GK comms training

Greenkeeper communication training: a new evolution?

 

Education and training is never a neutral subject and FineGolf in this article will recommend three things to help take GB&I Greenkeeper training evolve to a new level of professionalism.

The key to greenkeeper training will always be the controversial surface management choice between weed grasses creating ‘Target-golf ‘ or fine grasses creating ‘Running-Golf ‘.

jim arthur, practical greenkeeping

Jim Arthur’s bible of greenkeeping

Put simply, the question is whether to follow Jim Arthur’s natural way, as elaborated in his book ‘Practical Greenkeeping‘, or whether to follow the advice of the chemical companies’ salesmen.

The publishing of ‘Practical Greenkeeping‘ by The R&A in the late 1990s (reprinted in 2003 and again in 2014 at a RRP of £29.95 obtainable from The R&A’s shop) was the third of three key developments to raise the professionalism of greenkeeping that Jim Arthur strove so hard all his life to help create. The other two being the formation of BIGGA (the Greenkeepers’ trade body) and The GTC (the Greenkeepers’ training vehicle).

These developments were part of, as previously discussed, a return to providing the ‘running-golf‘ form of the sport, around the turn of the millennium. Jim Arthur was the leader of a small band of enthusiastic pioneers centred around the STRI and The R&A who recognised the importance of golf needing to keep alive the ‘Running-game’ while under an onslaught from the commercial boom offering only  ‘Target-Golf ‘ from the 1970s to 2000.

FineGolf is both happy and sad that the cheapest copy of ‘Practical Greenkeeping‘ on eBay is now a lofty £250 and on Amazon is £350. One is happy there is renewed interest in the ‘Bible of Greenkeeping’ while sad that many people cannot now afford it from these avenues. FineGolf gives you the avenue of The R&A Shop.

Finegolf’s first immediate recommendation is

1. “The R&A needs to advertise they have reprinted Practical Greenkeeping and that it is available for £29.95. It ought to be required reading for every person attending Greenkeeper/Chairman of Green Training courses.”

The best investment any club could make of some £300 would be to buy a copy of Practical Greenkeeping for their greenstaff  and officers.

The R&A also developed a new website to try to sell the importance of fine grasses to the wider golf public but like many top-down initiatives it failed to capture the golfing imagination as a method of achieving change.

The R&A decided that it is easier to target the supposed decision-makers in golf clubs (and we are talking here about predominantly private members’ clubs, rather than proprietary owned clubs) by trying to influence Officers and Secretaries (or as an increasing number of clubs prefer the job to be titled, ‘general manager’).

This tactic, of course, misses the fundamental point that, even if in reality every members’ club is run by what (without wishing to sound pejorative, as somebody has to do this work voluntarily) can only be called a clique, in many cases a self-perpetuating one too, it is the club members though who, at least in theory, set the policy and the finance of their clubs.

If a greenkeeper of a poor soil, well draining course, in order to create long-term ‘Running-Golf‘, sets out on a conversion of weed-to-fine grass-species change programme, without educating and explaining the what/why/wherefore of that change to the membership, then they will not be successful. This process will only encounter the inevitable teething problems, often exacerbated by our ever changing weather patterns thwarting the well laid plans. The ‘target-golf-shaved-for-speed’ lovers will then pounce, threatening the greenkeeper’s job unless the change is rolled back to lush, chemical-based policies.

Even if the club’s officer clique has thought it a fashionable thing to go down the fine grasses route to firm-all-year-round surfaces (and an increasing number are recognising that this is the only ecologically viable and the financially sensible longer-term decision available) sometimes the ambition seems more about burnishing egos than really understanding the VISION of where the greenkeeper is taking the course, and consequently their support can easily crumble under pressure.

However good the greenkeeper may be at technical traditional greenkeeping in changing species from weed grasses to fine grasses (which entails less inputs of fertiliser, water and pesticides, with more aeration, topdressing and overseeding) they will be unlikely to succeed without communicating with and educating their memberships to the merits of this change.

Greenkeeping training has improved out of all recognition since the early 1990s and BIGGA and the GTC should take a bow for the leading role they have played in this.

Certain companies, like Bernhards or Ransomes Jacobsen for example, have pumped sponsorship into raising the breadth of experience for young greenkeepers.

Unfortunately many greenkeepers see the profession as an out-of-doors, hands-on,  hard-working activity and quietly get on doing what they know is best and think the members will recognise that and all will be OK.

But does today’s greenkeeper training confront this mistake?

Some advise me that the Golf Unions, the GTC and The R&A are all committed to appropriate communications training on the subject of fine grasses. Others are sceptical that the present emphasis on the ‘better management of annual meadow grass (Poa annua)’ will be sidelined, due to so many of the maintenance companies with their large sponsorship budgets, relying on the flourishing of Poa to sell their products.

What will be discussed in the Chairman of Green training seminars that are being developed? An onside Chairman of Green is crucial to the greenkeeper, but the occupant of the post so often changes just at the time when they have finally been educated in the correct policies. They are then replaced by somebody who wants naturally to stamp his own imprint on things all over again, and can be more of a hindrance than a support in their well meaning and sometimes ego-driven enthusiasm.

This is one of the reasons why Jim Arthur always said that the role of the Chairman of Green was to protect the greenkeeper from the members, and obtain the necessary budget, rather than tell the green staff what they should do.

There is much wisdom in that and it has been emphasised to me by numerous excellent Chairman of Green but FineGolf contends that this advice does not go far enough these days, particularly in offering the practical way forward for an implementation of a weed-to-fine-grasses change programme.

Some will say that greenkeepers have no platform to speak within a club and it is the officers who are in charge. FineGolf considers that to be a top-down, hierarchical rule-making attitude which no longer meets the modern need for a focus on creating golfing enjoyment and the generating of bottom-up ideas.

Now that ‘Firmness in agronomy’ is being generally recognised as the way forward, there is the opportunity for greenkeepers to step out and take matters a stage further, by actively taking every opportunity to communicate with club memberships.

This should include not only explaining what their course teams are doing on a weekly or monthly basis (which allows officers and members to organise themselves around the greenkeeping activities) but, much more importantly, to clarify what are the longer-term objectives and how they are going to be achieved.

If our greenkeepers want to be seen as the acknowledged professionals, they need to be explaining why fine grasses are better than weed grasses and how the surfaces will play – in short to offer a VISION for the future.

But have they been trained in the communication skills so as to do this?

Now any thoughtful golfer will not easily just accept a change to their play and will rightly want to ask questions, but the more astute ones will understand, if the VISION is communicated appropriately. Once won to the cause, they will then argue within the membership in support of the greenkeeper’s long-term fine grasses programme, when ignorant members, often after a bad round, merely look to blame the greenkeeper.

There are many ways greenkeepers might better communicate: FAQ pages on club websites; Greenkeeper blogs; one-to-one chats with members on the course; reports in newsletters; these should all become part of the communication mix to help change the cultural atmosphere within the club to gain membership involvement.

However, the most important tactic is to hold members’ evening meetings when the VISION can be clarified effectively, often with the attendance of the retained golf course consultant. This should be seen as an opportunity for open discussion and the asking of questions and if conducted professionally, it will increase the support among the membership and further motivate and give confidence to the greenkeeper in pursuing his three-, or five-, year programme.

It is true that most golfers have no knowledge of agronomy (and why ever should they have?) but if the meeting is called in order to persuade the club in its choice  between ‘Running-Golf’ or ‘Target-Golf‘, between weed or fine grasses and the implications this choice has for their golf, many will be encouraged to endorse the new strategy. Some members will arrive sceptical to the meeting, wanting to believe there is no need for change because their course is ‘the finest in the district’ and for many, especially low-handicappers, that is often defined inappropriately as offering the fastest, close-shaved greens. The advocates of the weed-to-fine-grass-species-change will need to be agile in their presentation and well versed in how to deliver the complete VISION; a vision in contrast to ‘shaved for speed’, soft, Poa greens that become puddings in the winter, with their requirement for high budget spend on in-puts.

2. “Does the present national training regime include anything on how the greenkeeper/Chairman of Green can accomplish this communication?”

 

The third key issue facing the golf market within the area of greenkeeper training, is associated with the high prize money tour professional game and its hefty finances, mostly arising from television coverage, in stark comparison to the fortunes of many clubs who are struggling financially.

There are now three UK professional tournaments of world importance (The Open, Scottish Open and The Alfred Dunhill) played on ‘Running-Golf courses‘. With each being televised, the opportunity exists to broadcast clearly the issues arising between ‘Running-Golf ‘and ‘Target-Golf ‘, particularly the key agronomic differences that underpin it.

These three tournaments could be re-packaged within the concept of the ‘Running-Golf-Tour’ to create extra excitement and difference around them. (The fact that this would be administratively complex is a challenge, rather than a reason for not doing it).

It is not surprising that television executives are not interested in greenkeeping when it is presented as merely a labouring drudge.

This attitude needs replacement with one which makes the case for ‘Running-Golf ‘ in contrast to ‘Target-Golf‘, between weed and fine grasses.  Regrettably few tour professionals get to enjoy playing very much ‘Running-Golf‘ using shots played under the wind from tight fairways to firm greens and being challenged by all the imagination and creativity this requires. This is in contrast to the sad repetitiveness and predictability of ‘Target-Golf‘.

The journeyman professional prefers the easy birdies of ‘Target-Golf’, believing that it gives them more opportunity to be among the prize money. It is the top professionals who see an advantage in ‘Running-Golf‘ as its difficulties sorts the men out from the boys.

Everybody knows that ‘surface-firmness’ is the way forward but only fine grasses can provide it on a long-term basis and in a ‘conservationist’ (or ‘sustainable’ if you prefer the term) way. This is a positive golf story to tell, while also  encompassing the traditional values of golf.

If this new story was told as a back-drop to the main TV focus on the competition between the golfers,  would not the subject come alive to the golfing television audience?

There would be the opportunity for new layers of discussion around how to play, course design and greenkeeping/agronomy which keen golfers know little about but are interested in – at least when it is explained in a simple, visionary manner.

But where are the greenkeepers/agronomists who could explain this vision and are well trained in TV presentation? Sadly, although the BBC’s ‘Ken on the course’ occasionally includes some interesting course-design elements, we never see any discussion of the agronomy that brings such design alive?  The Fine versus weed grass debate is  controversial but leading ‘running-golf ‘ course greenkeepers must not be afraid of presenting it in a rational and positive manner.

3. “So when will the training regime produce such people?”

 

The greenkeeper profession has come a long way and is now rightly much better paid and recognised but to win this battle for ‘Running-Golf ‘, greenkeepers have to rise from their metaphorically timid knees, learn how to take the opportunity that exists to communicate the VISION with their customers and use every medium at their disposal.

Greenkeepers have to learn to sell, just as much as deliver, ‘Running-Golf ‘.

The enterprising ones who seize the opportunity will be rewarded with every success and thanks from the entire profession which will genuinely come of age and finally be recognised by golfers as the true key to their enjoyment.

Post script:

When the first draft of this article was circulated among a few experts, one of the comments made was that perhaps it is not in the short-term profit interests of the chemical, irrigation and equipment companies to help reduce the amount of weed grasses. In addition, their sponsorships are a major source of income for the greenkeeping bodies. Could there be arising a conflict of interest that should be recognised?

FineGolf sees this in the context of the need for Research & Development, commercially paid for, to evolve ever better ‘products’. Such products include selective killers of weed grasses, for example Ryegrass and Yorkshire Fog, the water management products, the new aerators, new overseeders, better strains of fine grasses and biological Compost Teas, to name but a few. These can play an important role in helping fine perennial grasses win the never ending battle with weed grasses. It is down to greenkeepers to be selective in the products they procure and company salesmen will only lose trust and sales if they mislead.

Another response  has been that FineGolf  is only interested in promoting the traditional ‘running-golf’ game played on indigenous perennial fine grasses in cool climate regions.  However, FineGolf recognises that within GB&I the majority of golf courses are not on poor soil, naturally draining land like those on links, heathlands, some downlands and the moorlands where fine grasses are indigenous. The great majority, particularly those built on farmland during the 1980/90s boom in bull-dozered golf course construction, are on rich, badly draining ‘clays’ where Poa has the natural advantage and one needs to be a brave greenkeeper to set about changing to fine grasses.

Nevertheless there are always the exceptions. Castle Stuart, a Running-Golf course with pure fescue grasses was created by bulldozers and tons of sand on less than well draining land. Moor Park (recently reviewed) is a stunning north-west London parkland course where the greens’ agronomy of 50/50 browntop bent/Poa annua is similar in agronomic species to Royal Troon’s greens where the Open Championship is to be held in 2016. Playing at inland Ganton recently I had no need to repair pitch-marks as the greens high in browntop/fescues were firm. Wilmslow a parkland in in the comparatively wet North west has gorgeous fescue fairways and improving greens. One could add to these the inland greens at Royal Worlington & Newmarket (review recently updated) that are now high in fescue.

These examples demonstrate that there really is hope if everybody at a club commits to change that it can be achieved. If the greenkeeper communicates and educates his club membership, they will not lose their jobs, but become heros. The professional opportunity is there for those who want to give the right leadership.

The clubs who move to fine grasses and Running-Golf will also move their market position upwards and join the top finest clubs with all the financial and pride advantages.