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Lessons from America

 

A course management column by William Bowden, Assistant Greenkeeper and Conservation Officer, Woodbury Park Hotel G & CC

Recently, I was fortunate to be awarded one of four places on the inaugural grand tour scholarship 2000, a scheme initiated by golf course architect Miss Bettina Schrickel, and funded by Rainbird International. The tour offered students an opportunity to travel for one month on either the west or east coast of America, stopping off at some of the world’s most prestigious courses. So, with the support of my employers, Woodbury Park G & CC, I chose to travel the east tour. In my opinion the courses on this schedule offered a wider cross-section with regard to age, style and design.

The calibre of the courses I visited was unquestionable with Augusta National, Pine Valley and the Country Club of Brookline among the 22 courses I studied. The tour stretched from Orlando, Florida, up to Boston, Massachusetts.

During my HND studies at Cannington College I had built up a number of preconceptions as to what to expect from the American industry, and how their courses are presented and managed as a whole. However, as the tour unfolded many of these preconceptions were unfounded; the wall-to-wall cutting and intensive management techniques, that I had expected to dominate regimes, were not always evident. Repeatedly, there were signs that on the ‘finest’ venues I visited, sound and realistic course management techniques were being employed. By this I mean an understanding that the intensive use of fertilisers, water and chemicals were unsatisfactory substitutes for the more austere forms of course maintenance, such as sound aeration, feeding and water regimes. The emphasis being on producing a quality product and in so doing managing every aspect of the course to the benefit of both the turf and subsequently the golfer.

This is not to say that there is no evidence of the typical ‘resort’ style of golf course that I had expected to see on a far wider scale. However, such venues tended to be limited to the Florida and South Carolina coasts. These are areas where customer demand is paramount, a philosophy demonstrated in the style of the courses on offer and echoed throughout the entire culture of these places.

As we moved further north there was a marked difference in what we saw. It is in these august settings that some of the worlds most prestigious courses are to be found; courses that stage both major amateur and professional events with regularity. It was also apparent that the general philosophies of the people in charge of managing such venues were altering. From speaking to a range of superintendents, all of whom care for some of these prestigious courses, there was a definite theme that the once accepted, commercially-driven methods of management, that for so long have come to symbolise ‘American golf’ in the minds of so many people were now seen as both ‘crude’ and ‘unfashionable’. To quote one superintendent I spoke to, “We are concerned that the years of intensive management programmes witnessed on many of our country’s great courses have had a detrimental effect on some of the longer established and treasured venues”.

This quote highlighted the general concern that the desire amongst many golfers for ‘picture perfect’ courses has begun to take its toll on the inherent character and romantic aspects of so many truly great courses in America. To counter-balance this trend, many of the individuals I spoke to have embarked upon comprehensive programmes with the single objective of restoring the lost elements of tradition to many of the courses they manage. This is not to say that they are turning their backs on progress, rather that they are re-establishing a balance between the principles of the past and the commercial demands of today. There is an appreciation that the industry has made dramatic leaps forward over the last 10-20 years. However, the fear is that this leap forward has for too long gone unchecked and the scales have to be balanced. At many of the courses we visited superintendents were studying maps and original plans of the initial course layout, trying to return elements of lost character or style that has over the years given way to the whim of the largely uneducated golfer !

These courses had an air of aristocracy about them and by reputation alone their need to market themselves as resort style courses is totally unnecessary. However, it was across the board that this general feeling of a move back to a more sustainable, not to mention efficient and environmentally sensitive, style of management had to be the foundation of future progress within the industry.

I found it somewhat ironic that a country famed for bringing us the ‘picture perfect’ golf course should be moving back to a more subtle and austere approach to greenkeeping, whilst we in Britain seem still to be moving in the opposite direction. There will always be a place for show piece venues like the Augusta National and Sawgrass, but the immaculate condition of such places should never be considered preferable to the natural and fundamentally unaltered characteristics of such courses as Pine Valley and Shinnecock Hills. These bear testament to the classic school of design, because they have been maintained in a way that is in keeping with their importance to the game of golf. These elements of character and individualism have not been lost but rather nurtured, and subsequently add to the beauty and elegance of such venues.

In summing up, the tour offered the opportunity to see first hand some of America’s greatest courses and to see how the history and prestige of such courses are being protected and enhanced by those that manage them. So many of the superintendents that I spoke to envied the tradition and diversity of many of Britain’s ‘top’ courses. Such places must be respected and managed in a way that ensures they remain testaments to the history of golf. Perhaps elements of how these courses have been managed over the years can be incorporated in the future progress of our industry.

 

 

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