Natural Greenkeeping

In 45 years of playing different golf courses, I have come to realise that, though design and environment are the most obvious features that makes a ‘fine’ course, it is the turf that is actually most fundamental and brings the design to life.

Influence of TV:

Greenkeepers need protection from ignorant club members who demand lush green fairways and heavily watered, scalped greens as seen on television.  These types of conditions may make it easier for them to score well short term with target-style golf and keep to their low handicaps but they are a recipe for degeneration of the turf longer term and thereby their enjoyment.

The running game off firm, tight turf is so much more skilled and fun.

Fine turf is dominated by two fine-leaved, slow-growing, deep-rooted, drought resistant grasses, namely Fine Fescues (Festuca rubra) and the Bents (Agrostis).

All golf courses are improved with these grasses which naturally exist in cool-season, temperate latitudes (Indeed, they do not like hot climates). The principles of good greenkeeping are based on the needs of these grasses and the conditions where they flourish which are at the same time unsuitable or unappreciated by coarser-leaved, faster-growing, shallower-rooted, more agricultural meadow grasses (Poa annua).

The common denominator  where fine grasses flourish?

It is not altitude, as they flourish at sea level and on moorland tops.  They enjoy alkaline (often derived from sea-shell content) dry arid links, downland and limestone heath and acid moorland.

The answer is as follows, to quote Jim Arthur (from “Practical Greenkeeping“):

“What was surmised a century and more ago has been proven by research and analysis countless times since.  The secret of good golf greenkeeping is to copy basic infertile conditions – especially to avoid phosphatic fertilisers – and to ensure ideal conditions for deep-rooting by intensive deep aeration.  In other words, for good greens use nitrogen only and aerate deeply.  These same principles apply equally to every part of the golf course.”

Another way of putting it, is the old greenkeeping adage “ask a farmer what to do and go and do exactly the opposite” – established many moons ago!

The mono-cultured green of one colour (encouraged by fertilising) is not what good greenkeepers are looking for. A green of indigenous fine grasses gives a dappled mosaic of colours, including yellow patches in the summer where the meadow grasses (Poa annua) is being stressed out by drought and a lack of fertiliser.

Aeration is the most important thing for healthy grass.

However, tining makes greens bumpy for some days so golfers become frustrated at times and often suggest it should be done later in the year when there are less golfers around.

The effect of tining depends on the type of soil and how it drains but don’t expect that tining can be done effectively after October when the ground gets waterlogged, as at that time the action of driving in the tine can make a skin on the sides of the hole and stops drainage thereby making the tining useless for its purpose.

Managed disruption in the growing season

As meadow grasses (Poa annua) are stressed by drought and lack of fertiliser, over-seeding with fine grasses to take their place, needs to be done during the growing seasons. It is a waste of expensive seed to sow in October. Golfers have to accept some managed disruption to their playing surfaces during the growing season, to obtain longer-term truer, firmer, quicker surfaces all the year round. Some of the finest clubs are now overseeding on a few greens by rotation, on one day (often mondays) each week through the growing season. (Royal Porthcawl is being transformed by this policy)

Mowing is the basis of producing good playing surfaces.

The ‘Augusta Syndrome’ of receptive, quick greens as seen on TV creates enormous pressure on club greenkeepers, particularly from low handicappers, to cut the greens short for speed.

Poa annua has to be mown close (2 to 3mm) for speed but this can have lethal results hence the soubriquet “the quick and the dead”.  Fine wiry grasses produce quick surfaces without having to be scalped to their roots and indeed some pure fescue greens cut at 6mm give a stimp reading of 11+ in dry conditions, though normally they are cut at 5mm and give a speed of around 10.

The speed of fine golf club greens will vary and be dependant on the amount of local rainfall at any particular time in the year, unlike many target-style clubs who employ an exspensive  maintenance regime that often attempts to maintain a constant speed across the seasons.

Self seeding slows greens: A major factor in slowing down the speed of greens made of Poa annua is that it seeds at low level. Fine grasses seed on high stems. When growing seeding pods appear on greens often in the spring, they are from the Poa annua.  The increasing use of the verticutter machine, leaving close parallel lines on the sward, is often an attempt to reduce Poa annua’s seeding characteristics. But it also stresses and tends to kill off the wanted fescue grasses and so natural greenkeepers are reducing the use of the verticutter.

The cardinal sin is overwatering.

It encourages the wrong grasses. Greenkeepers of fine courses allow greens and fairways to dry out.    Have a look at a bumpy fairway and what do you see?  The fine grasses are on the top of the dry ridge and in the wet furrows are found the meadow grasses.  The solution?  Aeration, to stop rain running off the ridge and more aeration, to give drainage in the furrow.

A technological breakthrough called Wetting Agents is being increasingly used to help moisture retention in dry areas of greens and surroundings. No longer does the whole irrigation system have to be turned-on to just irrigate a small dry area. This saves gallons of water, while just keeping  the grass alive rather than an overwatered lush colour of green.

Fine aprons are vital.

One of the distinctions between fine courses and others is that a fine course encourages the bump and run shot . This requires modern grooming and scarification exercised on aprons to greens.

On Lush Target-style courses the fairway grass is comparatively long right up to the green so that, if they are to have a predictability of bounce, the golfer has to use a wedge to pitch onto the green and the surface needs to be soft to hold the shot.

Quality of aprons: Greenkeepers need to be encouraged to de-thatch and improve the consistency of their aprons so we see more golfers needing to use the bump and run.

Tight turf is fun:

One of the enjoyable aspects of FineGolf is negotiating the bumps and hollows around greens played off tight dry turf, when the four wedges in your bag are not necessarily an advantage!

Encourage fine turf:

All greenkeeping hinges on the precept that, if we copy the basic conditions found in nature, where these fine fescue and bent grasses dominate, and therefore keep out their competitors, then the grasses we want will thrive.  Even where past mismanagement has resulted in annual meadow grass dominance, correcting the course management policy will slowly but surely achieve a swing back to fine turf.

Fine golf is an all-round winner:

The finest courses have knowledgeable green committees who encourage their green staff to take a long term strategy that ignores the pull of lush target golf.  In the long term, keeping to the principles so beautifully and amusingly elucidated by Jim Arthur in his book Practical Greenkeeping will give golf club members courses that play better all the year round, conserve water, protect the ecology and natural character while aiding disease control and weed invasion and reduce agri-chemical pollution of the soil and the subsequent run-off to rivers.

Reduce costs with FineGolf

The target-style courses have to spend unnecessary amounts on fertiliser, water, pesticides and maintenance to keep their meadow grass (Poa annua) dominated courses alive and are often closed in the winter.

Fine courses run on much smaller budgets, cutting out fertiliser, pesticides and over-watering. The grasses need less maintenance and cutting and the greens are firm and in use all year round.

Support your Greenkeeper

…to pursue a long term policy of natural greenkeeping and make sure the succession of Captains don’t bring the wrong management to your course, influenced by watching too much target-style  TV golf.

Let us know your views, Leave us a comment below.

Reader Comments

On March 16th, 2009 Paul Lowe Said:

Firstly may I congratulate you on this fantastic site. It was forwarded to me by a good greenkeeping friend, Chris Mitchell from Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club.
I hold the same passion as yourself about fine courses, I have the luxury to be a Head Greenkeeper, and one who is in the process of converting our course back to its forma glory with fine grass and ecology. Maybe one year I will reach your site.
I am part of a networking group of 10 greenkeepers in the North West & Wales. We have the Jim Arthur mentality and we encourage fine grass with traditional methods. We conduct talks and write articles in our trade magazines. We are called the ‘gingerbread men’ stupid name I know but the name is rather apt, like our sugary friend we traditional greenkeepers are prone to having our head bitten off.
I have noticed that some of the gingers are already on your site. Delamere, Sandiway, Royal Liverpool , and Royal St Davids… the others include Wimslow, Caldy (just won the environment award) Lymn, Bull Bay and me at Bromborough. We were set up by the R&A and the STRI a few years ago and we promote sustainable methods. We are going from strength to strength. If you ever fancy a chat please feel free. The more we promote the fine courses the better.
Keep up the good work you are very much appreciated.

Lorne’s reply: It is your comment that is enormously appreciated. It means so much that passionate professional greenkeepers like yourself welcome our initiative.

On March 24th, 2009 Richard Arthur Said:

Jim Arthur’s son Richard makes the following comment:
“The only thing I would add is that in addition to ‘OVER watering’ father was so against the use of npk fertiliser.
The whole point of fine grass is that it has become adapted by evolution to tolerate impoverished conditions. In nature such grasses are very slow growing and are quickly forced out by other species which cannot survive unless fertilised, hence the need to starve these species out and maintain conditions only suitable for fine grasses. One application of the wrong fertiliser is all it takes to destroy a green from many, many years if not indefinitely as it only takes minute amounts of nutrients and these tend to stay in the soil. He was not against watering only over-watering but the construction and maintenance of drainage is vital as is aeration. So a properly made, kept and cared for course should be fast all year round”.

Lorne’s comment:
We are priveleged to have Jim’s son Richard support the aims of FineGolf and and I am pleased to add a further typical anecdote that he has passed onto us.
“The only anecdote that I can think of to provide which is printable (and you can print that too!) is that I asked dad why he wasn’t worried about being sued and never carried insurance or indemnity. I got a classic Jim Arthur reply, well son if you are always right and never wrong, no one can ever sue you. and I’m sick and tired of always being right.”

On March 27th, 2009 Chris Mitchell Said:

Well done Lorne. This is a great site.Exactly what we need as greenkeepers. To educate the single handicap golfers that watch Augusta each year with its artificial enviroment created at vast expense. To get them to see heavily fertilised, over watered poa greens are a long term enviromental disaster heavily reliant on fungicides. You certainly have a fan in me and the Gingerbreads it would seem. Regards
Chris

On September 28th, 2009 Ian Burns Said:

I have just viewed your web site for the first time, it is full of excellent advice for those who subscribe to a traditional and substainable golf course. I myself spent four years as Chair of greens at my course Seascale G.C. in Cumbria, I learnt the importance of the methods required to achieve these aims through our vastly experienced Head Greenkeeper who has battled to maintain standards on a very small budget, by traditional methods.
It has become increasingly difficult to maintain the support of members and Committees to these principles when they watch USA target golf and expect their course to be green, receptive to poor shots and immaculate in every way on a very small budget.
I believe you are visiting our course in the near future I hope you enjoy the course and can possibly encourage those entrusted with the running of our club to support traditional greenkeeping for a traditional links both now and in the future. I eventually gave up the battle with a number of blinkered members (farmers and gardeners)but hope others across the country continue to fight for both your and Jim Arthurs principles.

Dear Ian,
Thank you for being in touch and yes I played Seascale GC on the saturday they closed the Dunhill Cup for high winds! We had a tremendous foursomes match, keeping the ball under the 40 to 60mph wind and only lost 3 balls! What a fine course. A great advertisement for fine golf.

I then spent two hours with Ron Brown, the head greenkeeper and the club captain. Seascale is in good hands and I look forward to posting a full review in due course.

Warm regards from Lorne

On September 15th, 2011 Phil Harper Said:

This looks like a very good initiative and I hope it’s importance grows. As a practising agronomist I still am amazed at the host of ‘terrific’ products and machines on offer to green keepers most of which have little merit. I hold the view that the most important fertilisers are air, heat light and water. Get these in balance then most of your problems will be little ones. Grass is easy to grow and to confirm this, farmers grow it. However a lot of grass grows despite the management not because of it. Great site and I hope it grows to be a strong voice. Phil Harper

On September 22nd, 2012 Daniel Cassidy Said:

Just excellent

On December 4th, 2012 John Quinn Said:

Very encouraging to see this site and I hope this kind of thinking gains the ground it deserves in the future. As a consultant to clubs and a greenkeeper of some 30 years, I have seen some crazy maintenance practices flourish. They soon become “traditions” and contribute to what I have called “the circle of decline” by that time its very difficult for common sense to take hold. Too often the shiny glare of the quick fix seems impossible for clubs to resist. Well Done
John Quinn

On March 10th, 2013 Bob Docherty Said:

Great site for a beginner like me at the young age of 63 I have just taken on my local pay and play course, with only the basic knowledge of green keeping. I have just purchased Jim Arthur’s book ‘Practical Greenkeeping’ and looking forward to getting stuck into it. Is there a site I can subscribe to for tips and help from like minded and experienced greenkeepers. I do need guidance from you all.
Dear Bob,
I recommend http://www.the-gtc.co.uk/ and http://www.bigga.org.uk/education/ as a starting point.
Best wishes, Lorne

On September 4th, 2013 Sam Sweetzer Said:

I am 23 and have recently started a career in Greenkeeping. Having wished I completed a degree more relevant, I am wanting to progress as quickly as possible. My course will be paying for my NVQ’s in February. In the mean time I am doing as much research as i can and also building up my CPD through BIGGA to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. I just wanted to say what a help this website has been, and to be able to get the opinions of many highly experienced Greenkeepers. I have bookmarked this site. In the future I shall pass my knowledge on to other novices too! Carry on gentlemen :)

On September 10th, 2013 Pat Farrell Said:

Hi Lorne,
Fantastic web site! I am a 10 handicapper playing out of Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club, a links course north of Dublin. I have set myself the task of playing all of Irelands 45 eighteen hole links courses (or running game golf courses), only six to play. I am delighted to have come across your site and I believe we (golfing fraternity in gereral) do not appreciate the few true running golf courses we have in the world. We should treasure the few that we have 250 approx amoungst the 33,000 or so golf courses worldwide. we are spoilt in UK and Ireland to have the best on the planet. It really amazes me how few golfers, and I include all golfers in that, know just how many/few links or fast running courses to use your well chosen description there are in Ireland, UK and the world. When I tell people about the facts, most are astonished. Now that I have found your site I will be a regular user, keep up the great work. Yours in golf, Pat f

On January 17th, 2014 alan clark Said:

As a lecturer in golf course management, I see today within the fine turf , there are the ‘fast buck’ entrepreneurs, with new gimmicks and gadgets readily available to the unwary.
So I hope this site will help, particularly the newly emerging greenkeepers, engage in the real turf management traditions that work in harmony with the ecology of the golf course.
Here the greenkeeper works well with nature and toward the turfgrass species that they can in practice best achieve.