Fine Greens

The quality of greens is usually ranked highest in importance by golfers when judging their enjoyment of a course.

david greenshields, barenbrug, fine grasses

Barenbrug’s Dr David Greenshields

To help golfers have more fun FineGolf has invited Dr David Greenshields, an expert with Barenbrug, one of the world’s leading breeders of new grass cultivars and suppliers to a high proportion of Great Britain & Ireland’s (GB&I) finest ‘running game’ courses, to write a series of articles to enhance our understanding of greens performance:- 

David asks “How would you respond to the enquiry? “What type of golf greens do you prefer to play on?” It seems a relatively straightforward question, which would frequently elicit responses such as “fast”, “smooth”, “true” or “receptive”.

I imagine as a reader of FineGolf you will have a clear picture in your head of what a good green should look like and how it should perform, and I am sure you will be able to list a number of courses that have matched your expectations on any given day. Describing that putting surface is perhaps a trickier task; what are the qualities that distinguish great golf greens from average ones? 

Allow me to ask a slightly different opening question; “What species of grass make up the golf greens that you prefer to play on?” Unless you have an interest in botany or greenkeeping this question may prove a real stumbling block. Many golfers reading this may never even have considered the concept of different grass species before, let alone wondered if they influence the great game they love.

Well, here’s some news – they do. And dramatically so… 

fescue browntop bent turf grass

100% fescue turf

In fact, the answer to my last question is a major factor in determining almost every characteristic you may consider important in the greens you love – speed, trueness, firmness, colour, texture, consistency throughout the year, to name but a few. 

Interestingly, the grass species in the greens will also dictate how they are maintained by the greenkeeping staff – frequency and height of cut, type of aeration, topdressing, fertiliser application, fungicide and water usage. 

Given the influence that grass species have on golf greens, it would seem logical to assume that most golf greens are made up of the most useful or desirable species. Unfortunately, the reality could scarcely be further from the truth. 

Grass species within three genera make up the vast majority of golf greens in the UK –

1) Agrostis (bentgrasses),

2) Festuca (fescues, specifically the red fescue sub-species)

3) Poa (meadowgrasses, almost exclusively the species called annual meadowgrass or Poa annua).


fescue browntop bent turf grass

80% fescue 20% browntop bent turf

Despite most agronomists and turfgrass professionals generally agreeing that the optimum combination of grasses for golf greens in the mild climate of the GB&I would be a blend of fescue and bent.

(for some compelling evidence to support this statement, CLICK HERE to read the summary report on a major research trial funded by Barenbrug and conducted by the STRI).

The stark reality is that an overwhelmingly high proportion of golf in GB&I is still played on annual meadowgrass greens (Poa annua) today. 

Annual meadowgrass! The grass that is shallow-rooted, susceptible to disease, demanding of costly water, fertilizer and fungicides, produces seed-heads (that are bumpy and slows the speed of putt), and by definition is annual – in many cases it is incapable of persisting long enough to provide year-round, playable surfaces! 

fescue browntop bent poa annua

80% Poa annua 20% browntop bent

The reasons as to why this is the case, why golfers up and down the country are spending vast amounts of time and money putting on precisely the WRONG type of grass, are numerous and varied, and a detailed description of each and every one is beyond the scope of this article. In most cases however, a combination of the following contributory factors persists: 

Drainage – both sub-surface and in the upper layer of rootzone. Bentgrasses and particularly fescues do not thrive in wet areas, where the shallow-rooted annual meadowgrass hold a competitive advantage. This is the main reason why these fine (non meadow) grasses flourish on naturally draining links, heathland, and some downland and moorland courses, and in turn why some of these courses have superb greens all year-round.

Excessive use of water and fertiliser – often this is an historical issue, with an unfortunate trend towards lush, green and soft putting surfaces dating from the 1960s onwards. Water and fertiliser favour annual meadowgrass (Poa annua) domination which, as most modern greenkeepers know, is a medium to long-term process to reverse.

Environmental factors – there are several of these, although trees represent a major one. Trees and good turf simply do not mix – shade, fallen leaves and large roots all contribute to the demise of the better grass species and annual meadowgrass colonises greens as a result. Trees also reduce the impact of helpful drying winds blowing across greens.

These factors are far from insurmountable, and in most cases a golf course could easily put in place a working plan to improve their golf greens in terms of the grass species they contain. In doing this, in the mid to long-term their greens would be better for longer and offer improved year-round playing conditions with the benefit of incurring less cost to maintain, with particular savings to be made on fungicide and fertiliser costs, which are a major element of any greenkeeping budget and their reduced use has the advantage of being environmentally favourable. 

Unfortunately, the damning truth of this grave matter is that the predominant reason why golfers are suffering is the very golfers themselves. In particular, greens committees that do not possess the knowledge, foresight or willingness to allow and support their course manager or head greenkeeper to implement and deliver such a working plan for the good of the clubs they serve. 

In my next article, I will look more closely at how and why the grass species on golf greens can be changed for the better, and how advances in grass breeding can help in this process. 

In the meantime, enjoy your late winter/early spring golf. If you are putting on fantastic greens at this time of the year, you are in the lucky minority of golfers in the UK. 

David Greenshields, a single figure handicap golfer, is research & development manager for Barenbrug, a company that has been leading the world in grass technology since 1904.

He can be contacted for advice via or 01359 272000 and mention FineGolf


Reader Comments

On June 29th, 2014 Peter Newman said:

Could The R and A and EGU/SGU/WGU perhaps be persuaded to establish some kind of ‘register’, populated by periodic external inspection as to the balance of grass species making up the greens at each course in the country. Then members and visitors, would have some proper yardstick with which to monitor and assess the likely characteristics and playabiltiy of each course? Currently any club or review website description of greens is always subjective and not grounded in actual information about the grass species.

Peter, The unique exception to your statement is of course
I would add that openness with regard to the grass species at a club and more training in the identification of grasses so there is more transparency around this issue would be a move forward. Check this out
One of the problems is that a greenkeeper can ruin a sward very quickly by for example fertilising unnecessarily, stressing the fine grasses and losing grass cover, where annual meadow grass (Poa annua) invades quickly. So a grasses review needs to be kept up to date and that is difficult. yours, Lorne

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