GTC Chairman, Donald Steel, reflects on the ‘good old days’

Donald Steelin Golf

DonaldSteel"There is no point designing a good course if it isn't well built, and there is no point building a good course if it isn't well maintained"

In his lighter, tongue-in-cheek moments, Jim Arthur used to say that keeping a golf course in good condition would be a piece of cake if it weren't for the ruddy golfers. He might have said the equivalent when looking at the Centre Court at the end of Wimbledon fortnight, or a cricket square on the fifth day of a Test Match. Battle scars are a problem in most sports.

It was nothing, years ago, for football pitches in mid-season to be all earth and no grass. Goalkeepers invariably stood on mud from October to April, with a fair sprinkling of standing water on the rest of the pitch thrown in. Hockey's answer was a conversion to artificial surfaces, speeding up the tempo of the game in the process, although a game, played all along the ground, forbidding the raising of sticks above the shoulder, now seems to allow more freedom. Tennis's decision to follow suit was also an attempt to standardise playing conditions, as well as a consistent method of snuffing out the weather that could be so disruptive to tournament schedules. Only a few British tennis tournaments remain loyal to grass.

If golf could be played indoors, which heaven forbid, it too could take place at all hours of the night and day but, whilst suspensions to play are made when it rains and blows too hard, there is no doubt that golfers' expectations are more demanding than fifty years ago, largely a response to the rising skills of greenkeepers and their methods. Increasingly, they have made the impossible possible.

WilmslowGreen3This expectation among golfers is as true of clubs' catering solely for its members, as it is of the professionals competing for indecently large prize money. Whereas, years ago, members would put their clubs away when the clocks went back in the autumn, and leave them there until they went forward again in the spring, a high proportion want to play all the year round. The season is never ending.

In order for this to happen, a greater awareness of the need for good drainage has become ingrained. The example of new courses building greens designed for this very purpose has led to something of a fashion of fairly widespread remedial work to those built in far off days, but it has been the arrival of sophisticated and versatile machinery that has, more than anything, helped to achieve miracles. Wear and tear is still a factor but it is disguised far more skilfully.

Turning the clock back is a wonderful way of showing your age but, if there is one benefit in growing old, it is in enabling you to make comparisons - comparisons that younger generations may find hard to believe. It is the same with today's young players who think everybody has always hit drives 350 yards with club heads as big as melons.

Back in the 1950s, a small part of my long summer holiday was spent helping the Head Greenkeeper at Denham with the annual task of treating the greens. It took the form of an army of helpers scarifying the putting surface by hand with springbok rakes and cutting the grass raised above ground level. There then followed the process of hand hollow tining and an application of sand or soot to fill the holes before, finally, a wash-in with sprinklers that were neither creeping nor automatic. Because of the laborious nature of the work, it was only possible to programme five or six greens a year.

ProcoreNowadays, eighteen greens can be completed in perhaps two or three days with a wide range of choice surrounding the type, depth and severity of aeration. What is more, some sort of aeration can be attempted several times a summer. All this came back to me during a series of workshops given during last year by Laurence Pithie, Master Greenkeeper, a helpful series of gatherings to be repeated throughout 2012.

They were organised by The Greenkeepers Training Committee to promote better knowledge and understanding among Secretaries of Clubs, Chairmen of Green Committees and the greenkeeping staff. The clear message was that, whilst principles haven't changed, implementation has been transformed. Illustrations of a battery of modern machines that synchronise the whole exercise were an absolute eye-opener, although an even bigger eye opener was putting a figure on the cost of equipping an average greenkeeping complex.

There is no hint of criticism at the methods of yesteryear because everybody thought, at the time, the greens were revolutionary in their speed and smoothness. Nevertheless, I don't suppose anybody today would want to change places. It was an era when motorcars could be (and invariably had to be) started with a crank handle, and agricultural fields harvested with reaper and binder. Even in the early 1950s, scythes and sickles were familiar equipment in greenkeeping sheds. Tractors had no cabs. Nobody had heard of a stimpmeter.

Since then, green speeds and surfaces have been perfected by several improved techniques and a carefully planned combination of operations. Plant breeding has produced new strains of grasses to add to the maintenance-mix, thereby rendering overseeding almost routine, but state of the art modern mowers are also responsible for the ability to cut greens ever closer when expedient to do so; and, therein, lies an anomaly. It is never a case of cutting as close as possible, standing back and everything in the garden will be lovely.

Bargreenpic.jpgNothing replaces the day-to-day judgement of the man on the spot, and this is where understanding comes in. When and why are the key factors in the equation, not simply a mad quest to get greens as fast as possible and let the devil take the hindmost. It is said, with truth, that a little learning is a dangerous thing and one of the problems with club committees is that their composition is ever changing.

That is the reason why the time is fast approaching when full-time, highly qualified green staff should be left largely to their own devices. That is not the same thing as saying they shouldn't maintain close contact with those they serve, but true understanding can only be achieved by fuller trust.

You only have to examine the make-up of workforces to appreciate that greenkeeping is now a career for life, not a fall back if all else fails. Those who take advantage of the training under the auspices of the GTC, the clubs and a number of colleges, find that they are made aware that a proper grounding includes an approach that is both theoretical and practical. Confidence is boosted by actually taking part in various activities, but confidence is greater with the knowledge of why it is being done. Emphasis is also placed on presentation skills and the ability to put the message over in front of, say, a gathering of members. In addition, working as a team gains vital credence.

The real value of the GTC workshops, to which I have referred, is that support grows for this modus operandi and that an exchange of notes with kindred spirits is another excellent way of learning. Top class golfers will confirm that talking amongst themselves about handling various situations in the heat of battle is often every bit as beneficial as hitting a thousand balls on the range.

Knowing what to do is important, but knowing what not to do can be equally valuable, although sometimes it boils down to a question of opinions and likes and dislikes. However, the setting for a golf course and the climate in which it is situated are determining factors between right and wrong. Here, Augusta National has been something of a distraction to those who believe you can grow azaleas, dogwood and magnolia on a seaside links, or adopt the "green-everywhere" dogma that is a direct contradiction to the sustainability doctrine that is preached widely in the UK.

AugustaAugusta is a law unto itself on many counts. Money is no object. If necessary, they can make available an almost unlimited workforce before, during and after the Masters. They double and triple cut fairways and greens and, if alterations have to be made to the course (which they are on an almost annual basis), they can establish flawless playing surfaces from seed or turf in a matter of a few weeks. All this is because the course is closed from April to October. Jim Arthur had a point.

One of the main difficulties of Augusta is the firm and fast nature of the greens and the pin positions chosen to add to the severity. Defending a course in this way is an attempt to thwart low scoring, but design of greens can undoubtedly help or hinder the efforts of those whose task it is to maintain them. Golf course architects can be villain or hero.

There is no point designing a good course if it isn't well built, and there is no point building a good course if it isn't well maintained. Any flaw in the design or construction adds a burden to the maintenance. There is a delicate link between the three, but green design, a separate art, has been made more intricate by the closeness of the cut and the resultant speeds that can be achieved.

An even thinner dividing line exists between what is challenging and what is impossible, whilst too much movement and contour can jeopardise the search for a genuine range of pin positions which most courses deem essential.

Signs of wear and tear, caused by an inability to change the hole positions often enough are, thankfully, rare. That is another tribute to the advances made and the lessons learned. One of the unusual features about golf is that work can be carried out on the course whilst play is taking place, even if bunker raking and cutting is usually scheduled in summer before golfers are up and about.

Another peculiarity is that golfers feel it is expected of them to make technical comments, even though not exactly qualified to do so, a further reason why good lines of communication need to be established and golfers educated as well as what used to be called Keepers of the Green. On the other hand, the tolerance levels of cricketers and rugby players are a lot higher and any pitch imperfections are soon forgotten when the beer flows.

One difference between preparing cricket wickets and producing putting surfaces is that groundsmen spend the summer compacting pitches by constant rolling to generate controlled bounce but, the moment the season ends, vigorous aeration to break up the compaction is required to let air into the soil so that the cycle can start again in the spring.

No doubt sophisticated machinery has made that task simpler, too.

In January's Greenkeeper International Magazine, David Golding, GTC's Education Director, makes the good point that campaigning "for new equipment, materials and staff isn't easy at the best of times, but all of these skills can be gained through training, and a well presented case can engage an employer, especially when they see projected benefits from the proposals".

This brings me back, conveniently, to communication and the fact that the former generations of head greenkeeper wouldn't recognise the role of his successor, and the current reliance on computers, paper work, spread sheets, smart phones, never mind the armoury of shiny machinery. Greenkeeping used to be an escape to the golf course where nobody could bother them, but now anybody can be called up in an instant.

As far as I know, guidelines on mobile phones are not included in any education package, but let me end with a relevant tale that may strike a chord and is a lesson in itself. It concerned the golfer, who related;

"My boss phoned me today". He said, "Is everything OK at the office?"

I said, "Yes, it's all under control. It's been a busy day. I haven't stopped for a minute".

"Can you do me a favour?" he asked.

I said, "Of course, anything, what is it?"

He said, "Hurry up and take your shot, I'm right behind you on the 8th tee".

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