Philp gives a lead

Added on February 5th, 2013 by
Posted in General, Greenkeeping

REPORT on John Philp’s BTME presentation

John Philp, once Deputy to the legendary Walter Woods at St Andrews, now one of golf’s most highly regarded greenkeepers, gave a fascinating presentation recently to a packed room at B.M.T.E. (British Turf Management Exhibition), where 6000 from the golf turf industry congregate each January in Harrogate.


john philp, carnoustie links superintendant, walter woods,

John Philp in full flow

John is recently retired from his position of Links Superintendent at Carnoustie, where in recognition of his role in bringing The Open back, after a bleak period in the course’s history, (read FineGolf’s Carnoustie review) in the 1970’s and early 80’s, the eleventh hole on The Championship Course is now named after him.

(If anybody knows of another hole named after a greenkeeper, do let me know).

John retains that twinkle in his eye and gave every sign of wishing to continue his passionate battle to promote the fine perennial grasses in opposition to the weed species, annual meadow grass (Poa Annua).

John gave a hurried (why wasn’t he given more time to deliver his gems?) run-through of the history and development of  The Open Championship since 1860, when a mere eight contestants competed at Prestwick to seek a new “Champion Golfer” following the death of Allan Robertson in 1859, who was widely regarded as the leading player of his time.

He discussed The R & A Open Course performance guidelines for the various playing surfaces from tee through to green, centring on the need for firm, tight turf of good density comprising predominantly of the indigenous fine–leaved fescue and bent grasses.

It is sometime since Nick Park (a stalwart of various golf course-related Committees at the Royal and Ancient for over 25 years) and Steve Haake (Professor at Sheffield Hallam University) raised the issue in the 1980s, of how the ball reacts to different turf, with fine, firm turf giving an advantage to the better player and John is keen to re-invigorate that debate.

john philp, carnoustie links superintendant, walter woods

Ball/turf reaction diagram 1

He suggested that a well-struck ball played into soft Poa annua turf, results in permanent deformation, momentarily spins in its pitchmark before the friction between ball and turf rejects the still backspinning ball before finally rolling back indiscriminately towards the player, usually out of control.

The soft surface is the controlling factor here, not the quality of the strike.

In the case of lower spin-rates the ball is usually “killed” in its pitchmark before hopping out a few inches to a stop, typical of “target-style” greens.

Conversely, a well-struck ball played into dry, hard Poa Annua impacts the green without any indentation, resulting in the residual backspin being converted on the first or second bounce to a topspin, with the friction between ball and turf propelling it forward, often through the green, again out of control, despite the quality strike.

john philp, carnoustie links superintendant, walter woods

Ball/turf reaction diagram 2

However, quality ball-striking is rewarded on firm fescue/bent turf, even when very dry, as the significant effect of “check” is a common feature on this type of turf. Here the turf deforms momentarily and sufficiently to slow the ball down, thereby “cushioning” the impact. However due to the resilience inherent in the turf, by virtue of its vegetative structure, backspin is only partially reduced on impact.

Quality, firm, fescue/bent turf does not deform permanently and having released the ball forwards the frictional force between the still backspinning ball and turf takes over, braking the ball to a stop or slight roll-out, after two or three bounces, depending on residual spin rate.

Importantly the spin on the ball imparted by the player becomes the controlling factor, not the softness of the green!

Where factors such as wind, green contours or slopes are removed from the equation, the usual overall reaction-distance from first impact is approximately 20-25 feet.

That is the theory, which all adds strength to the case for fine, firm turf!

John went on to emphasise the important influence The Morrises, father and son, had in the establishment and character of  The Open event and among many other aspects, how the prize money and spectator numbers had increased strongly in the 1990s (£100k being the prize in ‘93 and £700k in 2002).

He mentioned, for example, The R&A recommended maximum carry-distance to the fairway today is 200 yards (so the short but accurate hitters are not disadvantaged), along with the need for fairway-shaping to include run-in to bunkers whilst suiting the design of the hole, as well as a preference for one-directional mowing from tee to green.

He then revealed the bunker construction method used at Carnoustie where revetments target a 30-degree angle to the vertical with 30–35mm step-backs, in order to grow a grass face as policy.

He also showed the placement of grow-covers on newly reveted faces to prevent sand-blow and wind-scorch, as well as providing a slight temperature enhancement underneath. Sand shaping was also discussed, designed to encourage roll-back from the turf-walled faces.

John mentioned that The R & A are giving consideration to bunker design and preparation for The Open in a desire to present a natural, mature-looking hazard which ensures an adequate test of recovery skills for the world’s best players.

Moving on to green approaches and surrounds, the key points highlighted were that aprons should facilitate running shots while preparation of surrounds should encourage imaginative shot selection while errant shots are diverted away from the green.

Immediate perimeters should be blended-in seemlessly to avoid unnatural ledges in the grass, against which the ball otherwise stops, giving the player little chance of control of the next shot (one often sees Pros trying to play this artificial shot on ‘target-style’ courses on TV).

John then stated that “great greens are firm, smooth, true and consistent and these are the primary objectives for The Open Championship. Obviously a fast enough green speed is required to provide a proper test of putting skill. However the Stimpmeter was never meant to be a speedometer for comparing green speeds from course to course, it is meant to be used as a tool to help achieve consistency between greens on a course”.

The R & A guidelines for The Open green speed are set between 10 feet and 11 feet Stimpmeter reading (weather dependent).

He then listed key greens maintenance policies at Carnoustie which focus on sand top-dressings, various carefully timed aeration methods and the increasing use of rolling in greens preparation, often rotating daily with mowing during the season.

John stated that the benefits to grass health generally through increased rolling and reduced mowing had been noticeable in recent years and of course favoured the desirable fescue and bent grasses.

Regarding soil nutrition his bullet-point was clear, “Fertilization must suit plant metabolic requirements. If in doubt, do not apply” which had a definite Jim Arthur ring about it.

John Philp finally raised the vexed question of the ball’s manufacture by quoting the beliefs of such notables as Carnoustie man Robert Harris, John L Low of Woking and other members of the Rules Committee of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club from some 80 – 90 years ago. (It is worth noting that the Royal and Ancient GC set up ‘ The R&A ‘ in 2004 – Peter Dawson is its CEO – as a separate body to run The Open Championship and the Rules of Golf etc)

The concern in those days, from many quarters, including leading players, was the liveliness of the rubber core, or Haskell, ball as it was developed.

John suggested that the statements made then were even more applicable today, aimed particularly at the professional game in order to protect the future integrity of our Championship Courses.

1. “The ball should be designed to fit the courses – NOT the courses to fit the ball”

2. “Skill and craft in winning championships should be that of the golfer – NOT the manufacturer”.

In conclusion, John stated that Open venues had been extended over many decades, along with architectural changes, more so in recent times, mainly as attempts to combat the ever increasing power of the player.

FineGolf welcomes John’s ongoing passion for true quality golfing turf and looks forward to reporting his thoughts in the future.


Reader Comments

On February 8th, 2013 Perry Somers said:

I enjoyed the article and entirely endorse the sentiment. The target game on over watered meadow grass courses barely comparable to the running game on fine grassed firm links turf. Continue the marvelous work you’re producing. Regards Perry.

On March 20th, 2014 alan clark said:

John Philp’s disgust at the ‘crap’ as he calls poa annua is legion.

He taught me a lot on turf over many years as I visited the haloed turf at carnoustie.
Folk should sit up and take note from the ‘professor of turf’

Alan Clark
lecturer in golf course management
SRUC Elmwood campus

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