A course in turfgrass science

The University of Maryland Golf Course benefits from research ties with faculty.


White, green and blue yard sign on a golf course. The sign reads: HOLE #1: Your UMD golf course is expanding education opportunities for students while developing eco-friendly practices and improving wildlife habitats. The bottom of the sign includes the logo for Audubon International.
The University of Maryland Golf Course in College Park, Md., embraces its role as a learning laboratory by regularly hosting research projects from various departments. Photo courtesy of Laura Russell

It’s not uncommon for university-affiliated golf courses to serve, at least in part, as learning laboratories for the students at that school, particularly if it features a major (or majors) affiliated with turfgrass sciences.

At the University of Maryland Golf Course in College Park, Md., superintendent Brendan Rapp isn’t about to play favorites.

“I try to let people from several of our departments come out and do research,” says Rapp, a 15-year association member who has been at the facility for 8½ years. “I know it’s for the best. We’ve got three or four projects going on right now. I have no problem being completely transparent. Some people think golf courses are lying or hiding things. We’re not lying. I really think nearly every single golf course does things responsibly.”

Thanks in part to some of the research conducted there through the years, Rapp has the facts to prove it. For instance, a recent study by a master’s candidate monitored carbon and nitrogen in the course’s freshwater wetlands. It showed more carbon storage and less nitrogen runoff than expected.

“If they find something is wrong, they’ll let you know so you can make adjustments,” Rapp says. “But we haven’t experienced that yet.”

Karen Prestegaard, Ph.D., an associate professor in the school’s Department of Geology, is among those who have conducted or overseen research in and around the course, which covers around 150 acres of what in total is a 300-acre site less than half a mile from the university’s SECU Stadium.

She was involved in a paper — submitted, awaiting acceptance — summarizing research into carbon sequestration that involved various aspects of the course. Each area, from the managed turfgrass areas to the managed forests to the more native forests, were like small-scale samplings of larger areas in an urban or suburban landscape. The more managed areas on the golf course were akin to pristine suburban lawns, while lower-maintenance turfgrass areas were akin to more natural, native landscaping; managed forests were like the managed forests in urban/suburban parks.

“We were taking it as representative of the kinds of landscape elements you see in suburban and urban areas,” Prestegaard says. “The nice thing about golf courses is, you can find some that were created recently, and you can find some that were created 60 to 80 years ago, like the university course. We found, if you let things grow for a period of time, they start storing more and more carbon. It’s looking good as a source of carbon storage.”

University of Maryland Golf Course — built in 1956 and designed by architect George Cobb, who also lists East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, The Nine Hole at Augusta National and Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., among his credits — hosts some 50,000 rounds a year, yet Rapp and his crew have no issues accommodating researchers from the departments of geology, biology … or any department, really.

“Why not do it? I think it’s really good for the perception of golf and the business as a whole,” Rapp says.

Some of the projects around the grounds are more beholding to the scientific principle than others. For instance, a few years ago, the course set aside an area just off the clubhouse in which to plant milkweed to attract monarch butterflies. Working with university horticulturist Sam Bahr, they expanded that area to encompass around an acre of pollinator-friendly plants beyond just milkweed.

“It originally was supposed to be a milkweed area,” Rapp says. “(Bahr) came over and recommended a bunch of different seeds. Now it’s more like a prairie meadow. We’re in our third year now, and every year we have probably 30 different types of plants. It’s a very diverse area. He’s been great. He comes out and checks up on it, and if weeds are coming up, we take care of them. It’s a slow process, developing something brand-new. It takes time. But he’s happy with the results. It’s changed a lot in that area, and it’s in a prominent area of the course.”

Most of the research is not.

“It’s all out of the way, for the most part,” Rapp says.

Like the water-quality research. Part of the allure of the course and its surroundings, Prestegaard says, is that it’s the source of the headwaters of the stream that flows through the university, which ultimately winds its way to the Anacostia River and beyond.

“Students are constantly doing water-quality tests, seeing how water actually is getting more pure as it runs through the golf course,” Rapp says. “It’s just common sense, honestly. Grass helps purify water. Everybody thinks a golf course is a big polluter, but that’s not what happens. And this just helps show people that.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.