Secret weapon for Olympic course: Zeon Zoysia turf grass

Special to PGATOUR.COM
The Zeon Zoysia turf grass used at Cordillera Ranch in Texas will also be used for Rio's Olympic course in 2016.
December 19, 2013
Special to PGATOUR.COM

What do Cordillera Ranch, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, and Rio de Janeiro, on the coast of tropical Brazil, have in common?

A revolutionary golf course turf grass known as Zeon Zoysia.

Opened in 2006, the Jack Nicklaus Signature course just north of San Antonio was one of the first layouts in Texas to feature the drought-tolerant strand. Zeon Zoysia also will be used for fairways, rough and tees on the Gil Hanse-designed course used in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  

In fact, 88 percent of "everything approaching the greens" will be Zeon Zoysia, according to Dr. Frank Rossi, a consulting agronomist for the Olympic course.

What’s more, both courses are supplied by Bladerunner Farms in Poteet, Texas, owned by turf-grass expert David Doguet. Zeon Zoysia was developed by Doguet, and Bladerunner is the largest privately held zoysia breeding facility in the world.

"Our members love it because the ball sits up on it like a tee," said Mark Semm, Cordillera Ranch Director of Agronomy. "It is the most playable fairway turf on the market because of its blade density. We have Zeon Zoysia on our tees, fairways and practice range, and it is a perfect complement to our A-5 bentgrass greens and Bermuda rough."

One of those resident-members happens to be PGA TOUR player Jimmy Walker, winner of the Open and currently No. 1 in the TOUR’s FedExCup standings. Walker was attracted to the tournament-caliber Nicklaus Signature Course, ranked No. 5 in the state by The Dallas Morning News, as well as the TOUR-level practice facilities turfed with Zeon Zoysia.

"Zeon Zoysia is a world-class playing surface that provides superior lies, excellent feedback on ball-striking, and excels in stressful conditions brought on by extreme drought and heat," Walker said. "The Olympic Committee made an excellent decision to use it in Rio and the players are going to love it."

Bladerunner Farms supplied the grass for the Atlanta Athletic Club, site of the 2011 PGA Championship, and that connection led to the Olympic agreement, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Bladerunner shipped a 2 foot-by-2 foot square of Zeon Zoysia to a grower in Brazil, and now there are 40 acres of the grass being grown in Rio.

"This is huge for us," Doguet told the newspaper about the Olympic connection. "This is going to be the most talked-about golf course in the world."

Just how playable is the grass? Last spring at a Valero corporate instruction clinic, World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman hit a 3-wood directly off the grass on Cordillera Ranch's practice tee. He turned around, drop-jawed, and remarked to the audience, "Wow, that zoysia is phenomenal."

But having favorable lies is only an ancillary benefit of Zeon Zoysia, says Semm.

"We selected the grass because it assimilates perfectly to the climate of this region," he adds. "It uses between 30 and 40 percent less water and fertilizer, is drought tolerant and able to persevere through extreme conditions."

The turf’s protection against cold weather and long periods without water is dormancy. Normally a translucent green, Zeon Zoysia will "dim out" to a muted green and ultimately, light brown. It only takes a few consecutive days over 75 degrees, however, to restore it to its native grandeur.

"Zeon Zoysia is very environmentally friendly," Doguet told Golf Course Industry earlier this year. "The grass needs very little water, and very low amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, while still looking and playing great. The grass will create a world-class playing surface for the Olympics, and for many years to come."

That was the key for picking Zeon Zoysia, as it will help Hanse and his team create an environmentally sustainable course.

"We have the opportunity to influence golf in a way it never has been," Rossi said. "During the Olympics, the whole world will see that it's possible to design a course that's challenging for professionals, playable for amateurs and with less environmental impact."

PGA, LPGA, and European Tour players encounter nearly every type of turf during the season -- bentgrass, Bermuda, fescue and even the invasive Poa annua. Due to its limited growing range, however, zoysia grasses aren’t as prevalent at various venues on those tours.

“Most of them have played on it at some point, but not necessarily Zeon," Semm said. "They are going to be pleasantly surprised and with the lies they’ll get, it will only make the best players in the world even better."

Doguet told the Express-News that golfers like Zeon Zoysia because "it has a stiffer leaf blade and the ball sits up in the fairway."

Zeon has the same effect on members' games. But the grass' dormant periods require an explanation, up front. 

"There’s an educational process with new members, but once we explain the environmental and playing benefits, they get it quick," Semm said. "Eventually, they get spoiled and don't even want to play on Bermuda fairways anymore."

Walker couldn't agree more.

"We’ve been to the most premier golf courses in the country and we just marvel at what an amazing facility that Cordillera is," Walker said. "There's nothing like it in the country."

Want to play a round on Zeon Zoyzia? Click here to visit the Cordillera Ranch web site.