A signature zoysia grass and an inspired golf and grounds staff have come together at Trinity Forest Golf Club to convert a landfill in a disadvantaged section of Dallas into a new source of civic pride—and prosperity.
Convert a landfill into a beautiful green space for recreation: check. Revive one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country: check. Rehabilitate a disadvantaged section of major American city: check. Stimulate the local economy by bringing a PGA Tour event to the area: check. Have a turfgrass variety named in your honor: check.
Those are just a few of the accomplishments Trinity Forest Golf Club, in Dallas, Texas, has to show for itself since opening in 2016—and sustainability has been a top priority at the 27-hole, links-style private facility, from construction through operations. After all, Director of Grounds Kasey Kauff asks, “If we aren’t stewards of the land, then what are we doing?”
General Manager and Director of Golf Richie Hare agrees. “Hopefully, every golf course is about taking a place that was nothing and turning it into something beautiful,” he says.
Fewer Inputs, Greater Sustainability
The golf course is built on top of a landfill, and under the public-private partnership that was formed to develop the property, Trinity Forest members and stakeholders invested more than $60 million in the project and leased the unusable land from the city of Dallas. While the agreement allowed for Trinity Forest to operate as a private facility, so it could raise the necessary funds, it also stipulated that at least 25 percent of all play had to be public rounds.
During golf course construction, nothing was allowed to penetrate the sand and clay cap that sealed the landfill. Even now, when grounds crew members have to dig on the golf course, such as to repair an irrigation line leak, they have to use protective gear and document their efforts. They also have to monitor landfill gases when they dig, but Kauff says that has not been an issue. In fact, he says of the landfill, “It affected the build more than the maintenance.”
Instead, the environmentally friendly Trinity Zoysia grass on the golf course has had the greatest effect on maintenance—or the lack of a need for it. Nevertheless, notes Hare, “Our daily operations are just like every other golf course in the world.”
Perhaps, however, with fewer inputs than many golf courses.
Sustainability was a major theme in the design and selection of the grass for the golf course, and Trinity Forest is the first golf course in the world to be grassed wall-to-wall on the tees, fairways, and green surrounds with the newly bred, fine-textured, dwarf variety of zoysia grass. Formally known as L1F Zoysia in the research and development stage, the turf was renamed Trinity Zoysia in the property’s honor by David Doguet, who developed the grass with his team at Bladerunner Farms in Poteet, Texas.
A highly dense turf, Trinity Zoysia is tolerant to wear and damage from foot traffic and golf cars. It also requires less fertilizer, water, and maintenance, which in turn reduces fuel consumption and labor costs.
Because Trinity Zoysia requires lower fertility inputs, Kauff says, it is less thatchy, easier to manage, and provides better playability.
“I think it’s the premier grass to play on. You get a perfect lie every time,” adds Hare. “It’s very durable. It plays the same all year round.”
The Trinity Forest maintenance staff irrigates the golf course every night, based on evapotranspiration rates that are measured by an onsite weather station. “The plant is using more water than we’re putting down,” Kauff says.
The grounds crew also hand-waters as needed. “It’s not on our daily job board, but some mounds really get dry,” reports Kauff.
Dry patches may turn brown but the grass is not dead, just dormant, as a reaction to less water. Once water is reapplied, it turns green again.
“We don’t really care that the grass is uniformly green,” says Kauff. “That’s not really how our philosophy is. Our philosophy is it’s OK to be a little bit brown.”
In fact, he says, the biggest challenge in caring for the Trinity Zoysia is that “it really doesn’t like to be wet.”
The Dallas area had its wettest spring on record last year, according to Kauff, but the subsurface drainage at the property kept the turf from experiencing any adverse effects from the precipitation.
The property needed a turfgrass that could survive the summer heat in Texas and the cold in the winter, says Kauff, who arrived at Trinity Forest in September 2014 for the grow in. Trinity Zoysia was selected for the golf course before Kauff arrived, but he was hired because he had experience with a similar type of turf when he worked at Atlanta Athletic Club.
The greens are Champion Ultradwarf Bermuda, and the grounds crew maintains them completely differently from the Trinity Zoysia. They require a different moisture content and firmness, and the staff wants them to roll more smoothly than the fairways and at championship level every day.
The maintenance staff makes weekly growth-regulator applications to the greens. They mow them daily and topdress the greens once a week. Fairways, however, are mowed twice a week and topdressed once a year. “The greens are micromanaged; the fairways are macro-managed,” notes Kauff.
Like They Found It
The maintenance staff does a full rake of the bunkers twice a week and edges them three or four times a year. “They’re supposed to be jagged around the edges,” explains Kauff.
The lack of trees on the links-style golf course keeps maintenance to a minimum as well. While other golf courses can expend considerable financial resources on tree-maintenance tasks such as pruning, removal of dead trees and storm cleanup, Trinity Forest does not have these issues. In addition, says Kauff, “Shade is a big problem for turf. Turf likes sunlight.”
The course has no playable rough, and unplayable edges are planted in native grasses and flowers. “We didn’t select grasses that weren’t meant for this region in the country,” Kauff says. “Our golf course is a very natural golf course.”
In another environmentally friendly initiative, Trinity Forest partnered with its next-door neighbor, Trinity River Audubon Center, to implement a Blackland Prairie Restoration Plan that creates additional habitat for native plants and animals. This vital ecosystem, which once stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Oklahoma, has been reduced to about one percent of its original size, making it one of the most endangered ecosystems in the nation.
Trinity Forest, which sits in the 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest, has restored 75 acres of Blackland Prairie with native grasses and vegetation. The Blackland Prairie rough is a combination of about 40 species of grasses and wildflowers that are native to Texas, but not necessarily to the Dallas area. Varieties include buffalo grass, Indiangrass, little bluestem, blue grama, annual winecup, Texas cupgrass, curly mesquite, rose milkweed, rattlesnake master, Texas yellow star, white rosinweed, Maximillian sunflower, and slim tridens.
“We seeded it with a mix, and let Mother Nature figure out the best [varieties] for the site,” says Kauff.
The Blackland Prairie creates habitat for wildlife such as field mice, birds and coyotes. Irrigated solely by rain, the areas are planted along the edges of the fairways and help define the holes. “It meanders with the holes of the golf course,” Kauff says.
Ready for Its Closeup
The playability of the drought-tolerant Trinity Zoysia was put to the test in a public way when the PGA Tour moved the AT&T Byron Nelson tournament for its 50th anniversary to Trinity Forest this past spring. Not only did this move bring championship golf back to Dallas, it also brought a $50 million annual economic impact to the area.
In addition, the property, which is the home course for the Southern Methodist University men’s and women’s golf teams and houses a learning facility for The First Tee of Greater Dallas, contributes more than $1 million annually to local causes through charity golf outings.
“For championship golf, it is so good,” Kauff enthuses about Trinity Zoysia. “I know when people walk out on our turf from other clubs, they walk on ours and it’s like, boom.
“Anybody that’s thinking they want a championship golf course, I don’t think Trinity Zoysia can be matched,” he adds. I honestly think it’s better than any turf out there.”
Tour players, Hare reports, offered positive feedback about the consistency of the golf course. “That’s what [they] are looking for,” he says.
With the ability to stay fast and firm, even in the harsh, dry Dallas weather, the Trinity Zoysia had a direct influence on play. Ball roll on the fairways, for example, could go farther compared to most golf courses on the Tour.
“A lot of golf courses on the Tour reward the guy who hits the ball the farthest,” Kauff says. “Our course doesn’t do that. Our course rewards the guy who hits the best second shot, not the best drive.
“So those guys who hit the ball out there farther are now, instead of hitting a 6-iron into the green, maybe they’re hitting an 8- or a 9-iron,” he adds. “So now the chances of winning are better for most of the field.”
The weather for the tournament, which was held May 14 – 20, tested the maintenance staff as well. “That week we had record highs, and we didn’t water the turf once,” says Kauff. “We only did hand-watering.”
Next year the Byron Nelson will be held a week earlier, falling a week before the PGA Championship on the schedule. The staff learned the first time around, Kauff says, for how to improve things for next year’s tournament, such as organization and how they want the golf course to play. The crew also streamlined its activity from day one to day seven during the tournament this year, he says.
Taking Care of the Paying Customers
The Trinity Forest staff strives to maintain optimum conditions for its membership the other 51 weeks of the year as well. “We’re a small private club. We want to make it a special experience for our members,” says Hare.
The area is windy, and golfers can putt from 100 yards away on the fast, firm turf to keep the ball out of the wind. In addition, better ball roll gives all golfers, not just Tour players, more distance.
“It’s fun for members to hit drives 300 yards like a pro does,” says Kauff. “It’s such a unique experience. We aren’t like everybody else in the area.”
All the members belong to other properties, he continues, but Trinity Forest is unlike any other course they play.
“The membership is our main concern. We try to keep playing conditions the same all year round,” says Hare. “Our members play it exactly like the played the Byron Nelson.”
The wide-open spaces at Trinity Forest take golfers out of their comfort zones, so shotmaking becomes a mental exercise. “Trees make people focus more on keeping the ball in the fairway, but you have all this space out here, so you think, ‘I can hit it as hard as I want,’” notes Kauff. “This is an outdoor game. This is supposed to be dictated by Mother Nature. We shouldn’t manipulate it.”
Hare, who has been at the course since it opened, says golf traditions are important at Trinity Forest. “We want people to enjoy the game the way it was meant to be played,” he says.
The property is primarily a walking-only golf course until 1 p.m. every day, except during the heat of the summer. With no water, no out of bounds, and trees only on the perimeter of the golf course, players have no forced carries.
“There’s plenty of room off the tee box,” says Hare. “You need to position yourself to hit it on the right side of the fairway to get the right angle to the pin. The tee shot shapes where the iron shots go.”
Doing Their Things
To keep operations running smoothly, Hare and Kauff talk every day. “We work together every day on the daily preparation of the golf course,” says Hare. “We talk about how we want it set up. [Kauff] lets us know when they’re doing applications or aerifications on the golf course.”
They plan events together, and Hare schedules outings around the maintenance schedule.
“The golf course is the most important thing here,” he explains. “It has to be in the best shape it can possibly be every day. My job is to work around Kasey’s schedule. We work our events around his applications. It’s my job to be sure to have events when we have ideal playing conditions. We try to have everything planned out way in advance.”
Hare offers input on issues such as the need to move cart paths to make golf car traffic flow more smoothly. For outings, he lets Kauff know where the tees or pins need to be.
“[The golf staff] does their thing, and we do our thing,” says Kauff. “It just comes together really well.”
Believing that expression is important to crew members, Kauff also likes to give his staff creative license to show their “artistic freedom” on the golf course.
“I don’t care how the work gets done as long as it gets done,” he says. “[My approach is to] empower the crew and figure things out together If you do something the way you want, then you’re not some person taking instruction, and that makes you a decision-maker. There’s lots of way to get things done.”
Kauff maintains veto power over inputs, however, and also cross-trains his staff so that anyone can perform any task.
“When crew members move up or move on, then someone else steps up to take their place,” he says. “We get new eyes and new ideas. We encourage doing things differently from Communication with the membership is vital to Kauff and Hare as well. “I try to stay ahead of the game,” Hare says. “I try to learn about our members and what their needs are.
“We’re service-oriented,” he adds. “We try to provide the best customer service we possibly can in a laid-back style, and take care of issues before they arise. It’s easier to run our operations that way.”
Because so many members live elsewhere, Kauff e-mails them photos of maintenance projects, such as the new putting green that was under construction this summer, to keep them informed about progress.
“We want to create the best experience for our members and their guests on a daily basis,” Hare says. “We want to keep playing conditions consistent all year round.”