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Manilagrass Tees and Divot Problems, Fact or Fallacy?

Yesterday I shared this photo from Takarazuka Golf Club near Osaka. I mentioned that the manilagrass (Zoysia matrella) tee, even though it is on a par 3 hole, and even though the course has been open and busy for the past five months, five months in which the grass has been dormant, we see that the condition of the turf is still quite suitable for golf. And that is after five consecutive months of no growth.

I pointed this out because I know manilagrass can provide a superb playing surface in tropical Southeast Asia, even on tees, but I have often heard objections to the use of manilagrass, especially on tees, because of its supposed slow recovery from divots. I believe that is a fallacy, certainly in tropical Southeast Asia, and I think the situation with manilagrass and tees in Japan can inform us of a great deal on this particular subject. 

After more than four months of dormancy, a tee at Hirono GC near Osaka

Japan has about 2,400 golf courses, of which the tees are overwhelmingly manilagrass, which is called korai (コウライ) in Japan. In a recent survey of grass types on golf courses in Japan, more than 75% had manilagrass tees. So we are looking at about 1,800 golf courses in Japan with manilagrass tees. And the climate is such that the manilagrass will go dormant sometime in November and will start to grow again in April. The dormant period for manilagrass in most parts of Japan will be five to six months.

SnowGolf is a year-round and all-weather sport in Japan. I've written about the ordeals of greenkeepers in removing snow so courses can open, and courses will be open all through the year except in the northern and mountainous regions that have extended snow cover.

The courses are played extensively while the manilagrass is dormant, but the grass survives, the playing surfaces are acceptable, and the divots, which occur month after month through the winter with no recovery at all, do not become a major problem.

A manilagrass tee on a par 3 at Keya GC in late March, photo courtesy of Andrew McDaniel
In fact, there is plenty of turf remaining on the tees, even at the end of winter, and once the weather warms up, and the manilagrass starts to grow, the tees have a full cover of grass with minimal divots. And during the growing season for manilagrass in Japan, there is little concern about divots on manilagrass tees at all. It's just not a major problem. The tees get beat up a bit in the winter, but they don't fail, and they are fine for the rest of the year.

If manilagrass works on over a thousand courses in Japan, and only grows for part of the year, and still produces a fine surface for tees, shouldn't we expect it to work well in a tropical environment, where the temperatures are nearly at an optimum for manilagrass growth 365 days a year?

A fine-bladed manilagrass tee on a busy par 3 hole at Muang Kaew GC in Bangkok; about 72,000 rounds a year are played at this course

When we do look at manilagrass tees in Southeast Asia, we find that the turf is generally just fine. In fact, I would argue that the average manilagrass tee performs better than the average Cynodon tee. And manilagrass can outperform seashore paspalum too.

Seashore paspalum at left is damaged by foot traffic at this busy course near Bangkok, while the manilagrass tee surface at right has much less traffic damage

Research conducted at the University of Arkansas has determined that manilagrass is more resistant to divots than are Cynodon species. In fact, divots from Cynodon species on average were almost 2x larger than were divots taken from manilagrass. So we can expect that there will be fewer (and smaller) divots on manilagrass tees. Another research project at the University of Arkansas found that some cultivars of manilagrass have divot recovery times equal to or faster than some cultivars of hybrid Cynodon. So we can have a situation with manilagrass of smaller divots to begin with combined with a recovery time very similar to Cynodon hybrids.

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