Walter Woods BEM on Jim Arthur

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

The late Walter Woods BEM has become the nearest greenkeeper in our minds to Old Tom Morris, as after learning at Tillicoultry and Hollinwell he became leader of the greenkeepers at St Andrews in the 1980/90s. The following concerning Jim Arthur is from his autobiography:

Walter Woods BEM

The poor British and European greenkeepers found themselves torn between two conflicting philosophies. Jim Arthur, at the time, was using his platform as the Royal and Ancient agronomist to preach from the highest pulpit to greenkeepers and golf club officials regarding the pitfalls of the obsession and abuse of using fertiliser combined with excessive water application. Golf club officials, however, were indicating to their Head Greenkeeper that they wanted their course to be similar to the one in the next village that had a more noticeable appearance.

Fertiliser applications, equally abused, resulted in the inevitable problems that excessive root build up creates. Eventually this practice was beginning to kill off the fine-textured, hard wearing, deep-rooted fescue and natural bent grass, leaving in their place soft-textured, shallow-rooted and susceptible to disease annual meadow grass (Poa annua).

Jim’s argument was spot on; identifying that over fertilising had to stop and that more aeration was necessary. All of Jim’s disciples carried the message to many golf clubs who accepted that if it came from the Royal & Ancient agronomist, it must be right!

Regrettably, rarely did anyone give an explanation to the management of the golf clubs of what the outcome would eventually be if they adopted a strict fertiliser regime. Poa annua becomes severely stressed, resulting in many greens suffering acute loss of turf, a condition conversationally known as Arthuritis. With hindsight, it is obvious that the advice was logical, but badly delivered without full assessment of specific course conditions and what back-up systems they had in case of turf stress. In some instances, one recommendation was that a club should prepare a good size turf nursery for turf reinstatement, as there was a distinct possibility of turf damage. Unwelcome news for many and often ignored.

During my tenure at St Andrews, I consulted with Mr Jim Arthur who held the position of official advising consultant for all the Open Championship venues. Retained by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, Jim’s mandate was to create consistency throughout all the Open venues in the UK.

Nonetheless, we maintained a uniform grass texture across the course. Many years later, here I was walking around golf courses with an advisor who was strongly recommending to all golf committees that they should be reducing all forms of turf feeding and watering.

When first I heard that he was arriving to inspect the Old Course, I must admit I was slightly apprehensive. But never in my life did I realise that I was meeting someone who was as equally passionate about the art of greenkeeping as I was. During his first assessment, I was certain that he asked many tough questions just to test me out and see if I knew as much as I was supposed to know. Fortunately, both of us were on exactly the same wavelength and we had a long and respectful relationship for many years afterwards.

He was, of course, correct. However, attempting to change their way of thinking regarding maintenance of golf courses would be difficult to achieve. Golfers, along with golf clubs, had changed their attitudes over the past couple of decades regarding how they expected a golf course to “look”. The television coverage of The Masters from Augusta National may shoulder some unintentional blame. This tournament, shown in early April, is when most of the UK courses (and golfers) are emerging from winter dormancy. Witnessing Augusta National presented in perfect condition would whet their appetite, causing them to want the same conditions on their course, no matter where geographically situated. Regrettably, they would demand similar grass conditions, which were not achievable without frequently entering the fertiliser bag and heavily pressing the irrigation “run” button.

During the many occasions when we met or walked around the links, my mind would always return to my early greenkeeping experiences at Tillicoultry Golf Club. Having to cut greens on a regular basis using a push mower, I was reluctant to fertilise and was prudent in the application of any water.

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