May 15, 2016

Olympic Golf Course in Brazil Shows the World a Turf from Texas

Reporting Texas

The grass on the Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro first sprouted 5,000 miles away in Poteet, Texas.

Bladerunner Farms, a turf nursery 40 miles south of San Antonio, developed the vibrant green strain of zoysia growing on fairways, roughs and teeing grounds of the 7,290-yard, par 71 venue for the Summer Olympics, where golf will return for the first time since 1904. The Texas nursery developed the grass, called Zeon Zoysia, more than two decades ago for use on lawns, golf courses and sports fields.

The dense, stiff grass uses less water, fertilizer and pesticides than other common golf grasses such as Bermuda, which is most common in Texas. It also prevents a golf ball from settling too deeply when it lands, said David Doguet, whose family owns Bladerunner Farms in Poteet, about 30 miles south of San Antonio.

“The big thing is the quality of the surface,” Doguet said. Zeon Zoysia “almost holds (the ball) up on a tee.”

Zeon Zoysia requires relatively little nitrogen and adapts well to most soil types, including the soil in Rio. The golf course there was built in an ecologically sensitive area on a nature preserve in the western part of the city.

“The (course) is in an area of environmental preservation, (but) Zeon uses less fertilizer and less pesticides than other grasses for golf,” said Marcello Matte, a turf grower in Brazil.

The grass had been grown in Brazil long before ground was broken in 2013 on the Olympic golf course. In 1997, Doguet met Matte, who helped develop the grass for the 2014 World Cup pitch. Matte later added Zeon Zoysia to his farm in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he now grows 20,000 acres of Doguet’s now-famous turf.

“David has been the one who has embraced (Zeon Zoysia),” said Gil Hanse, the architect of the Olympic course. “(He) developed it and kind of nurtured it and (has) been the one to promote it as the turf grass.”

Because Zeon Zoysia requires less water and care, course operators spend less money on equipment, irrigation and chemicals. That idea aligns with a movement in golf, led by the United States Golf Association, to encourage a minimalist approach to course maintenance, saving money and causing less harm to the environment.

“The golf industry is going there,” Doguet said. “In the past, you would have spent a lot of money on stuff, but (Zoysia) cuts costs from 30 to 60 percent.”

Unlike the Olympic swimming pool or the soccer stadium, the golf course will remain after the games for the people of Rio.

The goal of maintaining the course after the games is to generate interest in the sport and increase golf tourism in the city.

“The Olympic golf course has the potential to be the greatest asset from a legacy standpoint,” Hanse said.

Meanwhile, the top 60 men and women in the world will qualify for the games. The course has room for 15,000 spectators.

The grass under all of those feet will be scrutinized the world over.

Doguet “has a good breeding program,” said Neil Cleverly, the superintendent of the Olympic course. “If he keeps doing what he is doing, there is a lot of potential for the future Zoysias he is breeding.”