Turf Disease March Madness

The turfgrass community is a close-knit group of hardworking, passionate individuals. As the coronavirus continues to impact our normal way of living including taking care of our facilities, turfies are still finding ways to gather, talk turf, and laugh a bit through social media and video conferencing. Turfgrass researchers are no exception, as a group of turf pathologists had a virtual happy hour amongst themselves a couple of weeks ago. While the conversations from that session are highly classified, one outcome was a March Madness-style single elimination tournament to determine the top turfgrass disease as voted on by the public. The “Selection Committee” determined the field of 64 turfgrass diseases and seeded them according to disease impact, distribution, and occurrence. Each round of voting was conducted via polls shared on Twitter (@turfdiseases) where anybody who wanted to could vote on their favorite disease. The final round of voting wrapped up at midnight last night and the inaugural champion has been crowned. In this post, we break down each round and highlight the first-round upsets, the Cinderella stories, and how dollar spot eventually took the crown as the inaugural Turfgrass Disease March Madness Champion!

Gabe Towers (@GabeTowers) created some AWESOME matchup graphics with mascots for many of the diseases! His tweets are embedded after some of the round recaps if you would like to take a look.

Round of 64

  • All #1 seeds (Pythium root rot, Microdochium patch, dollar spot, and sting nematode) advanced to the Round of 32 in their respective geographical regions of the bracket. 16-seed red leaf spot almost took down sting nematode in a close 18-17 battle.
  • A major upset occurred in the South region as #12 Pythium root dysfunction took down perennial powerhouse #5 Pythium blight. While Pythium blight can knock out large swards of turfgrass if not on a preventative fungicide program, Pythium root diseases are less understood and give turf managers headaches every year. This was an upset in the making of sibling rivals!
  • Abiotic diseases like #5 black layer and biotic #8 moss (YES, these count as diseases!) took down traditionally classified fungal diseases.
  • 4 of the 6 nematodes that cause disease in this bracket won their first-round matchup indicating the significance, familiarity, and occurrence of these pests.

Round of 32

  • The first #1 seed goes down in a blowout where take all root rot routed sting nematode 22-8.
  • 2-seeded mini ring gets bumped out in the second round by #7 root knot nematode as nematodes continue to establish themselves as turfgrass diseases to be reckoned with.
  • In the South Region, an early heavy hitter matchup of #6 fairy ring and #3 brown patch left fairy ring victorious and moving on.
  • Cinderella story #14 red thread, a disease easily reduced through proper nitrogen fertility, moves on to the Sweet 16. Red thread might have benefited from favorable bracket placement and seeding (with all due respect to the Selection Committee)

Sweet 16

  • Remaining #1 seeds (Pythium root rot, dollar spot, Microdochium patch) all move on to the Elite 8 with relative ease.
  • I have a feeling that in the late 90’s/early 00’s that #5 gray leaf spot would have put up a better effort and given #1 dollar spot a run for its money.
  • Poa powerhouses #3 summer patch and #1 anthracnose duked it out in the North region with anthracnose cruising comfortably to a 22-13 victory.
  • Black layer’s run ends in the Sweet 16 losing to top-seeded Pythium root rot. This abiotic disease is not to be trifled with and will make deep runs in the bracket (and rootzone profiles) for years to come.

Elite 8

  • #1’s Pythium root rot and Microdochium patch continue to dominate the field setting up for a bout of cooler weather diseases in the Final Four
  • Two of the top diseases in the North Region squared off and #1 dollar spot got a couple votes at the buzzer to knock down #2 anthracnose to move on to the Final Four
  • #6 fairy ring and #4 spring dead spot provided a matchup of tough-to-control soilborne diseases in the South region with fairy ring moving on. A Frisky Fairy Ring Final Four!

Final Four

  • The incredible run for #6 fairy ring ends in the Final Four falling to #1 dollar spot. The odds-on favorite in Vegas moves on to the championship.
  • In an upset (by my bracket prediction), #1 Microdochium patch can’t muster a late comeback and #1 Pythium root rot matches up with #1 dollar spot for the title bout.
  • A root disease and foliar disease in the final matchup of a 64-disease field just goes to show many types of disease turfgrass managers must deal with.


  • Dollar spot takes the crown over Pythium root rot 25-21!
  • That’s not the last you’ll hear of Pythium root rot, especially since environmental conditions for Pythium root rot are starting to become ideal in many parts of the country.
  • Dollar spot is not far behind! As the champion of turfgrass diseases, it is critical to stay on top of this disease early in the season.

Can’t wait to see what next year’s bracket looks like! Hopefully, we all won’t be in quarantine and will be out taking care of our turfgrass as the season gets into full swing! Stay happy and healthy!

Travis Russell is a PhD Candidate at Penn State University working with Dr. John Kaminski on Pythium diseases of turfgrass who received his B.S. and M.S. at the University of Arkansas. Feel free to connect via email (trr33@psu.edu) or Twitter (@TravisRRussell).