"We're looking for the Catfish House on the right, says Scot Sherman, senior associate for Weed Golf Course Design, as he leans forward in his seat and peers through the windshield of the Florida golf team's van. He sees pine trees, Georgia blacktop and flat green fields. "Those are pivots," he says, pointing out the big irrigation booms that snake across the fields.
"Catfish House," says Scott Hampton, spotting the backwoods restaurant. Hampton, director of golf at the University of Florida Golf Course, is driving cautiously, aware that he is in Bulldogs country. (Or maybe he doesn't want the half-empty box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts to slide around on the floor.) "You take the first paved road on the left," says Sherman. "Go approximately 1� miles. The farm is on the right."
The farm is Pike Creek Turf, Inc., of Adel, Ga., which bills itself as Producers of Quality Turf Grasses. Somewhere on its 8,000 acres are the hybrid bermuda grasses that will cloak the renovated Florida course later this summer. "We're going to meet the owner, Jimmy Allen," says Sherman, already breaking into a smile. "Real good salesman."
A few minutes later Hampton parks the van in front of a white frame building that resembles a tourist information center. There is a U.S. flag on a tall pole and a small front lawn, mowed like a putting green. "What's our purchase order from these guys?" asks assistant athletic director Chip Howard. Sherman bends over and touches the grass. "Couple hundred thousand dollars."
Inside, we are entertained for a few minutes by the farm's operations manager, Al Kent. Then Jimmy Allen appears in the doorway, a trim, white-haired man in polyester slacks, golf shirt and shiny loafers. Smiling broadly, Allen apologizes for keeping us waiting. "I thought you'd all come draggin' in like an ol' bulldog. I didn't know you'd come in here like a snappin' gator!"
At Allen's suggestion we pile back into the van, and Kent takes the wheel for a tour of the farm. Allen begins by emphasizing that his turfgrasses are certified by the state of Georgia and that his fields have been fumigated to guarantee varietal purity and no weeds. "This field here is fumigated-certified 419," he says, using shorthand for Tifway 419, one of a series of popular turfgrasses developed at the University of Georgia's renowned Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton. "This is fumigated Centipede"—we're passing another field—"and over here we've got fumigated-certified TifEagle...."
Everything is fumigated-certified, Allen says, because he could be sued for selling contaminated sod, "and I don't want to lose sleep worrying about it." To further guarantee the integrity of his strains, he farms with dedicated equipment. A tractor that has been used in a TifSport field, for instance, is not allowed to be driven onto a TifEagle field, lest the grasses be mixed by the tires. "We're not going to sell you a problem. That's our sales spiel."
Before he grew grass for people named Weed, Allen was a struggling mini-tour golfer and then the founder of an accounting firm in Tifton. He says he'll never forget the day in the mid-'80s when his son, Jaimie, stunned the family by announcing that he wanted to farm. "I said, 'Son, if I lowered my head on the desk and cried for a couple of hours, could I change your mind?' " Instead, Jimmy, who already owned some small farms around Adel, converted them from row crops to grass. Today the Aliens (daughter Kim Allen Boling is also a co-owner) operate a farm with 66 pivot-irrigation systems and more than 30 deep wells.
We pile out of the van at Allen's command and walk into a field of Tifdwarf, the grass that the Florida course will put on its greens. Allen picks up a leftover piece of sod the size of a doormat and a mere inch thick. "We call this Frisbee sod," he says, giving the slab a backhanded spin. The sod flies and lands a few yards away, undamaged. "You can't do that with ordinary sod." He picks up the slab of turf and turns it over, revealing a root network as dense as a brush cut on a porcupine. "Our sod is not lopsided," he adds. Sherman was right. Jimmy Allen is a real good salesman.
As it happens, Florida is not buying Tifdwarf sod, but Tifdwarf sprigs (grass stems containing both roots and blades). Bermuda grass hybrids, unlike some other varieties of turfgrass do not propagate by seed but by spreading along the ground like tiny vines. Sprigs are harvested when they are about 2� inches tall and are sold by the bushel for immediate transplantation. (They are typically spread over prepared soil and rolled in with a cleated roller.)