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Paspalum Shadows

Seashore paspalum is the turf of choice at courses from Kiawah to Dubai, but not many know its bloody origin story
The hitting bays, and driving range at the new Golf Performance Center at Sea Island.

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On Sept. 26, 1783, a great schooner shoved off from London. Though the name on her stern was French, the Union Jack flying just above left no doubt that the Comte du Nord was now a thoroughly English vessel. 

Like the seafarers of her day, the Comte was hewn from impressive timber and sported colossal masts draped with great sails to harness mighty westbound gales. But according to slavevoyages.org—an international research cooperative run through Emory University that has been investigating the transatlantic trade since 1992—the Comte’s most impressive feature was her 700-ton payload, a size that would be tested some two months later when she ported in Malembo, a modest harbor in the West African country of Angola. The Comte’s captain, a notorious Liverpudlian trader named James Penny, listed on the ship’s manifest 97 women, 131 girls, 197 men and 249 boys—all loaded into her lower holds for future sale.

Over the course of six months, Penny packed these captives onto the Comte head to foot like spoons for a 49-day Middle Passage to Charleston, South Carolina. Those considered for the voyage but deemed too sickly to make the trip were murdered on the dock where they stood. The cries of those on the ship cut through the crackle of the swells crashing against the Comte’s groaning hull as the abducted were ripped from their families, customs and cultures of a native land on which they would never again set foot. Men were bound together by their hands and feet to prevent insurrection, while women, considered lesser threats, were granted freedom to roam on deck and help with the cooking—though not without risking sexual harassment, assault or outright rape at the hands of the crew. Daily rations might include yam, biscuits, rice and horse beans boiled to the consistency of a pulp, but the way it was served—in a single bucket to be shared among roughly 10 people—was as likely to lead to fights as infections.

In rough seas, the Comte’s portholes were closed, leaving the Africans in her belly gasping for breath.

Worse, the Comte had no commode for these men, women and children. They could either relieve themselves over the edge of the ship or do their business in buckets—which, with the size of the crowd, overflowed quickly. In addition to the excreta, the cargo floors were consistently glazed in mucus, blood and vomit. In rough seas, the Comte’s portholes were closed, leaving the Africans in her belly gasping for breath and prone to disease. 

The whole mix made for a steamy, unholy stench that, to the sturdy nose of Alexander Falconbridge, a British slave-ship medic who authored the seminal abolitionist tome An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa in 1788, “resembled a slaughter-house. It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting.” To help sop up the mess, the ship was bedded with grass pulled from the Angolan deltas.

Today, the same turf lines fairways and greens all over the world.  

Different boats with altogether different cargo could be seen in the waters off Sea Island during the 1700s.
Different boats with altogether different cargo could be seen in the waters off Sea Island during the 1700s.

Gorgeous coastal vistas and fickle seaborne gusts pull amateurs and major championships alike to the Ocean Course at South Carolina’s Kiawah Island Golf Resort. “You can play this golf course four days in a row and not have the same wind,” says director of golf Brian Gerard. But the thing they all never seem to forget about this course is its viridescent surface—made up of a single grass type called paspalum vaginatum, or seashore paspalum. It’s virtually the same grass that once lined the hull of the Comte du Nord and the scads of other slave ships that crisscrossed the Atlantic between 1500 and 1870, during the largest forced human migration in recorded history. The sod has been a course feature for the past 13 years, with the Ocean Course making the transition to paspalum ahead of its maiden PGA hosting in 2012. Since then, all five of Kiawah’s courses and its learning center have been converted to paspalum from Bermuda. “And the difference between managing the two [grasses],” says superintendent Jeff Stone, “is night and day. There’s no similarity whatsoever.”

Paspalum’s currency lies in its playability—it can be cut to any length—and its uncanny knack for processing salt. Unlike Bermuda, “one of the least salt-tolerant Southern grasses,” says Stone, paspalum has a number of mechanisms for dealing with salinity that are still only partially understood. Paul L. Raymer, the professor in charge of the University of Georgia’s turf breeding program—staffed by the leading researchers on paspalum—has isolated at least three of those mechanisms: paspalum’s selective uptake, its ability to partition off the sodium it does take up, and its lack of surface salt glands; unlike Bermuda or more resilient zoysia grasses, paspalum can actually store salt on the surface of its leaves. “We don’t fully understand it,” Raymer says. “We would love to identify key mechanisms in paspalum and then move them into crop plants like wheat and alfalfa so we could actually grow crops on salt-affected soils.”

Not only does paspalum thrive on the brackish well-water sources at Kiawah, but it likewise has no problem weathering the hurricanes that batter this region with increasing regularity, many of them tracing the same path as the Comte du Nord and other slave ships; the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia’s Coastal Empire alone have been hit with more major storms over the past five years (seven) than in the decade prior (zero). 

Berry Collett, the director of golf at Sea Island (a three-and-a-half-hour drive south from Kiawah), well remembers the anxiety he felt as Hurricane Irma buzzed up the coast in 2017. He had just finished tinkering with paspalum on the Seaside Course fairways and some practice greens and feared his three years of work would be ruined. When the storm dumped more than a half-foot of rain and more than 5 feet of coastal flooding on the course, Collett assumed the experiment—part of a never-ending quest to “knock the socks off” his guests—was a bust. Or at least he thought it was until he flew a drone over the course on a cloudless day after the storm and scoped his cellphone viewfinder. “It looked healthy as ever, pure green,” he says. “I was amazed and thought, ‘Damn, that paspalum is some good stuff.’”

With its mechanisms for handling salinity, paspalum is becoming more popular at oceanfront courses like Sea Island.
With its mechanisms for handling salinity, paspalum is becoming more popular at oceanfront courses like Sea Island.

Collett tells this story on a postcard-perfect 84-degree weekday morning in July as a 71,000-ton cargo ship called Golden Ray sits capsized in the channel, unwittingly winking at the dark history on these shores. You can see it clearly from Sea Island’s ocean-facing putting greens, which at a glance seem made of Astroturf. But then Collett has one of his charges dig out a plug of turf with a hole cutter. Set off to the side, it looks like a flourless chocolate cake you might order inside the lodge for $14—only the icing has been replaced by a millimeters-thick layer of grass with blades that feel waxy to the touch. After Rory McIlroy’s 2012 PGA victory at Kiawah, Stone recalls, “some women came up to take pictures with us. One of the ladies goes, ‘I just wanna take my shoes off and put my feet on this grass. This doesn’t even look real.’”

Surely this impulse rings true to the Liverpool fan who dreams of romping barefoot over the pitch at Anfield, or the Chicago Cubs lifer hell-bent on having their ashes sprinkled in the outfield. Every field sport, it seems, has its own intimate romance with grass. In golf, though, the relationship is technical, too—as important to the game as club selection. This particular obsession—how different strains can completely change shot strategy—turns golfers into self-proclaimed turf experts. Roger Federer would be hard-pressed to name the grass variety at Centre Court Wimbledon as quickly as the average golfer could rattle off all the grasses on which they’ve played. And paspalum is as deceptive a surface as it comes, the greens especially. “The primary difference,” says Kiawah head pro Stephen Younger, “is it doesn’t have grain. So the break, and the consistency of the break, is truer throughout the entire roll of the putt. When you have Bermuda grass, wherever the green is growing closest to the hole, it’s going to have a more dramatic effect on how much the ball breaks. Paspalum really putts a lot more like bent grass. Some of our players that come from parts of the country that have bent grass can adapt to the paspalum pretty quick.”

Tim O’Neal falls in the opposite camp. Though born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, the 48-year-old touring pro cut his teeth on Bermuda-sod courses along the Southeastern shore. His first serious encounter with paspalum wouldn’t come until he received an exemption into the 2007 Mayakoba Classic in Cancún, and it threw him for a loop he can still clearly recall. “Going out to the putting green, the grass looked a little weird,” says O’Neal, who’s seen a bit of everything over the course of his 23-year career. “And then, rolling putts on it, I soon realized that, OK, I don’t know what this is. It sits straight up and really grabs chip shots. It’s so sticky.

I didn’t adjust to it that well. I had never seen grass like that before.” He would go on to miss the cut. 

It wasn’t until we spoke that O’Neal, who is Black, came to realize how much deeper his connection to the soil was on that day. “I did not know that at all,” he admits, his usually stoic interview voice shaken. “I had no clue where that grass came from.”

On July 18, 1784, after a horrifying seven-week journey that tracked the Northern Equatorial currents across the Atlantic, the Comte du Nord docked in Charleston. After quarantining in port, the Comte’s enslaved were auctioned off in city squares. Despite losing 63 enslaved people during her Middle Passage, the Comte still carried a haul worth £27,556.71 sterling, or roughly $2.5 million in today’s U.S. dollars. According to slavevoyages.org, of the nearly thousand cargos to enter the port of Charleston between 1670 and 1808, this haul was the largest single shipment of enslaved people to the Americas. That it was received nearly a decade after the First Continental Congress banned the importation of Africans as a response to British oppression makes this gruesome chapter of American history all the more significant.

An estimated 10 million Africans were shipped to the Western Hemisphere between 1500 and 1870 on ships like the Comte, more than 5% of them landing at ports along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, where, in 1775, there were two enslaved Africans for every free colonist. And this human capital, which promised technical skill in addition to free labor, would not only set the foundation for a trillion-dollar agriculture-based economy that would position the United States as a global superpower, but also create a system of economic and racial inequality that abides to this day. As these enslaved people were processed and sold to what slavevoyages.org counts as 133 separate parties in the urban heart of Charleston, where transactions were conducted in the same manner as cattle auctions, they’d leave behind blades of ship bedding, this seashore paspalum, on the beach. That’s where Ron Duncan, Raymer’s predecessor at the University of Georgia, found it growing in the early 1990s. And when he collected more of it from Sea Island, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America, it confirmed his theory that the grass had indeed migrated with slave-ship traffic.

 Meanwhile, the turf’s potential application in golf made for its own saga. Research in this area goes as far back as the 1960s, with early distribution orders for Southeastern courses originating from samples collected from the 13th fairway of Sea Island’s Marsh Course, where it was taken for a weed and an existential threat to the flourishing Bermuda. Nowadays it can be found at Emirates Golf Club in Dubai, Turtle Bay Resort in Hawaii, Hanoi’s Tam Dao Resort and many other far-flung seaside locales. Kiawah, which credits the legendary architect Pete Dye for championing the species there, says its Ocean Course is the northernmost U.S. plot to go full paspalum. Meanwhile, Sea Island features paspalum only here and there—for now. Its success with the salinity of the surrounding area has the team thinking a full change is in order. “Mother Nature is telling us we need to redo this whole course in paspalum,” Collett says.

The adoption of African turfgrass represents yet another layer of cultural erasure in a larger game of gentrification. Coastal Georgia and South Carolina alone have come a long way. Three centuries ago, these lands were dismissed as barely habitable, what with their marshlands, insects and humidity so suffocating that plantation-owning families would retreat to pieds-à-terre farther inland during the summer months. So it figures that, during Reconstruction, freed slaves were awarded parcels of this undesirable land. Besides, who’d want to live here when the war-torn South was basically broke?

But then, in the decades following slavery’s abolition in 1865, two important things happened: Georgia and the Carolinas legalized chain gangs, which comprised free Blacks rounded up on misdemeanor charges and leased to businesses to pave roads and work farmland, and air conditioning was invented. Suddenly, well-heeled whites who never would have lived in this sweltering climate were manipulating the tax code to cheat Gullah-Geechee descendants of enslaved people out of land that was rightfully theirs, to build posh resorts and gated communities. And, more often than not, the centerpiece of these pleasure centers—many of them still calling themselves “plantations” well into the 21st century—were golf courses. 

The road to the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island alone has more checkpoints than Parris Island. On the August weekday morning I drove through, white couples and families walked and rode bikes on paths that dead-end a few miles short of a Black neighborhood in Charleston.

At Sea Island, the scene was much the same: middle-aged white men taking cuts at their own pace, women and children lounging out by the pool. The few Black faces were tucked behind service counters and sentry towers; in a picture, you’d be lucky to see one lingering on the fringe. “We like the Gone With the Wind history,” says Amir Jamal Touré, an Africana studies professor at Savannah State University, “the nice, sanitized story of the happy-go-lucky African. People don’t want the truth because they come here to play tennis and golf. We want to promote that. We want people to keep coming back.”

When I asked Kiawah Island’s golf stewards if their players have any sense of the history underfoot, the most Younger, the head pro, could offer was, “I think when we sit here and talk about it with you, that’s great. That’s a vehicle for getting the story out. It’s a cool story.”

It’s a lived story for O’Neal, the journeyman pro, who easily calls up the moments when he was profiled while playing on what was then called the Nationwide Tour. There was the time in 2000 when a locker room attendant asked him to leave because they thought he was trespassing, or the time a year later when a security guard asked him to vacate a players-only eating area because he didn’t look like one—and nearly succeeded until a peer came to O’Neal’s defense. “It’s just one of those things you always remember,” O’Neal says. “I remember exactly what course it was. I remember exactly where it was. I say it doesn’t bother me, but it’s there.”The specter of the Comte du Nord is there too. It’s a centuries-long legacy of pain and suffering that fits within a single blade of grass. And as incredible as it is that the paspalum that once lined those great schooners still endures, one could also say the same of the people who originally were forced upon it.

Drawn by the beauty and challenge at high-level paspalum courses, most players don’t know the history beneath their feet.