the natural look. We chose a tall fescue/switchgrass blend. The aesthetic result was what we had hoped for. Fescue seed heads in the late spring followed by switchgrass seed heads in the summer and fall.

Establishment was somewhat difficult as we were dealing with poor soil and a very dry summer during construction. The fescue germinated quickly but disease took a large percentage of it out during the summer. The switchgrass establishment was aided by the fescue decline. Several areas were re-seeded during the next 2 years. Eventually both species combined to result in full coverage. Most of the irrigation heads have been taken out of our natural area watering program resulting in reduced water use but weed control has proven to be more difficult in areas adjacent to greens and tees that are irrigated. Increases in irrigation will always favor native plant populations.

We have found yearly mowing of the natural areas helps reduce native plant species as every year native plant populations are continuing to infiltrate natural areas. A limited amount of chemical control has become necessary to provide the desired look. The fescue and switchgrass tolerate mowing extremely well which has allowed us the flexibility to regularly maintain certain areas as needed. Natural area encroachment into the maintained turf areas has been minimal. The bermudagrass is actually taking over some of the natural areas and will have to be chemically controlled in the future.

Although The Shoals was designed with natural areas from inception, most courses could make use of some low maintenance areas. Proper plant selection and course playability should be the main considerations. Understand that these areas are low maintenance not no maintenance. We found out the hard way. Natural areas will become native areas if neglected and while natural grasses can be selected native plant populations cannot. If low maintenance areas appeal to you,why not go natural?

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