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On Course for Change

A report on the Conference organised by the R & A Golf Course Advisory Panel, held at St Andrews, 3rd - 4th February 2000.

This excellent conference was called by the R & A to consider six major topics that will affect the future of the game of golf namely, climatic change; water; planning; chemicals; levels of play; and the environment. 

The speakers in general were informative, and at times provocative, all of which stimulated good healthy debate both in and out of the conference hall.  The presentations were excellent, the conference well organised, and most delegates departed much wiser and more thoughtful than when they arrived.  Furthermore, it highlighted to the R & A their need to become more involved with these issues.  Tim Taylor, Chairman of the R & A Golf Course Advisory Panel, confirmed that the R & A were happy to progress this suggestion. 

The conference, chaired by Michael Barratt, was opened by the R & A Captain, Sir Michael Bonallack.  His opening remarks referred to the history of the Old Course, Tom Morris’s principle remedy for most problems of “sand and more sand, and leave the rest to nature”, and the formation of the Golf Course Advisory Panel.  He stated that the conference had been set up to identify the facts of the six issues, listed above, as opposed to the theoretical views and stressed that audience participation was to be an essential part, (as it proved to be).

Climatic Change

Professor John Pethick, Dept Marine Science, University of Newcastle, set the scene by provocatively suggesting that Royal Melbourne may be the sort of course that we needed to adopt, - manicured and with drought resistant trees (cork).  However, links courses are the antiques of golf and central to the way we think about the game, they are also the most valuable.  He therefore suggested that we should go with the change and try to adjust our courses to suit.  He acknow-ledged that coastal erosion presented the biggest problem to links courses, including those within estuary mouths.

Dr Mike Hume, Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, gave a detailed presentation on climatic predictions.  The planet is warmer now than it has been for the last 1000 years with records showing the warmest period being in the last decade.  Cold winter days are now far fewer than 50-100 years ago;  there is an increase in winter rainfall;  and there has been a 10-20 cm rise in sea level over the last century.

The reasons for these changes is the ‘greenhouse effect’.  This is a natural phenomenon and an essential part of our human existence.  However, by emitting more and more carbon, and methane, it is changing the balance.  Cyclical theories have been tested and examined, i.e. solar activity and volcanic eruptions, and the conclusion is that the warming cannot be accounted for by either.  The most significant cause is the increase in ‘greenhouse gases’ through human activities.  This increase is likely to give rise to the following effects :

a warming of between 1 and 3 degrees C over the next century; 

more frequent hot summers; 

more hot day and evaporation losses; 

wetter winters;

more intense winter rainfall; and 

more frequent risk of high storm sea surges.

It is interesting to note that today’s emissions are predicted to last 50-100 years, therefore any long-term reduction will be very slow.  The rise in sea level is predicted to have an even longer commitment before its reversal has any effect.

Dr Hume was asked how he could convince the sceptics of this climatic change.  He responded that they must have their head in the sand if they do not believe that change will occur.  The projections shown were their best assessments, nobody can determine the rate of change and regional variability is huge.

Dr Peter Carey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, advised of the following effects of climatic change on flora and fauna. 

The rare lizard orchid, found only in the South East (e.g. on Royal St George’s GC), is likely to move northwards. 

Swallows are arriving earlier.

Trees are coming into leaf earlier. 

Worms will be less of a problem in summer as they will dig deep but they will become more active in winter, encouraging moles. 

Rats will also become more active in winter. 

Wasps will emerge earlier and be more numerous. 

Slugs will be active for longer periods. 

Deer will suffer for lack of forage in the dry summers and fewer fawns will survive the wetter winters. 

There will be an increase in reptiles, grasshoppers and other insects. 

There will be a late summer hay yield and grass will grow longer and for longer periods, possibly throughout the winter. 

More wild flowers will colonise gaps in the grass and likewise weeds. 

Woodlands will be affected by severe wind-blows.  There will be more shade in spring. 

Certain deciduous trees, i.e. beech and ash, will be adversely affected by the dryer conditions. 

Heathland trees and bracken will become more prolific. 

Heather may need to be restocked and Heather Beetle will increase.

Ponds will be prone to dry up and algae bloom will occur more frequently.

In order to overcome these effects there will need to be a change in the course management regime, such as :

There will need to be more winter cutting when the ground is wet and a need to kill off injurious weeds.

More drought resistant grasses and grasses resistant to water-logging will need to used.

Tree planting will need to be designed to minimise the effect of wind-blows.  Mature trees may even need irrigation.

Fire and pest control measures will need to be introduced.

There were three questions for Dr Carey, one concerned the over-protective attitude of English Nature towards the development or extension of courses into wild areas.  Dr Carey believed that because links are so rare that there is a good case for them to be managed by a Golf Club under a written agreement.  Following another question, Dr Keith Daff from English Nature suggested that they would be prepared to re-examine their position in relation to golf courses particularly if the R & A became involved in these issues.  The future of the environment would seem to be one of ‘managed land in partnership’.

Professor John Pethick considered the consequences of coastal erosion and the rise in sea level in relation to links courses.  He stated (somewhat alamingly) that “Courses will not erode away but will move their position”.  The sea level around the UK will not rise uniformly due to the land tilt in favour of Scotland as the ice cap melts.  At present the average cliff erosion is 1 m/year and is predicted to increase to 1.3 m/year.  As regard to links courses he stated that “The more mobile the dune the better the management”, and proceeded to demonstrate this graphically, thus implying that nature should be left to take its course.  Thus, links on open courses will retreat and links on estuaries will migrate, e.g. Royal West Norfolk and the Eden respectively.  All coastal courses will suffer from a rise in sea level unless we understand the process involved when alternative layouts can be sought.  He believed Golf Clubs must therefore allow for forward planning and adopt a more flexible approach.

There were eight questions directed at Professor Pethick, most were related to short-term solutions, often using stone armour, to protect our heritage courses but whilst he agreed that short-term solutions will give temporary relief, he considered that it was like throwing money into the sea.  The use of stone armour will often change the movement of the coastline for the worst, if any armour is contemplated he recommended the use of stone gabions which uses smaller rocks that in time dissipate into the coastline without changing its structure.  He was adamant that only by letting nature take its course and adapting courses to new coastal profiles can any long-term solution be achieved. 

This is clearly unacceptable to most Golf Clubs as they do not have the resources for a programme of managed retreat and without financial backing from Government sources the long-term future of our traditional links courses looks grim.  There was during this session a call for the R & A to collate a register of problems and their solutions, to prepare a list of approved Consultants, and for them to become more involved.  The R & A responded by naming Mike Schofield as their Advisory Panel member who will be responsible for these issues.


Rob Westcott, National Water Demand Centre, Environment Agency, explored ways of making the best of whatever water supply was currently available.  The Environment Agency (EA) is only responsible for England and Wales.  Golf Clubs had to be viewed as one section in a competitive market, it is therefore essential that each Club sets up its own water audit to assess where efficiency savings can be made.  Two-thirds of all courses use mains water for irrigation.  This could be cut off in a drought, it is expensive and of an unnecessarily high standard.  Supplies from abstraction are more suitable and much cheaper.  The EA favours winter abstraction and is less expensive, however, all water abstractions and storage need a licence.  The licensing system is under review and in future all abstraction licences will be time-limited.  Clubs were asked to consider the re-use and recycling of effluent and also water efficiency within the clubhouse.  De-salination is not likely to be an option for the time being on grounds of cost.

Rob Westcott was questioned on how long the golf industry has to get their act together.  He advised that the EA had to establish a reasonable need before a decision could be made.  Golf Clubs are only being looked at as part of the equation, all other industries are similarly affected.

Ian Fox, Head of Hydrology, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), explained the abstraction arrangements for Scotland.  There is no abstraction licensing system in Scotland yet there is evidence of over-abstraction in places.  The EU Water Framework Directive is likely to be implemented by the end of 2000, with legislation in place within three years.  This will introduce a form of statutory catchment management that will be based on three river basins and managed by SEPA.  This is likely to lead to licences being necessary for abstraction in Scotland and it would be wise to consider plans for water storage now in order to exploit the higher flows in the winter periods.

Robin Hume and Adrian Mortram, irrigation consultant and engineer, considered ways to increase efficiency.  This was summed up by Robin Hume as audit, assess action plan, and implementation.  Adrian Mortram looked at the irrigation system and its operation and use.  He suggested the system be examined for increased efficiency by examining sprinkler spacing, flows and pressures;  sprinkler overflows; pipework integrity and water storage; the pumping system; and method of control - a PC based system with graphics was recommended.  He also recommended the following efficiency measures for its operation and use :  the time of application (preferably at night);  its application rate and intensity; and the amount to be applied.  This amount is critical to the rooting depth and needs to be carefully considered in relation to the soil structure.

During questions it was pointed out that we had to conserve water as a valuable resource and that this often created environmental objections.  Robin Hume stated that the need for winter storage had been proved and that this conflict of interest needs to be sorted.  Environmentally these water bodies are is not very attractive, but they are very necessary.  In another question he also extolled the benefits of weather stations for greenkeepers, particularly in the future where greater control of water will become essential.

Paul Birchall, Area Water Resource Team Leader, Environment Agency, advised on the work of the Resource Team, its assessment of groundwater in various areas and the effect that any change in this resource is likely to have on the environment - rare species in particular.  Water is precious and limited so the message is: “Do not use tomorrow’s water today”.  The effective use of water is good course management.  Make every drop count.

During questions Paul Birchall confirmed the need for each Club to prepare a water audit.


Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie, golf course architects, pointed out that many of our great courses could not have been built today as they would not comply with safety aspects in relation to roads and footpaths.  There are now so many planning restrictions that we are in danger of entering the ‘never, never land’, but it is still easier to gain a planning permission for a golf course in Scotland than anywhere else in the world - here they are seen as beneficial and a catalyst for tourism.  There has been an evolution in planning applications in the UK since 1980 from the red line to the environmental impact study with a management agreement.  In future projects must prove their worth.  They considered the comparison of existing courses with new and what ‘traditional’ actually means.  Donald Steel welcomed more involvement from the R & A, both on research and in providing an international database.  Their message was to unite and get back to the real world before it is too late.

During questions they recommended, in any discussions with the local authorities, to never to give up, for a sensible discussion and dialogue will generally be the result.  This was confirmed by one of the delegates who was himself a planning officer, but he stressed that the golf course should not be the means of obtaining a planning permission for a housing development.


Lauren Town, Council Member, British Agrochemical Association, put her case for the use of chemicals on golf courses as a means of integrated pest management.  She initially threw us all off guard by stating that “Pesticides should be used only as a last resort in any management programme”.  All pesticides have to be registered and receive MAFF approval unlike some of the current bio-chemical treatments.  It was her belief that TV images give a false impression, all golfers want an aesthetic appearance at a reasonable cost that is environmentally friendly.  This creates many pressures on greenkeepers.  She stated that the benefits of pesticides are proven, effective and economic and that it costs even more to be environmentally friendly.

Mark Davis, Pesticides Trust, presented the opposing view.  He stated that all pesticides are designed to be toxic and are intentionally dispersed into the environment.  In general they all have adverse effects, some are acutely toxic (i.e. poisonous) and others can have long-term health effects (i.e. carcinogenic).  Greenkeepers should be aware that they do not always stay where they have been sprayed.  Better pest management is therefore needed to minimise their use.  First identify if there is a pest problem.  Next, consider physical controls, this may initially require higher investment, then consider supplementary controls.  Organic management will eliminate the use of chemicals.

In answer to a question on the eradication of leather jackets without the use of pesticides he advised greenkeepers to analyse the situation to determine the extent of the problem then consider alternatives before using pesticides, e.g. cover greens to bring leather jackets to the surface, then leave them to the birds.

Michael Barratt debated these two differing opinions with the speakers and LT restated that you must first look at alternatives before using pesticides, but all pesticides are safe when used as directed.  MD disagreed because there was a lack of knowledge available to the general public.  MB pressed LT to give course managers an assurance that pesticides were safe, which she confirmed within the limits of their knowledge.  MD was accused of scare-mongering but he did not think so, for many chemicals that have been in use for 30-40 years have not been tested to today’s standards.  MB then queried whether it was possible to manage golf courses organically.  MD stated that some courses were being organically managed at present but it is a change of culture that has to be developed over a long period.  The final word was from LT who welcomed an open and fair debate based on sound scientific information.

Jim Snow, USGA described the American practice in the use of chemicals and their effective management.  He advocated a reduction in water and pesticide use on golf courses.  Most golf courses are over-watered without technical assistance and the movement of pesticides varies with the soil.  For example, with leaching there is 10% in pure sand, 3% in sand/peat and 0.5% in loam/sand.  Potential leaching can be reduced by slow release fertilisers.  So also a lighter and more frequent application of water.  Pesticides that are more soluble will leach at a faster rate and this can be increased significantly by the presence of earthworms.  Greenkepers should beware of run-off and allow buffer zones between water bodies and treated areas.  The biggest threat to the environment is probably from pesticide nutrient run-off.  This can be kept to a minimum with understanding and care.  He believed that ignorance and complacency poses the greatest threat to course managers and golf courses.  The USGA have a great deal of information on their web site that can be browsed by all.  (Indeed, one of the delegates present confirmed to us its value.)

During question time one delegate felt that it was up to the environmental bodies to lower the public’s expectations of the future.  In this aspect, Jim Snow considered that the golfing organisations should do a lot more.

Richard Minton, Sales Manager, Scotts, examined EU legislation.  He doubted that courses could be maintained to the high standards of today without the use of pesticides.  The sales and manufacture of pesticides are heavily regulated and there are seven new EU Directives in the pipeline.  The only one that affects the golf industry is 91/414/EC and any product that is not in Annex 1 of this Directive will be banned.  At present only one substance has gained Annex 1 status !  Labelling of all products will in future be better controlled, however, for products used in minor markets, e.g. the golf industry, the labels will not be fully detailed, so the information available for greenkeepers will be limited.  It was Richard Minton’s belief that chemical free golf courses would lead to a drop in standards and a drop in winter golf on inland courses.

During question time RM confirmed that only 3% of pesticide sales were used in amenity turf compared with 97% used in gardens and agriculture.  Regrettably chemicals sold in garden products do not have the same standard of control.  On the question of undertaking research into the bio-chemical products, the chemical companies are keen to develop these products but there is no data at present to investigate claims made, they are however looking into it.

Levels of Play

George Brown, Golf Course and Estates Manager, Turnberry, presented his experience at this Club.  Turnberry has 35-40 ins of rain each year (Loch Lomond 100 ins) and an average yearly play of 45,000 rounds. Current levels of play need irrigation to keep the grass alive.  It is a must for links courses but it has to be carefully and correctly used.  The more compaction there is, the more aeration is required, aeration being the key - 3/4 tines for fairways and 1/2 tines for greens.  Pathways should also be aerated.  Close mowing and compaction is the biggest problem to greens, consider aerating half a green at a time to avoid disruption or nine greens one year and the other nine next.  Slit fairways regularly.  George Brown slits his once a month throughout the year and uses the Hydrojet twice yearly (he has a bigger budget than most).  Top dress fairways with a light peat mixture to retain moisture.  His message : ‘The greenkeeper should be part of the management team’.

The absolute necessity for the use of soft spikes was raised at question time and GB did not support the theory.  He considered them dangerous particularly in wet and frosty weather, and most particularly where they are used on wooden bridges.  He favoured rubber dimples.

Jeff Perris, STRI, considered the implications of increased usage.  Some good design points to spread wear were given and a suggestion that we may need to consider the development of winter and summer courses.  He also suggested the consideration of root zone reinforcement materials, perennial rye grass for tees, the use of cultivars with ability to withstand wear, the correct use of machinery and the use and effect of soft spikes, (UK research is still awaited).  His message : ‘The key factor in relation to wear is moisture control’`. 

One delegate suggested that the STRI should promote trial sites of turf grasses throughout the UK to define the regional differences.  JP advised that this was done initially but it was found that there was insufficient regional variation for it to be justified.


David Stubbs, formerly of the EGA Ecology Unit, was interviewed by Michael Barratt on the role of golf within the Committed to Green Foundation.  MB opened the interview by asking why Golf Clubs should take any notice of the interfering ‘greenies’ ?  DS stated that there were a lot of issues at stake and professional people needed to be engaged for advice.  The purpose of the environmental management of golf is its harmony with nature.  MB then asked who was funding the new Foundation.  DS advised that the R & A, the European Golf Association and the European Tour, who funded the Ecology Unit were still backing the Foundation but other sources of income needed to be generated from a wider base.  They were currently talking to the Professional Football Association !  MB queried the concept of the Foundation.  DS advised that it was a voluntary study programme to promote environmental good practice in the management of golf courses and he suggested for further details Clubs could send for details or refer to their web site (see GCS July 1999, page 10).

During the question time Clubs present, that had taken this on board, expressed to the delegates the benefits that they had achieved using this voluntary programme.  Likewise Jonathan Smith of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, now associated with the Foundation, gave an account of their own initiative The Golf Bag (see GCS August 1999, page 18).  He advised that over 50% of Scottish Clubs had approached the Wildlife Trust for assistance and they have helped prepare their environmental programmes.  From the floor, there was strong opposition to other sports being brought into the Foundation, it was felt that golf was big enough to stand alone.  However, a Belgian delegate stated that there was a key role missing in England, that of Ecology Officer.  He further stated that the Foundation gives greenkeepers a chance to re-evaluate their own position. Golf in Europe is still a small game with a negative image, and it is important that other sports are included for the golf to gain creditability.  DS responded by saying that funding offered by the golf industry would be used for golf alone.

Closing Remarks

Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment, advised that his role was concerned with the question of climate change; sustainable development; GM crops; chemical strategy; waste management; and water management.  On planning issues the industry was affected by policy programme guidance note No. 17 which states :  ‘Where golf course proposals are likely to have a significant effect, an environmental impact assessment will be necessary;  and in green belts major construction will not be permitted’.  On water, he referred to the Water Summit and the ten point plan to reduce the current 1/3 loss of all supplies by leakage.  He also alluded to the new time limits on licences for abstraction, see above.  On pesticides, he advised that all pesticides are controlled by a strict regime so that they give no unacceptable risk to the environment.  He added that research into non-chemical pesticides for use in amenity areas is in progress.

Michael Barratt asked when the 1000 untested chemicals in use were likely to be tested.  MM advised that a voluntary agreement had been reached to carry out tests on 1200 chemicals in high use by 2004.  The real problem is with bio-accumulation.  MB stated that there was a feeling that the environmental lobby was over-shadowing us all by over-regulation.  MM responded that the Government will, if they can, get by using a voluntary agreement in preference to regulating for it - the EU have played a significant part.  MB asked if he would agree to negotiate outside the rules to overcome problems.  MM agreed to this suggestion.  Golf Clubs should first talk to all persons concerned and if that does not prevail, write to the top at the Environment Agency, their MP or to himself.  He now has a new chairman appointed to deal with such issues, Sir John Harman.  Other questions from the floor raised de-salination plants - very expensive and unlikely to be justified on cost benefit terms;  the right to roam - this will not be extended to golf courses;  the use of GM grasses - not in this country yet but the Government would be very interested in any research being conducted into non-herbicide control and pest control;  and his thoughts on dissemination of best practice in the longer-term - very supportive of this action.

The conference was a major success and the R & A must be applauded for their actions in bringing these subjects to the forefront of the industry.  There is much work still to be done but with the backing of the R & A the delegates left the conference with the knowledge that they now have a worthy body willing to support them.  For the record, there were 170 plus delegates in attendance comprising an astonishing 14 nationalities, including the UK.

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