In over 50 years of playing all the finest courses in GB&I, I have come to realise that, though design and environment are the most obvious features that makes a ‘Fine, Running-Golf ‘ course so enjoyable, it is the turf that is actually most fundamental and brings the design to life.

The ‘Running Game’ off firm turf is more fun.

American golf tourists tend to call this ‘Links-Golf’ but actually inland courses also can give ‘running-golf’ if they have the right turf, which is perfectly feasable if ‘conservation greenkeeping’ is used rather than ‘chemical greenkeeping’.

Fine turf is dominated by two perennial, slow-growing, deep-rooted, drought and disease resistant grasses, namely Fine Fescues (Festuca rubra) and Browntop Bent (Agrostis tenuis).

All golf courses are improved with these grasses which naturally exist in cool-season, temperate latitudes (Indeed, they do not like hot climates, like Spain or Florida to give two examples).

The principles of good ‘conservation greenkeeping’ are based on the needs of these two grasses that are quite simple to identify and the conditions where they flourish, which are at the same time unsuitable and unappreciated by faster-growing, shallower-rooted, thirsty, easily diseased, low-level seeding, more agricultural, annual meadow weed grasses (Poa annua) that are managed by ‘chemical greenkeeping’ and give soft, receptive turf.  Poa annua is a weed and is brilliant at quickly invading any area of vacant soil.

‘Conservation greenkeeping’ not only provides firm surfaces and the finest performing greens, (a fact underlined by the findings in all surveys to be the golfers’ primary wish) but also helps the environment by reducing inputs of water, fertiliser and fungicides while reducing maintenance costs. It thereby keeps golf in line with the wider society’s ‘person in the street’ wish to ‘save the planet’. Who could not like this? Perhaps only the vested interests who are selling chemicals and products to manage fast growing weed grass!

Common denominator where fine grasses flourish?

It is not altitude, as they flourish at sea level and on moorland tops.  They enjoy alkaline (often derived from sea-shell content) dry arid links, chalky downland, limestone heath and acid moorland.

The answer is as follows, to quote Jim Arthur (the world’s greatest ever golf agronomist who wrote the bible of conservation greenkeeping  “Practical Greenkeeping” published by The R&A and available ONLINE):
“What was surmised a century and more ago has been proven by research and analysis countless times since.  The secret of good golf greenkeeping is to copy basic infertile conditions …. and to ensure ideal conditions for deep-rooting by intensive deep aeration.  In other words, for good greens use slow-release nitrogen only and aerate deeply.  These same principles apply equally to every part of the golf course.”

Another way of putting it, is the old greenkeeping adage “ask a farmer what to do and go and do exactly the opposite – established many moons ago!”

The mono-cultured green of one colour (encouraged by in-organic fertilising) is not what good greenkeepers are looking for. A green of indigenous, deep-rooting, perennial, fine grasses gives a dappled mosaic of colours, including yellow patches in the summer where the shallow-rooting annual meadow weed grasses (Poa annua) is being stressed out by drought and a lack of fertiliser.

Aeration, the most important thing for healthy grass.

These days there are machines for regular small hole solid tining, which hardly makes a difference to the smoothness of the surface. However, if more aggressive hollow-tining is used to reduce ‘thatch’ it can make greens bumpy for some days so golfers need to accept some disruption to their playability and not become frustrated. It used to be often suggested that it should be done later in the year when there are less golfers around, but winter golf is increasing.

More importantly the effect of hollow-tining depends on the type of soil and how it drains. Don’t expect that tining can be done effectively after October when the ground gets waterlogged, and the action of driving in the tine can make a skin on the sides of the hole and stops drainage thereby making the tining less useful for its purpose.

READ HERE all about the eight types of Greenkeeper equipment.

Managed disruption in growing and seeding season

As annual meadow weed grasses (Poa annua) are stressed by drought and reduced in-organic fertilising,  fine grasses should take their place with over-seeding and this needs to be done during the growing season. It is usually a waste of expensive seed to sow in October. Golfers have to accept some managed disruption to their playing surfaces during the growing season (often done in August when golfers are on holiday), to obtain longer-term truer, firmer, quicker surfaces all the year round that fine grasses give. Some of the finest clubs are now over-seeding on a few greens by rotation, on one day (say mondays) each week through the growing season. (Royal Porthcawl was transformed by this policy)

Mowing, the basis to produce good playing surfaces.

Mowing regularly at an appropriate height of cut and the quality of the mower is still the most important single factor in producing really good playing surfaces.

FineGolf has awarded “The Conservation Cut” accolade to motor mower manufacturer Baroness for the high quality of its cutting technology, which based on traditional Japanese Samurie sword craftsmanship, gives the sharpest and cleanest cut of all mowers on the market. A clean cut also reduces disease.

To produce a smooth putting finish  Poa annua has to be shaved close to its roots (2 to 3mm). This also increases the putting speed. Nevertheless, this can have lethal results hence the soubriquet “the quick and the dead”.

Hunstanton’s pure Poa annua shaved greens that were soft and fast, just died. With Gordon Irvine’s help and advice they have now been changed to fescue/browntop bent grasses and are healthy, firm and gorgeous to putt on.

Fine wiry grasses produce quick surfaces without having to be scalped to their roots and indeed some fescue greens cut at 6mm give a Greenstester reading of 11+ feet in dry conditions, though normally they are cut at 5mm and give a speed of between 9 and 10. This is the ideal speed for recreational golf and a quick ‘pace of play’, as golfers take less time putting, being less worried about that six footer return putt that happens so often on very fast greens.

Influence of TV:

Golfers can be infected by ‘Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD)’  and want overly quick greens when seen on TV at the American Masters Augusta course, as the GB&I golf season opens. Augusta is set-up for that one week and costs a fortune to maintain. It is closed soon after the tournament for months to allow it to recover. For golfers to think that Augusta greens can be re-created at their home Club creates all the wrong pressures on club greenkeepers, who may be afraid of losing their jobs and so shave the greens for speed.

This is the quickest way to get a degeneration of the turf to annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens and all their disadvantages of softness and the necessary chemical greenkeeping high cost inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and lots of water that they need for the weed grass to survive.

High turf firmness gives more enjoyment

The speed of fine grassed golf club greens will vary being dependant on the amount of local rainfall at any particular time in the year, while the average fescue/browntop bent green will have a Clegg Hammer measured firmness of around 110, while most Poa annua greens are much softer at around 8o/90.

Poa annua self-seeding slows greens and gives bumpiness

When growing seeding pods appear on greens often in the spring, they are from the Poa annua. A factor in slowing down the speed of Poa annua greens is that it seeds at low level. It being an annual grass, its survival depends on it putting much energy into re-seeding itself. The seed pods occur most prevalently in the spring when greens can give an almost white sheen. It at this time of year that different grass species grow at different rates and the seed pods increase the bumpiness of putt. Perennial fine grasses seed on high stems and therefore do not give this seeding problem of bumpiness and slower speed.

The cardinal sin is over-watering.

It encourages the wrong grasses. Greenkeepers of fine courses allow greens and fairways to dry out.    Have a look at a bumpy fairway and what do you see?  The fine grasses are on the top of the dry ridge and in the wet furrows are found the weed meadow grasses.  The solution?  Aeration, to stop rain running off the ridge and more aeration, to give drainage in the furrow.

A technological breakthrough in water management products sometimes called Wetting Agents is being increasingly used to help moisture retention in dry areas of greens and surroundings. No longer does the whole irrigation system have to be turned-on to just irrigate a small dry area. Indeed hand-watering is on the increase and the moisture metre has become one of the most important pieces of conservation greenkeeping equipment.

This saves gallons of water, and encourages the naturally deep-rooting fine grasses to grow their roots ever deeper and seek out moisture low-down during droughts. Fine grasses often ‘brown-off’ during droughts to protect themselves but show they are alive by greening-up after the first rainfall.

Whereas, the shallow-rooting Poa annua if not watered regularly will die during a drought giving bare patches. If the ground is overseeded with fine grasses quickly the sward can be improved.

Nevertheless, it should be remembered that fescues enjoy and grow best in a cool-season climate. During the six weeks of exceptionally high temperatures around 30 degrees in the summer of 2018 we lost some fescue and Poa annua fairways during the heatwave. The clever greenkeepers over-seeded with fescues as soon as the rain and dropped temperatures came back.

Fine aprons are vital.

One of the distinctions between fine courses and others is that a fine course encourages the bump and run shot with a flatter club. This requires the aprons and run-offs to be smooth and give a consistent bounce with the use of modern grooming and scarification exercised on aprons to greens.

On Lush Target-style courses the fairway grass is comparatively long right up to the green and the ball dies if pitched into it. So if the shot is to have a predictability of bounce, the golfer has to use a high shot, normally a wedge, to pitch onto the green. In addition to hold the shot it is easier for the golfer if the surface is soft.

Quality of aprons: Greenkeepers need to be encouraged to de-thatch and improve the consistency of their aprons so we see more golfers using the bump and run. On a Running-Golf course it is as important on the aprons and run-offs to have a consistency of bounce as on the greens.

Tight turf is fun and the percentage game is not played with wedges:

One of the enjoyable aspects of running-golf is using one’s imagination and creativity in shot making to negotiate the bumps and hollows around greens played off tight dry turf.

This is easier for the amateur to use a flatter club, as the percentage play is to bump and run the ball one third of the distance and to have it run-out two-thirds, as it does with an eight iron. The four wedges in your bag are not necessarily an advantage as they are more likely to duff or scim off tight turf.  One has to hit the ball exactly 110% correctly, to be precise when using a wedge. A flatter club gives more margin for error.

Encourage fine turf:

All greenkeeping hinges on the precept that, if we copy the basic conditions found in nature, where these fine fescue and browntop bent grasses dominate, and therefore keep out their competitors, then the grasses we want will thrive.  Even where past mismanagement has resulted in annual meadow grass (Poa annua) dominance, correcting the course management policy will slowly but surely achieve a swing back to fine turf.

Fine golf is an all-round winner:

The finest courses have knowledgeable green committees who encourage their green staff to take a long term strategy that ignores the pull of lush target golf.  In the long term, keeping to the principles so beautifully and amusingly elucidated by Jim Arthur in his book “Practical Greenkeeping” will give golf club members courses that play better all the year round, conserve water, protect the ecology and natural character while aiding disease control and weed invasion and reduce agri-chemical pollution of the soil and the subsequent run-off to rivers. Conservation greenkeeping helps ‘save the planet’.

More profitable with Running-Golf

The target-style courses have to spend unnecessary amounts on fertiliser, water, pesticides  to keep their annual meadow grass (Poa annua) dominated courses alive and extra time on mowing their fast growing grasses. These courses are often closed for days in the winter, reducing members enjoyment as well as green fee income.

Fine running-style courses require much smaller budgets, reducing fertiliser and pesticides use and over-watering. The grasses need less maintenance and cutting and the greens are firm and in use all year round. Members enjoyment is enhanced and green fee income increased.

Support your Greenkeeper

…to pursue a long term policy of Conservation Greenkeeping and make sure the succession of Captains don’t bring the wrong management to your course, influenced by watching too much target-style  TV golf.


Reader Comments

On March 16th, 2009 Paul Lowe said:

Firstly may I congratulate you on this fantastic site. It was forwarded to me by a good greenkeeping friend, Chris Mitchell from Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club.
I hold the same passion as yourself about fine courses, I have the luxury to be a Head Greenkeeper, and one who is in the process of converting our course back to its forma glory with fine grass and ecology. Maybe one year I will reach your site.
I am part of a networking group of 10 greenkeepers in the North West & Wales. We have the Jim Arthur mentality and we encourage fine grass with traditional methods. We conduct talks and write articles in our trade magazines. We are called the ‘gingerbread men’ stupid name I know but the name is rather apt, like our sugary friend we traditional greenkeepers are prone to having our head bitten off.
I have noticed that some of the gingers are already on your site. Delamere, Sandiway, Royal Liverpool , and Royal St Davids… the others include Wimslow, Caldy (just won the environment award) Lymn, Bull Bay and me at Bromborough. We were set up by the R&A and the STRI a few years ago and we promote sustainable methods. We are going from strength to strength. If you ever fancy a chat please feel free. The more we promote the fine courses the better.
Keep up the good work you are very much appreciated.

Lorne’s reply: It is your comment that is enormously appreciated. It means so much that passionate professional greenkeepers like yourself welcome our initiative.

On March 24th, 2009 Richard Arthur said:

Jim Arthur’s son Richard makes the following comment:
“The only thing I would add is that in addition to ‘OVER watering’ father was so against the use of npk fertiliser.
The whole point of fine grass is that it has become adapted by evolution to tolerate impoverished conditions. In nature such grasses are very slow growing and are quickly forced out by other species which cannot survive unless fertilised, hence the need to starve these species out and maintain conditions only suitable for fine grasses. One application of the wrong fertiliser is all it takes to destroy a green from many, many years if not indefinitely as it only takes minute amounts of nutrients and these tend to stay in the soil. He was not against watering only over-watering but the construction and maintenance of drainage is vital as is aeration. So a properly made, kept and cared for course should be fast all year round”.

Lorne’s comment:
We are priveleged to have Jim’s son Richard support the aims of FineGolf and and I am pleased to add a further typical anecdote that he has passed onto us.
“The only anecdote that I can think of to provide which is printable (and you can print that too!) is that I asked dad why he wasn’t worried about being sued and never carried insurance or indemnity. I got a classic Jim Arthur reply, well son if you are always right and never wrong, no one can ever sue you. and I’m sick and tired of always being right.”

On March 27th, 2009 Chris Mitchell said:

Well done Lorne. This is a great site.Exactly what we need as greenkeepers. To educate the single handicap golfers that watch Augusta each year with its artificial enviroment created at vast expense. To get them to see heavily fertilised, over watered poa greens are a long term enviromental disaster heavily reliant on fungicides. You certainly have a fan in me and the Gingerbreads it would seem. Regards

On September 28th, 2009 Ian Burns said:

I have just viewed your web site for the first time, it is full of excellent advice for those who subscribe to a traditional and substainable golf course. I myself spent four years as Chair of greens at my course Seascale G.C. in Cumbria, I learnt the importance of the methods required to achieve these aims through our vastly experienced Head Greenkeeper who has battled to maintain standards on a very small budget, by traditional methods.
It has become increasingly difficult to maintain the support of members and Committees to these principles when they watch USA target golf and expect their course to be green, receptive to poor shots and immaculate in every way on a very small budget.
I believe you are visiting our course in the near future I hope you enjoy the course and can possibly encourage those entrusted with the running of our club to support traditional greenkeeping for a traditional links both now and in the future. I eventually gave up the battle with a number of blinkered members (farmers and gardeners)but hope others across the country continue to fight for both your and Jim Arthurs principles.

Dear Ian,
Thank you for being in touch and yes I played Seascale GC on the saturday they closed the Dunhill Cup for high winds! We had a tremendous foursomes match, keeping the ball under the 40 to 60mph wind and only lost 3 balls! What a fine course. A great advertisement for fine golf.

I then spent two hours with Ron Brown, the head greenkeeper and the club captain. Seascale is in good hands and I look forward to posting a full review in due course.

Warm regards from Lorne

On September 15th, 2011 Phil Harper said:

This looks like a very good initiative and I hope it’s importance grows. As a practising agronomist I still am amazed at the host of ‘terrific’ products and machines on offer to green keepers most of which have little merit. I hold the view that the most important fertilisers are air, heat light and water. Get these in balance then most of your problems will be little ones. Grass is easy to grow and to confirm this, farmers grow it. However a lot of grass grows despite the management not because of it. Great site and I hope it grows to be a strong voice. Phil Harper

On September 22nd, 2012 Daniel Cassidy said:

Just excellent

On December 4th, 2012 John Quinn said:

Very encouraging to see this site and I hope this kind of thinking gains the ground it deserves in the future. As a consultant to clubs and a greenkeeper of some 30 years, I have seen some crazy maintenance practices flourish. They soon become “traditions” and contribute to what I have called “the circle of decline” by that time its very difficult for common sense to take hold. Too often the shiny glare of the quick fix seems impossible for clubs to resist. Well Done
John Quinn

On March 10th, 2013 Bob Docherty said:

Great site for a beginner like me at the young age of 63 I have just taken on my local pay and play course, with only the basic knowledge of green keeping. I have just purchased Jim Arthur’s book ‘Practical Greenkeeping’ and looking forward to getting stuck into it. Is there a site I can subscribe to for tips and help from like minded and experienced greenkeepers. I do need guidance from you all.
Dear Bob,
I recommend and as a starting point.
Best wishes, Lorne

On September 4th, 2013 Sam Sweetzer said:

I am 23 and have recently started a career in Greenkeeping. Having wished I completed a degree more relevant, I am wanting to progress as quickly as possible. My course will be paying for my NVQ’s in February. In the mean time I am doing as much research as i can and also building up my CPD through BIGGA to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. I just wanted to say what a help this website has been, and to be able to get the opinions of many highly experienced Greenkeepers. I have bookmarked this site. In the future I shall pass my knowledge on to other novices too! Carry on gentlemen 🙂

On September 10th, 2013 Pat Farrell said:

Hi Lorne,
Fantastic web site! I am a 10 handicapper playing out of Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club, a links course north of Dublin. I have set myself the task of playing all of Irelands 45 eighteen hole links courses (or running game golf courses), only six to play. I am delighted to have come across your site and I believe we (golfing fraternity in gereral) do not appreciate the few true running golf courses we have in the world. We should treasure the few that we have 250 approx amoungst the 33,000 or so golf courses worldwide. we are spoilt in UK and Ireland to have the best on the planet. It really amazes me how few golfers, and I include all golfers in that, know just how many/few links or fast running courses to use your well chosen description there are in Ireland, UK and the world. When I tell people about the facts, most are astonished. Now that I have found your site I will be a regular user, keep up the great work. Yours in golf, Pat f

On January 17th, 2014 alan clark said:

As a lecturer in golf course management, I see today within the fine turf , there are the ‘fast buck’ entrepreneurs, with new gimmicks and gadgets readily available to the unwary.
So I hope this site will help, particularly the newly emerging greenkeepers, engage in the real turf management traditions that work in harmony with the ecology of the golf course.
Here the greenkeeper works well with nature and toward the turfgrass species that they can in practice best achieve.

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