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Milestones of the Twentieth Century
by Jim Arthur


There is perhaps no more appropriate time to review the history of greenkeeping over the last century than at the start of the next. Any assessments must necessarily be subjective and open to opinions and debate, which I would personally welcome from any reader.

However, I have on my side the very considerable research which was involved in producing (with a lot of help from my friends), Practical Greenkeeping, and the fact that for more than half this century I have been actively and continuously involved in golf course agronomy. I have also been closely involved with many of the 'greats' of yesterday and today in golf architecture, who have been generous with their views and experience.

It must be admitted at the outset that most of the milestones in greenkeeping history have been spin-offs from either other industries, especially agriculture, or have come from America. This is simply because there has never been a big enough greenkeeping market in Britain to pay for the cost of research. Thus, most new machinery has come from America, though they may be improved or copied here and most products started in the agricultural world.

Greenkeeping research in a pure form has been virtually nil, but valuable assessment and evaluation work has been carried out in adopting agricultural standards to greenkeeping ones and in comparing products or grass strains by trial work.

In selecting those practices, products or machines which have had a profound effect over the past century in the management of golf courses, the first criterion must be whether they resulted in significantly better conditions, with lower manpower and lower costs.

The first milestone is not debatable! This was the introduction and general use of mowing machines, replacing scything and before that four legged mowers, sheep and rabbits. Here again, the prototype for the reel-type grass mower was Edwin Budding's machine which he designed to produce a smooth textured tweed, by shearing the nap - a job previously done by hand. Poor Budding made no money out of his 1832 invention, and it was many years before the very heavy and cumbersome machines in the late 1880's were used by other than a few rich eccentric gentry.

Clearly these very heavy machines were not suitable for golf greens and after many false starts in 1924, the first specialised hand-pushed greens mowers, Ransomes' Certes, came into general use. This was not motorised until as late as 1950 - as much an indication of the poverty of Golf Clubs as of any innate resistance to change by greenkeepers.

I can remember when even 18-hole links courses were looked after by one man, assisted by a boy in summer, whose job was to help his headman by pulling a hand machine with a rope. Needless to say the greens were still pure fescue and bent, primarily because (naturally enough) they were never fed. Why make a hard life harder by producing more grass. Of course, there was less traffic and therefore less wear in those days.

Horse drawn fairway mowers came in from America just before the First World War and were developed over the next seventy years via tractor towed to direct -mounted and then self-propelled units. Very early in the century there were moves to improve greenkeeper education - early organisations being primarily based on golfing meetings between neighbouring greenkeepers as an early golfing society. This developed into the formation in 1912 of the Golf Greenkeepers Association with a huge input from a few dedicated individuals including the trade.

In perspective, it should be noted that the Scottish Golf Union was not formed until 1920 and the English Golf Union not until 1924. Just after the First World War, the Scots set up their own greenkeeping association (SGA) and in 1934 they amalgamated with the British GGA in a somewhat uneasy partnership. This broke up in the period after the Second World War and led to the establishment of SGGA and ultimately the SIGGA, where the emphasis was always on education as opposed to golfing meetings.

In 1979 there was an even more fundamental breakaway with the establishment of a like-minded English Association formed by a number of forward-thinking head greenkeepers and top course managers, who perceived that the future lay in education and the recognition of the professional standing of greenkeepers. This was the English and International Greenkeepers' Association, which in my opinion did more to improve the standing as well as the education of greenkeepers than perhaps any other body.

One of the most rewarding periods of my life was working very closely with those stalwarts of the profession, especially in getting Clubs to value their greenkeeping staff and to recognise that the course was their most important asset. It was even more rewarding to see the results of my honest brokering behind the scenes which led to the eminently sensible amalgamation of GGA, SIGGA and EIGGA, and to have retained their friendship over so many years of those who at all levels shared my vision.

The establishment of BIGGA in 1987 has indeed been one of the most important milestones of the century. The emphasis on education led to the formation of the Greenkeepers Training Committee which sensibly became independent of both employer and employee under the R & A guardianship in 1993. Today it has enormous influence as the industry's recognised independent leading body, way ahead of any comparable training organisation in agriculture or horticulture, and much of the present professional recognition and qualification in greenkeeping is due to its hard work.

What a significant change in a century; from the perception of greenkeepers as mowers of grass to skilled and qualified technicians. But, we should never forget that those few skilled, if only basically educated, men of yester-year had ideas far ahead of their time and could express them so eloquently !

The next milestone in my book was the mechanisation of aeration pioneered by Wm Hargreaves who started Sisis in the middle of the biggest depression of this century. These machines were used on fairways as well as greens and it was the constant progression in their design which improved speed as well as depth. I can well remember lines of stalwart greens staff moving backwards over greens, hand-forking in winter, and especially raise forking - inserting the fork ('graip') and levering it back before withdrawal. It was the Dutch brothers, de Ridder, who copied this in 1980 to produce the vertidrain - now used world-wide - to copy what old Scottish greenkeepers did so laboriously 80 years and more earlier.

The next milestone was one with which I was also very closely involved - the use of selective herbicides to miraculously rid greens and fairways of their ubiquitous rosette weeds. Prior to this, control was by scorching the weed with ammonia and iron (lawn sand) or hand weeding. Does anyone else remember the memorable sight of lines of women (recruited from potato picking gangs) on their knees, hand-forking out starweed and daisies from East coast Scottish links. Wise advisers exchanged no badinage with those doughty characters !

Again, these growth regulating weedkillers were not specifically developed for sports turf but for agriculture, having originally been used against the enemies' crops in the Second World War. It was fun being an adviser in the immediate post war period, the problems were both simple and simply cured. One was welcomed as a miracle man by ridding Clubs of tap rooted weeds - but of course other less easily controlled species soon replaced them (nature abhors a vacuum) and home based research and evaluation eventually produced an effective herbicide for virtually every weed.

The next milestone was the development of power units from the cumbersome and unmanoeuvrable pre-war agricultural tractors to the small tractor with direct attached units. The war-time mini-Ferguson revolutionised small scale farming - Harry Ferguson told me many years ago that all he had done was to identify the difference between a horse and a tractor - "you can't bolt anything to a horse's backside". Up until then, tractors were used as horses. This development made it possible to mount greenkeeping equipment directly onto power units which meant deeper penetration with aerators, the use of wider boom sprayers and generally speeding up all operations. This was so essential, if only to keep ahead of play.

By the same token, triplex mowers from America in 1969-70 revolutionised mowing, both in regards to speed and being able to mow in two planes, conventional horizontally and vertically (verticutting). There are still some who feel 'hand' mowing gives a superior finish (and I am amongst them) especially in winter, but the demand for daily mowing by today's golfer makes the use of triplex mowers essential in the 'growing season'.

Another event with unforeseen and widespread repercussions was the introduction of automatic pop-up irrigation in 1964 - another development from America, where they had started as long ago as 1912 ! Pop-ups have been rather unjustly blamed for the rot that started in so many of our courses, but we should not just blame those who lashed the water on but also those ordering them to do so, because they thought lush was beautiful and target golf was preferable to pitch and run. It has taken 30 years of hard arguing and persuasion to get the culprits to see sense, but I am the first to commend those few who from the start used their automatic system with restraint and skill.

So far we have discussed milestones in management but the last one is in construction. Today only links greens would be built to old standards and virtually all new or replacement greens are now constructed to the perched water table systems, where a predetermined balance between free drainage and controlled water retention is assured by specially composed root zones over a blinded and under-drained stone carpet.

While the original concept was proposed and developed by the USGA Green Section in 1960 it is not the only one and I building to perched water table standards in 1966 in complete ignorance of even the existence of the USGA Green Section, let alone their PWT specification!

Of course, the industries servicing greenkeeping have tried to improve their products, machines, grass seeds and furniture - and deserve our thanks for their efforts - even if they are motivated by commercial interests, and I find no fault in that ! There is, however, one aspect where harm has been caused - sometimes almost irreversibly. This is in relation to fertilisers and soil analyses. Soil chemists have an awful lot to answer for - and even though some of their worst excesses of the seventies and early eighties have been modified, some (not all) fertiliser companies are still justifying grossly excessive applications on the basis of soil analyses - purporting to show deficiencies on totally arbitrary and unjustified standards.

When I first started advisory work in 1946, I took with me a big knife, a probe, a golf ball or two and a pH indicator. We virtually never used soil analyses on the basis that even then the enlightened amongst us were advising nitrogen only, on phosphates and the ideal pH was the one you had ! Even in 1982 STRI reported that out of 1800 golf green soil samples less than 5% showed phosphate levels below 60 ppm - and that the level they then stated represented a deficiency. Everyone lashed on phosphates and surprise, surprise got Poa annua. In passing there are excellent greens with 3 ppm and anything around 10 ppm is quite alright ! Thus it may be deduced, soil physicists good, soil chemists bad !

There are a host of other improvements not least in the educational world and we certainly could not run today's busily used courses without the machines and products developed by the huge service industry that supports greenkeeping and for these blessings we should be thankful but until we can knock sense into fertiliser companies and their reps we will never beat Poa annua and all the problems it produces. Television may have been the cause of the boom in the popularity of golf and its expansion but it has much to answer for by suggesting that golf courses should be verdant green and by endorsing target golf against our own pitch and run tradition.