Topdressing: smoothing out the rough spots in your game

Presented by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America

Like a chef, golf course superintendents know the difference between good and great is often a pinch of this or a pinch of that.

For the superintendent, that extra touch often comes in the form of topdressing. Topdressing involves working amendments such as sand or peat into and through the surface of the turf.

Topdressing greens is nothing new to golf course maintenance. In fact, Old Tom Morris began to apply sand to his greens in 1875 to make them firm and smooth.

Most superintendents believe topdressing is a necessary part of keeping greens healthy. It builds a healthier soil profile while helping to level and smooth irregularities on the green. It also fills in ball marks and other minor imperfections on the playing surface. Not only does topdressing make for a better putting surface, it also helps the grass by absorbing the rainfall and prevents baking in hot, dry weather.

Relatively heavy topdressing applications are routinely used to smooth and level the surface of newly seeded greens during grow-in and on newly sodded greens. A heavy application also can be used to provide a degree of protection to the turf and prevent it from drying out during the winter. It can also improve consistency among greens on older courses that have been renovated and possess a variety of greens built from different materials.

The primary objectives of topdressing include:

  • Smooth surface, finer-textured turf, with tighter, more upright growth.
  • Uniform and consistent putting surfaces.
  • Thatch and compaction control for better shot-holding characteristics.
  • Modification of the surface layer of soil.
  • Control of unwanted grain or leafiness.

In the past few years, superintendents have recognized benefits of topdressing lightly and with greater frequency. Some have even taken topdressing one-step further and began to topdress fairways. Supporters of fairway topdressing say it can provide thatch control, a firmer playing surface between drain lines and leveling and smoothing of the surface. This allows fairways to be mowed lower without scalping on undulations. Of course, this is an added expense that must be taken into consideration.

As the effort to emphasize environmental stewardship continues to grow, so has the popularity of two new topdressing materials -- compost and crumb rubber. Composted grass clippings and other organic byproducts used as topdressing can save money while improving turf establishment, density and color. Those who have used crumb rubber say it improves turf's wear resistance by forming a layer that protects the crown against heavy traffic. Crumb rubber is created by grinding up discarded rubber products such as tires and tennis shoes.

But unlike some maintenance practices, superintendents realize that topdressing is not a program to be started for a year or so and then discontinued. A one-year trial of topdressing deposits a discrete sand layer into the soil that will become covered with thatch within a few years unless the program is continued. This can also limit root growth while slowing the movement of water through the green. Another element of topdressing superintendents must take into account is the cost of topdressing equipment and high-quality sand. There are other disadvantages with this practice, including the potential for temporary, but significant injury to the grass blades.

While some golf course superintendents have been cautious about adopting sand topdressing, many others follow the practice faithfully. Superintendents generally adapt the program to the specific needs of individual greens and fairways. Through sound research, field observation and experience, the challenging task of topdressing can be made easier for all superintendents, thus giving the golfer and their flat stick that added flavor of success.

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