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Temple Leading By Example In
The Search For Sustainable Growth

By Colin Callander - Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

WHEN you first arrive at Temple Golf Club, near Maidenhead, there seems little to distinguish it from most other traditional British clubs. It has an attractive, but far from opulent, clubhouse which offers fare you might find at clubs all over the country.

It has its own professional's shop and even an obligatory pole on which a flag flies at half mast whenever a member dies. It all appears remarkable only because it is so unremarkable. Then you set foot on the course.

It is almost as if you have been transported back 20 or 30 years - to a time when British courses were in their prime. And never is this more apparent than if you visit in winter - when many other traditional clubs are so wet underfoot as to be almost unplayable. You can play here.

Regular amateur golfers will be aware that during the last two decades course conditions throughout Britain have deteriorated alarmingly. This is particularly the case during the winter months, when the weather is at its worst.

Where once we could consider ourselves unfortunate to encounter temporary tees and winter greens even in the most inclement conditions, now they are commonplace for three months of the year.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that, at some clubs, golf is no longer a 12-month game. We might all fork out annual subscriptions which, on the face of it, entitle us to year-round golf, but the reality is that many courses are now in such a state of disrepair in winter as to dissuade all but the most enthusiastic golfers from venturing out at all.

Ten years ago Temple, like so many other clubs, was heading that way too. Then head greenkeeper Martin Gunn, chairman of greens Malcolm Peake and secretary Keith Adderley decided to transform the club's maintenance policy.

Their plan proved successful. So successful, in fact, that the club recently won the British and International Golf Greenkeepers' Association Golf Environment Award for 1999.

What Gunn, Peake and Adderley realised was that the club, like so many others, had, almost inadvertently, fallen foul of the 'Green is Great' mentality. With grim consequences, it had become all the rage at clubs throughout the country.

Intent on replicating the verdant and lush conditions of Augusta National and other foreign Tour venues, Temple, and all too many other clubs just like it, began, little by little, to use more water and fertiliser than ever before. In turn, this began to encourage infestation of poa annua grass at the expense of indigenous bents and fescues.

Sadly, the process is self-perpetuating. The more poa annua, the more a club needs to water and fertilise just to maintain a reasonable playing surface. Put simply, the course becomes addicted to regular - and very unnatural - feeding. It is akin to agricultural land whose fertility becomes dependent on intensive farming methods, and which, in the long term, prove unstable and unsustainable.

Soon Temple was caught in a vicious cycle. It needed to spend more and more on maintenance, yet, inexorably, the condition of the course declined.

"It was a very real problem for us and one for which there was no easy cure," Gunn said. "It takes time to turn things round and you have to be prepared to face an awful lot of criticism along the way."

They had found, at the outset in particular, that they had to endure the wrath of their members - particularly when conditions first seemed to deteriorate rather than improve. Gunn said: "I know I was fortunate to find someone like Malcolm who was willing to take a few hits for me. I needed support from some senior individuals within the club and that's what I got from Malcolm and Keith."

Gunn knew such backing was necessary because he was well aware it would not be easy to return Temple to its former glory. The only way was to kill off poa annua, a weak, shallow-rooted grass prone to disease, and, in turn, promote the return of native bents and fescues. This would have to be done by firstly starving the turf of water and fertiliser and then implementing an aeration policy designed to relieve compaction and promote root growth.

Neither is very difficult to achieve but both processes can cause short-term anxiety among members, particularly among those who fail to realise that the indigenous grasses will not return overnight. The greens, in fact, will look even worse before they start to look better, which is why it is vital that a club talks to its members about what it is trying to do.

"I can't offer other clubs a simple solution but what I would do is stress that communication is vital if they are to come through unscathed. Communication is king," Gunn said.

"You will never be able to appease the vocal minority, but what you can do is work on the silent majority. They are much more likely to be receptive if they know what you are doing and why you are doing it."

For a while at least even this determination to involve members was not enough to dispel all doubts. However, little by little, as the condition of the course began to improve and - of equal importance - as Gunn's natural maintenance techniques encouraged the return of indigenous species, the critics were silenced.