Natural Turf Golf Greens - Are they on their way out?

Tim Lodgein Golf

Golf Artificial
The onrush of artificial grass pitches into winter sports, plus the installation of multi use games areas pretty much everywhere else, has prompted agronomist Tim Lodge to ask the question 'are natural turf golf greens on their way out?

The life of a sports turf agronomist is often challenging, usually varied and always interesting. When I started working for myself as an independent consultant in August 2005, I had thought that the majority of my work would be in golf. This turned out not to be the case and it was, in fact, football and winter games, in particular the carrying out of feasibility studies and the preparation of specifications for new pitch constructions, that provided most of my income during those early years.

Since then, there has been a certain amount of ebb and flow among the various types of work undertaken and, as I write this, almost ten years later, there appears to be a rise in the amount of golf work we are doing, whilst winter games, on natural turf at least, may be diminishing.

I have been wondering why this is so. The Football Association and other sporting bodies' emphasis over the last several years on the development of artificial grass pitches (AGP's) has certainly been influential. Over 70% of the projects involving outdoor sports surface development that have come to our attention through the publication of planning applications across the south and east of England have involved the development of Artificial Grass Pitches (AGPs) or Multi Use Games Areas (MUGAs). So, only 30% were for exclusively natural turf sports surface development. Artificial surfaces are proving to be very popular.

This is not to say that improvements in natural turf technology have not taken place. They most certainly have, and especially for winter games pitches. In fact, faced with the prospect of annihilation by the march of the AGPs, there seems to have been an acceleration in the development of a wide range of technologies applicable to natural turf sports pitches. This may possibly have reached its pinnacle with the so called 'hybrid' pitches, such as Desso GrassMaster, which combine natural and artificial grass, but many more innovations have been and continue to be developed.

In the words of the song, we've rolled with these changing trends over time because that is what consultants have to do. Having visited a growing number of golf courses again recently, however, it occurs to me that golf, as an industry, does not appear to have undergone a parallel existential journey as winter games. Golf greens, in particular, appear to me now to be in more or less a similar general condition, and suffer the same problems as those I was examining twenty or more years ago.

Older USGA green profile and surface
The tools available to the greenkeeper have certainly improved, especially greens mowers which are now extraordinarily sophisticated and able to give a magnificent finish to a healthy and dense sward. In combination with the use of greens rollers and a widespread lowering of mowing heights, this may have brought about a slight increase in average green speed and trueness. Aeration and topdressing machinery has also come on apace.

However, many quite basic problems persist. Fusarium and anthracnose remain frequent visitors to golf greens while other pests, notably nematodes, have undoubtedly increased. This is despite many advances in pesticide technology, perhaps most significantly the development of longer-lasting preventative fungicides. These particular biological arms races seem set to continue for many years to come.

More fundamental still, developments related to soil structure, texture, drainage and water relations appear, like many of the greens I have examined recently, to have stagnated.

It was my observation some years ago that golf, as an industry, has been pre-occupied with what I now see as a wasteful debate over the relative abundance of annual meadow grass among green swards. Various theories, many of them nonsense, have been bandied about on this, tying unfortunate greenkeepers in knots as they wrestle with the various demands and expectations these ideas have laid down.

Meanwhile, issues related to poor drainage, inappropriate soil and subsoil structure and unsuitable soil texture have gone un-amended, despite the fact that these factors have far greater influence on the overall quality of the playing surfaces.

And the golfers have carried on golfing oblivious to the anxieties taking place in the shed. To satisfy their concerns, technological developments in golf have focused instead on the measurement of playing quality as experienced by the golfers, in particular green speed and trueness.

In this respect, I have made my own contribution with the patented invention of the 'Lodgemeter' or Golf Green Smoothness Meter1. But, being able to measure something does not provide the means of bringing about its improvement, and it is here that I think golf, and perhaps golf course agronomists also, have been left behind somewhat by other sports.

Tim testing prototype on a golf green

Ironically, an answer to most of golf's greenkeeping issues has been available for over a quarter of a century. This is, of course, the USGA method of golf green construction. Properly installed and maintained, greens constructed in this manner are able to deliver all of the playing quality advantages demanded by golfers, while the many difficulties that beset greenkeepers working on 'clay-bowl', 'natural soil' or 'push-up' greens are immediately eliminated.

Certainly, over the years, I have seen many USGA greens that have been less than satisfactory, and this may be the actual experience of some readers. As a consequence, many may have become disillusioned with this particular technology. But, in my experience and in each and every situation, there have always been identifiable reasons why this was the case.

It is, therefore, the failure to embrace fully what should be a fairly uniform approach to golf green construction and maintenance that I believe has held the industry back. Indeed, it is largely because this form of green construction has not been sufficiently widely accepted, in Britain at least, that improvements in the technology, derived from actual experience, have not been achieved.

If you think maintaining the 'character' of a green is putting up with persistent annual waterlogging or regular outbreaks of dry patch, anthracnose or fusarium, then that's fine, but I would not consider this a particularly enlightened or forward-thinking view. I would argue that consistency is a good thing with regard to the performance of a golf green, and that the diversity that golfers tend to seek comes in the form and character of the course as a whole and not in relation to the actual greens. I also expect many golfers, if not all greenkeepers, would agree with this.

In this respect, golf might take heed of what appears to be taking place in football with the rise of the AGP as the preferred playing surface. A more developed example is that of hockey which is now played almost exclusively on artificial surfaces, although the game itself evolved, of course, on natural turf.

There are now numerous golf courses on which entirely artificial greens have been established, and very many golf practice facilities are based on artificial turf. The knowledge and understanding surrounding this technology is such that the experiences of golfers and the behaviour of golf balls will soon replicate, if they do not already, exactly those that may be achieved on the best-performing natural turf greens.

It may be only a matter of time, therefore, before these surfaces become accepted and ultimately demanded by golfers, irrespective of what the sporting bodies or the greenkeepers or the agronomists might prefer. Where then would be the debate over pure fescue greens, use of phosphates or 'displacement theory'? "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"*

Thatch fungus
I love natural turf; like many of you no doubt. Indeed, I have built my entire career on it. So such a development I would view as a very great tragedy. The way forward is surely to emphasise the need to replace tired old troublesome golf greens based on native soils, possibly established fifty, a hundred or more years ago, with the most sophisticated mode of construction currently available in the industry today.

If even half of the amount of discussion that has taken place, much of it in these pages, over the last ten years and concerning, for example, the control of annual meadow grass or the environmental advantages of minimising fertiliser and water use on greens, had been devoted instead to the construction and maintenance of USGA or generally sand-based greens, I am sure that the overall standard of British golf greens would, by now, be much better than it is at present.

*The central theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Ozymandias is contrasting the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build with their pretensions to greatness.

1Patent Number GB2442787, Golf Green Roughness Meter. Disclosed 22 October 2005, granted 9 June 2010