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Colbert Hills Golf Course

Manhattan, Kan.


Living laboratory meshes athletics, academics

The hills are alive, with the sounds of ... research.

By Keener A. Tippin II



William uses machine in the back of his truck to test the soil

File photo

William Wehmueller tests the soil. A team of researchers is looking at the environmental affects of constructing Colbert Hills.


The "hills" are Colbert Hills Golf Course. And just the mention of the name causes Jack Fry's eyes to light up.

Who wouldn't marvel at the opportunity to play at an 18-hole, championship-caliber course, practically in your own back yard, situated on 305 acres, with a clubhouse, state-of-the-art driving range and enough acreage for a nine-hole teaching course, too?

Yet, Fry isn't in complete awe of the golfing aspects of the course. Although the Kansas State University associate professor in horticulture, forestry and recreation, and a turfgrass management specialist does golf -- he admits he spends "most" of his time in the rough. It is the academic aspect that thrills him.

Although Colbert Hills, which stretches out over 7,500 yards from the back tees and includes such challenging factors as 100 bunkers, water features, ponds and fast, contoured greens, is designed for golfers wanting to play on a championship course. The home course for the Wildcat women's and men's golf teams, it also serves as a unique 'living laboratory' for K-State researchers.

The course allows members of the Colbert Hills environmental research team to scientifically gauge the environmental impact of the golf course and related development -- prior to, during and after its construction. This team studies the environmental impact of a golf course on natural resources and to evaluate the best turf grass management practices for the golf industry in the Midwest.

Their research included cataloging the plants and animals there prior and during construction, as well as testing the soil quality and water conditions. The environmental studies were similar to research done at the Konza Prairie Biological Station.

Call it a unique marriage between recreation and research. It is this combination of athletics and academics that K-State alumnus and Senior PGA TOUR pro Jim Colbert, envisioned when he approached K-State officials with the idea of the course.

Colbert Hills, is owned by the not-for-profit Kansas State University Golf Course Management and Research Foundation. The course has been rated by the Kansas Golf Association as one of the most "challenging" in the state.

"Colbert Hills will truly be a living laboratory and education facility," Fry said. "It will allow us a place to go out and evaluate grasses in real-world situations, varieties and other management practices."

According to Fry, the course provides an environment for students to get first-hand experience in a variety of areas, rather than just reading about them in a textbook.

"So you've got all these different parts of the puzzle that have come together -- and we get a world-class golf course," Fry adds matter-of-factly.

One partner of this union of recreation and research is Robert Bauernfeind, a horticultural entomology professor for the K-State Research and Extension Service. Bauernfeind had already been planning to study the masked chafer beetles when he first heard of the Colbert Hills project. Soon thereafter he received a call from Bob Krause, vice president for institutional advancement, asking that he be a part of the continuous research done at the course.

"I already had a trap out there before ground was broken," Bauernfeind said.

Bauernfeind's research, which consists of utilizing a blacklight trap on one hole of the course to monitor the beetles, has allowed him to look at and compare chafer populations during different phases of construction -- the pristine environment prior to construction, the environment during the course construction and after the course opens to determine those problems and the actual populations. The larvae of masked chafers are referred to as annual white grubs, considered the major pests of high maintenance turf throughout the Midwest.

"Just because there may be many chafer beetles flying around does not mean that a grub problem will follow," he said. "If turf is in a good vigorously growing condition, it can sustain a grub population without showing physical damage."

Additionally, Bauernfeind sees Colbert Hills as a unique opportunity to establish "at base zero" a history and a record of various insect problems if and when they appear as well as their frequency of occurrence.

"The value of knowing that is special inspections of known potential problem areas could stave off insect damage before it occurs, thus preserving the integrity of playing areas," he said.

For Steve Thien, professor of soil science, combining his interest in both golf and soil seemed like a "natural blend." Thien, along with Mickey Ransom and Chuck Rice, both professors of agronomy, are looking at soil quality, how the soils are affected due to the course construction and how they are changing because of the course management and design.

"We started measuring before the course was ever in place," Thien said. "We have all that information so we know what was there at that time. We also came out to take measurements during the construction phase and we'll take progressive measurements over time now to keep monitoring this change to soil quality."

According to Thien, approximately one new golf course a day comes online, which translate into a significant impact on turfgrass ecosystems. Both the golf industry and the general public want to know what impact the golf ecosystem has on the environment.

"This is a rather unique opportunity," said Thien. "We don't know of another situation like this for a golf course around the country. We hope that we can provide the golf industry with some valuable information that they can use in the future so that next time a golf course is built, we can provide some guidelines for minimal disruption of the natural resources in the area. This is a long-term study; we're measuring changes and indicators over time."


August 2002