Tradition and progress

Added on December 10th, 2012 by
Posted in General, Greenkeeping, Slow play, TV Coverage

Tradition and progress in golf.


Claridge’s  German general manager once replied to his own question: “What is tradition?  It is an invention that was so good that they kept it.”

One of the things that makes golf so interesting is its requirement for balance between both tradition and progress.

The epitome of this dichotomy arises when The Old Course at St Andrews, habitually branded as the traditional home of golf, undergoes some tweaks in its design as it is now doing.

One does gets worried when it is reported that Peter Thomson, arguably the greatest links player since the last world war and winner of five Open Championships, describes the intended changes as “like a bad dream”.

FineGolf, renowned for its classic and traditional stance on natural greenkeeping and promotion of the ‘running game’, holds those in charge of The Old Course in the highest esteem and though the changes have received the thumbs-up from the local clubs, it is surprising that a wider consultation, as happened over the Jubilee course changes, has not been conducted.

As a matter of perhaps some relevance The European Institute of Golf Course Architects have taken a quick poll of their 112 members. In summary, 79 responded, saying:

1) no changes of any kind to the Old Course- 21

2) Only changes based on historic research -46

3) Any changes in response to the modern game -11

4) Abstention -1

Golf has to move with the times, it has to make itself attractive to the public. This is done by maintaining a challenge in its courses for all levels of golfer, a challenge that balances the design of the obstacles with the firmness and running nature of the ground.

The target-style courses where, to score well, the strategy is all about distance control through the air allied to the ball stopping quickly, require penal hazards like lakes to give sufficient challenge to the modern pro. This, however, usually makes for less fun for the higher handicapper who loses his ball (or balls!).

At the Old Course there are some 50,000 rounds of golf played every year but what is really most impressive is that the natural greenkeeping there maintains a high percentage of indigenous bents and fescue grasses in order to provide the firmness and quality of the roll across the course.

How one gets the ball close to the pin when it is difficult to stop it quickly, is the fundamental challenge and necessity for the pros and this same requirement also gives the high handicapper such fun.

Some may say The Old Course is a wide open track and reduces the golf to one of a mere luck of the bounce. Actually to score well requires exquisite precision of placement with every shot so as to give the best angle of attack in the wind, relative to the topography of the green. If the green approach shot is slightly off-line your ball is ‘gathered away’.

So should The Old Course remain ‘preserved in aspic’?

No, not in FineGolf’s opinion. It should continue to evolve as it has from the earliest centuries when it comprised 22 holes played in the opposite order, through to the alterations made to the early holes in 1905 by John Low (of Woking fourth hole fame).

Nevertheless, if these Old Course changes are aimed solely at top players, what thought has been given to the impact on recreational golfers?

When the vertically-faced bunkers were created for the 2000 Open, I am told that untold damage was done to speed of play and medal scores.

It doesn’t particularly bother FineGolf  if the Championship Committee want to place the 17th tee on the adjacent driving range, it is their decision – but of course it does highlight the R&A’s failure to control the relative power of the ball over so many decades.

St Andrews Old Course changes,

St Andrews Old Course 11th hole

Enjoy this photo taken in 2011 of the second most iconic hole on the course, the eleventh. Certain undulations in the green are being re-contoured in the current changes.

We recommend golfers read two articles covering the issue. Iain Carter, BBC’s golf correspondent  CLICK HERE,  who interviews the R&A’s Peter Dawson and John Huggan  CLICK HERE  from a traditionalist viewpoint.

Iain and John elaborate interestingly but do open themselves to criticism in not even mentioning the vital part Gordon Moir’s superb greenkeeping team play in serving-up for us the finest course in the world. This omission is all part of the same trap the BBC’s TV commentators fall into CLICK HERE when seeing links golf as purely a matter of the design of the hazards on the course rather than appreciating the role of greenkeeping in providing its ‘running’ nature.

Having emphasised the importance of  natural greenkeeping to our finest courses, let us here mention that two hours up the road in Aberdeen, John Bambury, the head greenkeeper at the Trump course, is experimenting with over-seeding the original fescue fairways with what he calls ‘alternative’ species to assist with grass-wear in the high-traffic areas of his course.

He says they have a sophisticated team and Mr Trump has afforded them the luxury of an in-house test-centre for these species. In these plots, John says, his team review everything from grass type (for disease susceptibility, cold and salt tolerance) to nutrient release.

He assures FineGolf  they have always operated a low-nutrient, low-water philosophy and will long continue to do so. He rhetorically enquires: “Will our fairways give you the ‘running game’? You bet!”

FineGolf sees nothing wrong in the use of Trump money to develop such progressive policies, especially if they generate improved, firm, running surfaces. Some observers with lots of experience, however,  may be sceptical if it is ryegrass (even if of a dwarf variety) that is being used, along with the closure of the course in the winter to, as John says, “preserve the integrity of the guest experience”.

trump international golf links reviewed, finest golf courses

From behind a bent/fescue green

I was sent this photo taken from behind a Trump green and towards the fairway by a greenkeeper who played the course in September. The difference in colour is strange and reminiscent of those calendars we used to see of golf courses in fictitious landscapes.

FineGolf does not pretend to be anything but a complete amateur in agronomy but Jim Arthur, the world’s greatest ever golf agronomist, can be trusted and page 154 in the greenkeeper’s bible ‘Practical Greenkeeping’ is quite clear, “By my book perennial ryegrass has no place on any golf course. All too often, one ends up with a patchy mix of Poa Annua and ryegrass, unattractive, unsuitable and poor wearing. Even so-called dwarf varieties are not all that dwarf. Ryegrass does not wear better than bents and fescues”.

Just in passing, FineGolf  wonders whether the future Trump vision is one that is shifting from trying to attract The Open Championship and moving towards one of attracting the Ryder Cup?

Reader Comments

On December 12th, 2012 Melvyn H Morrow said:

Why is it always our great courses that have to be compromised? Why will the Governing Body not address other issues that could resolve most of the reasons for these changes? They refuse to change so why are they forcing our courses to change.

Year-in year-out courses are being changed for the playing elite of The Open, but how long will these guys hang around, in fact how much will these guys pay towards these changes?

I have a little knowledge re TOC as my great, great grandfather (Old Tom Morris) re-designed and built much of what we see today with perhaps some minor mod changes over the years.

The Old Course is not a museum, it’s a working course and as and when mods are required they should be undertaken. However no matter how big or small these changes are, as a public course, simple manners and courtesy should be shown to the People who ultimately own the course and who, both the R and A and the Links Trust, are meant to serve and protect.

However, change for no real apparent reason, is no reason at all for change. Perhaps we should call on the R and A to set the ball rolling by reforming themselves before destroying our great courses. But then why do they need to change, they answer to no one.

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