Beauty is More than Skin Deep

Editor’s Note: The following was presented by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

A typical 18-hole golf course encompasses approximately 150 acres, but it is the two and a half acres – or 2 percent of that area – of putting greens that capture the most scrutiny.

Whether you are a golfer, a superintendent, a builder or an architect, your respective success is often determined by your work on the green. We'll leave the discussion of putting skills for another day, but the construction, maintenance and success of the putting green requires a precise combination of science, technology, expertise – and some cooperation from Mother Nature. Whether right or wrong, the quality of a golf course is often determined by its greens. And the quality of the green may have nothing to do with what you see on the surface, but ultimately what lies below.

There are three basic types of green construction – USGA, California and soil-based. The one used is generally a function of the age of the course, budget, and philosophy of the construction team (superintendent, architect, builder).

The first golf courses featured soil-based greens, which are constructed with native topsoil – usually graded on-site, and other amendments such as manure, peat, sand, etc. The materials, however, were not constructed in layers in the manner of USGA and California greens. The biggest drawback to these greens is the lack of natural drainage and a tendency to compact. That can result in less than optimal putting conditions and considerable challenges for superintendents in maintenance activities. The biggest advantage of such greens is the cost, which is approximately 2 dollars per square foot.

The USGA green was borne out of research in 1960 that called for construction using layers featuring a subgrade, a drainage network of PVC or plastic pipe, gravel, an intermediate layer, root zone organic matter and the grass surface. The material used in all of these layers must meet specific criteria.

In 1993, criteria of the USGA green was further developed whereby the intermediate layer is eliminated if the proper sized gravel is used. Regardless of which alternative is employed, proper surface and subsurface drainage is the beauty of the USGA green complex.

The advantage of the USGA green is its research base and testing, thereby reducing the risk of green failure. If properly built and maintained, golfers rarely face poor putting conditions. The biggest drawback is collecting the necessary materials and the cost of construction. At 4 to 5 dollars per square foot, an average USGA green costs $24,000 to $30,000 apiece.

California Greens were developed in the mid-1970s at the University of California-Davis. This green is made with a pure sand root zone above the subsoil and a drainage system of pipe surrounded by gravel. Again, the sand, gravel and construction is set to specifications. The advantage of the California green is its cost, approximately half that of the USGA green. They also do not suffer the compaction and drainage problems of soil-based greens. These greens can be difficult to grow-in because fertility is hard to manage in the sand root zone.

Today, it is rare when new or renovated greens are not built to USGA or California specifications. Golf courses may also opt to feature hybrids of the two green construction profiles. A combination of the USGA and California methods has been successful in providing a good surface with slightly lower investment.

A facility's decision to construct, renovate or restore putting greens should be made with care and informed input. Not only is the expense a consideration, but the failure of greens and the corresponding revenue decrease has a very real bottom-line implication.

For more information regarding golf course maintenance and etiquette, contact your local superintendent or the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America at 800/472-7878 or at and

NOTE: Information for this article was provided by Golf Course Management magazine and the USGA Green Section.