OSU scientists deserve MVP status for turf development

Lucas Herbert, of Australia, hits his tee shot on the fifth hole during the first round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Southern Hills Country Club on Thursday in Tulsa. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

STILLWATER – The grass beneath their feet probably wasn’t at the top of their minds when golfers teed off in the PGA Championship held at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa.

But for researchers at Oklahoma State University who developed the turf at Southern Hills, as well as turfs at other major sports venues from Dodger Stadium to Churchill Downs, grass is the name of the game.

It starts with Bermudagrass, or specifically two parent species of the grass, common Bermudagrass and African Bermudagrass, which have been studied down to molecular levels at OSU for decades. Goals, among others, are to develop and improve varieties when it comes to characteristics like drought and freeze resistance, shade tolerance, and even golf ball roll distance.

Of course, golfers and other athletes haven’t been the only ones to benefit. So have homeowners and others the world over who long for lush lawns.

According to OSU plant and soil sciences professor Yanqi Wu, research has allowed scientists to map the genomes of different Bermudagrass varieties and then to create new and improved varieties. The process involves using “DNA markers” to study the genetic inheritance qualities of important turf traits over time.

“We have developed most of the molecular marker tools in the world for Bermudagrass,” Wu said. “We have already developed more than 3,000 genetic markers. It is all about little steps moving forward then combining all of those little steps to make larger progress.”

Research involving two of the most recent varieties of Bermudagrass being released involved around 9,000 experimental plants. It’s expected that the OKC1876 and OKC3920 varieties will be available for commercial use in the next two to four years.

OKC1876 and OKC3920 will become OSU’s ninth and 10th turf Bermudagrass varieties to be released since 1991. According to a release, they’ve been “purpose built” — like previous varieties Tahoma 31 and Northbridge adopted for use at more than 150 country clubs and other golf courses across the country.

While it may never take much attention away from golfers who compete in places like Southern Hills, OKC1876 likely will earn high scores for qualities ranging from its fine texture and dark green color to high traffic tolerance.

“It is recommended for use on golf courses, lawns and other areas where high quality turfgrass is needed and good management can be practiced in the southern states,” Wu said.

OKC3920, on the other hand, developed especially for use on putting greens, has exhibited golf ball roll qualities and other qualities superior to current industry-standard “ultradwarf” Bermudagrasses.

“This grass is a scientific breakthrough because in the industry right now, concerning putting green Bermudagrasses, we only have ultradwarf types, and ultradwarfs do not have cold hardiness. OKC3920 has proven resistant to winterkill,” Wu said. “That is why this grass stands out so strongly. Winterhardiness has traditionally been a signature of our OSU turfgrass development program.”

Other researchers involved in development of new turfgrass varieties include Dennis L. Martin, professor of horticulture and OSU Extension specialist for turfgrass science; Justin Quetone Moss, professor and department head of horticulture and landscape architecture; Charles Fontanier, associate professor of turfgrass science; and Nathan Walker, professor of entomology and OSU Extension specialist for turf disease and pest diagnosis.

“We are proud of our turfgrass team at OSU. The impact, value and reach that the varieties have had from Dr. Wu’s program have been staggering,” said Scott Senseman, associate vice president of ag research. “The commitment to enhancing turfgrass performance through research has never been more on display than through the releases of these two new varieties.”

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