A WORK IN PROGRESS
An article by Anne Morris
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ERIC JOHNSON.
Superintendent experiments with a young golf course.
Eric Johnson believes that getting the soil into good shape can make a huge difference in how well golf course turf grows and how much, or how little, water it requires. Located in an area where drought is common, saving water is a mark of success.
Johnson is superintendent at the Jerry S. Rawls Golf Course, a 270-acre public course run by Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas (www.texastechgolf.ttu.edu).
“We’ve only been open for four years,” Johnson said, “and we’re probably one of the worst areas to grow turf, because we’re in a transition zone where we always have windy days. We have real bad water quality issues.” He says that the well water they use is high in sodium, high in sulfurs and high in chlorides. “If you were to graph it, we’d be on the very extreme side, with water quality in the worst condition,” Johnson said.
Still, he says that the course has been a success, with 36,000 rounds of golf played there a year, and it has been honored numerous times by magazines and newspapers.
Cotton was grown for more than 50 years on the flat farm property that Rawls is built on. Johnson, who has been involved practically from the beginning of the course, said that he “pretty much used the approach that fixing the soil would help the plant grow.” He set a goal to correct the soil to maximize its potential to work for him.
For Johnson, fixing the soil meant getting organic matter into it and trying to get more activity into the soil. To accomplish this, he uses fish fertilizers. “You know, humates—everything like that—sugars. We put that in our fertigation; we put it out,” Johnson says. Mainly, he uses calcium, compost tea and liquid fish fertilizer.
The result has been that over the past five years, he has used less fertilizer, as well as less water than would usually be necessary for a golf course of this size.
“The designer of the irrigation for this course also did the country club that was less than 10 miles from here,” Johnson said. “He found out that we used almost a quarter of a million less gallons per day than the golf courses 10 miles down [the road], yet we have over 120 acres more than they do.” (Both of the other courses have 150 acres under irrigation.) The Rawls course has the reputation of having the most irrigated acres of any golf course in the state.
A Tom Doak design, the Rawls course is undulating, and a challenge to play. “It’s not your regular type of course,” Johnson said. “Most golf courses around here are just flat.”
Johnson first became a proponent of a largely organic approach while working on golf courses in California. He brought that approach with him when he took the job of superintendent at Texas Tech University, his alma mater.
He admits that at Rawls the approach is not 100 percent organic. “We do use calcium nitrate, which is a synthetically processed fertilizer,” Johnson said, “and we have a maintenance blend, which sometimes will be a synthetic fertilizer. But, on the fairways, 80 percent of the fertilizer applied is organic. On the greens, it would probably be 80 to 90 percent organic,” he said. “We’ve had to use an herbicide out in the deep rough for weeds. And for fire ants, we used an ant bait, but as far as anything else, that’s it.”
Owen Regan, the golf course distributor for Organic Gem fish fertilizer, appreciates the superintendent’s measured approach. “Eric is in tune with a sustainable and environmentally friendly golf course,” Regan said. “He thinks out of the box, and his systems work well. His golf course is in great shape.”
Johnson makes sure to always keep data on what is used on the course, and what the results have been.
“We have a 270-acre course, and our pesticide application for this last fiscal year—total line item budget—was only $2,500,” Johnson said. Last year, they came in 13 percent under budget, with overall expenditures around $896,000.
Johnson has been working on golf courses since 1985. He grew up at Lewisville/Flower Mound, outside Dallas. “I had 10 years of experience in the field when I went back to college for my four-year degree, a bachelor of science in turf, in 1998.” That same year, he went to California where he worked first at Twelve Bridges Golf Club in Sacramento, and then at The Ridge, a course in Auburn, Calif., designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. “I learned under those superintendents,” Johnson said. He sought additional answers from books such as “Hands-On Agronomy,” by Neal Kinsey.
The crew at the Jerry S. Rawls Golf Course, left to right, Sean Gray, Jarrod Bell, Cody Creebon, Wade Bagley, Mike Martinez, Clint Cenchan, Eric Salines, Antonnio Torres, Shannon Harris, Kenneth Boyce, Scott Nix, Chris Hernandez, Eric Eniquiz, Alex Llamas and Eric Johnson. In the front row, Rusty Johnson, a Brittany spaniel.
What they were doing in California was not what he had learned in school. “I had to completely relearn growing grass,” he said, “looking at the soil first, then going from there, working up to the plant.”
Johnson would be the first to tell you that it’s not always an easy process to take such an approach. “From day one, we were battling uphill,” he said.
“At the beginning, the cost might seem high, mainly because you’re trying to fix something that’s completely broke, but towards the second or third year, you’re saving money.”
The first thing he did at the Rawls course was something that “put everybody in a tailspin,” he said. He put lime on alkaline soil to increase the calcium numbers.
“You’re taught not to put lime on alkaline soil,” he said, “but you’ve got to look at all the factors. When we added lime, we lowered the pH in about 40 percent of the tests we did. In another 40 percent, the pH stayed the same, and there was another 10 percent where the pH actually went up one point.” The lime helped address salt issues, such as magnesium, sodium and bicarbonates.
The bottom trap on the eighth hole is about a 30 to 35-foot drop from the green to the bottom bunker.
This approach is based on the notion that you have to manage all four groups of matter of which the optimal soil is made up: water, 25 percent; air, 25 percent; mineral, 45 percent; and organic matter, 5 percent. You manage the water through appropriate irrigation, aeration and compaction of soil; the nutrient component by maintaining a mineral balance—calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and other micronutrients and salts; the organic or “living” part of soil by microbiology and adding organic matter.
“In the winter, we add organic matter: composted cow manure and cotton burrs,” Johnson said. “We take our tests and see how the data is coming out, [and] then visually see what’s happening during the summer. In summer, it’s full throttle—let’s do it.” Johnson sees the Rawls course as a work in progress. “I’m always experimenting, always tinkering,” he said. “I’m still learning.”
Anne Morris, a freelance contributor, lives in Austin, Texas.