Fine fescue performance under traffic stress on golf courses

January 3, 2014

By Maggie Reiter, Graduate Research Assistant

Fine fescue fairway plots in St. Paul before traffic treatments.
Fine fescue fairway plots in St. Paul before traffic treatments. Maggie Reiter

Fescues continue to grow in popularity as a low-input golf course turfgrass. There are plenty of fine fescue roughs and it would be difficult to find a course built in the 21st century without fine fescue designed in unmowed or rough areas. In spite of this, there are only a handful of entirely fine fescue courses. Based on input from some industry stakeholders, golf course superintendents have been hesitant to use these species for short-grass surfaces.

Poor traffic tolerance is a major qualm with using fescue. Limited research has been conducted on these alternative species for golf cart traffic. In the past few years, hard fescue (Festuca brevipila) has shown to function well for traffic tolerance and recovery, followed by Chewings fescue (Festuca rubra ssp. fallax) and sheep fescue (Festuca ovina). Data from the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) (.pdf) presents several fine fescue cultivars with excellent turf quality when maintained at fairway mowing heights and subjected to traffic stress. Promising NTEP data collected from recent trials in Minnesota indicates that both slender creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra ssp. litoralis) and strong creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra ssp. rubra) should also be investigated for use on golf course fairways. Although the slow growth rate reduces mowing frequency, injury recovery from traffic is longer. Entire fescue courses are often walk-only to diminish golf cart wear.

Recent breeding efforts have improved performance under traffic and continue to advance. Current studies at the University of Minnesota are evaluating mixtures of fine fescue species for performance under traffic stress. Data will be collected on traffic effects, recovery times, and plant growth regulator impacts.

These fescues are emerging in the United States as a worthy alternative with reduced inputs of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Still, the research is not comprehensive enough to soothe superintendents’ trepidations and breeding work needs to focus on the durability under traffic.

Plot of ‘Beacon’ hard fescue without traffic on the left half and simulated golf cart traffic on the right half.
Plot of ‘Beacon’ hard fescue without traffic on the left half and simulated golf cart traffic on the right half. Maggie Reiter