Royal St George’s truth

Added on June 27th, 2021 by Lorne Smith
Posted in Conservationism, Greenkeepers, Greenkeeping, Slow play, TV Coverage

FineGolf has conducted its own research and gives the true news about the Royal St George’s course that you are unlikely to hear from the mainstream golf media and the television networks for whatever reason.

The ninth green.

If the weather is kind and dries out the course leading up to this July’s Open Championship at RStG and with some wind during the tournament to add extra defence to the course, we can expect to be in for a feast of running-golf and we should celebrate a ‘Very Special Greenkeeper’ as well as the ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’.

In Sandwich and Deal there is not only cooperation between the next door neighbours of  Royal Cinque Ports, Prince’s and RStG greenkeeping teams but natural rivalry as to who provides the finest surfaces to give their members the best running-golf.

Things have radically changed since RStG hosted its last Open Championship in 2011.

For decades previously, the weed grasses of ryegrass, Yorkshire fog and annual meadow grass (Poa annua) had been invading the RStG greens, aprons and run-offs, while early in this millennium Gordon Irvine and Barney Barnard had led a resurrection of the Royal Cinque Ports greens back to fine grasses from weed grasses. RStG got left behind.

This weed grass agronomy is acceptable for delivering receptive ‘target-golf’ greens into which one throws darts but not if the golfer’s imagination and skill is to be challenged as to how to play the unpredictable running game and into firm greens.

Paul Larsen, RStG’s brilliant head greenkeeper.

The inspired appointment of Paul Larsen as RStG’s head greenkeeper has changed everything and RStG’s agronomy has bounded ahead of its neighbours.

He has been backed solidly and consistently by the RStG leadership particularly the present Chair of Green and Secretary. This is not straight forward as a high proportion of the Club membership live around London and many are members also at the top heathland clubs where the present fashion is to judge the quality of greens by how receptive and shaved for speed they are, which encourages the opposite to the best golf agronomy.

Perhaps the members somehow change their expectations of the type of golf that is most enjoyable when they come to the seaside from one of ‘target-golf’ to ‘running-golf’. Nevertheless, the RStG leadership has done well to quell inevitable short-term criticism of the necessary conservationist agronomic change and establish a long term vision that is returning the links to surfaces that give firm, true, running conditions all year round.

The RStG weed grass agronomy was so bad that when Paul took action that selectively killed the ryegrass and Yorkshire fog weed grasses it caused the loss of as much as 60% of grass cover on some greens!

One of RStG’s enormous bunkers.

Paul’s team of course was ready to quickly over-seed with fescue and the last few years have seen a gradual maturing of the now predominantly fine grassed surfaces.

Paul’s successful approach to the agronomy has been  combined with replacing the formerly thick claggy roughs that contained a lot of ryegrass, creating a healthy dune grassland habitat. This has been achieved by managed burning and scarifying and creating  open sandy wastes, along with some experimentation with hardy, drought-resistant sheep’s fescue.

Any course coming up to host The Open is managed so as to defend against golfers with the prodigious length they hit the ball. This has meant that the roughs have been allowed to grow and with rain in May they are now thick in some places.

Rainfall by country 1910 to 2019. Click to enlarge

This south-east corner of England has always had the lowest average rainfall and the deep-rooted fine perennial grasses naturally out-compete the shallow-rooted weed grasses like annual meadow grass (Poa annua) that require lots of anti-conservationist water, fertiliser and pesticides to survive and prosper.

Paul’s Conservation Greenkeeping has reduced these costly inputs, helped ground-nesting birds, rare lizard orchids, as well as speeding up play with fewer lost balls in normal times.

fescue magnified 30x.

Nevertheless, as always, the ever-changing British weather presents our greenkeepers with enormous challenges that disrupt their best laid plans and the six weeks of drought at 30 degrees in 2018 did put even the fescues (the most drought-resistant GB&I golf grass there is) under real pressure.

This period was the hottest heatwave since 1976 (and it is worth remembering that nobody blamed the 1976 heatwave on a man-made global warming emergency, unlike in 2018!) and it set back Paul’s programme as it did to fairways across the nation. Many courses invested in a fairway watering system after 1976 and RStG now have a new state-of-art one that optimises minimum delivery.

40x magnified, showing distinctive boat tip end and tramlines along the leaf of annual meadow grass (Poa annua).

There were pressures to return to Poa annua /ryegrass greenkeeping with the required increased inputs but these were resisted by the Club leadership and the indigenous, perennial, fine grasses have thrived three years on, requiring much less water. The subsequent discolouration of fairways in a dry summer is part of running-golf. (On the right: Poa annua magnified 40x)

The R&A’s top course expert observes in the GCS Newsletter“When the world’s best golfers arrive in Sandwich in July, they will experience links golf at its best on a course that is managed entirely in harmony with the environment in which it sits.”

FineGolf would add that it should be remembered that links golf does not necessarily give running-golf if the surfaces are managed for weed grasses.

So when we celebrate the skill of The Champion Golfer who will have coped with the challenging, firm, true, running surfaces, we should also celebrate the brilliance of a greenkeeping team. They have fought hard and with determination to bring RStG back to a running-golf course that provides the highest level of enjoyment and gains five-star rating for the ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ FineGolf feeling it gives.

CLICK HERE to read FineGolf’s full historical review of Royal St George’s.


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