Richard Arthur on his father

Added on October 17th, 2020 by Lorne Smith
Posted in Jim Arthur 100 celebration

“Jim Arthur, my father, was born in October 1920 so this year is a fitting time that the 60 years he devoted to fine golf are properly acknowledged and his single-handed achievements celebrated.

Like his father’s love of birds Richard Arthur with a robin feeding from his hand

The legend that is Jim Arthur, will always be linked with fine fescue /browntop bent grass and the best traditional golf courses. His name will be very familiar to all greenkeepers and anyone involved in golf course management and construction. However, he will perhaps be less well known by those who sink their putts over the fine grass he cared so much about, and there may even be a few playing the game to championship level, who also do not realise the tremendous debt that the game of ‘Golf’ owes Jim Arthur.

My father had no time for those golfers who felt verdant green colour important and demanded soft, unchallenging greens.

He had utter contempt for all those who somehow managed to get some of the best fine courses turned into lush, disease prone, soggy disasters, so often completely unplayable in winter.

As if it wasn’t enough to have to put up with the demands of these ‘target golfers’, he had to constantly fight against the ubiquitous oxymoron that grass must be fertilised in order to survive and be over-watered to look green.

I once told him that “I can only presume they must feel sorry for the poor starving grass, and that such people are clearly completely unable to comprehend the fact that fine grasses have evolved over tens of millions of years specifically to cope with drought and nutrient poor soils, and more importantly they positively thrive in these impoverished conditions.

However, even the tiniest application of NPK Fertiliser results in opportunist weed grasses such as his bête noir, annual meadow grass (Poa annua) taking over, and that anyone would actually consider planting the stuff he considered a complete anathema.

One of the biggest problems he faced arose when golf was televised and the commentators believed that the viewers need to see green greens, bringing about another absolute fetish for fertiliser and over-watering.

Had dad simply turned his back on his principles and given in to the fertiliser companies, TV commentators etc. he would have had a far richer and simpler life but only in financial terms.

Jim Arthur tried his level best to educate everyone to understand exactly why golf should always be played on fine grass but also to understand all the other reasons why fine grass is so important and how simple it is to look after.

He also taught me the business and, having embarked on a botany–zoology- geology degree, I was all set to join him as his co-adviser, something dad was very keen I should do. However, I could see the lack of appreciation and awful angst he faced daily so I declined his kind offer and made my life as a geologist, something I have no regrets about, especially given that I have inherited his forthright manner but with less patience and tact!

One of the many things I can no longer ask him is why the surface that golf is played on (and which defines the game far more than the size of the hole, the shape of the sticks or the dimples on the ball), is not part of the stringent R&A rules.

Often referred to as ‘Capability Arthur’, many may not be aware of his country-house landscaping work, there was little he could not turn his hand to. I helped him on some amazing projects including designing and building a patio for Chequers for the incumbent PM. He was also one of the first to successfully move huge, mature, 80-foot trees and even a complete timber framed house. I do have some other amazing stories but these will have to wait for his biography.

Jim Arthur’s method for keeping fine grass healthy did not change throughout the 60 years he provided un-equalled advice, and while some will doubtless label that consistency as old fashioned and in need of updating – I know exactly what Dad would have to say:

“My method has stood the test of time, it follows nature and there is ample evidence that it works”.

A good example would be soil biology where he said “if the right conditions are created/maintained the desired ecosystem will be there and thrive”. He would regard anything novel as likely to be at best a temporary quick fix, and almost certainly an unnecessary waste of money.

I have to say that Dad’s work did get in the way of family life and I remember few if any family meals which were not interrupted by a ringing phone. He would jump up to give someone another hour of his time for free while his meal went cold.

Despite this I encouraged him to write his life’s work in a book, the production of which took a long time and caused, before he understood where I was coming from, a good deal of father/son friction. I am delighted to be acknowledged in it for my role.

Having written ‘Practical Greenkeeping’, which is widely described as ‘the definitive greenkeepers bible’ and is endorsed as such by the Royal & Ancient, he felt finally that no-one would use anything other than his prescribed methods. So when the idea of marking Dad’s centenary began to form I was delighted to hear from several key sources, including the great Donald Steel (who was very close to Dad and very supportive) that the Jim Arthur philosophy was now universally accepted and that all the finest clubs followed his advice.

Incidentally Jim Arthur could have been an accomplished golfer himself but, and I use the word advisedly, he never had enough time. He did always carry a golf ball and handy putter with him, and I witnessed him sink many a putt using that special putter – the side of his trusty brogues – “Son,” he said “it is simply a matter of understanding what a golf green does”.

The only other equipment he took with him was his tatty note-book (which I still have), a hand lens and sheath knife made blunt and two inches shorter by repeated insertion into turf. In his early years he carried a ‘boat’ and universal indicator to measure pH but soon realised that accurate analysis of acidity etc. is no substitute for being able to judge soil from experience, and he felt that detailed analysis was often oversold.

He frequently had to point out that the book is described as ‘Practical Greenkeeping’ for a very good reason, reflecting his down to earth approach. When I was being ‘trained up’, on one of his mammoth advisory tours of Scotland, I vividly remember that knife slicing a big ‘V’ into a green, and seeing Dad lift and fold back a vast section of turf, like a carpet. Constant pure sand top dressing had encouraged the grass roots to grow only in a surface zone and not down to the sub soil, allowing the turf to be easily detached, creating lots of other problems.

Looking at his old correspondence files I can see that he was unhappy that the big golf institutions did not promote and support the book as much as they should. I was also staggered to see that he received zero royalties and his tiny author’s fee he ploughed back into promoting the book. All I know is that he received his reward through the full knowledge that the name Jim Arthur and the ‘Arthur Method’ will live on.

This is especially true because the five principles he promoted are currently being championed by Gordon Irvine who my father regarded as his protégé, and whom I have no hesitation in endorsing as a worthy successor to Jim Arthur.”

R F J Arthur Aug 2020

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