Going Global with Graduate Student Research: My Experience in Thailand and Japan as a Ph.D. Candidate in Turfgrass Science

I have been extremely fortunate to receive many opportunities in my life, but one of the greatest and most challenging was a research experience in Thailand and Japan in July 2016. This was an experience that I greatly benefited from and I wanted to share my experience with the turfgrass industry, specifically other graduate students. During the planning stages, I was hesitant and anxious about the trip so I also hope this story relieves some anxiety other students might have about traveling abroad.

First and foremost I want to thank my major advisor, Dr. Jim Brosnan, and Dr. Micah Woods, chief scientist at the Asian Turfgrass Center. I would also like to thank Mr. Matee Suntisawasdi, Mr. Norifumi Yawata, and Mr. Yukio Ueno. They deserve all the credit for organizing and hosting this trip.

The idea started in April 2015 during a visit with Dr. Woods in Knoxville when we were showing him a device called the Perfect Putter to potentially measure putting quality on putting greens. We had been working on the method for several months prior to his visit, but we wanted to get his input because of his expertise on the subject. The original plan was to test only ultradwarf bermudagrass putting greens in the southeastern U.S. Discussing the potential of the Perfect Putter led us to the idea of measuring putting surfaces in Thailand, Japan, and the U.S. with goals of comparing putting quality in different countries, on different grasses, and with different management techniques.

Maps of Thailand (left) and Japan (right) with locations of golf courses tested noted in orange. Maps were created using R software and Google Maps.

The trip began on July 10, 2016 with four days spent measuring greens at 18 different golf courses in Thailand and then three days at nine golf courses in Japan. Twenty-seven different golf courses in a week created busy days the entire trip. The practice putting green was typically the only surface tested due to the amount of golf course play at each facility. The data collection required too much time and space for in-play putting surfaces, but I was shocked at the number of golfers. The only other experience I had that was similar to this, in terms of working around play, was a data collection trip on golf courses in the Fort Myers, FL area.

Each golf course was unique and had its own feel from the elegant club houses to the native turfgrass species. I especially remember one course in Chon Buri, Thailand, Bangpra International Golf Club. A native Zoysia matrella selection had been growing on their greens for ten years and carpetgrass (Axonopus compressus) was in shaded rough and fairway areas. It was exciting to be where Zoysia spp. are native and to see the high turf quality it can produce with minimal inputs. Along with the plant species, I especially remember the feeling this course had because it was on the edge of a jungle.

Images from Bangpra International Golf Club in Chon Buri, Thailand (left). Carpetgrass next to bermudagrass (right).

The method we used to measure golf ball roll uniformity on the putting surfaces was developed at the University of Tennessee. We measured golf ball dispersion of simulated putts using a stationary ramp called the Perfect Putter. More can be found here at the following link: http://www.theperfectputter.com. The Perfect Putter we used for this research was modified to include a release hinge and a wider base. These modifications were made to reduce human error associated with golf ball release and to increase the stability of the device. Twenty golf balls were rolled along a chosen putting line. Each golf ball was marked and removed to prevent contact with the next subsequent ball. Once twenty balls were rolled and marked, the area of dispersion was calculated by measuring the length between the two longest marks parallel to the putting line and the width between the two widest marks perpendicular to the putting line. These two values were multiplied together to calculate the area of golf ball dispersion. The test was conducted on both uphill and downhill slopes along the same putting line. A lot of data were collected in seven days, but I am not going to go into the specifics. I hope to publish a peer-reviewed research article on this dataset soon.

Measurement of the dispersion area of twenty golf balls rolled using a modified version of The Perfect Putter (left). The modified Perfect Putter with release hinge and base noted (right).

There were many things that I will remember about this trip and I could write about it all day, but here are some of the things that I believe helped me as a person and graduate student. This was my first international trip and I wanted to get the full experience. I tried to learn as much as I could about the different cultures both turf and non-turf related. Probably the most interesting part was eating the different foods. I tried everything from fried grasshoppers to snakehead fish to basashi to uni sashimi. Experiencing different cultures made me realize just how big the world really is and this has helped me grow as a person.

Examples of some Thai and Japanese food. Fried grasshoppers (top left), snakehead fish (top right), basashi (bottom left), and uni sashimi (bottom right).

On the turfgrass side, the interaction with greenskeepers, learning about golf and turf management in different countries, and seeing different plant species/cultivars were most rewarding. Very little English was spoken among the greenskeepers, but our translators were amazing in hosting and communicating. Mr. Matee and Mr. Ueno were able to help us describe our research methods and why we wanted to test their greens. We also learned about individual golf course’s management practices as well as how the individual greenskeepers got into turf management. Learning the differences among management techniques in Thailand, Japan, and the U.S. were surprising, although “Primo” and “Stimpmeter” were popular. The golf culture was also different in that it seemed more relaxed compared to golf here in the U.S.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the trip was witnessing how zoysiagrass outcompetes and invades bermudagrass. In some cases, golf course fairways that were originally established to ‘Tifway’ bermudagrass were ~50% native zoysiagrass within a few years. Native zoysiagrass invasion can also be a problem on bermudagrass putting greens. In the southeastern U.S. it is the opposite relationship between zoysiagrass and bermudagrass. Some other things to note about the trip included a visit Kasumigaseki Country Club (2020 summer Olympics course), seeing salt used for weed control on bermudagrass fairways in Thailand, discussing the double-green system in Japan, and seeing different styles of maintenance equipment.

Zoysiagrass invading bermudagrass putting surfaces in Thailand.

This experience was the greatest of my life, both personally and professionally. I wanted to immerse myself in everything from the culture, people, food, golf, and turfgrass and it was truly rewarding. This experience has opened my eyes to pursuing more international turfgrass research and communication. The world is an enormous place and there are things other turf managers are doing abroad that we in the US could potentially benefit from learning.