Are we being snookered?

Donald Steelin Industry News

Donald Steel picIt has always been a strange anomaly that golf clubs appoint a highly qualified head greenkeeper to a specialist role, and then tolerate highly unqualified members telling him where he is going wrong. Whereas, they are quite happy to accept a doctor's, solicitor's or stockbroker's view of things, golfers are quick to express themselves knowledgeably (so they think) on subjects as far ranging as fescues and fungi.

In America, they do things differently. Under the ideal situation, there is usually one key person, and only one person, representing all members at a club in communicating with the superintendent, course manager or head greenkeeper. Comments are channelled through him, but the dramatic transformation in recent years to the standards of course condition and presentation in Britain offers real hope that a change of heart, a giant leap forward, is at hand. The days of archaic Green Committees may be numbered.

It has all come about by the establishment of a well organised greenkeeper training system, developed and maintained by the Greenkeepers Training Committee (GTC), which now offers career ambitions for young men and women anxious to provide golfers with what they want and have come to expect. Examples of such good practice are everywhere, compounded by the Herculean efforts at the Ryder Cup by the army of 125 greenkeepers who kept the show on the road at Celtic Manor last October, when it might have been sunk without trace. That underlined more perhaps the strength of their fraternity, and dedicated willingness in inhospitable circumstances, than their technical knowledge, but it was the best possible demonstration of the game's utter dependence on, until now, its unsung heroes.

For some years, the Open championship has had evidence of outside greenkeepers taking voluntary time off to act, not only as bunker-rakers with every group, and so relieve caddies of their responsibility in that regard, but as the temporary support team to the host course manager and his resident team of greenkeepers. It may be classed in the luxury bracket, but the benefits of greenkeeper training are felt across the board. Everybody playing the game in Britain sees, and feels it, at first hand although golfers may be unaware how it came about.

A rallying cry was sounded in the 1970s by the British Association of Golf Course Architects, who pointed out the futility of designing and building a whole host of new courses if there were only a handful of qualified staff to look after them. It was a time when vast sums of money were spent on course construction, on expensive machinery to maintain them and making rich professional tournaments richer.

What is more, recruits to greenkeeping staffs then came largely from agricultural or horticultural backgrounds, were poorly paid and often served under experienced head men who were reluctant to divulge their secrets.

Today, these secrets are freely shared as generations of eager newcomers have the chance to learn all the skills from those with whom they work, and all based on agreed national occupational standards. In a few years, there is every prospect they might be in top positions themselves.

Education, either at Colleges or on-line, is widely available under the aegis of The Greenkeepers Training Committee, the independent organisation, founded back in the 1960s but reformed in 1993, represents British Golf Club employers and greenkeepers through a Board of Directors. It took time to evolve, but its effectiveness has been rapid in furthering ambition by promoting careers in an industry that has seen constant expansion. Training courses and qualifications form the basis of the learning on offer.

A comprehensive training manual and learning materials, updated continually by a technical committee, who know their subject inside out, acts as something of a "bible", but theory is only really exciting when put into practice by the preparation of courses for golfers' challenge and enjoyment.

Acquaintance with the operation of expensive equipment that has revolutionised what used to be back-breaking work, is a study in itself, but it is standards and principles that guide the quest for perfection.

Nothing ever substitutes for judgement and experience, and presentation of courses is dictated by climate and different grasses. Traditional greenkeeping is impossible when temperatures seldom dip below 90 degrees but, in Britain, not all is new, in spite of the modern hullabaloo. Minimal reliance on water and chemicals is an ages-old tenet, as is the belief that golf should protect the environment, and is very good at it. Unfortunately, it is a lesson that some have forgotten - notably our heathland courses that have become stifled by trees.

Best intentions are frequently sabotaged by misguided beliefs that the felling of trees, for instance, is taboo, as well as those who encourage the grooming of courses to suit an inability to play the game properly. Their motto is "why hit a good shot when a poor one will do just as well", a reflection of the school of thought that supports the vision of grass everywhere.

It is oblivious of the fact that grassy fairways make it harder to hit precise golf shots, and oblivious of the neat definition of Peter Thomson many years ago that the art of greenkeeping is more about keeping it cut (at sensible heights!) rather than getting it to grow.

Thomson was the master of British conditions showing, by his approach and skill, that golf is a game of manoeuvrability and control, not raw power, even if some of the true art of golf has since been blunted by the failure to legislate against the distances the modern ball can be hit. Too much emphasis on strength has altered and spoiled the game and our courses.

In many ways, golf has a lot in common with snooker, where the key lies in playing every shot with the next one in mind. With proper control of the cue ball, the next shot is that much easier but, at golf, it is a "weapon" that is blunted when greens are so soft that they hold shots from neighbouring fairways or pitch shots that may be skimmed.

The snooker analogy can be taken a step further. Snooker is only half a game on a slow table with dead cushions. By the same token, golf isn't the same without true, fast greens.

Much thought goes into an architect's green designs, the shaping, the angling, the contouring, the elevation and the bunkering. On plain ground, it can be the main way of introducing challenge. The best holes are those where there is a definite side of the fairway to be from the tee.

One desirable qualification or requirement for greenkeepers, not part of the training syllabus, is that they themselves are golfers. It must give them a better eye for detail and a better understanding of where to cut the holes and the technique of raking bunkers.

One of the advances in grass breeding, green construction and manufacture of mowing machines is the increased slickness of putting surfaces that can be achieved, although it has led to a rising chorus from those whose dangerous contention it is that green speed is all that matters.

In the northern states of America in 2010, a scorching summer left a trail of damage and despair on bent-grass greens where they discovered that the sward doesn't go dormant - it dies. It was an unusual enough situation for the Wall Street Journal to publish an article in August, in which it said, "golfers themselves deserve part of the blame for insisting that putting surfaces be mown short and fast, even in weather conditions in which such practices are almost certain to ruin them".

Without enduring such heat, it was still hot enough here for restraint to be advisable. Golf courses in Britain have to be made as playable as possible, twelve months of the year. What you do, or do not do, in June or August will influence the condition of a course in December or February. It is not too difficult to get good greens for two or three months in summer. The secret lies in having them good all the year round.

This conveniently brings us back to education and good lines of communication between greenkeepers and golfers. It even starts with making golfers aware of the existence of advanced greenkeeper training. If nothing else, knowledge of what is being done to increase their pleasures in playing the game should convince them that relatively small individual investment in the process is money well spent.

Enrolling in a training programme at a college or private provider involves little more cost for a club or individual than a registration fee, but the marvels of email make it easy to communicate with members and, it strikes me that, keeping them abreast of what is going on - and why - is a wonderful way for a head greenkeeper to create a better understanding.

Greenkeeping is not a mystic art or a foreign language. If you read the book, Practical Greenkeeping, by the late Jim Arthur, one of the leading advocates for education, it is simple and unambiguous.

Where complications set in is when golfers fail to see, or are unappreciative of, what is being done for them. Greenkeeping is not an exact science. There are day to day judgements that can only be made by the head greenkeeper, the man on the spot. He has to juggle with the weather and arrange his programme so that it doesn't disrupt a busy playing schedule. This often means carrying out the bulk of the work before most golfers are awake.

In major championships, it also entails having the course ready by 6.30am, with many of the greenkeeping staff sleeping on site for the duration of the tournament. The last thing they need, or deserve, is a flurry of adverse comments, although Tom Simpson, the celebrated golf course architect, had it right with the reminder, "it is easier to be critical than correct".


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