Golfer’s info on GK equip

 

Introduction to Greenkeeping Equipment article

FineGolf, in providing simple information to golfers to promote ‘running-golf’ in contrast to ‘target-golf’, has articles on many greenkeeping topics. Maintenance equipment could be considered a particularly dry subject, but when one analyses how it has evolved over history it helps provide another vital aspect in understanding the key dichotomy in greenkeeping techniques that is exemplified by the battle between the two most important types of golf grasses: The fine grasses and the weed grasses.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

GB&I golf maintenance equipment has evolved from the use of sheep, the scythe and the hand fork to the vast modern industry of today that provides ever more efficient labour-saving devices both for:

  1.  The natural greenkeeping techniques needed for ‘running-golf’ that have not changed over the centuries.
  2.  The management of weed grasses that have become sadly prominent in so many of the finest courses with the introduction of automatic over-watering and the craze for ‘target-golf’ imported from America in the 1980/90s.

As ever in cool climate greenkeeping we have to consider the management of two main types of golf grass:

  1.  Fine perennial grasses (red fescue and browntop bents) that are deep rooting, drought and disease resistant, grow slowly and provide firm surfaces. They require low inputs of fertiliser, water and pesticides.
  2.  Lush, annual, highly variable, meadow weed grasses (Poa annua) that are shallow rooting, susceptible to disease, grow quickly, seed profusely at a low level and produce a water-retentive, soft thatch layer just below the soft surfaces they provide. They require high inputs of fertilser, water and pesticides.

The former is low maintenance and the latter the opposite, requiring a high budget.

We should not be surprised that some of the equipment providers, for similar reasons to the chemical/fertiliser companies, find it easier to sell to the greenkeepers of weed-grass Poa annua courses as they require more of their products to sustain their greenkeeping regimes.

Here at FineGolf we know more enjoyment is gained from playing across fine grasses and so set out in this article the basic specification of the types of equipment for ‘running-golf’ courses. This is best done broken down into equipment for ‘under-soil jobs’ and for ‘surface jobs’.

  • The key ‘under-soil’ jobs include: deep drainage, aeration, thatch removal, microbe and fungal development, irrigation and water management, and seed sowing.
  • Surface jobs include: mowing, ironing/rolling, top dressing and spraying.

To grow fine grasses it is very important that greenkeepers appreciate what is going on under the surface as well as above. Grass plants do not grow in the soil, they send their roots into the air spaces between soil particles and they take water and nutrients from the water in the soil.

Grasses use their leaves to photosynthesise the sun’s rays. Shave their leaves too low or often and it reduces photosynthesis and stresses the grass plant, as will any trees shading greens.

Caddies at Balustrol.

Caddies at Balustrol.

It is fascinating to consider how the early greenkeepers who were relatively uneducated men, (mostly recruited from caddies who left school, if they ever attended one, with some, at least, unable to either read or write) still managed their courses on scientifically correct lines. They did not need all the soil-laboratory analytical ‘scientific’ services that are available today.

The principles on which they based their programs have not altered in over a century and a half and are as valid today as they were then.

The major change is that today’s courses have more rounds played on them and the sport is now offered all year round with no let-up in the winter.

‘Running-golf’ courses for financial reasons (with the exception of a few courses such as the non-member facilities at Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart which close in the winter) are now expected to provide good surfaces all the time.

Norbert Lischka's Logo emphasising the need for respect between golfer and greenkeeper

Norbert Lischka’s Logo emphasising the need for respect between golfer and greenkeeper

The balance between the greenkeepers being granted course access in order to carry out maintenance while also minimising the interruption to golfers’ playability is a key issue in today’s golfing world.

Increasing the efficiency of the necessary maintenance is a prime management task of the modern, well-educated, professional course manager and the availability of the right equipment is vital to ensure this.

(Of course it is worth emphasising at this juncture that FineGolf is only an amateur in this highly technical world and does not try to suggest to professional greenkeepers what they should do on their own specific sites. The following golfers article is based on picking up anecdotal information from greenkeepers on FineGolf  visits and an attempt to simplify the issues that are often made too complex by companies to help them sell their product. We hope it will help golfers gain a greater understanding of the crucially important role greenkeepers play. They do not just cut grass!  Jim Arthur’s Practical Greenkeeping’ (updated in 2014 and available from The R&A’s shop) is recommended as essential reading to give a solid grounding in the science and art of greenkeeping. It is written in a polemical manner and is just as enjoyable for the non-expert.)

1. Aeration and drainage

The seventeenth green

Woking’s seventeenth green

The wise ‘running-golf’ greenkeeper needs ground with good drainage, which can be augmented at a cost by a number of deep slitting and gravel back-fill methods such as is being currently adopted at  Woking .

But why are most ‘running-golf’ courses sited on links, heathland, downs and some moorland? Because they are naturally well draining as well as having low nutrient level soil where perennial fine grasses can compete with weed grasses on condition that compaction is reduced by aeration.

Many of the original heathland greens were built on impermeable clay basins, in the absence of proper irrigation, simply to retain moisture during dry summers. In the 1970s when the introduction of automatic irrigation pop-ups made over-watering too easy, these dew ponds just filled with water, leaving standing water close to the surface and creating stagnant turf. The answer of course was to pierce the clay basin keeping the holes open with gravel. (and to apply less water!)

Blue clay above sandy base on RWNGC's fourteenth.

Blue clay above sandy base on RWNGC’s twelth hole.

Even at well-draining courses like Royal West Norfolk the the heavy clay on the famous bowl twelth green is now being dug out to allow the fine grasses to naturally develop their deep roots.

Some courses have both clay basin and modern constructed greens (usually called USGA Specification greens) and it needs real greenkeeping skill to produce similar surfaces across both types of green structure. Moortown is an example of this where there are also differences between ‘moorland’ and ‘heathland’ parts of the course.

Hollow-tine forking

Hollow-tine forking using Paul’s method

I remember playing Woodhall Spa, (Hotchkin course), the second finest course in the Midlands after Notts(Holinwell) , in March 1980 and coming across ten greenkeepers on the eleventh green all hand-forking to increase aeration. The tree cover at that end of the course was heavy, with particularly the eleventh green receiving less air and sunlight and I guess the increasing of aeration was a way of helping the fine grasses, though it was labour intensive. See David Hamilton’s BGCS article on The Hollow Tine where he describes the history of the discovery of aeration on Paisely bowling greens in 1919 by William Paul. It took quite sometime for golf to recognise that physical methods were better than chemical methods, helped by Guy Farrar, secretary of Royal Liverpool in the 1930s.

The Sisis Autocrat

The Sisis Autocrat

The mechanisation of aeration was led by Wm. Hargreaves’s Sisis business from the 1930s, but greenkeeping had to wait until after the Second World War for the second boom in golf before it was economically feasible for the arrival of powered propulsion and solid-tine thrust of the Sisis Autocrat in 1971.

de Ridder vert-drain

de Ridder Verti-Drain

Jim Arthur’s evangelical mission for more regular aeration became more practically possible when in 1980 the Dutch de Ridder brothers invented the Verti-Drain which hole-punched and heaved the soil, while mounted on the back of a tractor. The downside to this approach is it gives major disturbance of the green surface thus reducing playability for a period.

There are numerous aeration machines continuously being developed because it is the most crucial maintenance job of all for achieving the growth of fine grasses. It is increasingly recognised that deep-coring needs to be done when the soil is dry. The period in August when many golfers are on holiday has become the favourite time for this task, rather than mid-October onwards when tines going into wet ground smear the sides and hinder the effectiveness of the aeration process.

Early Sisis aerator

Early Sisis aerator

The value of soil conditioners such as montmorillonite (pumice-like) clays has increased considerably. These materials improve drainage and root development when introduced down aeration holes rather than as a top dressing.

There is a difference of opinion as to whether the top 20mm of the soil is the most important, perhaps because that is where the weed grass (Poa annua) has its roots only, whereas fine grasses, though also concentrated in this area, also has roots that go much deeper to find moisture during dry conditions.

air2g2-750

Campey’s Air2G2

With ‘firmness’ becoming an ever more important objective on all courses there has been a dramatic increase in very regular, micro solid-tining that aerates that top 20mm and though golfers can still see the little holes these do not disturb the putting surface, thereby obtaining a balance between the greenkeeper’s need to aerate and the golfer’s need for playability.

The latest aeration machine that is gaining accolades, the Air2G2, injects air deep into the soil without disturbance to the surface thereby allowing the golfer to putt truly, even immediately after the deep aeration.

 

finegolf_banner_620wx70h_v3

 

 

 

Toro Procore

Toro Procore

 

Notts(Holinwell) swears by the use of the pedestrian Procore Toro machine for their greens and it is very manoeuvrable around bunkers etc.  The greenstaff can alternate the tines from hollow core to solid and they have the added bonus that as the hollow 8mm wear down the diameter increases and they then use them on approaches and surrounds.  They report the job is time consuming but very worthwhile and if they micro solid tine and roll afterwards the surfaces remain very playable.  Seeing the vast improvements in species change from weed to fine grasses recently across the Notts(Holinwell) course, following the implementation of the programme advised by Gordon Irvine that has been crucially fully supported by the Club officer hierarchy and membership, they are worth listening to. FineGolf’s ‘Running-Golf Day’ on Sept 4th 2017 gives people the opportunity to discover the brilliance of how Notts/Holinwell has been recovered to a fast running, dry heathland championship course, host to The Open Championship ‘Final’ Qualifying from 2018.

2. Thatch removal

Thatch is a surface layer, often quite deep, of partly decomposed, stagnant vegetation, mostly soft cellulose, that holds water like a sponge and is created by the over growth of abundantly fertilised  grass. Its removal is necessary as ‘firmness’, rather than ‘soft-target-style-golf’, even in ‘parkland’ situations, is seen increasingly as the way forward.

Thatch derives from leaves and the stems of all grasses including the fibre or lignin of dry, wiry, fine fescue and browntop bent turf. A small amount of fibre is not all that harmful, unless excessive (ie if thicker than about 1 cm) and indeed some fibre in mature turf provides the kind of firm knitted turf best suited to give the consistent bounce of the ‘running-golf’ game.

However once thatch builds up to a greater depth it becomes problematic, retaining water, harbouring pathogenic fungi that cause disease and it promotes the wet conditions that favours the growth of Poa annua.

The Graden machine

The Graden machine

The Graden machine is the market-leading product that physically pulls out the thatch. It does this in slitting lines, replacing with pure sand. This process is highly disruptive to putting surfaces and does not cure the weed grass cause, so the thatch inevitably returns unless the chemical greenkeeping regime is changed to one of natural greenkeeping.

The Berkshire GC decided some years ago to adopt weed grasses across its two brilliantly-designed Herbert Fowler heathland courses. The ‘target-golf’ greens are unfortunately both consequently high in weed grass thatch. Playing both courses recently it was interesting to note after two recent de-thatching processes that the firmness and trueness of run was better on the Red course, that had been graden-ed in lines, than on the Blue that had been hole-punched.

The more advisable method of de-thatching is by developing healthy soil in the rootzones.

For the last twenty years or so many golf clubs have decided that thatch removal is better done through development of the natural microbes and fungi in the soil. Microbes mineralise the thatch converting it to humus and plant food without the need for physical removal or hollow coring, and results in less consequent disruption to golfers. (Read article )

(Jim Arthur writing in Practical Greenkeeping’ in the early 2000s was fully aware of the importance of healthy soil biology for the growth of perennial fine grasses and for top-dressing – see in the section 7 below. He advised a 80/20 mix of sand/fensoil which will create a home for good microbes and fungi unlike the application of pure inert sand.)

Some agronomists are sceptical and say that this claim  has not been scientifically proven, even though it is widely understood that this is how dead grass breaks down in nature giving friable, lighter soils as is often the case in roughs that have not been fed with fertiliser.  FineGolf recognises that there are commercial interests at play on both sides here, though the market leader for creating good soil biology on golf courses, which guarantees its thatch reduction programmes and has developed Compost Tea products, is expanding rapidly and not just in GB&I but internationally. It has also invested heavily in scientific soil biology research as well as working ‘in viro’ with course managers in many different geographical locations.

 

 

 

I have not met anybody who pretends that the science of soil biology is fully understood though there are clearly two approaches to it. The natural greenkeeping approach of developing healthy rootzones for fine perennial grasses and the chemical greenkeeping approach for the management of weed grasses (Poa annua).

Professor Alan Gange of Royal Holloway, University of London has tried to raise financial support for ‘in vitro’ scientific research but with little traction from the sports turf industry. Read report on 2013 conference at Royal Holloway.  However, he tells me he has recently been successful in obtaining funding for research on beneficial fungi in turf from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

What does seem to be agreed is that there is little point in over-seeding with fine grasses until the thatch has been removed or degraded and healthy soil biology established in previous chemically managed turf.

Every site is different and there are many shades of grey but one of the reasons why USGA specification greens were recommended since the 1960s, with well draining layers of inert materials,  to replace the original ‘pop-up’ greens with clay basins and organic humus matter in the rootzone (a home for good microbes and fungi that support fine grasses, if not flooded!), was that it was believed that inorganic chemicals would leach out quickly through the well draining layers.

I am told that excessive inorganic chemicals/fertilisers/pesticides, when they are able to leach out quickly, the remainder is then rapidly assimilated by soil microbes and turned into nutrients available for fine grass plant growth. This is one of the reasons apparently why you can see perennial fine grasses growing within a few weeks of changing to a more organic, holistic, natural approach to turf management, on modern well-draining greens.

However, the converse is also true and is the reason why just one wrong move can put back years of good natural greenkeeping and swiftly create an invasion of Poa annua.

Healthy fine-grasses rootzone

Healthy fine-grasses rootzone

Billy Mitchell, the brilliant course manager at Perranporth, Cornwall, who for fifty years has developed fine grasses across his fascinating, quirky James Braid ‘running-golf’ links course, that gives me a high ‘joy-to-be-alive’ feeling, admitted to me that he had once made a mistake. He had been persuaded by a suggestion from a junior member of staff who had been away on a greenkeeping training course, to experiment by fertilising in December.  Sure enough next April there was a rash of extra Poa annua which with shallow roots, warms up quicker, starts growing earlier and so was able to use the boost of fertiliser to colonise the turf, than the deeper rooted fine grasses!

Physical thatch removal is a major area of equipment development and is often followed by the use of pure,  kiln-dried sand injected into the created crevices/holes. My anecdotal comment on this is that I have seen many weed grass greens firmed-up in the short term by this method but the inert sand sadly is an ideal environment into which weed grass will invade and out-compete the fine grasses, leaving lines or dots of pure Poa annua.

On the other hand, whilst recently playing at Huntercombe I noticed that their new greenkeeper Grant Stewart’s team had drag-matted sand and browntop bent seed into thatch-extracted hollow-cored holes at the end of July and the bents had taken well, leaving dark green holes among the slightly yellowing Poa.  Perhaps Huntercombe really is on the way back to being one of Willie Park Jnr’s finest running courses. The Club’s leadership is certainly providing the right encouragement.

I attended a STRI research day recently at their Bingley trial grounds and a Wiedenmann machine was on show that hollow-cored, sifted out the thatch and collected the soil ready for replacement with seed, all in one action. The ability to refill the holes with original soil with the good microbes and fungi already present in the soil, rather than pure inert sand, gives an advantage in developing natural soil biology in the rootzone and of course saves on sand costs.

3. Irrigation and water management

It was in the 1960s that the practice of automatic watering of greens was introduced in the cool climate GB&I, whereas it had been available in warm climate USA since the 1920s. This trend was the most important reason why, in conjunction with over-watering, some of our finest courses started to revert from fine to weed grasses.

It is true that most ‘running-golf’ courses now have automatic watering to their greens (and Jim Arthur did support this development for times of extreme drought, such as in 1976) though some of the finest courses, like Aldeburgh and Ganton, still resist automatic fairway watering systems and their wonderful fairway fescue grasses flourish.

The Vredo slit overseeder.

The Vredo slit overseeder.

On the other hand Rye has, controversially as far as some of its members are concerned, added fairway watering on the Old course. This has been combined with heavy over-seeding using a Vredo slit seeder and I can confirm the gorgeous fescue quality of the fairways is now even better than of yore. Alan Banks and Garth Grand, the joint course managers believe the carefully managed moisture has helped the young fescues become established.  The fairways do look greener and hopefully, as the fescues mature, the fairway watering will be reduced to allow a return to some browning-off in dry summers.

I have a small greenkeeping survey that I invite clubs to fill out when reviewing their courses and one of the questions is always answered with the words “they use as little water as possible to just keep the grass alive”.

An automatic watering system seems a large expenditure, even if it is a high tech system able to provide detailed control over how much water it sprays, and exactly where, especially if it is not going to be used! The problem arises when justification of this type of expenditure creates a management habit of using it too much, sometimes driven by ignorant club officers or secretaries with little course knowledge and just have the feeling that the colour ‘green’ looks good.

In short, automatic irrigation may do more damage than good for fine turf.

The chemicals formerly used to control worm-casting and leatherjackets have now been banned. One primary cultural method of control nowadays is to have dry turf.

I played recently at the delightful James Braid course at Reay GC, Caithness founded in 1893, where some of the members assist in the greenkeeping duties. It is a natural links of indigenous bent/fescue greens, across a challenging and interesting layout and plays longer than its 5890 yards. A couple of the low lying, damper greens had wormcasts while the drier ones were clean. In wet conditions worms come to the surface afraid of being drowned!

Many clubs are now going to water management products / surfactants (colloquially called ‘wetting agents’) that help stabilise the moisture in the soil, for best grass growth, particularly for young fescues.

 

 

 

 

I have spoken to many greenkeepers recently who have now gone back to using hand watering to focus moisture only on the specifically too-dry areas on the greens. They now use an equipment meter stuck into the soil to help them gauge moisture content.

The use of a moisture meter might well turn out to be a most influential piece of equipment in the development of ‘running-golf’ courses.

Most sports turf grasses require a water-to-soil content between 15-25% with fescue at 15% and Poa annua at 25% (though some courses operate at 40% or above). The market leader in surfactants advises a moisture level of around 20% as a target, though clubs like Royal Worlington & Newmarket who have gone through a remarkably successful recent change back from weed to fine grasses, are targeting between 12 to 15%. I repeat, fine grasses with deep roots prefer drier conditions and it helps them compete against weed grasses with short roots that need lots of water to stay alive.

4. Over-seeding

Ian Kinley, the course manager who has done so much to bring Royal Porthcawl back to fine grasses, wrote an article   for FineGolf in 2010 describing how his team were fescue over-seeding their greens throughout the growing season (every Monday four greens would be seeded) using a dimple method.

The other method is to overseed by slitting the turf in multiple lines, dropping in seed and then rolling the turf flat again all in one pass. The Vredo is the market leader. The resulting surface creates less disturbance to a course’s playability. Some Clubs like Seascale in Cumbria have been doing this for years.

Vredo slit seeder

Vredo slit seeder

Royal St George’s are making dramatic moves forward in changing their greens and run-offs from weed to fine grasses. Paul Larsen’s team have ‘rescued-out’ the ryegrass and Yorkshire fog, and their Vredo over-seeder has been excellent in re-seeding with fescue before the annual meadow grass (Poa annua) can invade the small patches of ground that get left bare. They are in the middle of a four/five year programme and by the time The Open Championship comes round again the course will be so much firmer and truer.

This process has also been used successfully, to my personal knowledge, by course managers David Edmondson at The Island, Malahide and by Paul Malone at County Louth, both in Ireland, with fantastic results.

An extra key to overseeding success is to use seed with a coating of mycorrhizae fungi  to help increase plant survival and the growth rates of young fine grass seedlings. Fungi that form mycorrhizal associations with plants  act as ancillary roots, (myco = fungi, rhizae = root, i.e. fungus root)  help perennial plants take up water and nutrient more effectively. These fungi do not form positive associations with annual weed grasses such as annual meadow grass (Poa annua) thus giving perennial grasses an advantage which helps them establish more rapidly in meadow grass swards

It is also claimed, following independent research, that individual fine seeds when coated individually with fertiliser do better than when fertiliser is added generally to the sward.

 

 

 

 

When the cost of ten bags of the best fescue seed, that will cover eighteen greens twice, is a similar expenditure to just one spray of pesticide, it is surprising that more ‘running-golf’ clubs are not more enthusiastic about heavily over-seeding.

5. Mowing

Old mower and sheep

Old mower and sheep

Ransomes of Ipswich manufactured the first roller-mounted lawn mower in 1832 though both sheep-grazing and scything were used on early golf courses. The growth of inland courses from around 1880 on non-heathland, richer, heavier soils supporting faster-growing weed grasses, required more mechanisation and though a number of firms produced mowers it was amazingly not until 1924 that the first specialist greens mower, the Certes model, was produced by Ransomes.

This only goes to emphasise the brilliance of those early golfers using hickory shafted clubs who scored so well on what must have been irregularly cut greens! Having said that they were playing on fine grassed greens which would still have rolled truly when cut at even 8mm, even if they were a little slower than today’s speeds. Weed grass (Poa annua), of course, needs to be cut lower than fine grasses to deliver a decent true roll.

Ransomes Auto Certes

Ransomes Auto Certes

The first motorised mower of a quality to produce really good putting surfaces was not marketed until 1950. This was the Auto-Certes by Ransomes and allowed much maintenance time to be saved.

It was soon discovered that more frequent mowing at a high cut was the way to create good greens.
Triplex mowers arrived from America in 1970 which speeded up mowing still further and these had interchangeable reels that allowed verticutting and grooming. Mechanised brushing attachments are now helpful in standing up prostrate grasses for better grooming.

Nevertheless hand mowers are still regarded as giving a better cut and the higher labour cost is felt to be worthwhile by many of our finest running-golf courses . It has been mentioned to me that one of the reasons for this is that the greenkeeper relates to the grass better when walking behind the machine than when sitting high up on a triplex. More care is naturally taken and this theory sounds like good common sense.

The desire for an increase in the speed of putting surfaces started also in the 1970s and seems to have been recently taken to the extreme by what one might call The 2mm Chemical Brigade of Greenkeeping, largely encouraged by ‘The Augusta Syndrome’.

‘The Augusta Syndrome’ might loosely be defined as what occurs when ignorant members of golf clubs, after enjoying the brilliant televising of The Masters in April, put pressure on their home club greenkeepers to create the speed of Augusta on their own greens.

What is overlooked is that the Augusta weed-grass greens have special under-green aeration systems and in order to be shaved low for speed for just one week, require huge chemical inputs of water, fertilizer and pesticides to simply keep the grass alive and disease free.  Few ordinary clubs can sustain similar costs or cope with the longer term damage that such shaving does to the turf. Soon after the Masters the entire course is closed until the autumn so as to allow recovery and re-turfing.

Inland golfers often visiting from around London used to say the Hunstanton greens were fantastic but they were pure Poa annua ‘target-golf’ greens. Shaved low, they were soft and receptive to balls to be stopped quickly. They then putted very fast in the summer but unfortunately they became quagmires in the winter.

Well, as Jim Arthur predicted, the grass eventually died and the Club sensibly decided to turn to fine grasses. They now have some of the finest, truest greens and aprons in England that are firm and provide ‘running-golf’. It has been transformed into an economically and ecologically sustainable all-year-round course and one should mention that this change programme from weed to fine grasses has been led by golf course consultant Gordon Irvine.

The best way to improve turf density and texture is to mow it regularly, collecting the cuttings. This applies to all parts of the course, greens, fairways and tees. If cuttings are left on fairways it only accelerates the spread of the weed Poa annua seed.

A particularly labour intensive job on a ‘running-golf’ course is to mow close to bunkers so that incorrectly hit balls are gathered into them and not stopped by a fringe of rough, a feature often found on a parkland course set-up. Specialised cutting machinery is now available for this job without crumbling the walls of the bunkers.

Another use for this type of machine is the cutting down of the grass surrounding the green to encourage balls to roll off into bunkers and swales. One of the major differences between ‘running-golf’ courses is that on ‘target-golf’ courses a fringe of semi-rough is left often as close as one mower width from the green. A ball finishing in such locations requires a lob-wedge to float the ball to the green rather than the use of the percentage ‘bump-and-run’ shot or indeed the use of the putter.

A Barronness mower

A Barronness mower

A downside of all the sand being spread on greens today to generate firmness is that the blades of mowers blunt quickly and rather than cutting precisely, tear the grass and thereby invite disease. Some course mangers are now mowing with old used units which collect the oversized sand particles for a few days until the top-dressed sand has sunk in.

The mower company Baroness has even developed a patented cutting blade that stays sharp when mowing through sand.

An STRI/Bernhards study found that running mowers using the ‘non-contact’ method of setting up the cutting units and using grinding to maintain sharpness, was an improvement on the ‘back lapping‘ method. Increased blade sharpness can produce superior turf.

6. Measurement equipment for greens

The mechanised roller or ‘turf iron’, as Jonathan Harmer (Farmura MD) first called it, is being used increasingly to speed-up greens without shaving them. This can, on badly draining greens under wet conditions, cause soil compaction. This has encouraged light and regular pricking to maintain aeration in the top rootzone, which should not cause disturbance to golfers putting, even if they can still see the tiny holes for a couple of days.

Jim Arthur considered the invention of the stimpmeter to often be a rod for the greenkeeper’s back. He was happy for its use as a comparison between greens but not as a measurement stick to instruct greenkeepers to produce greens with a specified speed reading.  Nevertheless, this is exactly what The R&A and the European Tour now do, though it should be pointed out that the speeds requested in the recent Scottish and Open Championships at Castle Stuart and Royal Troon did not require the greenkeepers to put their grasses under undue stress of being shaved but were left to run at sensible speeds. (see Norbert Lischka’s article on green speed facts)

The STRI (an agronomy company that has evolved out of the ‘Bingley Greenkeeping Research’ set up in the 1929 under the influence of Norman Hackett who promoted minimal fertilising) have invented a ‘ Trueness Machine’ to objectively measure trueness and smoothness of greens, aspects of green performance which are more important than mere speed. Nevertheless this device is very expensive and only offered as a service to course managers. Most ordinary courses cannot afford its use apart from perhaps once a year as part of a helpful measurement audit.

The STRI programme of the last five years, objectively measuring thousands of different sward greens for smoothness and trueness has scientifically shown what has been known for hundreds of years; fine grasses give a better putting performance than weed grasses.

Regretfully, the subjective chatter about the quality of greens by club members who are having a bad putting day is often at the root of much greenkeeper criticism!

The Greenstester

The Greenstester

Realising this, the late Nick Park (who was on the Golf course committee of The R&A for twenty five years and a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel)  invented the Greenstester  which, when used in combination with The R&A’s ‘Holing out Test’, objectively measures the reliability of putting roll as well as speed. It has the advantage over the STRI’s trueness machine in being of reasonable cost. Most greenkeepers who are managing a change from weed to fine grasses would greatly benefit from investing in one in order to demonstrate objectively to the members of their club the improvements along the way.

 

Firmness of greens is measured using a Clegg Impact Hammer which has its origins in civil engineering. A decelerometer is dropped from a fixed height and measures the hardness of a surface in gravities. We can usually expect values between 70 (soft) and 130 (firm).

 

 

 

 

 

7. Top dressing

From the mid-thirties Bingley fell under the influence of R.B.Dawson and in his 1959 edition of ‘Practical Lawncraft’, top dressing is covered in only seven pages, almost all devoted to making compost heaps and stressing the supposed value of retaining the fertility of animal and vegetable wastes.

Nevertheless top dressing has nothing to do with fertilising, it is all about ‘levelling’ greens and producing good putting surfaces while also encouraging an aerobic surface. Levelling is not just a desirable feature for the improvement of playing conditions but is essential to permit close mowing, which in turn, is vital to the preparation of true surfaces that will avoid scalping of any raised areas or missing of any low ones.

Clubs with links courses possessing free access to sand have always routinely top dressed greens, and the wisest ones mixed the sand with seaweed, composted in heaps, to produce a humus-enriched mix to assist in resisting droughts.

The most important aspect of top dressing is to continue to use the same constituents over a long period. Jim Arthur in ‘Practical Greenkeeping’ points out that the rootzones of some greens look like the rings of a tree with different layers being created dependent on the greenkeeping fashion at that time, which then create barriers to drainage and depth of root development.

An additional reason for top dressing seems to have evolved recently and this is to help firm-up weed grass Poa annua greens. One argument runs that since most Poa annua greens are strong generators of organic material (thatch) which reduces firmness, applying pure sand is better than the 80/20 mix of sand/fensoil that Jim Arthur recommended as the best rootzone for fine grasses. This issue is investigated in an article suggesting that agronomic advisers should be careful in their use of the term ‘organic matter’ when they ought to mean ‘organic material’.

There has been an epidemic in the last three to four years of pure sand top-dressing particularly for inland courses that is said to ‘dilute’ the thatch, though not solving the cause of it. There has been almost a competition between clubs as to how many tons of sand can be applied.

Royal Troon, with a low water table and Poa annua/Browntop bent greens, is an example of where in the three years prior to the 2016 Open Championship, umpteen tons of pure sand were spread on the greens and fairways to help firm up the course in The R&A’s effort to create a ‘running-golf’ challenge.

There can be no doubt that the Royal Troon course was in better condition after The Open Championship than previously in contrast to many ‘target-golf’ courses used for other professional championships.

In contrast, on fescue/browntop bent dominant greens managed under a natural greenkeeping regime, the microbes and fungi are encouraged. These help create a soil environment where the roots of fine grasses naturally pick up the right level, and a steady flow, of nutrients through mycorrhizal (good fungi) extensions, rather than from a sudden boost that inorganic chemical fertilising generates and from which Poa annua derives such strong growth.

Microbes and fungi do not live in inert pure sand and perhaps this is why Jim Arthur instinctively knew that top dressing for fine grassed greens should be 80/20 sand/fensoil, and the scientific proof that he was right has gradually emerged since he passed away in 2005.

I am advised a usual tonnage of top dressing on eighteen fine greens is normally between 70 and 100 tonnes per year. Some Poa annua greens are receiving as much as 200 tonnes.

There are now various machine spreaders for top dressing that are best used when the weather is dry.  It is also best to own spreaders outright than to hire them so greenkeepers can use them when the weather is most appropriate.

Perhaps one positive spin-off from increased winter play is that no longer is top dressing done in one or two heavy spreads when nobody used to play in the winter. Now it is applied sparingly and often, at times when there is grass growth to absorb it quickly and this ensures less likelihood of layering in the rootzone.

Having said that, in situations where some 200 tonnes of sand top-dressing is applied in order to firm up soft Poa annua greens, in certain situations perhaps not all of this can be absorbed during the growing season. Consequently we now see agronomic advice being given to spread it during the winter as well.

Top dressing sand should have ideally a mix of particle size of between 0.25mm and 0.75mm. If too much sand is below 0.125mm it will be absorbed quickly but will seal surfaces and give drainage problems in the winter. Equally too much above 0.75mm will harm mowers.

Sand particle size should be round because drainage and root development depends on water and the roots finding a way between the soil particles. Semi-rounded shapes give maximum interstitial spaces, while very angular ones lock together. So washed sand rather than crushed rock should be used and greenside bunker sand should be of similar shape and size to be of similar help when splashed on to the green.

8. Spraying

As in agriculture, this topic has become an important equipment issue for the chemically managed ‘target-golf’ Poa annua greens. Grass growth retardants and pesticides to stop diseases like fusarium and anthracnose, are all part of the modern chemical armoury in managing weed grasses. Nevertheless most of these pesticides and chemicals will kill the good microbes and fungi in the rootzone.

For ‘running-golf’ courses with fescue/browntop bent greens one of the indicators of success is minimising the need for pesticides. See recent article on pesticide use.

Playing at Goswick links in Northumberland recently, George Thompson (who has just retired after fifty years from being a brilliant course manager and course architect) told me that he had a bet with Colin Irvine of Muirfield, prior to the Millennium, that the first one of them to use a fungicide would have to give a bottle of champagne to the other. No champagne has changed hands! This is because the high content of fescue/browntop bent in their greens, with a minimum of Poa, has meant that there has been no need to protect against fusarium or anthracnose disease with fungicides. Indeed a small amount of these diseases might well be welcomed as it kills off the invasive weed grass without affecting the fescues!

In summary

In simple terms ‘running-golf’, developed through natural greenkeeping, leads to less stress and injury to the plants within greens (also creating less disease, more even putting surfaces and lower maintenance costs) in comparison to the chemical greenkeeping required for ‘target-golf’.

Weed and fine grasses need the application of different greenkeeper regimes to give good surfaces and

the clever greenkeeper is the one who knows how to manage the change from weed to fine!

Nowadays, the correct use of modern equipment makes it an easier change to implement.