Paspalum Stigma Vanishes Under Tour Spotlight

 As seen in Golf Business March/April 2022 

By Steve Eubanks:

On the first day of February, a breezy but beautiful Tuesday in Fort Myers, Florida, one of the world’s best female golfers walked to the driving range of the Crown Colony Golf and Country Club to prepare for the Drive On Championship, the third event of the LPGA season. As she pulled a wedge and began her warm-up, her caddie looked at his yardage book and said, “We have paspalum this week.” The player said, “On the greens?” To which the caddie replied, “No, we have paspalum everywhere.” 

The player stopped, looked down at the pristine teeing area where she had just hit her first shots of the week and said, “What is paspalum?” 

If she’d asked that question to someone from the Florida Department of Agriculture, the answer might have been, “It’s a perennial weed, an invasive bunchgrass that smothers other species and has seed heads that are susceptible to fungus and toxic to wildlife.” 

In other words, it’s a blight on the landscape. Kill it.

Paul Bacon, the superintendent at Crown Colony, breaks into a big smile when he hears old-school comments about the grass he now cultivates into a perfect green carpet. Strains of paspalum were engineered for golf-course use because of the grass’s resilience to salt water. Build a course on a seashore–from the cliffs of California to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia–and sea surge and salt mist become a big problem. Paspalum for golf was designed to keep putting surfaces alive.

“There has been a stigma with paspalum,” Bacon said, “There’s been this belief that, as a playing surface, you can’t get it fast and you can’t get it firm. At Crown Colony, we’ve proven those things to be wrong.”

If you’ve never heard of Crown Colony, you aren’t alone. The Ron Garl design has been on the ground for 20 years, just up the road from Florida Gulf Coast University. But when the LPGA’s best players showed up to play there, almost none of them knew it existed, even the ones who lived nearby. Brooke Henderson, the pride of Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, actually lives in North Naples, about 15 minutes from Crown Colony. But until the tour added the Drive On to the schedule, Henderson had never heard of the place.

“I didn’t know much about it, for sure,” Henderson said after playing a practice round. “But it’s super nice. The greens are in really good shape, firm and fast and the course overall is in really good condition.”

Then Henderson cocked her head and said, “I understand that it’s a different type of grass?”    

“That’s the thing now,” Bacon said. “Fewer and fewer players can tell the difference.

“When I was interviewing for the job here a couple of years ago, I didn’t know anything about the course. But I was a paspalum guy, and I knew that Crown Colony was paspalum. But I wasn’t even sure where in Fort Myers it was. Then, when I came through the front gate and saw an island green, I was like ‘okay, this has some features to it.’”

But the architecture, while good for that part of South Florida, is not what makes Crown Colony worthy of national attention. The grass, and the reason for it, is why you should care.

Crown Colony is eight miles inland from Fort Myers Beach and the Gulf of Mexico. You’re a good 15-minute drive from the nearest saltwater wave. Yet, the developers chose to go with paspalum anyway.

“This was the first course in Florida to select paspalum not because of water selection,” Bacon said. “Most courses go with it because they know that they will be using a sodium-heavy water source or because you’re close enough to the ocean to have saltwater on the surfaces. This course was not done that way. They selected paspalum because of the aesthetics and the playability. But it turns out, the water we get (from the city) does have a pretty high sodium count.”

The putting surfaces are SeaDwarf Paspalum, a denser grass that can tolerate lower mowing heights. The knock on it was always its soft, spongy feel.

No more. Leona Maguire, who won the Drive On Championship, couldn’t stop raving about the quality of the greens. “They’re really firm and fast, which is great,” Maguire said. “The entire course, really, was just in excellent condition.” 

“There has always been a good foundation out here,” Bacon said. “The structure of the course was laid out from the beginning as a good members’ course but also one where we can tip it out and make it a challenge for the elite players. Now, we’ve got the playing surfaces where they need to be to challenge the very best in the world. That’s special.”  

Earlier in the week, Henderson compared Crown Colony to Miramar Lakes, the course where she plays when she isn’t on the road with the LPGA Tour. The only difference is Miramar Lakes is wall-to-wall bermudagrass.  

“It’s a good compliment that people don’t know what surface they were playing,” Bacon said. “We just want everyone to think it’s good.”