The grass that golfers love to hate (and why they shouldn’t)
Ed. note: Welcome to Super Secrets, a GOLF.com series in which we’re picking the brains of the game’s leading superintendents. By illuminating how course maintenance crews ply their trades, we’re hopeful we can not only give you a deeper appreciation for the important, innovative work they do but also provide you with maintenance tips that you can apply to your own little patch of paradise. Happy gardening!
During the second round of the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Tiger Woods four-putted the 1st green.
The golf world freaked.
Tiger’s response was more matter-of-fact.
“It’s just poa,” he said.
As in poa annua, the game’s favorite agronomical whipping boy. Bad-mouthing the stuff is a grand golf tradition.
“It makes the greens uneven, bumpy, fast, unpredictable, unreadable,” the famed golf writer Dan Jenkins opined, in a Sports Illustrated piece about Jack Nicklaus’s struggles with poa.
The headline decried poa as a “blotchy weed.”
That was in the early 1970s.
And poa’s reputation hasn’t improved much since. But is that fair? Or does poor little poa get a bad rap?
We asked three superintendents to get down in the weeds and help us root through questions about a type of turf a lot of golfers love to hate.
First of all, what is poa?
Also known as annual bluegrass, or simply poa, it’s a low-growing plant with short, canoe-shaped leaves, and it does best in temperate climates. But those are just the broad strokes. Truth is, there’s mo’a than one kind of poa. “Some have longer leaves. Others are shorter. Some are thicker-bladed, and on,” says Ken Nice, director of agronomy at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. “There are hundreds and hundreds of bio-types, and everybody’s poa is a little bit different.”
Why do superintendents abhor it?
Not all of them do. Attitudes toward poa are often regional. In the north and northwest, many superintendents embrace it, or learn to manage it, while plenty of their counterparts in warmer climates stand on guard against it. “We treat it as a weed, and we want it out as fast as possible,” says Matt Guilfoil, superintendent at Desert Canyon Golf Club, in Phoenix. On his course, which is planted to Bermuda, poa is regarded as “unsightly,” its lime-green color clashing with the deeper greens of the dominant turf. What’s more, Guilfoil says, once poa gets a foothold, it takes over quickly. It outcompetes Bermuda in the cooler months, and then, come summer, when the poa dies, it leaves browned and barren patches in its place.
What makes poa so bumpy?
For starters, it doesn’t have to be. Early in its life, Ken Nice says, “poa is coarse and rank and it puts out a lot of seed heads.” The more seed heads, the less smooth the putting surface. Those seed heads also create a silvery sheen on greens, and there aren’t many people who like that look. Here’s the thing, though. Over time, and under regular maintenance practices such as tight mowing and verti-cutting, poa evolves. It produces fewer seeds. It firms up and smooths out, creating surfaces that can be as pure as any. Oakmont’s fabled greens are poa. At Bandon Dunes, three courses with greens that were originally planted to fescue and bentgrass have since transitioned naturally toward poa without any ill effect. In fact, guests surveys show that golfers prefer them now to how they played before.
Does the Tour influence our view of poa?
Without a doubt. Remember the final round of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and Tiger’s epic putt to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate? The greens were poa, and Tiger’s putt knuckled so wildly, it looked more a like a Phil Niekro pitch. Throughout that championship week, a number of top players vented their frustrations about the greens at Torrey: too soft and inconsistent was their gripe. It was another public-relations hit for poa, broadcast on national TV.
It’s true that poa can be problematic. Because poa grows faster than other types of grass, it can lead to bumpy surfaces late in the day. Because it also demands more water than some other strains, it is prone to getting spongy and pocked with footprints. But again, Ken Nice points out, it doesn’t have to be that way. Maintenance is a major factor. So are climate and time of year. Consider the conditions at Pebble Beach when it hosts the AT&T Championship in mid-winter. Then picture how the course plays in the heat of a U.S. Open summer. Same poa greens. Very different putting surfaces.
Anything else you should know-a?
Oceans of ink have been spilled on poa, with doctoral dissertations devoted to the grass. Some researchers argue that poa is woefully misunderstood, that myths surround it, that, among other things, it doesn’t need as much water as people think. But ask your local superintendent, and they’ll likely tell you that poa is about as high-maintenance as grass gets. “There’s no doubt it can produce a very good putting surface,” says Marc Logan, superintendent of Corica Park Golf Course, in Alameda, Calif., one of the best-conditioned munis in the country. “But it also requires a lot more chemical inputs. It’s more susceptible disease. It requires more cultivation, more water. There are reasons I’m not a big fan of it. It simply costs more, on both an economic and an environmental front.”
Why is there no poa at TPC Harding Park?
Poa is prevalent around the West, all the more so the closer to the coast you get. Eventually, it takes over a golf course, unless a superintendent stands in its way. Many course caretakers try combating poa with herbicides and other applications. Others live with it, or tend lovingly to it. One of Ken Nice’s mentors once told him that more superintendents lose their jobs trying to kill poa than they do by simply trying to manage it. Once poa is in, it’s hard to get out.
At TPC Harding Park, site of the PGA Championship last week, the greens were torn up in 2013 and replanted entirely with bentgrass. In the years since, poa hasn’t managed much of an incursion. “Definitely not much poa in those greens, which is a credit to the greenskeeper,” the Tour pro-turned-Golf Channel commentator Arron Oberholser tweeted during Thursday’s opening round. “Can’t remember the last California course that close to the coast that kept the poa out.” He was praising Harding, and poo-pooing poa. Pity golf’s most polarizing grass. It can’t seem to catch a break.