TifSport Bermudagrass is Gaining Ground
by Sam Williams

TifSport, or Tift 94, was developed by USDA/ARA geneticist Dr. Wayne Hanna and his research group at the University of Georgia Coastal Plains Experiment Station in Tifton, Georgia. This is the same breeding program initiated by Dr. Glen Burton, the program responsible for Tifgreen, Tifdwarf and TifEagle and for Tifway 419, the longtime standard for fairways, sports fields and home lawns.

As Dr. Hanna puts it, "We identified a number of characteristics that we felt were key for athletic fields and golf courses, as well as for high -end landscapes and lawns. We wanted a grass with superior color, cold hardiness and disease resistance. We also knew that rapid recovery from injury was vital, so we concentrated on turf density, turf strength and turf quality. And last but not least, our new variety had to be able to tolerate frequent, lower mowing heights.''

New varieties aren't developed overnight. Before its release in the spring of 1998, Dr. Hanna put TifSport to the test in thirteen experiments at seven locations. TifSport performed to the standards it was bred for: excellent cold tolerance, color, texture and density; improved pest tolerance; earlier spring green-up; and aggressive establishment. After sixteen years of research and evaluation, Dr. Hanna and his crew were ready to introduce their new variety.

Strict Controls Ensure Purity

Mindful of the purity problems that had begun to surface with Tifway, Dr. Hanna and Dr. Earl Elsner, director of the Georgia Seed Development Commission put their heads together to develop a set of safeguards for TifSport They came up with a very simple but effective plan: control the source, control propagation, control the sale.

1n addition to being protected by a USDA patent, TifSport can only be grown and sold as genetically certified sod or sprigs, and only by licensed members of the Tift 94 Growers Association--a select group of 24 certified sod producers who have agreed to adhere to the strict management standards set by the Georgia

Seed Development Commission. Elsner sums it up: "Is our program picky? Sure. But folks who install TifSport on their fields or fairways today can count on a match when they by TifSport five or ten years down the road.

So I think our customers are going to really appreciate picky."

Early Users

Early adopters of the new variety confirmed that prediction in interviews with a GSDC representative in August 1999. Joe Kennedy, of the famous "Little Course" at Aspen Grove; Terry Porch, head grounds keeper at Adelphia Coliseum; Bill Randles, Sports Turf Manager at Vanderbilt University, and Rod Lingle, course superintendent at the Memphis Country Club, reported their experiences with TifSport in "real life" applications.

The Little Course at Aspen Grove

The Little Course at Aspen Grove was created by renowned golf course architect Bob Cupp as a kind of living laboratory where turfgrass can be researched and studied under actual playing conditions. Currently there are about 80 different grass varieties that have been seeded, sprigged, or sodded on its fairways, greens, tees and roughs. TifSport debuted there as one of Dr. Hanna's experiments.

Joe Kennedy, who oversees, The Little Course, is also Director of Golf Maintenance at the Legends Golf Club in Tennessee. "I’ve been looking at TifSport and Tifway 419 side-by-side on Aspen Grove number six fairway going can five years now,"' Kennedy reported. "TifSport not only has a much darker green color than the Tifway, it stays green longer, a good 2 weeks longer, and it greens up much earlier in the spring. It 's got a lot better density, too, so the ball sits up higher. Our players tell me they're getting better lies with TifSport."

Kennedy also gives TifSport high marks for cold hardiness. "That's the number one reason why I think TifSport is going to replace Tifway in the Nashville area. We've had two consecutive winter kills on our 419, and it didn't even faze the TifSport."

Titans Import Sod from Texas

Kennedy spent the better part of 1999 on loan to the Tennessee Titans as a consultant, so he accompanied GSDC's interviewer to Adelphia Coliseum to introduce Terry Porch, the young man responsible for taking care of both the new field there and the three practice fields at the Titans' training compound. Porch got into the groundskeeping business back in 1981 in Kansas City. He worked for George Toma on the Chiefs' and Royals'

fields. "They had artificial turf back then," he laughed, "but I knew that Toma could teach me everything I needed to know about grass. George has done every single Super Bowl.

"As head groundskeeper, my job is to maintain this grass. Anything, to do with the game field is my responsibility. All of the irrigation, the fertilization, the mowing, pre-game activities, concerts. I have to look out for the best interests of the grass, because, come Sunday, you want to make sure people are seeing the best possible product you can give them."

Joe fielded a question about how the Titans decided on TifSport, because he was involved from the outset. "At first we looked at zoysia, but soon decided on Bermuda. In fact, the field was originally scheduled for 419. That's when I asked if they would consider a different Bermuda variety if I could show them a better grass. I wrote a letter outlining my reasons. We ran the TifSport idea by George and Chip Toma and several other NFL veterans, and they all concurred that TifSport was the up and corning grass for sports fields. I've got to say that I think it was a pretty gutsy move on the Titans' part to be the first NFL team with TifSport But I also think is was a very smart move."

Sod vs. Sprigs

Construction began in mid-February. They moved in the dirt, began taking it down to grade, installed the drainage and irrigation systems, and finished up with 4 inches of pea gravel and l2 inches of a sand-peat-moss mix. According to Porch, the soil conditions in south Texas were the best match for Adelphia's sand-based field.

"About the first of May, no more than a couple of days after the field was finished, we started installing the sod," Porch said. "We brought it in on refrigerated trucks from Thomas Brothers in San Antonio, a 22-hour trip. One hundred and five thousand square feet of TifSport!

"S.W. Franks was the contractor. I think they applied about a quarter pound of nitrogen per week during grow-in. Everything else was based on soil tests and tissue analysis. They also specified the sand, which included a preplant fertilizer and a typical micronutrient package for this area. When we took the field, we basically continued weekly soil and tissue tests, and, for the most part, we fertilize accordingly.

"During this dry spell, we've been watering the field every morning for about 15 minutes," Porch explained. "It's holding its color very well. We're also mowing daily to maintain the half-inch height Coach Fisher wants for Monday night's game. That'll change depending on who we play, but mowing down is certainly a lot easier than going up."

The Vanderbilt Conversion

Bill Randles graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in ornamental horticulture and landscape design. He signed on with Vanderbilt University fourteen years ago as a turf specialist to manage their sand-based intramural fields. Now he's in charge of grounds care for the entire university.

"'Artificial turf was installed here at Dudley Stadium in 1984. When we decided to put in real grass again last winter, I knew it was going to be Bermuda, probably Tifway 419, which we already had on our practice fields. But then I started reading and hearing a lot about a new variety, Tift 94. It's now called TifSport. I talked at length to Wayne Hanna and UGA turf specialist Gil Landry, and I was impressed with the research behind TifSport. Fortunately, Joe Kennedy had a test plot in one of his fairways up at The Little Course at the Legends. That’s where I first saw TifSport. I just fell in love with the color. It was planted right beside Tifway, and it was a much darker green. I'm from Kentucky and it almost looked like Kentucky bluegrass to me. This was in October, so I was extremely impressed with the quality of the grass, too.

"In January of 1999," Randles continued, "our artificial turf was ripped up. Up also came four inches of asphalt base. We then re-worked our sub grade to an 8-inch crown, put in drainage ditches on twenty foam centers utilizing a herringbone design, and topped off our sub-grade with 3-inches of pre-washed pea gravel. This field is designed to perc at 20 inches an hour."

In fact, the entire field was rebuilt to USGA golf green specifications.

"Next carne a l0-inch mix of 95 percent sand and 5 percent peat moss," Randles said. "We brought in over 9 million pounds of sand. We also tilled polyethylene Sport Grid strips into the top four inches of sand. John Hubbs of Stabilizer, Inc. handled this for us. Sport Grids are a shorter version of turf grids, but are easier to manage and do a better job of stabilizing the sand and grass.

"We sprigged in the TifSport on May 13 at the rate of 2,000 bushels per acre, which is on the high side. I told the crew I wanted this field green when they drove off of it, and I swear, it almost was! We row planted and broadcast all of the sprigs in the same direction, rolled the field with a standard paving roller, and then turned on the irrigation."

Bill's irrigation system is also unique. "We decided to go with water cannons versus an underground system. We didn't want any problems with broken pipes or leaks stopping play. 'These are Nelson Water Cannons -

Number 100s. They put out 100 PSI at the nozzle and can deliver up to 200 gallons a minute."

As for fertility, "The day before we sprigged we incorporated in one pound of 46-0-0 per 1,000 square feet. It was Agricoturf II by Lange Fertilizer Company. Right now we're fertilizing twice a week with a granular 12-12-24 and a seaweed based 28-5-20 liquid called Panacea, which helps promote root development."

Randles likes TifSport's density and sod strength. "TifSport is very, very dense, which we feel will help our players' footing a lot. Our guys wear half -inch cleats, the max, allowed by the NCAA. We started out mowing at 3/4 of an inch, increased that to one inch, and are now at an inch and a quarter, the height we'll probably maintain for games. We've had no problems at all.

"I'm surprised at how dense TifSport's rhizome layer is after such a short time," he continued. "I can't tell you how it's going to hold up under real game conditions yet, but we had a scrimmage here last Saturday, and as you can see there was very little damage."

Randles planned to overseed in mid September, and to cover the field after the season. "We use a poly fabric material that keeps the field six to eight degrees warmer than the outside air. It lets in water, light and air but still does a good job of protecting the grass from freezing weather."

Memphis Country Club

Rod Lingle grew up around golf. "I played a lot as a junior and liked being outside, so when I heard about the turf management program at Mississippi State I transferred over there. I graduated in 1974 and went to the Hattiesburg Country Club."

Lingle took the head superintendent position at the Memphis Country Club in 1979. "Being a head superintendent right out of school got me a lot of experience, fast!"

The MCC fairways are now zoysia, but up until 1998 they were all common Bermuda. As Rod explained, the hybrid Bermudas in the Memphis area are all 419, and they all experience lots of problems with winter kill. My common, on the other hand, was holding up extremely well. In twenty years, we only lost about six acres to cold weather. I think our common Bermudagrass actually adapted genetically to the cold. But heck, this course has been here since 1905. Besides, I saw no reason to switch to 419, given the problems other courses were having. Winter kill can wreck your whole golfing season.

TifSport on the other hand, is the first hybrid I've seen that rivals the cold tolerance of the old common Bermudas. I wouldn't put it in the same category as the zoysias, but in a transition area like Memphis, I think

if people are interested in planting Bermudagrass fairways, TifSport would be my recommendation. TifSport has a good six to seven-year track record. In fact, the research I've seen shows about 50 to 60 percent less winter kill in side by side tests with 419. It's the root system on Bermuda, the rhizomes and stolons, that gets you through the winter, and TifSport has a superior root system."

Rod recommends gradually raising mowing heights on Bermudagrass starting in September. "We'd go from a half inch to an inch on up to an inch and a half. It did a world of good come spring,"

The Memphis Country Club converted its fairways to Meyer zoysia in June. "We also renovated our first and tenth tees. We put in TifSport. We also put TifSport in on part of our number one fairway - from the tee out to about 150 yards. This area doubles as a practice range, and I didn't feel like the zoysia could handle a ball pick-up machine. We also did something a little unusual on the approaches to our greens. We stopped the zoysia about 10 yards short and put in TifSport. The front entrances to our greens are all real narrow, so we were having real problems using our fairway-mowing units. We could only cut in one direction. With the TifSport we can use a walk behind mower, cut closer, and maintain good density. I think these little chip and putt TifSport aprons are going to work real well for us."

The MCC practice area is also TifSport. "We installed the TifSport here in late February. It greened up beautifully when it came out of dormancy. We have a small practice area, which takes a terrific beating." Then he explained, "This course is a Donald Ross course, and back in 1905 when it was built, they didn't put in practice tees. Nobody practiced. Ben Hogan was actually the first pro to hone his skills on any kind of a regular basis. After he became a practice fanatic and started winning, other pros and even weekend golfers

started practicing. That's why our practice area is so small and why we have to have a grass that can take such punishment. We had 419 here, but the TifSport is going to be a lot better. It has a better color, better texture, and will do a better job for us in the winter.

"Prior to planting, I talked to several people in the consulting business, and they all thought that TifSport was going to take over the Bermudagrass market in this area, and even further south. Unless it's a monetary thing, I can't see how anybody would consider 419 over TifSport. 419 is not going to be protected, either, not like TifSport is. There's been a lot of 419 sold that wasn't pure 419. With TifSport and TifEagle you've got growers' associations with very strict requirements."

Rod compares TifSport favorably to 419, finding its density slightly better, with a resulting increase in sod strength. "TifSport is a notch finer than 419, so I think it will tolerate closer mowing heights. We're going to try to cut our TifSport collars down to three-eighths after this first year. TifSport is more upright than 419. It gives a better lie. I've talked to some folks who are even considering it for their roughs for this very reason. For drought tolerance, for disease resistance, for playability, TifSport is right in there with zoysia. In fact, a lot of professionals don't like zoysia grass because you can't hit down on it very well. With a lot of these new grasses, they're just trying to reinvent the wheel, and a cold tolerant Bermudagrass like TifSport is going to run them right out of business.

Drs. Hanna and Elsner

Both Dr. Hanna and Dr. Elsner are pleased with the acceptance of TifSport. According to Hanna, "TifSport is

being most widely used in the transition area through the upper South and central part of the United States. Folks like the density, improved spring and fall color and improved winter hardiness. In the southern US, TifSport offers improved color, mole cricket non-preference and improved density."

Dr. Elsner reports that even installation crews are recognizing the TifSport’s high sod strength is a big advantage. There are fewer scraps and places to repair while the sod is being laid. TifSport’s good rhizome and root system also promotes fast growth and better stress tolerance during grow-in.

He also says that the Growers Association has been a big help in identifying research needs. "The Certification requirement for TifSport has been a challenge," he adds, "but is definitely worth the effort. TifSport and TifEagle are the first Bermudagrass varieties ever released that have genetic purity as a prerequisite before sprigs or sod can be sold. Most other varieties ever released that have genetic purity as a prerequisite before sprigs or sod can be sold. Most other varieties are distributed with little or no quality control oversight. The growers of TifSport are wiling to stand behind the genetic purity of their grass, whether grown in GA, NC, CA, or Argentina. We feel confident this will pay off in the long run, for both the growers and their customers."

Reprinted with permission from
TURF, The Magazine for Turf Care Professionals
P O Box 449
659 Bay Street
St. Johnsbury, VT 05819


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