In conversation with Steve Isaac

Lorne Smithin Golf

Sustainability is a concept that we are all supposed to support. Nevertheless, some are 'turned-off' by the term, it having been hijacked to mean almost anything. We sometimes think that 'conservationist' is a more useful word these days. So, whilst continuing to fight for the correct use of the word, we will add the rider: "Sustainability - low inputs and lower costs".

There are well-meaning organisations like the Golf Environment Organisation (GEO) and the Sustainable Golf Project, which are providing information on golf course standards and targets to use when seeking to influence government and NGOs and persuade them that golf courses are intrinsically good for the environment and the community. Of course, this is a perfectly noble objective but, when little distinction is made within their standards between the real sustainability (low inputs and lower costs) that exists in the greenkeeping of 'fine' grasses, in contrast to the necessary managing of 'weed' annual meadow grass (Poa annua) through an abundance of fertiliser, pesticide and water, then we become somewhat sceptical.

Because the majority of golf courses use high inputs, should this mean sustainable standards and targets should be nuanced? To use an educational word, should they be lowered to bog-standard?

The running game on fine-grassed surfaces is genuinely sustainable; it is based on the use of low inputs, incurs lower costs and supplies higher performance. This approach has traditionally been supported in Great Britain and Ireland by The R&A, but its worldwide remit is increasingly taking up more of its focus these days.

So we invited Steve Isaac, The R&A's Director - Sustainability to set out how it sees the future.

FineGolf: You had been an agronomist with STRI for eighteen years, what then made you join The R&A in 2003?

Steve Isaac: When golf's world governing body, The R&A, approached me and offered the opportunity to support their new committee, whose remit was golf course management, it was a natural move of professional career progression, giving me a wider stage on which to act.

Why has your title recently been changed from Director - Golf Course Management to Director - Sustainability?

This reflects the evolution of our department's role within The R&A, and a strategy review within the organisation. Sustainability is now a pillar of our strategic direction. Sustainability is about running a successful business with an ethical approach when it comes to environmental and social responsibility. This is not confined to the golf course, but encompasses all aspects of new and existing golf facilities and the staging of tournaments. We work very closely with our Championship Department on the sustainability of The Open, through the GreenLinks initiative which was introduced at The 144th Open at St Andrews in 2015.

Our department is made up of three individuals. In addition to myself, Philip Russell (Assistant Director - Sustainability) is responsible for implementing GreenLinks, and Wendy Cole (Manager - Sustainability) looks after our greenkeeping scholarship and machinery donation programmes.

What initiatives are you involved with that will encourage greenkeepers to take the conservationist/sustainable route of developing fine grassed greens with their low input maintenance and enhanced resistance to disease and drought?

Any initiatives we undertake are achieved in conjunction with one or more of our affiliates (the national governing bodies of the sport within our jurisdiction - 140 countries, excluding the USA and Mexico, which is the province of the USGA). These initiatives are often supported by organisations such as GEO and associations representing professionals, such as club and course managers.

Our advocacy of sustainability includes promoting low input maintenance and the grasses that are best adapted to any particular site, wherever that may be in the world. This is highlighted in the general guidance, features and in the opinion pieces by Alistair Beggs of STRI and Dr Micah Woods of the Asian Turfgrass Center in the sustainability section of our website,

We also include this information in presentations we give around the world. However, it is important to point out that the lowest input grasses are not always the right choice for every climate or course design but, even where other grasses are employed, we want to see a greenkeeping approach that provides minimal resource use in order to present optimal playing surface performance.

The venues used for The Open, which is organised by The R&A, are all on agronomic programmes advised by STRI, which encourage the native perennial fine grasses.

The R&A often acts as a facilitator, supporting others in their good work. We feel that there is often nothing more persuasive than peer pressure. An excellent example of this is our support of the Irish Links Initiative (ILI), and I am constantly impressed with the regeneration of links grasses that is being achieved at the courses that take the twice-yearly meetings of the ILI.

We have also supported research in Scandinavia, under the auspices of STERF (Scandinavian Turfgrass and Environment Research Foundation), which contributed towards a change in their recommendation of fescue from, at best, a niche grass to the low input grass of choice for Nordic countries. This followed our visits to Denmark, in the early days of the Golf Course Committee, to meet with the 'Sons of Golf' and the excellent work they were doing with fescue.

You are a member of the panel of experts speaking at the 'Running-Golf Day' on Monday 4th September at Notts. Golf Club (Hollinwell). What will be your contribution to the day?

For many years, the late Jim Arthur was agronomist to The R&A's Championship Committee, until he handed over this role to STRI in, if memory serves me right, the early to mid-1990s. The R&A persuaded Jim to write Practical Greenkeeping, a book which describes his approach to golf course design, construction and management. This has become the reference for many greenkeepers in this country and further afield. In 2014, The R&A published the third edition and it remains a steady seller from our shop.

There has been a lot of debate on Jim's approach, with some even suggesting that traditional greenkeeping is not applicable in the modern age

The first edition of Practical Greenkeeping was published in 1997 and updated in 2003, since when there has been a lot of debate on Jim's approach, with some even suggesting that traditional greenkeeping is not applicable in the modern age. At the Running-Golf Day, I will be making a short presentation that will, hopefully, persuade those attending that it is as relevant today as when it was written.

Are you doing anything to help publicise the results of the STRI Measurement of Greens programme, that has demonstrated that fine grasses give better performance greens than annual meadow-grass (Poa annua) greens?

This is another good example of The R&A acting as a facilitator. We provided some funding towards the development of their Trueness Meter and were early adopters of their objective testing programme of putting surface performance. All agronomic visits to Open venues include this testing programme. We feature this in many presentations we give, including recent ones in Japan and South Korea!

I also wrote articles, which were published in the STRI Bulletin and Pitchcare, highlighting their findings in relation to the relative performance of fescue/browntop bent and annual meadow-grass (Poa annua) greens.

One problem with the Trueness Meter is its high cost, and lack of availability to purchase, which makes it unaffordable for most golf clubs. The Greenstester was developed by Irish course manager Fintan Brennan, as an affordable tool to put course managers in charge of objective measurement of their greens performance any day of the year, and to help them in their sward change programmes from weed to fine grasses. Is The R&A supporting the take-up of the use of the Greenstester in combination with The R&A's 'Holing Out' test?

Nick Park, for twenty-five years a member of The R&A's various golf course committees, was instrumental in the development of the 'Holing Out' test. A protocol and 'quick start' document on this test, together with a short video, is available on The R&A website. In the protocol it states that: "The 'Greenstester' is currently The R&A's preferred option for the 'Holing Out' Test".

Do you believe that the fact The R&A plays The Open Championship and The Amateur Championship on links encourages others to adopt the philosophy of maintaining fairways and greens to present running golf courses?

We would like to think this has some impact. The Open and The Amateur have been played solely on links (as far as I am aware) since their first playing in 1860 (at Prestwick) and 1885 (Hoylake) respectively. Our historic links and heathland courses created the running game - probably a combination of the golf equipment available in the early decades of organised golf, the terrain and, particularly for links, often having to play in high winds when there would be little option than to play more of the game along the ground rather than always taking the aerial route. The R&A has built on this legacy and is committed to maintaining that tradition at our two showcase championships.

However, I would note a word of caution in that our jurisdiction is global and courses that naturally provide for the running game do not make up a large proportion of the 34,000 golf courses in the world. There are only around 220 true links in the world, and probably a similar number of true heathland courses. That is not to say that many courses can't be prepared in a way that provides a running game when weather, growth conditions, design and construction allow.

How many courses in the British Isles have fairway irrigation? The vast majority that I visited back in the day did not, and I would be surprised if the situation has changed much since then. So, when the weather dries out their fairways, they will be able to offer the running game.

How many courses in the British Isles have fairway irrigation? The vast majority that I visited back in the day did not, and I would be surprised if the situation has changed much since then. So, when the weather dries out their fairways, they will be able to offer the running game.

It has been interesting to hear from colleagues in the US how recession has encouraged many courses in Florida to forgo their annual overseeding of dormant warm season grassed fairways with perennial ryegrass. The consequence of playing on the dormant grass is more bounce and run, and more fun! Being able to play a running game is dictated by ground conditions and we should embrace the great variety of golf experiences available, both here and around the world.

Going back to R&A events, we organise many championships and international matches in the British Isles every year, in addition to regional and final qualifying for The Open - even more since our merger with the Ladies Golf Union (LGU) on 1st January this year. This needs a lot of venues and we do use great links and heathland courses a lot. However, there are only so many that have the facilities required to host one of our events, and we can't ask the members at potential venues to loan us their course on too frequent a basis.

Practice ground provision is one of the key limiting factors. When we have a full field for an event, we need a practice ground that can accommodate a lot of golfers and there are not many facilities around the country that have this, and all the other assets needed to host an R&A event.

So, we cannot always use links and heathland sites, and this particularly applies to qualifying events where location for ease of access for players moving from and then to other events in a matter of days is another important factor in venue selection.

(Author's note: This perhaps answers the question of why 'target-golf course' Woburn has been used recently as an Open Final Qualifier)

Do you agree that, for a greenkeeper to be successful in making the transition to fine grasses, they have to possess the necessary knowledge, experience and have the right agronomic advice, but they also need, just as importantly, to educate their club membership on the advantages of this approach?

100%. Being a greenkeeper is difficult enough without going it alone through, what can be, difficult times during a transition. It is essential that they have the full backing of their employers and their customers.

The aforementioned programme of objective testing of putting surfaces can really help, by showing that any deterioration in performance, due to necessary management on greens to achieve transition, is short-lived and that there are clear long-term gains in year-round performance. However, before entering a transition programme, a thorough assessment of the potential of the course to support low input grasses should be made and, if the pain is likely to be far greater than the gain, then it may be best to consider other options to improve their performance.

I would add that this should include a review of future trends in matters such as pesticide and water availability, as the outcome of the assessment may then be to instigate a programme of course redevelopment to provide an environment which favours low input grasses.

Do you feel that The R&A should communicate directly with golfers about greenkeeping issues?

The golfer has always been part of our constituency; after all, there are 30 million golfers in our governance jurisdiction. However, getting media time for sustainability is not easy, but we are working on it.

The Open is our obvious shop window, and the fact that we showcase links as nature intended (notably at Royal Liverpool in 2006 and Muirfield in 2013 when the weather was conducive to presenting a dry links) hopefully speaks to golfers all around the world.

The golfer will be much in our minds as we work through what could be difficult times for golf if water scarcity and pesticide regulation really start to bite. In some countries, more than others, golfers will need to be prepared to accept golf courses that look and play differently to what they have come to expect.

The golf club and its management (club, course and golf professional) are probably the most important audience for us when it comes to promoting the implementation of sustainability. After all, they are the people who need to buy into it and act upon it. We want to see sustainability integrated into day-to-day business, not for it to be seen as a 'nice to have' add-on.

Our communications must be aligned with those of our affiliates; the national governing bodies of golf. Currently, there are relatively few that are seriously engaged with sustainability, so we are focusing our work on those leading the sport in this area, in the expectation that more will come on board as they see the benefits that sustainability will bring to their member clubs.

You have written articles titled 'Sustainability' (summer 2016) and 'Life without pesticides' (autumn 2016) advising greenkeepers on the need for sustainability and the use of less pesticides. You made no mention of the role of fine grasses in these articles. Does The R&A believe that encouraging the fine grasses is an important element of the sustainable approach?

The R&A very much believes that grass selection is a very important element of the sustainable approach. However, we are realistic and accept that not all are blessed with the conditions that readily favour low input grasses, so we need to encourage everyone to limit their resource use as much as they can, whilst presenting quality playing surfaces. We need to remember that, in terms of grass cover, golf demands quality and not quantity. Greenkeepers are not farmers whose livelihood relies on yield.

The excessive use of water and fertiliser remains one of the main issues facing golf around the world, and one that we are trying to address through advocacy and example.

You have also written erudite articles on the need for greens that are not too fast, for a number of reasons, including that it slows down the pace of play. What, in your view, is driving the fashion for some greens to be set-up so fast?

The 'race for pace' has been with us for decades and reflects what some golfers think they want, televised golf, advanced greenkeeping techniques and grass breeding. These factors have been covered many times over the years and I would like to focus here more on what a number of recent surveys have been telling us; that top of most golfers wish list is consistent putting surfaces with a smooth roll. Again, I would highlight the benefit of putting surface performance testing as a means of achieving this, without putting the grass under too much stress. Excessive stress, induced through over-close mowing or climate - or a combination of the two - leads to inconsistency in putting surface performance.

I understand that a simple way to measure the grass species content of a greens sward, by a DNA analysis of grass clippings was being developed. This research seems to have been kicked into the long grass, if you will excuse the pun. What is The R&A doing to support this important research project?

After significant financial investment, and a number of years attempting to develop such a way to measure grass species content, we were advised that it was not technically feasible, at least not as an affordable service. Point quadrat analysis remains the recognised technique, but it is time-consuming and, therefore, costly. If someone can come up with a reliable, repeatable and affordable means of assessing species composition, which does not rely on visual identification by experts, then we would be delighted to hear from them.

Running-Golf Day

FineGolf, the online publication that promotes the classic values of traditional running golf, has organised, in partnership with Notts. Golf Club (Hollinwell), an opportunity for greens staff, secretaries, chair of green and interested golfers to learn about the key greenkeeping issue for the future, how to manage the change from 'weed' annual meadow grass (Poa annua) to 'fine' fescue/browntop bent surfaces, with Britain's leading experts speaking on 'The case for running-golf'.

Speakers include:

Steve Isaac, R&A Director, on the relevance to today's needs of Jim Arthur's book Practical Greenkeeping, updated in 2014.

Gordon Irvine MG, Europe's foremost consultant on sustainable agronomic change to fine grasses.

John Philp MBE, the hero of Carnoustie and one of only two greenkeepers with a hole named after them in the UK.

Mick Grindle, Chair of green at Notts Golf Club / Hollinwell, which has been returned to fine grassed surfaces.

The 4th September day is sponsored by Symbio, Johnsons Sports Seeds, Barenbrug, Baroness and Farmura/Aquatrols.

To book a place (£30 including refreshments, or £55 to also play the championship course in the afternoon) email

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