Snakes & Ladders

Kevin Munt in Golf

PCS-golf-8.jpgThe R&A's highly laudable drive toward best practices for golf courses uses a ladder as an analogy for showing progress toward a sustainable golf course, but do you know how high this ladder is?

A good part of this issue of Pitchcare is given over to the much discussed and promoted subject of 'sustainable golf' and features organised, brave and forthright course managers who are striding up the rungs of sustainable progress. More power to them I say, I have never been in any doubt that firm, free-draining, true, fescue dominated stands are the only turf surfaces worth playing golf on. It is nothing new though, after all, these keen sporting surfaces are as old as the game itself.

So, what's all the fuss about and why so much promotion from the R&A of late? Well, after all this time, I am sure that you don't need me to tell you why so many courses are nowhere near the golfing turf Nirvana I describe above. Just to say that, as ever, a large portion of the sustainable effort relates to Poa annua domination. Which, lest you forget, in the main, is caused by over doing the irrigation, fertilisation, golf traffic, low mowing heights and mistimed aeration practices.

April Fools

Notice I made no mention of Augusta National and the Masters, or the Americanisation of our courses in general. These old chestnuts get rolled out whenever someone has to find blame for the state of the UK's greens in April. Or the fact that they are, in the main, dominated by Annual Meadow Grass.

This is foolish nonsense, I don't know anyone in this country who has been told by the management of Augusta National to shave, water or feed their greens in the early spring and, to my knowledge, there aren't many courses with an American agronomist advocating high rates of fertilisation and irrigation. No, this often banded excuse is one first used by Jim Arthur in the late seventies to highlight the frailty of playing the game on colour, god bless him. It also coincided with just about everyone in the nation being able to afford a colour TV! The hard fact is that it is greenkeepers who create the conditions that favour Poa annua.

Okay, maybe past committees of many clubs have a large portion of blame to take as well, but the fact remains that the buck, whichever way it is travelling, stops with the Course Manager/Head Greenkeeper.

Blame Culture

As I am on the subject of blame, not a culture I normally like to promote, however I feel that some responsibility for the current lack of 'business' sustainability being experienced by our clubs rest firmly on the shoulders of the R&A.

Whilst I am in full agreement with the rational behind the R&A's championing of sustainable golf courses I have to say that some sizeable blame should be borne by themselves for the current level of unsustainably in our game. I highlight two examples of this:

a) Their inability, over the past 20 years, to control the development of both ball and club that allows most of our older courses to be rendered 'drive and flick' courses by even a mid-range handicapper. As a result, newly constructed courses are using up larger areas of land to ensure par is protected. This, in turn, has a negative impact on running costs and the environment. Meanwhile, our older clubs are having to undertake major modernisation via extension and rebunkering, which has similar fiscal and environmental negatives to the new builds.

b) As the commissioners of a study in the late eighties that estimated the UK required a further 700 courses to future demand. This report fuelled a headlong development rush to meet this 'estimation' that has, in turn, led the game to be accessible to most but financially unstainable to many 'new build' operators. I hazard a guess that many of these new developments are not very far up the R&A's sustainable ladder.

grove1While on the point of responsibility I also noted that the R&A expects the champions of 'sustainability' at golf clubs to be the Course Manager/Head Greenkeeper. Not the Club Manager or Board, but you!

Buck up your ideas

Okay, now back to that buck passing. Let's say you have a firm grip on the buck; what are you going to do about it? Well, according to the powers that be (the R&A, our National golf bodies, BIGGA and the 'gingerbread men'!), you should be managing for sustainability. And, according to the R&A's analogy that means climbing "The Ladder Of Sustainability" (see the video at

In turf terms this means that thatch ridden Poa infested bogs are on the bottom rung with fine fescues looking down from the top rung. As you ascend the ladder I imagine you pass something like well managed annual meadow grass, Poa annua/bent (UK majority), bent/Poa annua, bent, bent/fescue, fescue/bent and finally pure fescue (at this point you find out that you are tending one of God's own courses).

For those of you managing Creeping Bent Grass, I remember Steve Issacs saying at the South West BIGGA seminar that clean Creeping Bent was somewhere in the middle of the sustainability ladder.

By the way if you want to see greens at the top of the 'playing condition' ladder take a look at Phil Chiverton's Creeping Bent surfaces at The Grove, and at any time of the year.

This note leads me on to a point I would like to see strengthen in the promoting of sustainable golf, and that is its relationship to playability or, should I say, quality of playing surfaces. It does appear to me that the presumption is that a bent/fescue sward will, by definition, provide a superior year round playing surface ahead of all others.

I would like to see more hard facts on the year round playing quality of our various turf stands, cost of maintaining these surfaces and the income streams they generate. Also, more relevant and, dare I say, honest technical information on the greens in that much pressurised 'transitional' period from Poa annua to Bent. For it is at this point that the sustainability game has more snakes than ladders.

Rules of the Game

Before you take your first roll of the dice you had better understand the rules. The main one to be aware of is that you can go down as well as up in this game; yes, there are snakes as well a ladders. As I have played this game a number of times before (although it wasn't labelled 'sustainability' at the time, it was, however, often called 'Arthuritis') I am going to make the game easier for you. The snakes encountered come in the following guises:

1) Don't play Monopoly, this is snakes and ladders. (Get everyone on your side and every factor in your favour, this is a team game).
2) Don't provide chip and run golf when the course is designed for Florida. (Align agronomic practices to strategic business policy).
3) Not having a coordinated long term plan. (Get an agreed company-wide management policy).
4) Rapid change committees. (Get a Board of Management).
5) Egomaniacs. These snakes can be found in various camouflage (Owner, Captain, Greens Chairman or the golfing female partner of any of these), they possess lethal venom and are the most difficult snakes to deal with.
6) Idealism. (Only deal in reality and pursue the best turf quality that reality allows, not some festuca heaven on north London clay).
7) Lack of stamina. (It is a long ladder, very few get all the way to the top, and no one knows how high the ladder really is. So, make sure you, and your nearest and dearest are fit for the climb!) .

A few other tactics that you should employ are realising that you can move a square at a time, taking it slowly at times can lead to the foot of a ladder that will jump you up faster. Telling everyone on the team, and anyone at your club who will listen, of the successes achieved.

So how long is this ladder?

Well, you are already on it somewhere and, if you are not scared of the snakes, get moving up that ladder. By the way, establishing where you are on the ladder is the most vital thing to establish first. After all, you may well have favourable soil conditions, larger than expected percentages of bent/fescue, a club in the mood for long term change, a supportive GM and Board and a budget ready to be invested in the long-term future. There I go again, sorry that was one of God's courses.

Anyway, you might as well address the sustainability of your turf management practices now before someone in authority asks you what you are doing about it. It is also much better to make it a goal worth pursuing than a task that you are required to execute. Just ensure you have estimated how high the ladder you're climbing is and that you have enough back up to make the ascent in safety. After all, you don't want to look back down to find the people holding the ladder for you have run out of patience and left.

About the author: Kevin Munt is Principle Consultant of KMgC, a management consultancy specialising in the Golf Club development and operational management.

During his career in golf Kevin has been the Course Manager at The Wentworth Club, Royal Dornoch and Hankley Common golf clubs. Project Manager at Golf Club Pfaffing, Germany, Golf d'Apermont, France, The London and Buckinghamshire golf clubs in the UK and was the Operations Manager at the Buckinghamshire Golf Club during the first four years of its business life.

Tel: 01420 562597
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