The Faversham Story*

Added on August 21st, 2022 by Lorne Smith
Posted in Greenkeepers, Greenkeeping | No Comments

The Faversham Story

Gordon Irvine MG

Gordon Irvine MG, the leading GB&I and European greenkeeper advisor on temperate climate fine grasses, first put me in touch with officials at Faversham GC in Kent.

Having moved to East Sussex it was easy for your correspondent to pop over for a game with their secretary, chair of green and assistant greenkeeper earlier this summer. It was great fun and it was explained to me the enormous changes that were happening across the course.

The Club is going through what could be called a greenkeeping revolution.

Belmont House and parkland.

The site is part of a larger parkland area and being on chalk is well draining across most of the course. Previous greenkeepers having done nothing to them, the fairways are naturally high in fine fescue/bent grasses.

But it had become covered with trees and undergrowth and the agronomy was annual meadow grass (Poa annua) on the soft greens. These were severely shaved, as is the wont with the so called “2mm cut brigade”, in order to gain putting speed, as some unknowing golfers measure the quality of greens by how fast they run rather than by their firmness and how true they run.

In turn these stressed grasses were rife with disease and expensive to maintain in terms of needing lots of water, fertiliser and pesticides, which is not conservation greenkeeping.

The Club’s revolution of tree removal and agronomic change to fine grasses has been led by Rob Clark, the course manager and in line with intelligent modern greenkeepers the fascinating story is best told by him:

Rob Clark with the Vredo slit seeding machine.

“I was a keen scratch golfer who played county level up and down the country on many different styles of golf courses.

Links golf was always a regular visit with many events in Kent county golf being played at Littlestone, Royal Cinque Ports, Royal St. George’s and Princes. I learned to play golf on these four fast running links courses and there was always a gulf in quality in comparison with most inland courses I played.

I would play an event each winter called the Hinge Trophy held on these four links course in a knockout format with the final being played at Royal St. George’s. I would always be amazed at the quality of the putting surfaces, in particular at this winter time of year, compared to my home club Faversham which was usually covered in disease scars and extremely soft, whereas the links courses were firmer and smoother.

I started as an apprentice greenkeeper in 2006, after a brief spell trying to play professional golf. I knew I wanted to remain in the golf industry and loved the thought of learning what goes into maintaining a golf course and what place better than my home club Faversham.

Faversham employed me for ten years and in that time I completed a level two, level three and eventually a level four in sports turf management Diploma.

I thought that I’d learnt a hell of a lot about turf and how to maintain it but although the surfaces at Faversham would always be acceptable for a few short months in the summer, it was always a struggle with the pressure of anthracnose disease and also the long summer droughts that this part of Kent would experience most years, with the disease attacks and the moisture stresses the short rooted annual meaadow grass (Poa annua) suffered.

Fusarium disease would always be a big problem throughout winter even when we could use the chemicals that are now being banned.

The greens complexes had become extremely shaded over the years from tree planting and the ingress of native woodland that was always unmanaged and been allowed to grow close to playing surfaces including tees.

The par three downhill 16th.

The course was extremely tight and unenjoyable to play. Most rounds you would spend more time looking for lost balls than enjoying a round of golf.

In 2017 I left Faversham after an opportunity to join the team at Royal St. George’s came up. I spent two years under the brilliant leadership of Paul Larsen and I learnt for the first time about the importance of fine perennial grasses.

During this time at St George’s I was amazed at the year-round quality of all surfaces and with very little input from fertiliser, water and fungicides.

I recall a time when fusarium was actively evident on a number of greens and I mentioned this to Paul, he simply said:

“Well, that’s not a concern as it will clean out some of the weed grasses”.

I was a little concerned from experiences at Faversham with fusarium although when the outbreak subsided the surfaces had little to no damage and were still rolling true. Fescues are resistant to fusarium and no fungicides were applied!!

After completing just under two wonderful years at St George’s I felt that I had reinvented my greenkeeping knowledge and learnt the importance of perennial, deep rooted fescue and how grass type can dramatically affect not only maintenance routines and costs but most importantly, as far as golfers are concerned, the quality of playing surfaces on a golf course.

I then had the opportunity to join Littlestone as first-assistant under the leadership of course manager Malcolm Grand. Littlestone has always been a regular visit for me as a golfer growing up and I was always impressed with the quality of the green complexes in particular.

After my time at St George’s I felt that I had a much better understanding of why this was and the move to Littlestone allowed me to further improve my knowledge on the running game and Malcolm had a great influence on my understanding of fine turf.

Practical Greenkeeping book jim arthur

Jim Arthur’s ‘Practical greenkeeping’.

Malcolm was a great advocate of the traditional Jim Arthur approach to greenkeeping and this led me to purchase Jim’s book “Practical Greenkeeping”.

Reading this book opened my eyes to the simplicity of his approach and how relevant it is in today’s greenkeeping world, particularly with the increasing restrictions on the use of chemicals, water and even fertiliser.

After reading this book I remember a conversation with Malcolm in which we spoke about all the available tools that greenkeepers have used over the years.

He simply said “the hardest thing in greenkeeping is to do nothing”.

I thought about this sentence and the amount of time I spent at Faversham worrying about what product needs to be applied next to ensure the annual meadow grass (Poa annua) didn’t let us down for one reason or another.

At St George’s and Littlestone it seemed that more caution was put into what damage these products could cause in respect to encouraging annual meadow grass (Poa annua) than anything else and therefore not applying any product was better than applying something to just simply mask over short term issues.

This phrase ‘do nothing’ I will always remember and therefore if I’m ever in doubt then products will always be left in the bag. This may not be something that vested interests want to hear!

After eighteen months at Littlestone, I then had the opportunity of moving back to my home club Faversham as course manager.

I felt that I was ready for the challenge and my experience over the last four years certainly influenced my plans on how the course could be improved agronomicaly with Conservation Greenkeeping and therefore the golfers’ playing enjoyment.

I realised that this was not going to be an overnight fix and therefore a long term plan was going to be needed to be implemented and just as vitally important – communicated, so the members understood the project and supported it.

Our first course of action was to appoint Gordon Irvine (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) as our consultant. Gordon was someone who I had followed for a number of years and both Paul and Malcolm have great respect for him within the industry.

After getting into contact with Gordon it was clear that his methods learnt from Jim Arthur himself in the 1990s when he was course manager at Mill Ride and subsequently forged from the experience of advising on the turn round to fine grasses at so many fine courses including, Royal Cinque Ports, Hunstanton, Pennard, Hollinwell, Sheringham, Royal Worlington, Broadstone, Littlehampton, Enville, Ganton and Luffenham Heath. All this, in addition to he being the founding creator of the new Askernish, ensured he would be the best person to assist us in reinstalling Faversham back to fine grass surfaces and the running game.

I knew this would be a difficult task, due to many issues arising from trees which meant that many greens were extremely shaded and they were almost 100% annual meadow grass (Poa annua).

With Gordon’s help, the majority of members were prepared to support our plan. After years of failing annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens suffering from disease and upheaval from invasive practices to remove thatch, members were much more keen to break the cycle than I first thought.

Trees down to the right of the 2nd green.

Gordon highlighted many trees which would need to be removed around playing surfaces to allow enough air and light to support fine grass surfaces.

This has been an extremely difficult and sensitive subject at the club as many specimen feature trees were lost during the storm of 1987, and with concerns about global warming, was perhaps a reason why no tree management was carried out over the years.

Nevertheless, we have gradually educated our members on the benefits and after many tree removal projects, we are now getting much more positive comments from this work. We always suggest golfers read John Nicholson’s FineGolf article on trees.

We are now three years into the plan and following Gordon’s expertise have noticed an unbelievable change from nearly 100% annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens, to most greens now being dominated with fine grasses. These are cut no lower than 4mm and run at the ideal speed for recreational golf of between 8.5′ and 9.5′.

Browntop bent was the initial grass of choice at the start of the project to give an edge with dominance over the annual meadow grass (Poa annua) although now we are slowly moving over to fescue on a number of the most successful greens. Our eventual goal is to achieve a balance of fescue/bent greens over the whole course and it will be so much more of an enjoyable playing challenge.” Ends.

Well, that is quite a story Rob tells of a fabulous journey with certainly, as far as FineGolf can see, a likely successful outcome that others can follow, using the

two crucial requirements of the ‘proven correct technical advice’ and communicating the ‘future vision’ to keep the members onside.

Faversham, I am told, is now using far less fertiliser, fungicides and water compared to three years ago and there is a vast improvement in firmness and year round playing performance.

The previous agronomist recommended that they budgeted for at least 10 fungicide sprays per year to control the disease on their annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens. They have now not used a fungicide for a year and a half and that equates to

a saving of over £10,000.

Green speeds this year are also much more consistent and for their open week they managed things so that, they achieved speeds of 10.5’ but were still cutting at 4mm minimum.

This year in particular has been an extreme year with the drought although their greens have remained healthy throughout. Again in previous years their greens would struggle with localised dry patch and turf stress.

Perhaps they should be thankful that the previous greenkeeper and team used a Jim Arthur 70/30 sand/fendress for topdressing and with the pesticides and fertiliser leaching out as they are reduced, they now have a healthy soil biology that has given them a long term advantage in increasing the fine grasses.

This audacious story does nevertheless raise some wider questions:

Are these Sports turf Diplomas, supported by BIGGA (the greenkeepers’ Association), devoid of education with regard to the most important aspect of greenkeeping “the dichotomy between weed and fine grasses”?

How is it that this bright greenkeeper only heard of Jim Arthur’sBible of greenkeeping‘, that is published and sold by The R&A, after so many years of struggling to manage annual meadow grass (Poa annua)?

Has Faversham broken through the greenkeeping consensus that the wonderful advantage that fine grasses give will not succeed on a parkland site?

Is it in Golf’s best interests that the greenkeeping authorities are so heavily sponsored by vested interests and that the ‘do nothing’ approach is so difficult for clubs’ to pursue?

If these ‘running game’ values are worth promoting, should there not be more support from the greenkeeping authorities?

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