The most urgent job in golf? This water-conservation whiz’s is among them
Matteo Serena has water on the brain.
Thoughts of it fill his waking hours.
Much of what he ponders is complex and esoteric.
But his focus is a matter to which most people can relate, particularly people who play golf.
As senior manager of irrigation research and services, Serena is a point man for the USGA Green Section in its work with a resource the game can’t do without.
Golf’s future hinges on how it handles water. That has always been the case. But never has its truth been more plain.
Grow the game? You can’t have the game at all if you can’t grow grass.
“And without water, there is nothing growing,” Serena said the other day by phone.
The issue is especially apparent in the southwestern United States, where Serena, 40, has been based for much his career, studying turf grass and irrigation in arid environs. But the relevance of water isn’t strictly regional. The shriveling of the Colorado River, among other strains intensified by climate change, is just one glaring example of what the industry is up against around the world.
No entity in golf has been more attuned to this than the USGA. Since the birth of its Green Section, in 1920, the governing body has invested more than $40 million into turf-related research, much of it aimed at reducing water use. These efforts have led to a flood of advances in everything from drought-tolerant grasses to irrigation technologies and techniques. The game has come a long way, but it still has ways to go.
Serena is one of many trying to guide it.
Among other initiatives, the Green Section is working on a comprehensive water-management “playbook,” a one-stop reference for course operators, filled with best-practice recommendations that could help the average course in the West save up to 45 percent on water. The book is a group project in which Serena, who joined the USGA last year, plays a crucial part.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable and personable,” said Matt Pringle, Green Section managing director. “I think of him as a classic lab coat-wearing scientist who is great at collaborating and communicating. He also happens to have conducted a ton of very practical and important research.”
Like a surprise turn in the weather, Serena’s professional path would have been tough to predict. He was born and raised in northern Italy, in a region where meticulously tended turf was rare, and golf courses rarer still. In the small town where Serena grew up, his family’s front yard matched the local aesthetic. A far cry from a yard in the suburban American sense, it was given over to flowers, vegetables and assorted native plants.
Young Matteo picked up a love of gardening from his grandfather. Science-minded, he went on to study plant biology at the University of Padua. In Italy at the time, interest was ramping up in Bermuda grass as a resilient option for parks and sports fields. Drawn to the topic, Serena focused his energies on warm-climate grasses, a pursuit that led to a Masters degree, in Padua, and then on to a doctorate at New Mexico State University.
His research covered wide swaths of terrain, not all of it suited to casual cocktail-party conversation (his Masters thesis was on carbohydrate storage in turf and its relationship to spring greening). But throughout Serena’s academic explorations, whether he was looking at the impact of surfactants on irrigation requirements or the power of pigments to slow evaporation rates, the overarching question was pressing and pragmatic: how to use less water while growing healthy grass.
From New Mexico State, Serena moved on to a research post at the University of California Riverside, which is where, in 2022, he was snatched up by the USGA.
Said the USGA’s Pringle, “We couldn’t have found a better a fit.”
In his new role, Serena has remained in Southern California, where his indoor-outdoor duties stretch from data-intensive laboratory studies to field work in sod farms, and beyond.
On the matter of water-use and turf, the USGA is a near-bottomless reservoir of information.
But, Serena said, “a lot of that information is scattered.”
The purpose of the playbook he and his colleagues are busy producing is to gather that information in one place, in a readily digestible form. The intent is not to dictate how courses operate. Rather, it’s to offer practical guidance, rooted in the latest science.
The playbook will be broken into nine “buckets,” or categories, identified by the USGA as areas where water-savings can be found. One of these is cutting back on irrigated turf, because, as Serena put it dryly, “the less grass you have to water, the less water you have to use.”
You also use less water if you water more precisely. That’s another bucket: targeted irrigation, powered by technology like sub-surface irrigation, which directs carefully calibrated amounts of water straight into the root zones. Widely used in commercial agriculture, these sub-surface systems have been adopted by some golf courses, too, but mostly in small areas like tees and bunker faces. Why not extend their benefits to entire fairways? The USGA is exploring how to do that with minimal disruptions and at manageable costs.
Yet another bucket underpins the rest: golfer education. Long gone are the days when the industry preached an eco-conscious message centered on the notion that “brown is the new green.” It was a nice idea, but it didn’t fly, in part because it put course operators in a corner, urging them to keep their grounds in condition that many of their customers didn’t like.
“We’re not talking about color anymore — whether the grass should be yellow or brown or something else,” Serena said. “That’s not where the focus should be. The message now is about playability and performance.”
As for his own on-course performance, Serena was a relative latecomer to the game, but, he said, “I’ve learned it well enough not to completely embarrass myself.”
In his spare time, he pursues other hobbies, including cooking and mountain biking. He has a modest repertoire of card and magic tricks. He also enjoy board games of all kinds, to the point where he has considered designing his own. The theme would be turf maintenance and water conservation.
“But I haven’t had a chance to do anything with the idea,” Serena said.
He has weightier puzzles to solve first.