Zoysia … oh, boy-a! Why the grass at Bellerive — yes, the grass — is the unheralded star of the show

August 12, 2018

ST. LOUIS — This story, about grass, will likely be the most important story you will read on this golfcentric website — nay, any golfcentric website — this week. Also the most boring. No, that’s too strong. Let’s call it, in web parlance, the least clicky. The grass in question here is the tees-and-fairways playing surface at Bellerive. Also the first cut of rough. Please do not stop reading. We know you want to. But your golfing future is at stake here.

As the high priests play in this 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club, here in the Show Me state, they are traversing beautiful magic-carpet fairways woven with a grass you don’t see often, called zoysia. Zoysia is a thick-bladed, hearty grass that stands straight up, even after a drenching rain, as we had here late Friday afternoon. The ball nearly always sits right on top of the grass, begging to be hit, like the new mats at your better driving ranges.

Rees Jones, the architect of record here, reworking his father’s course, loves the surface, as a course designer and as a golfer. Playing a ball off a zoysia fairway, cut here to a half-inch, is almost like playing off a tee. “The hybrid off zoysia — it’s easy as pie,” Jones said the other day.

The USGA is in the grass business, not to make money — the USGA is like a university; it doesn’t “make” money — but to make the game better. Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, echoes what Jones says: “It’s a very golfer-friendly grass that allows the average player to get the club under the ball.”

But here’s the best part: Zoysia requires far less water than some other common golf-course grasses, including bent, rye, poa annua and fescue. There’s a range of opinion on how much water it saves but a conservative estimate is that zoysia grass requires, on a per-acre basis, not even one-third the water than its thirstier cousins. Unchecked, the obscene amount of water we use on our American courses could cause widespread revolt against the game.

Davis and the USGA have been trying to generate interest in water conservation as the most pressing issue facing American golf. The USGA does so much more than run the U.S. Open, but getting those stories out is an uphill battle and has been for about 130 years now. People come to golf to escape various issues of modern life, and water conservation in golf is not one of the game’s most accessible subjects. But, depending on where you live and play, zoysia grass could save your course and your golfing life.

Zoysia grass is lush and lovely, providing a perfect lie most all the time.
Zoysia grass is lush and lovely, providing a perfect lie most all the time.

I have an interest in this grass because the course I play most, a nine-hole course in Philadelphia with 19th-century bones called St. Martins, converted its fairways to zoysia several years ago and the course came alive. It’s a spectacular playing surface, even when it goes brown and dormant in winter. In spring and summer, it finds its full color slowly, over weeks and months, and serves as a visual, and visceral, reminder that the game, at its starting point, is a glorified nature walk.

But the most pleasing thing about the zoysia fairways at St. Martins is that, as far as I know, they have not been watered by sprinkler once all year. The fairways are a beautiful, inviting shade of green, easy underfoot, and they reward a cleanly-struck shot more than any surface I have ever played.

I was (gently) mocked for asking Rickie Fowler a zoysia question after his Thursday 65 press-tent visit. I acknowledge that the question sounded like a rally killer, a term of sportswriting to describe a question that drains life from a formerly lively interview session. But in the name of expanding interest in this great grass, I consider that passing humiliation as having no earthly significance. Anyway, Fowler, golfing sophisticate that he is, understood the question and its importance.

“We don’t see it much, but I’m definitely enjoying it,” he said. “I may have more rounds than most on it. Our home course at Oklahoma State was zoysia and was always kind of on the softer side. We get similar weather here. So it’s fun to be back on zoysia. I definitely feel comfortable here this week.” Fowler knows that zoysia is the camel of grasses, storing reserves of water in its blades.

On Friday afternoon, after his snappy 66 put him at the top of the leaderboard, Gary Woodland brought up zoysia grass unprompted. That was exciting, for z-fans far and wide. He said, “It looked like the fairways were cut down a little bit lower. That poses a little different challenge. You get those in-the-grain shots in zoysia and it comes out really spinny. So that’s just another element.” It is a thousand subtle elements that separate an ordinary course from an exquisite one.

It’s been an interesting thing, for the players and the fans, to see the night-and-day differences between Carnoustie, the legendary Scottish course where the Open was played last month, and Bellerive, which last hosted the PGA Championship in 1992, won by Nick Price. Except that both courses had 18 holes, they are otherwise almost without similarities. One of the most interesting things at Carnoustie was hearing Tiger Woods speak of his abiding love of links golf, because of the variety of shots it allows, because it emphasizes creative and reliable use of a golfer’s irons, more than the putter and more than the driver. In the United States, he noted, golf is point-to-point. The difference in in-the-air golf and on-the-ground golf begins with grass seed.

But don’t blame zoysia for any of that. The United States, in its vast greatness, has every type of course known to mankind. You could not have Carnoustie-style golf anywhere near the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It’s far too humid, the summers are far too hot and the winters too cold. The seaside grasses of the British Isles — or even Pebble Beach or coastal New England — wouldn’t last three months anywhere in Missouri, in Arkansas, in southern Indiana, in Fowler’s Oklahoma, in Georgia, home of East Lake, one of the few Tour courses with zoysia fairways.

Dustin Johnson hits a shot at the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive.
Dustin Johnson hits a shot at the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive.

A necessary starting point for course construction is to create something that the local environment can sustain. Courses throughout vast swaths of the Midwest and the South can use zoysia grass beautifully and effectively. Courses in Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., too. But in the 1950s and ‘60s, when hundreds of courses were built in those broad regions, zoysia grass was seldom used as a golf-course grass.

The reason you’re not seeing more courses convert to zoysia fairways is because of the expense to do so. Long term, in terms of lower water, chemical and fertilizer expenses, it is estimated that course owners would need five years to recoup their initial investment.

As best I can ascertain, the only zoysia course in New England, New York or Pennsylvania is on the St. Martins nine-holer, part of the Philadelphia Cricket Club. The conversion there was the brainchild of Dan Meersman, the club’s superintendent. He was driving in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, where there is one row home after another. “I knew these were not the kinds of homeowners who are going to have professional landscapers — they’re going to do it themselves,” Meersman said recently. “The lawns were beautiful and when I looked at the grass it was zoysia.”

A lightbulb went off. The experiment has been a smashing success, as a playing surface, as a long-term money saver, as a conservation movement. The old thinking was that Philadelphia’s climate did not lend itself to zoysia fairways. The St. Martins experiment has shown that that’s not true. There is the potential for thousands of other courses to follow suit.

As for the zoysia fairways at Bellerive, they seem to be doing an outstanding job of identifying the game’s best players, with Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott, Jon Rahm, Tiger Woods, Jason Day and Justin Thomas all (to varying degrees) contending. That’s not a coincidence. Zoysia fairways will give you perfect lies, time after time, more so than any other surface, at least that I’ve played.

“When everybody is playing from perfect lies, superior ball-striking becomes even more valued,” Jones said. If tournaments were 90 holes instead of 72, Woods would almost surely have more than 79 wins — he would have had more opportunity to show his superiority. If you apply that thinking to the play from the fairways here, you reach the same conclusion. The best iron players are getting most rewarded for their fairway shots. There are many strange subtleties in this game, things that defy statistical analysis. Zoysia grass as a playing surface is among them.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com