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Department of Serendipity

A course management column by Jim Arthur BSc(Agric)

It behoves anyone directing any enterprise however large or small to take stock of possible future trends. Many large companies encourage their directors to detach themselves from the day to day control, just to try to look into the future. Some even have a small undecorated and often windowless room, equipped solely with a table and a (not too comfortable chair), labelled Department of Serendipity. Mine is the greenhouse and here, at the start of another year, are my thoughts.

It was with particular interest, that I read the interview with Peter Dawson, Secretary of the R & A, in the last issue of The GCS and also of the proposed R & A “Concourse 2001” in May, which will close with “an examination of the present and future role of the R & A”. I would hope that this will shed more light on three areas - greenkeeper training, the STRI and the R & A’s own Golf Course Advisory Panel.

The Greenkeeper Training Committee has made considerable strides on behalf of greenkeepers, but has now the problem of falling standards (and funding) in the Colleges combined with the failure to “sell” themselves to the employer - the Clubs.

I wish the latest Director of the STRI well; for heaven knows our Clubs are short of sound unbiased advice and their service was never needed more. So, to hear that the R & A “are certainly taking a lead in these areas, but the R & A will not be employing their own agronomists or in-house greenkeeper training specialists. We shall continue to use agencies with whom we are satisfied” - must bode well for the future, both in funding and input.

As to the Golf Course Advisory Panel, which I understand no longer meets on a regular basis, I would hope that their attention can be returned to basics and away from fairway irrigation and matters “green”.

Golf certainly should take a dispassionate hard look at itself because clearly very considerable changes have started and will develop. The boom is long gone and a cynical look at statistics divorced from vested interests will indicate that fewer people will probably be playing golf, in the UK, in ten years time than even today’s numbers.

With the recent prolonged spell of bad weather, Clubs are going to be under greater financial pressure than ever, with some of the original mega-buck American inspired courses going to the wall simply because they are geared to a different economic scenario. Furthermore, on such courses any significant reduction in maintenance leads (and has led) to unacceptably poor conditions. One clear deduction is certain, that in future the aim must be to produce affordable golf - a welcome return to a more natural look, with lower budgets but NOT lower course conditions.

High fertiliser input raises costs in two ways. First there is the actual cost of fertilisers. Some of our best courses use a few bags of 8:0:0 nitrogen only, compared with others using up to 50 tonnes of NPK, and fertilisers are not cheap. However, such high input also predisposes turf to disease and even pests, e.g. crane flies select greener turf for egg laying ! The best courses use virtually no fungicides; others, more heavily fed, have to be sprayed at frequent intervals and fungicides, are not cheap either - often having undesirable side-effects on the health of root zones.

Another obvious way to save money is in reducing the size and shape of bunkers. It goes without saying that some ‘modern’ courses have acres of unused sand with eccentric shaping where mechanised raking is ineffective. Some over-bunkered courses spend more man-hours on bunker maintenance than they do on their greens. Many courses would benefit from a bunker survey. Bunkers too close to tees trap only those who carry their own bunkers with them wherever they go, many others could be converted to mowable grass hollows, just as effective as sand and cheaper to maintain.

One way of saving money which should never be contemplated is in reducing the frequency of mowing, from almost daily in the peak growing season, if we are to present our courses at their best all year round. However, I think more and more will stop shaving greens to 3mm and revert to a minimum of 5mm - giving better greens and, long term, a swing away from Poa annua dominance to the fast and much better bent greens, which are of course also cheaper to maintain. It can be done, with plenty of examples, but I am the first to recognise that the transition phase can seriously damage the health of those in charge, both on and off the course !

Clearly, wall to wall mowing will be restricted to those few remaining courses tarted up for tournaments. Rough (please, oh please - not roughs !!) will be managed less intensively, but this does not mean neglected. I was brought up on the principle that a ball in semi-rough meant a half stroke dropped and one in the rough could often only be played back onto the fairway.

I cannot see mechanisation - or computers - reducing manpower, but certainly more austere greenkeeping, and concentration only on the course in play, will obviate the necessity for costly double figure levels of staffing. In passing, it is often overlooked that the best computer in greenkeeping is situated between the ears of an experienced course manager.

Perhaps we shall also see less of the muck and magic brigade. Soil micro-organisms may well indicate a healthy turf but they come naturally without the need to add them expensively and often ineffectively in “miracle mixes”, if basic husbandry is on the right lines; especially minimal fertiliser, controlled irrigation (although watch out for a drought this summer - nature always repays her debts), good drainage and frequent aeration.

What must NOT be allowed to change is our traditional chip and run game - under such a threat from target “soft” golf !


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