BETHPAGE, N.Y. -- Forget the sand traps and the water hazards. The real battle on Long Island's Bethpage State Park golf course, the site of this year's U.S. Open June 13-16, is making the putting greens free from fungal diseases, cutworms and weevils ---- and safe from the pesticides used to combat them.
Turf scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the Bethpage greenskeepers have been looking for ways to substantially reduce pesticide use on one of the nation's busiest public golf-course complexes.
Using techniques known as integrated pest management, insecticide use was reduced by 50 percent on the Bethpage Green golf course in 2001. Herbicide use was reduced by 33, percent and fungicide use was cut by about 30 percent, according to the first year's (2001) report of a three-year study conducted by Jennifer A. Grant, Cornell pest management specialist, and Frank S. Rossi, Cornell assistant professor of horticulture. Bethpage Green is one of the five courses at the state park. The U.S. Open is being played on Bethpage Black course, considered one of the toughest in the country.
"Because of changes in the laws, we won't have many of the pesticides available to use in the future, so we're trying to invent new ways, new tools to manage the older golf course. We're taking a management systems approach," says Rossi. "Instead of looking for a silver bullet, we're changing the management system."
This research project accords with the late New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses' vision for the Bethpage State Park. "Whether it's holding the U.S. Open or conducting research on the park's Green course, he envisioned Bethpage as the leader on how you should be doing things," says Rossi.
The Bethpage Green course hosts more than 55,000 rounds of golf annually and was an original component of the state park when it opened in the 1930s. The putting greens are constructed of a native loamy soil, which is typical of older courses in the Northeast. Rossi says that conducting research on reducing pesticide use is a challenge on any course, particularly one so busy. "Everybody talks about thinking outside the box. With our project, there is no box. No one has ever tried to do anything like this before," he says. "We've become so reliant on pesticide chemistry that to completely remove it is a formidable challenge."
One of the Green course's toughest putting-green pests is a fungus called dollar spot, which produces small, tan-colored, circular spots in the turf about the size of silver dollars. It is a common, easy-to-control disease when typical pesticides are available.
Without pesticides applied at this early stage, dollar spot has devastated greens in the past. Today, though, greenskeepers remove the morning dew from the greens every day to reduce the fungal infection, Grant says. They also are able to delay the use of fungicides by vigilantly monitoring the turf and only treating when and where necessary. "It's still a challenge," she says.
In another effort to check diseases, velvet bentgrass has been installed on holes 7, 10 and 15 as a test. Typically the grass -- with its velvetlike texture -- is used on more northern or maritime golf courses. It can withstand the close mowing heights required for a good putting surface but is much less susceptible to disease than creeping bentgrass or annual bluegrass, the more popular putting-green grasses in the Northeast.
Organic compost also has been helpful. During the winter, under the instruction of the turf scientists, the greenskeepers covered half the greens with organic compost to halt snow mold development. While preventing the fungus from growing, the compost fed the greens with nitrogen and micronutrients -- possibly making the greens stronger and more able to resist future mold attacks. In February the compost was removed from the greens before the grass started to grow.
Early in the project, the scientists were aware that annual bluegrass weevils were over-wintering in the leaf litter and pine duff on the course. During the spring warm-up, greenskeepers tried using landscapers' large vacuums to remove the weevils as the insects migrated toward the greens. "It's very experimental, but I think it has some potential," says Grant.
The fungus Anthracnose also was problematic at times on the greens, its appearance probably the result of turfgrass weakened by stress. Rather than fight the problem directly with fungicide, an effort was made to reduce the stress by manipulating traffic on the putting surfaces.
The greenskeeping staff changed the hole locations on beleaguered greens, reduced the "clean-up passes" when mowing around the green and sometimes had to set up temporary surfaces to allow the greens to rest.
Extending the battle against Anthracnose and other pests, Rossi and Grant took a radical step: They raised the mowing height on half of the greens from .12 of an inch to .18 of an inch. The longer grass should reduce the stress on root systems, rendering healthier plants. "Letting the bentgrass grow that high is a huge change in the world of golf," says Grant.