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UGA geneticist has transformed Southern turf grass

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

Peaches, pecans, peanuts and poultry are often at the forefront when Georgia agriculture is in the news. But those who build and maintain golf courses in Southern climes regularly turn to another Georgia product without which the sport couldn't be played: turf grass.

Turf cultivars from the Coastal Plain Experiment Station on the Tifton, Ga., campus of the University of Georgia are industry standards. The most recent varieties, TifSport and TifEagle, are so popular the supply can't meet the demand.

Both are the handiwork of Wayne Hanna, a plant geneticist for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Hanna has spent 32 years at Tifton developing superior turf grasses.

Hanna recently won UGA's 2003 Inventor's Award, given each year for a unique, creative and innovative discovery that has made an impact on the community. His was awarded for solving many turf industry problems. He has been awarded seven patents over his career.

Hanna has tackled the biggest issues the industry faces: water, pesticides and fertilizers.

"The new grasses have all been developed with the goal of maintaining turf quality with less water, pesticides and, to some degree, fertilizers," Hanna said.

"We genetically incorporate genes that will give resistence to major pests and drought," he said, "and maintain acceptable grass quality with less water."

Since Bermuda grasses aren't naturally cold-hardy, for example, Hanna worked for eight years to develop TifSport, which fares better in colder weather.

"We identified a number of characteristics we felt were key for athletic fields and golf courses, as well as high-end landscapes and lawns," Hanna said.

"We wanted a grass with superior color, cold hardiness and disease resistance," he said. "We also knew that rapid recovery from injury (mowing) was vital, so we concentrated on turf density and strength. Last, but not least, our new variety had to be able to tolerate frequent, lower mowing heights."

To develop TifEagle, Hanna subjected portions of the Bermuda grass TifWay 2 to gamma radiation and selected offspring with mutations for short stolons, the stem-like part of the grass that produces shoots and leaves.

Short stolons allow for a low leaf canopy that can handle the twice-a-day mowing many golf courses inflict on their courses. The dense canopy also leaves little room for algae and weeds like crabgrass, reducing the need for herbicides.

"TifEagle is the latest and greatest turf grass for greens, where the putting surface must be of the highest possible quality," said golf course designer Glenn Boorman. Boorman has designed golf courses worldwide for Denis Griffiths and Associates, a golf course architectural firm in Brazelton, Ga.

TifSport is on fields where the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins play, and both TifSport and TifEagle appear on golf courses around the world.

Golf is an enormous industry. It accounted for $62.2 billion in goods and services in 2000, according to the "Golf Economy Report" published by the National Golf Foundation. For perspective, the motion picture and sound recording industry was worth $57.8 billion that same year.

Alongside golf, turf makes up one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. In Georgia alone, it's estimated at more than $1 billion, according to UGA turf management figures.

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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