It can be said that John Reilly likes a challenge. When this experienced golf course superintendent, known for tackling grow-in jobs in Florida during the golf boom, was offered the job at Longboat Key Club in Sarasota, a challenge is what he got.
Longboat Key, a barrier island along the southwest coast of Florida, provides a subtropical paradise for residents and visitors, but for superintendents, the conditions prove formidable. Deep wells with shallow pull points at Longboat Key Club deliver brackish irrigation water with a salt content topping out at as much as 16,000 ppm. When Reilly reported for duty, the bermudagrass was struggling to such an extent that its color was almost unrecognizable as grass.
After trying various strategies to resuscitate the bermudagrass, Reilly switched gears and did something he had put off since his first day on the job.
“Paspalum was being trialed here, but I resisted it for years,” said Reilly.
It wasn’t until Reilly did the research for himself and found a newly released paspalum that he became a convert and began the process to transition from Tifway 419, Ormond, and Tifdwarf bermudagrasses to wall-to-wall Platinum TE Paspalum.
On an exploratory visit to The Old Collier Club in Naples, where then superintendent Tim Hiers had multiple paspalum varieties, Reilly saw Platinum TE for the first time.
“Even on just a chipping green, I could tell this was special. Platinum TE produces a mono stand for the best putting surface I’ve seen.”
Through his own trials, Reilly discovered additional benefits of the turfgrass that led to the decision to plant Platinum TE throughout.
“The flexibility of this grass and the different textures it offers – well, Platinum TE can go from green to rough. There are plenty of advantages to having a single variety. With multiple varieties, you constantly have to manage contamination. With just one turfgrass, that isn’t an issue. With other paspalums, one was promoted as best for fairways and another as best for greens, but with Platinum TE, it has the versatility to be flexible in different areas and performs across the entire golf course. It is the best grass I’ve ever worked with.”
Reilly sourced the Platinum TE from Pike Creek Turf in Adel, Georgia. Production of Platinum TE is limited to licensed growers who maintain quality farm conditions that meet strict certification qualifications. Pike Creek is the largest grower of Platinum TE.
“We have a long relationship with Pike Creek,” said Reilly. “There is no farm like it, and this comes from how much they care about their product.”
Longboat Key Club was one of the first Platinum TE projects for Pike Creek Turf. They credit the club and Reilly not only for being an exemplary case study of the successes possible with the turfgrass but also for acting as an ambassador of the grass and educating others.
“Longboat Key Club and their Director of Agronomy, John Reilly, have been the key to Pike Creek Turf’s success with Platinum TE over the past decade,” said Pike Creek Turf sales representative Bruce Allison. “We have done many projects over the years with Platinum TE, both domestic and international, but Longboat Key Club has provided the baseline use, which has allowed us to expand our inventory to the point where we can supply the demands of the golf market as it has increased year to year.”
“John’s mastery of the grass has been well documented and can be attested to by anyone who has been lucky enough to play the courses under his management,” said Allison. “Platinum TE is an excellent turf for warm season golf courses under almost any growing conditions. Pike Creek looks for it to continue gaining popularity going forward, thanks in large part to the efforts of John and Longboat Key Club.”
The complete turfgrass conversion took about three years. Longboat Key Club consists of the 18-hole Links at Longboat and the Harbourside course, which includes three nine-hole rotations, for a total of 45 holes.
Reilly tackled the greens first, unsure of how the grow-in would go considering the quality of the water. While paspalum is widely recognized as the most salt tolerant turfgrass, freshwater is recommended for establishment. As Reilly likes to say, “Paspalum is not a salt-loving grass; it is a salt-tolerant grass. To speed up the process, Reilly sodded the greens with excellent results.
Next came the rest of the 18-hole course, followed by two sets of nine at Harbourside. In 2016, the remaining nine holes received a complete redesign along with the turf conversion. Most recently, the driving range was replanted, and the Platinum TE conversion was complete.
Adapting to a new turfgrass species, Reilly admits that a learning curve took place.
“The only problems I ever had with paspalum were my insistence on treating it like bermudagrass. Paspalum is kind of like a cool season warm season grass – a lot more like poa than like bent.”
Achieving the putting surfaces he desired came through trial and error.
“It was a process. I had good success with cutting it low. It came down to uniformity of moisture and quite a bit of rolling. Many of our country’s finest courses mow their greens daily at a height equal to a penny and a dime stacked; we take the penny out of the equation and mow our Platinum TE greens the height of the width of a dime. I would rather putt on Platinum greens than any other.”
Mechanical struggles are no longer an issue, and overall maintenance – which before included frequent core aerification, verticutting, and sanding – is now significantly simplified.
As for the salt issues, Reilly could not be more pleased.
“We now have a grass that handles the saltwater intake. I no longer worry about the water. We manage percent moisture as uniformly as we can.”
In addition to Platinum TE’s salt tolerance and versatility, Reilly has found other benefits as well.
“Platinum TE has a great growth habit, even in trying conditions. It has good shade tolerance and can be maintained at any height. And it is the prettiest grass, a beautiful green. It interplays well with the mangroves and seagrass here.”
With such an environmentally rich location, Reilly is conscious of creating a balance with nature.
“During the renovation process, we ended up giving 13 acres back to the state. We have plenty of natural areas with ornamental grasses, and we’ve lessened our carbon footprint. This was a cool way to save water. In addition, there are massive amounts of palm trees, and we’ve harvested shell onsite and created beachy dunes.”
Reilly predicts that the advantages of paspalum, in aesthetics, performance, maintenance, and most especially, sustainability, will catch on with other superintendents as more people become familiar with the species.
“There is no tradeoff for quality. And I would know. We are wall-to-wall Platinum TE Paspalum – maybe the biggest paspalum facility in the world. In my opinion, this is the best grass on the planet.”