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On Course:
Managing Wear - Know Your Limitations


This article is by A J Beggs BSc Honns, Stri Manager / R&A Agronomist

The explosive popularity of the game of golf initially fuelled by Ryder Cup rivalries in the 1980's and 1990's and more recently by "Woods mania" does mean that our British golf courses are now exposed to more wear and tear than ever before.

It is not unusual for modern courses to experience 34-40,000 rounds of golf per year and where it is possible to keep the playing surfaces dry many of these rounds are now encountered in the winter months. Indeed, I was recently at one of our premier UK Open Venues and was told that the course had received 3,300 rounds in March of this year alone! There is no doubt that soil and turf destruction by golfers, cosseted in expensive rain-gear and waterproof shoes is more severe during the winter months but unless we manage these twin evils effectively our golf courses will be all the poorer in the future.

Before effective management can begin it is important to be aware of the limitations of the site and what they mean for you. Factors such as soil type, relief, annual rainfall and available space will all influence performance before management inputs are even considered. Unfortunately, most of our older inland courses are, located on heavy soils and are anything but flat, receive annual rainfall in excess of 30 inches (sorry, 750 mm!) and are shoehorned into 100 acres or less! Those blessed with sandier free draining sites rarely realise the sensitivity of the environment and the innate reluctance of the turf to recover from damage. "Fertiliser" is the cry but those that try and artificially accelerate the recovery process, are probably well on the way to agronomic oblivion and they will find that they have little turf left after the next drought, which will inexorably arrive.

So, we have a problem and the issue is particularly relevant at the moment following last winter when some golf course fairways have only been navigable by boat! Whilst it is impossible to make a "silk purse out of a sow's ears" there are thing that can be done to improve the wear tolerance of turf. Few of these ideas are new - most are common sense.

Firstly, accept that most of the damage is done during the winter when soils are wet and vulnerable to compaction. Vertidrain them early - the heavier the soil the earlier one should vertidrain. There is no sense at all in vertidraining a bog in December - it will not achieve the objectives of improved winter drainage and will probably make more of a mess than there was before.

Secondly, in out of play areas create pathways through very wet or congested sections of the course. There are many different types of path, including turf ones (which are often the best) and it is always to cheaper to put in a good path than 1000 linear metres of pipe drainage which may be unnecessary. Be sure to create pathways that golfers will use and if an artificial material is chosen, make sure that it is compatible with soft spikes.

Thirdly, where possible create separate winter tees and integrate these with your new pathways. Be creative and look to all points of the compass to change favoured routes, exit points from the greens and landing zones on the fairways.

Fourthly, do not be adverse to resting. Fairways can be partially rested in landing zone areas in particular by introducing winter drop zones and confining play to semi-rough areas. Alternatively, fairways can be rested completely by initiating the use of portable mats or by insisting on teeing up. These mechanisms are now widely used by some of the best courses in the land - if they can implement them, everyone can. Changing the behaviourial culture of the membership in the first year is the key here, and communication and education are vital elements.

Avoid short term solutions that lead to longer term misery. The application of fertiliser and the use of perennial ryegrass both fall into this category. Both are counter-productive and although the latter is tolerable in some situations, it should continue to be avoided, particularly with the arrival of bent / fescue / smooth stalked meadow grass turf which wears just as well but plays and looks considerably better. If the club is fortunate enough to have its own source of indigenous turf this often provides the best long-term solution. A mature mixed turf free from perennial rye grass can be grown relatively cheaply and easily, provided there is the space available.

Finally, use modern technology to your advantage. Crumb rubber is potentially helpful if out of play areas if you can overcome an initial abhorrence of feeding turf with shredded wagon tyres! Make two or three light applications to growing turf in the spring in an effort to build up a 5-10mm depth to protect the crown of the plant. Some readers with very small tees and no room to expand them may wish to experiment with the idea of replacing divots on part 3 tees. I know we have been taught for years never to do this but if they are anchored with biodegradable turf ties or Mcdivots then the old problem of slipping is overcome. A considerable improvement in turf cover and surface levels can be expected.

We conclude by saying that those of you who identify your limitations and manage them will prosper. To do so having the strength of your own convictions is essential because there will be many that pour scorn and derision on your proposals. Golf is now a year round sport but it will not be for long if these issues are ignored. Winter compromises are essential if we are to get the most from our courses in the summer.

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