UK course problems*


“Problems with UK golf courses” by Gordon Irvine


Gordon Irvine MG

FineGolf is honoured that Gordon (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel), one of the first Master Greenkeepers, who as Europe’s leading current advocate for fine grasses, is using our website to give a fascinating and simple explanation of what are the problems with UK golf courses.

Nick-named “Jim Arthur’s heir” he has been an independent golf course consultant for fifteen years with a hands-on approach to training greenkeeper teams and advising on detailed grass-species change programmes. He has helped numerous of the finest courses across GB&I and northern Europe to have the confidence to transform their courses to a firm, fast running environment and boost their golfing members’ enjoyment.

Let us hear what the guru has to say:

“I am a lucky man: my work takes me to many different golf courses across the UK and Europe, from rural to urban locations, and every sort of landscape that has been used for golf: links, heath, moor, park, downs and everything in between.

First of all, I want to stress that, although location may dictate environment, it is management that dictates the grass composition.

It is common to see heathland or links courses with very little native fine grass in their greens. This I find difficult to support; for me a heathland course should have native heathland fine grass greens. More and more courses I see have meadow grass dominated greens, no matter the environment. I can walk fairway after fairway of fine grass dominated turf to find meadow grass dominant greens, with all the problems that brings.

“On this site” we hear the statement “we can only have meadow grass” expressed time and time again, ignoring the acres of fine grass dominant turf surrounding greens. Management is the greenkeeper’s contribution to natural selection and the dominant turf is the result of those actions. If a course has fairways and roughs dominated with fine grass then that location has a suitable environment. If those fine grasses die out as we approach greens then this is the result of management.

To say “the majority of the site is fine grass so that is enough” is wrong from a golfing perspective as greens are critical to how a course plays. Within greens, if pinnable areas are predominantly meadow grass then having some fine grass in the outer parts of greens this is not good enough.

No one is saying turf needs to be meadow grass free. That would be almost impossible with turf under stress and nature’s invading meadow grass waiting in the wings. Some seasons, meadow grass will get a help from nature with warm, wet conditions. Other years when it is hot and dry nature will push it back out of the turf. That is nature at work. We cannot stop that natural cycle, but we can stop management practices that help or promote the increase in the invasion of meadow grass.

Management influences start with greenkeepers’ education and experience. If they have had early experiences of working with meadow grass turf then they will almost inevitably be influenced in that direction. If education and training in the golf industry do not offer an alternative, why would they change?

Secondly, the employers – in most cases golfers – are the driving force behind course conditions. The demand for specific playing conditions sets maintenance direction and boundaries. Often they come from well-intended amateurs with little knowledge of the maintenance practices involved. In some cases they are driven by golfer experience of other courses – perhaps set up for specific events. For some it is the result of rose tinted spectacles or childhood memories. Some base their demands on their own personal game, media promotion or social media driven images. None of these demands are necessarily wrong, but they are inevitably framed by a mindset which is limited in knowledge of the detail that is involved. Demands on our courses have never been greater: Golfers visiting other parts of the world to play increases their expectations, and modern clothing and equipment allows play to continue in even the worst of the UK weather.

It is worth remembering that fine grass bent/fescue turf gave the game of golf to the world.

To this day many golfers dream of the chance to play at the home of golf and experience the original game. The Open championship still demands that fine turf only can be used to identify the champion golfer. This native turf, if maintained correctly, will give all-year-round quality even when the growing season is short. Nature has provided it with all the protection required for the demands of these islands: if not it would not be here. That is natural selection. Sensible management of the stress golf brings is what is required to secure it. But the turf and the game of golf were here long before current greenkeeping practices.

When golf migrated  from the links to inland courses, fine grasses were still the dominant species. Without additional water on impoverished free draining soils, the summer sun would naturally bring about fine grass dominance over meadow grass.

Now the majority of our courses, no matter where they are located, have predominantly meadow grass greens. This was not our original greens turf surface. Those early golf architects who spread the game did so on fine grass turf principles. So much of those great early course design features are no longer relevant as the game we see played on meadow grass greens is very different. We have moved more and more to a game played through the air to a soft target rather than in conjunction with the firm ground when necessary.

If we opt for meadow grass as our turf of choice then nature is against us. This may result in higher risks of disease damage especially with chemical restrictions reducing our opportunity to control an outbreak during periods of poor growth. Golfers are missing out on some of the challenge of the strategic design of those masters of early architecture by playing to greens that are maintained for a different target game.

The impact highlighted by the distance the ball now travels through the air  I feel is comparable to the influence meadow grass turf has on the playability of these old courses on an all-year-round basis, not forgetting the negative effect of not rewarding golfers who strike a ball better: Soft meadow grass greens are receptive to even poorly struck shots. In most cases during the summer, meadow grass greens are kept irrigated to protect the turf, resulting in surfaces being soft. This can increase surface damage by pitch marks which deflect ball roll.

Further to this, excess water in soils means reduced air and increased disease risk. Then the declining spiral continues. Extra moisture promotes growth resulting in slower putting surfaces. This raises demand for more speed in greens from golfers resulting in greens being cut lower, increasing damage. All of which increases stress on grass and soil resulting in increased disease pressure.

All this extra growth and maintenance has financial costs: clubs need to find the money to deal with them. Add to this the headache that over stimulated growth outside the greens of coarse grass will slow down play as balls are lost or shots are difficult to control from thick grassy lies.

These are some examples of the maintenance practices of management, that change the natural selection of turf. The principles of natural selection are clear. If you manage the environment to favour specific species then they will dominate.

It is strange at times, however, how many courses I visit are in some mid-ground position favoring neither one grass nor the other. For example by low heights of cutting they select meadow grass domination but they top-dress with sand and aerate, resulting in an environment meadow grass does not like. They then over seed with costly new bent grass seed but continue to cut at a height that will damage the new seedlings. This is all done under the pressure of golfer expectation.

I often hear claims that old push-up clay greens cannot grow fine grass. The reality is however that they are drained and have been dressed with sand for the past 30 plus years which makes them more links in character. Fundamentally one of the largest headaches I see is greens being dressed heavily with free draining sand at a time that they are relying on old dilapidated irrigation systems that the clubs cannot afford to replace.

The irrigation replacement problem keeps getting pushed off the table as the financial implications are so great. All of which is concerning enough but to carry on stressing the greens into an ever more vulnerable drought position needs to stop. We are seeing ever increasing demands for greater and greater amounts of costly sand to be applied to try and make meadow grass perform better. There is now even discussion that the grade of sand required is running out which will be another future headache for greenkeepers.

The reality of this could be that greens become vulnerable to ever increasing disease or drought damage and playing seasons get shorter if measured in playing quality. More and more clubs seem to focus on having short summer playing seasons of good quality putting surfaces against the original concept; good quality all-year-round. If, as I fear, however the problems with disease damage and irrigation problems increase then the short term concept will get yet shorter.

If golf is to grow again in popularity I believe it needs to be more enjoyable to play, on courses that allow golfers to enjoy a closer relationship with nature and in harmony for as much of the year as possible.

This is best secured on courses that have much reduced costs due to reduced need for costly products and water. This relationship with nature was fundamentally from where golf came.

It saddens me to see golf courses introducing more and more man made materials and surfaces into our natural environment in the name of the game of golf.

Fine grass such as bent and fescues have a minimum height they can be cut before they die back. This cut however is still more than capable of providing excellent all-year-round putting surfaces in the UK. They require healthy soil structure that has microbial life, air and moisture available to promote a healthy root system. So by definition if a golf course wants greens that are dominated by these grasses then they have to promote these conditions. It is not possible to respect one or two key elements but ignore the others.

There are many additional benefits to having these fine grasses, not just the romantic look at the origins of our game. They require much less water and expensive products than shallow rooted meadow grass. They are more resistant to pest and disease damage so have less need for chemicals. The soil conditions that favour fine grass reduce activity of worms. The damage by root eating pests such as leatherjacket grubs is reduced on fine grasses because they have an extensive deep root system to buffer attack.

This on paper should make fine grass more attractive to golf clubs, but we must highlight that changing greens turf surfaces from meadow grass to bent/fescue is challenging and needs careful management if playability is not to suffer. The planning of a programme should be tailor-made to individual clubs.

A grass sward improvement program will have an impact on golf because some essential maintenance practices have a very limited window for success. In too many clubs the golfing calendar for competition play is clashing with the opportunity of successfully carrying out key essential works. There is in some occasions a concern for safety of work as the greenkeepers try and get essential work done. This however I feel is just basic communication issues: co-operation and planning is essential. If courses are to see improvement in conditions then a planned programme needs to be agreed and presented to the golfers.

I however believe there is no choice other than change. My biggest disappointment is that after all this time the UK is not a leading authority on fine turf bent/fescue golf greens.

We may still have some fine examples of this type of course but we are lacking in research data to answer questions as to how best to promote and maintain them. There should never have been a move towards meadow grass dominating our greens unless the UK golf industry was happy to see that change.

I would like to think most would now recognise that our original game was played on greens that enjoyed the best playing surfaces so why not reinstate them now if not for just the game but for the environment and those future golfers that want to enjoy them?”