We don't have a golf course yet. We have a botanical garden. We have a lush, closely mowed meadow transversed by ranks of tall pines and moss-draped oaks. We have a man-made cypress head in a pocket wetland. We have Confederate jasmine clinging to boundary walls and bulrushes poking from a pond. We have men on machines spreading fertilizer, men using hand tools to edge walks and men bending over to pull the occasional weed.
Here I am, one morning in early October, standing on the aromatic throw rug that is the 1st tee of the University of Florida Golf Course, glancing down and beholding...divots. Four little eyesores, four patches of yellow sand. Each divot is square and flat—the calling card of an accomplished wedge player.
Later, I casually ask course superintendent Mark Birdsell if anybody has hit shots in advance of the opening, which is still six weeks off. "They weren't supposed to," he says, "but they have hit a few balls off the 1st and 10th tees, to see how the holes play." His eyes shift to the upper floor of the clubhouse, where the golf coaches hang out. "You're looking out your office window, there's this beautiful green hole. I understand the temptation."
Birdsell's forbearance is impressive because he's in charge of the growing-in, that all-too-brief period from the time a course's grass is planted until it's dug up again by John Q. Duffer. In a perfect world Birdsell would have six months or more to nurse his darling sprigs and plugs to robust health. Instead he has only until Nov. 17 to ready the front nine for an eight-player skins game. The entire course must be ready by Nov. 30, when about 72 golfers will tee it up on Gator Golf Day. "Prayer and luck," he says, looking at the sky. "You need both to be successful."
To the average homeowner who struggles to keep his lawn green and weed-free, the skills needed to cultivate 60 acres of turfgrass seem to border on sorcery. In reality, succeeding at such an endeavor is more a feat of advanced agronomy. (Weed Golf Course Design senior associate Scot Sherman, asked how the homeowner can match the results of a course maintenance crew, says, "You start with a five-ton roller....") The professional greenkeeper, like the engineer, relies on data. "We took soil samples back when the dirt was first moved," Birdsell says, "and we keep taking samples. We know if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. We know if we need to apply sulphur or dolomitic lime."
Certain areas of the Florida course were excavated or filled during construction, so Birdsell uses highlighter pens and a course routing to record soil anomalies. "You might have a great pH where we used existing soil," he says, "but the other side of the same fairway might have dirt that was six feet down, dirt that had no nutrients at all."
The first dose of fertilizer and soil amendments was applied with a tractor-pulled broadcast spreader when the fairways were bare dirt. The contractor then worked the mix into the soil with a light drag and planted with TifSport bermuda grass plugs. "It's critical that you keep the soil damp," says Birdsell. "We irrigate from one to eight times a day for probably a month."
A week after planting, Birdsell's crew applied nitrogen, in the form of ammonium sulfate, to force growth. (The fertilizer bags are marked 21-0-0, the numbers indicating how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are in the mix.) Since then the crew has applied fertilizer every week to 10 days, alternating between the nitrogen mix and a more complete 12-4-12 formula. The crew doesn't spread much phosphorus "because we are irrigating with effluent water, which is already high in phosphorus," says Birdsell.
It's a cushy life for the young grass, lying around and being fed all the time—until a tractor rolls over it pulling a six-foot drum studded with six-inch knives. This relatively mild form of aeration, called slicing, relieves compaction and permits vital air and water to get into the soil without disturbing the root system. The next stage, perversely, has one of Birdsell's men crushing the grass with that five-ton roller. The roller presses the wrinkles out of the fairway but dramatically increases compaction, making another run with the sheer necessary...and so on, in a cycle of cut and paste. In addition, the grass must withstand frequent mowing, which discourages upward growth and promotes the lateral growth needed to fill in the bare spots between plugs.