Sultans of Sod Need a million feet of grass? The Allen family has all kinds down on the farm

June 24, 2001

"We're looking for the Catfish House on the right," says Scot
Sherman, senior associate for Weed Golf Course Design, as he
leans forward in his seat and peers through the windshield of
the Florida golf team's van. He sees pine trees, Georgia
blacktop and flat green fields. "Those are pivots," he says,
pointing out the big irrigation booms that snake across the
fields.

"Catfish House," says Scott Hampton, spotting the backwoods
restaurant. Hampton, director of golf at the University of
Florida Golf Course, is driving cautiously, aware that he is in
Bulldogs country. (Or maybe he doesn't want the half-empty box
of Krispy Kreme doughnuts to slide around on the floor.) "You
take the first paved road on the left," says Sherman. "Go
approximately 1 1/2 miles. The farm is on the right."

The farm is Pike Creek Turf, Inc., of Adel, Ga., which bills
itself as Producers of Quality Turf Grasses. Somewhere on its
8,000 acres are the hybrid bermuda grasses that will cloak the
renovated Florida course later this summer. "We're going to meet
the owner, Jimmy Allen," says Sherman, already breaking into a
smile. "Real good salesman."

A few minutes later Hampton parks the van in front of a white
frame building that resembles a tourist information center. There
is a U.S. flag on a tall pole and a small front lawn, mowed like
a putting green. "What's our purchase order from these guys?"
asks assistant athletic director Chip Howard. Sherman bends over
and touches the grass. "Couple hundred thousand dollars."

Inside, we are entertained for a few minutes by the farm's
operations manager, Al Kent. Then Jimmy Allen appears in the
doorway, a trim, white-haired man in polyester slacks, golf shirt
and shiny loafers. Smiling broadly, Allen apologizes for keeping
us waiting. "I thought you'd all come draggin' in like an ol'
bulldog. I didn't know you'd come in here like a snappin' gator!"

At Allen's suggestion we pile back into the van, and Kent takes
the wheel for a tour of the farm. Allen begins by emphasizing
that his turfgrasses are certified by the state of Georgia and
that his fields have been fumigated to guarantee varietal purity
and no weeds. "This field here is fumigated-certified 419," he
says, using shorthand for Tifway 419, one of a series of popular
turfgrasses developed at the University of Georgia's renowned
Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton. "This is fumigated
Centipede"--we're passing another field--"and over here we've got
fumigated-certified TifEagle...."

Everything is fumigated-certified, Allen says, because he could
be sued for selling contaminated sod, "and I don't want to lose
sleep worrying about it." To further guarantee the integrity of
his strains, he farms with dedicated equipment. A tractor that
has been used in a TifSport field, for instance, is not allowed
to be driven onto a TifEagle field, lest the grasses be mixed by
the tires. "We're not going to sell you a problem. That's our
sales spiel."

Before he grew grass for people named Weed, Allen was a
struggling mini-tour golfer and then the founder of an
accounting firm in Tifton. He says he'll never forget the day in
the mid-'80s when his son, Jaimie, stunned the family by
announcing that he wanted to farm. "I said, 'Son, if I lowered
my head on the desk and cried for a couple of hours, could I
change your mind?'" Instead, Jimmy, who already owned some small
farms around Adel, converted them from row crops to grass. Today
the Allens (daughter Kim Allen Boling is also a co-owner)
operate a farm with 66 pivot-irrigation systems and more than 30
deep wells.

We pile out of the van at Allen's command and walk into a field
of Tifdwarf, the grass that the Florida course will put on its
greens. Allen picks up a leftover piece of sod the size of a
doormat and a mere inch thick. "We call this Frisbee sod," he
says, giving the slab a backhanded spin. The sod flies and lands
a few yards away, undamaged. "You can't do that with ordinary
sod." He picks up the slab of turf and turns it over, revealing a
root network as dense as a brush cut on a porcupine. "Our sod is
not lopsided," he adds. Sherman was right. Jimmy Allen is a real
good salesman.

As it happens, Florida is not buying Tifdwarf sod, but Tifdwarf
sprigs (grass stems containing both roots and blades). Bermuda
grass hybrids, unlike some other varieties of turfgrass do not
propagate by seed but by spreading along the ground like tiny
vines. Sprigs are harvested when they are about 2 3/4 inches tall
and are sold by the bushel for immediate transplantation. (They
are typically spread over prepared soil and rolled in with a
cleated roller.)

Minutes later we visit the field where Florida's TifSport
fairways are sunning lazily. "A million eight
[hundred-thousand-square] feet are in this field," says Allen.
"We can cut 45 semi loads a day. That's 12 1/2 acres, a
half-million feet." Florida has ordered a million feet of
TifSport, a hybrid raised for hardiness, disease resistance,
rich color and tolerance to low mowing heights, a turfgrass
suitable for playing fields and golf courses. The TifSport will
be delivered to Gainesville as sod, but to cover all the fairway
acreage, Sherman intends to plant it in plugs--two- or
three-inch circles cut from the sod--that will fill in quickly.
He says, "We'll go out with buckets and throw them down and roll
them in. A month later you'll be playing golf on this."

"I'm a sprig man," says Allen. "Why in the world would you plug
something?" Sherman tests the nap of the grass with his feet.
"We're hitting a fly over the head with a sledgehammer, we know
that," he says. "But this course has to be ready in November, and
even two weeks shorter growing time makes a world of difference."
Anyway, Allen's sod is too smooth and perfect for Sherman's
purposes. "Golf courses are supposed to mimic the effects of
erosion," he continues. "We can get a more natural look by
plugging."

Allen, ever the salesman, pretends not to hear this last
blasphemy. However, he is unsparing with one piece of advice:
"Fumigate wherever you can." Before tilling, the Florida course
received an application of the herbicide Roundup to kill the
common bermuda and other turfgrass strains that had taken hold
over the years. A few holes received a second treatment of
Roundup. Still, even three applications of Roundup, Allen tells
Florida superintendent Mark Birdsell, leaves 5% to 10% of the
grass in the soil. "Ever been in a parking lot and seen bermuda
growing through the asphalt?" says Allen. "That'll give you an
idea of how hard it is to kill."

To achieve a 99% kill rate, Allen recommends fumigation, a
costly procedure ($1,500 to $2,000 an acre) that involves
injecting methyl bromide into the soil and covering the ground
with plastic for two days. "If you have growback," he warns,
"the only way you can fix it is to spend another million or so
dollars to regrass." Standing in a sea of green, the members of
the Gators' delegation nod like so many dashboard dolls, glumly
doing the mental arithmetic. It's pretty obvious where a big
chunk of the project's contingency fund is going to go.

Jimmy Allen beams. "Y'all ready for lunch?"

In the next installment of This Old Course, water-logged Florida
is swept into the Atlantic, an ozone hole opens in the atmosphere
directly overhead and mole crickets invade the clubhouse. Nobody
cares, because the Gators men are still celebrating their
stunning team and individual victories in the NCAA championship.

For previous installments of This Old Course go to
golfplus.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER Jimmy Allen's Pike Creek Turf farm covers 8,000 acres. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER The Florida turf will be delivered as sod but planted in small plugs.

Sherman says the plugs will fill in quickly. "We'll go out with
buckets and throw them down. A month later you'll be playing
golf on this."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)