Purdue Golf Course Serves Double Duty As Research Lab

July 16, 1998

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- As research laboratories go, this is pretty nice. Bentgrass fairways, greens and bunkers all designed by noted architect Pete Dye. It's almost like a day out on the golf course.

Of course, that's because working in Purdue University's newest science laboratory is a day out on the golf course.

When Purdue's newly renovated Kampen Golf Course opened June 27, most golfers focused on how renowned golf course architects Dye and Tim Liddy have looped the course around a marsh known as the Celery Bog. But for some Purdue scientists, the course is a unique opportunity to study environmental and agronomic problems of urban America.

"There are a lot of university golf courses, but what makes this course unique is the amount of interaction between the golf course and researchers and students," says Clark Throssell, professor of agronomy.

Here are four of the initial research projects taking place on the golf course:

Using golf courses to filter water Research in the 1990s at several institutions has shown that golf courses are environmentally neutral. Many of them use herbicides and chemical fertilizers, but the studies have shown that these chemicals don't run off the course and into the local surface water.

Researchers at Purdue, however, think that they can take this one significant step further. As construction on the new golf course began, they theorized that they could actually improve the quality of surface water by building the golf course so that it acts as a filter for pollution. "Research has shown over and over how well golf courses can clean up the chemicals that are used on them," says Zac Reicher, assistant professor of agronomy. "But nobody has looked at how well golf courses can clean up the water that is coming across them. That's what we're trying to do."

Turf and plants have a remarkable ability to break down and eliminate chemicals from the environment, a process known as bioremediation. Some of the chemicals are caught in the thatch layer of the turf, where microbes digest them and break them down. Other chemicals in the water in the soil are taken up by the roots of the plants. When these plants die, the plant material, along with the chemicals, is broken down by the microbes.

The Purdue Kampen course borders a four-lane highway, and across the highway is a mix of businesses and residences, including a gas station and a motel. As rain falls, the runoff moves from the neighborhood through the ground under the golf course. "All of that drains right across the golf course," Reicher says. "Before the golf course was built, everything went directly into the bog. We assume that antifreeze, petroleum products, road salt and household chemicals were all going into the bog."

The water from the neighborhood now is filtered by the golf course as it flows toward the bog; many of the pollutants break down into harmless components. The water that passes through the course is drained into 15 acres of man-made wetlands that border the Celery Bog. From there, the water is used to irrigate the course, giving it another chance to be filtered by the turf.

The researchers are setting up seven testing sites, with the first one on hole No. 16, which runs parallel to the highway, and the last one next to hole 14, which runs parallel to the marsh. "We're testing the surface water right after it comes off the highway and then as it is coming off the golf course. In the next three to four years we'll be able to have a better idea of how well this works," Reicher says.

The fairway less traveled

One place where the unique mission of Purdue's Kampen Golf Course will be obvious to golfers is on hole No. 7. Dye designed this hole with two fairways, separated by an enormous sand bunker that runs the length of the hole. The idea is that golfers will be allowed to play one fairway, while the other will be closed down so that researchers and students can go out on the course and inspect on- course turf experiments.

"This will be the real thing," Throssell says. "The turf will get used daily, and it will be maintained by the golf course staff the same as all of the other turf on the course."

Among the research experiments to be performed on the fairway: • Evaluating various creeping bentgrass cultivars -- the most common turf variety used on golf courses.

• Investigating methods to control annual bluegrass, which is the No. 1 weed problem on golf courses.

• Studying turf species other than bentgrass to see if they offer environmental advantages.

Improving tree survival in suburbia

New home construction often leaves a neighborhood with no trees, and compounding the problem is that new trees don't seem to do well in new home developments.

Soil compaction from construction equipment; the lack of topsoil, which is stripped away in the building process; and reduced water infiltration and nutrient uptake are all obstacles to growing trees in new housing developments.

New golf course construction presents many of the same landscaping problems. Urban forester Rita McKenzie and Harvey Holt, professor of forestry, have planted 1,300 bare-root green ash, pin oak, sugar maple, sweetgum and tulip poplar trees on the new golf course to study which planting methods may reduce transplant shock of new trees.

"We're trying 11 different treatments, plus a control," McKenzie says. "We're looking at mulching, adding various amendments to the planting hole, to see if we can reduce transplant shock. "If the trees survive for the first three years, they will have a better chance of growing to maturity. We hope to have preliminary results in about a year."

USGA Greens project

Even the practice green at the Kampen Golf Course leads a double life. Besides allowing golfers to get warmed up for their round, the green is also the site of 18 research plots that are testing various cultivars of bentgrass for putting greens.

"Like hole No. 7, the unique thing about this is that this is a green that is in daily use," Throssell says. "We'll be able to evaluate the cultivars under the same conditions that they will get on a course." The putting green turf research is being sponsored by the U.S. Golf Association, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program. It is one of 13 sites around the country that is conducting cultivar comparisons. "We're going to get a lot of information that golf course superintendents can put into practice," Throssell says.

The research at the Kampen Golf Course isn't all on the links. As golfers cruise down the fairways, they will no doubt notice what appear to be gigantic square putting greens next to the course. Those are the turf research plots of the new William Daniel Turfgrass Research and Diagnostics Center, which is adjacent to the course. Construction will begin in July on a new building for the center. "The whole course was built with an eye toward not only research but also education," Throssell says.
More information about the Kampen Golf Course can be found on the Internet at http://www.purdue.edu/UNS/info/golf.html

Writer: Steve Tally, 765-494-9809; tally@purdue.edu; http://www.agcom.purdue.edu/AgCom/homepages/tally/

Purdue University

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