After nearly ten years working as an agronomic consultant, firstly in his native New Zealand and then throughout Asia and the Middle East for the New Zealand Sports Turf Institute, Mark Hooker accepted the position as Grow-in Manager for Braemar Golf Developments/NASS Construction (JV) Golf Developments at Riffa Views in The Kingdom of Bahrain in December 2007.
After the grow-in was completed in October 2008, Mark was approached by the Royal Golf Club to head the team as Director of Agronomy. This was a natural transition as, throughout the grow-in period, he had been responsible for the management of the greenkeepers and maintenance team.
The Royal Golf Club is a Colin Montgomery designed 18-hole, par 72-championship course, plus a 9-hole par 3 academy course affectionately known as the 'Wee Monty'. The Club has full driving range facilities and is floodlit to allow for night golf on the back 9 of the championship course and the 'Wee Monty'.
In 2010 the club will also open an exclusive Country Club, which includes gents and ladies gyms, multipurpose sports facilities, a large pool area and a family restaurant.
The Royal is Bahrain's only public access 18-hole grass course. The island is also home to two sand courses that offer a unique experience of golf in the desert.
A team of thirty-eight greenkeepers manage the ongoing maintenance of both courses, and a separate landscaping company (BIGC Landscaping), with a staff of ten, are regularly utilised for golf course related work as well as external projects around the island.
The course (approximately 38 hectares) was established (wall to wall) with salt tolerant Seashore Paspalam (SeaIsles Supreme). Of that, 1.7 hectares constitutes the greens, the tees are 1.8 hectares and the fairways and rough are approximately 31 hectares. The balance is made up of the driving range and the turf nursery.
In general, the greens are maintained at 3mm, the tees and aprons at 10mm, the fairways at 12mm and the rough at 45mm. However, the cutting heights are adjusted as and when required according to golfing events and/or environmental issues.
As paspalum copes well with high salinity, the most challenging aspect of growing and developing the course has been extreme temperatures throughout the summer months, preventing early dormancy in the winter, and managing disease outbreaks whilst trying to push the turf development with high nutrition.
As the grass is still relatively young, the course has suffered regular outbreaks of brown patch when humidity levels peak around the change of the seasons. Once the course matures, and nitrogen applications are further reduced, the club is confident the incidence of this disease will decrease.
The entire golf course was constructed with imported sand. The fairways and tees were built using double washed marine sand, and the greens with silica sand imported from Saudi Arabia. The greens were amended with 5% ZeoPro to help retain nutrients and water, which is an important aspect in extreme temperatures.
The greens were constructed using California design, not USGA; these systems suit arid climates. California greens consist of a full 300mm rootzone over a native compacted base using flat pipe drainage (no blinding sand or gravel layer under the rootzone).
Being a desert climate with almost no rainfall, rapid drainage systems are not required. Quite a contrast, after working in Malaysia for an extended period, where the focus is almost entirely on efficient water removal systems,
Bahrain has certainly been an interesting and, at times, challenging experience for this seasoned turf professional. "Malaysia experiences tropical downpours on a daily basis" said Mark. "It is not uncommon to receive 30-40mm per day in Kuala Lumpur. Golf greens are usually constructed to USGA specification using large drainage outlets. In contrast, Bahrain only receives an average annual rainfall of 88mm, all falling in the winter months of December - March."
As the entire golf course was constructed using sand, initial base fertiliser applications were imperative to give the paspalum an initial boost during the planting phase. For this Mark used a combination of super phosphate, gypsum, pelletised chicken manure and magnesium sulphate. Once the paspalum took root, growth was pushed with NPK based fertilisers for the first 3-4 months until a full turf cover had been achieved.
"Our on-going nutrition programme includes a number of plant health products to encourage healthy, strong growth and disease resistance. We use TKO phosphate, Salute (a potassium silicate with humates and seaweed) and Companion (a microbial solution) for this purpose. The greens are fertilised using a number of micronutrients such as manganese and boron, and we also regularly apply chelated seaweed and calcium. This foliar programme is applied on a monthly basis. In addition, we also carry out a monthly chelated programme of iron, calcium and seaweed to help harden the plant and encourage root development."
"Our programme has been based around site conditions and trials, product availability, cost and past paspalum research (mainly through Dr. Ronny Duncan's work in America). After eighteen months growth, and the first year's play, the results speak for themselves. The course currently has root depths averaging 250mm on the greens and around 150mm in the fairways and tees," said Mark.
It is important to note that, unlike most turfgrass varieties, paspalum does not require high inputs of nitrogen once it is established. In fact, high nitrogen applications can lead to disease incidence and unhealthy growth. "This year our greens received approximately 170kg of actual nitrogen per hectare. Next year, we aim to reduce this to approximately 150kg/ha. Due to our sand based rootzones and paspalum grass requirements we do, however, put on very high levels of potassium (approximately 650kg per hectare per year)."
Mark informs us that, as we edge closer to winter, the nutritional programme will be modified towards plant hardening products, such as chelated iron, calcium chloride, potassium silicate and TKO phosphite. "We are currently doing some trials with potassium permanganate on the paspalum as a source of both potassium and manganese prior to winter dormancy. However, we are conscious of manganese toxicity in the rootzone, so trials have been limited to a nursery area, which will be monitored with soil testing in 2010."
With regards to the tees he adds "The tees follow a similar nutrition programme as the greens currently, but this may change depending on budget allowances and environmental requirements. The fairways are more simplistic in their nutritional approach, which includes potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate and a slow release product containing low Nitrogen, low Phosphate and high Potassium. At renovation time we supplement the rootzone with gypsum, blood and bone meal and palletised chicken manure (as per fertility analysis results)."
As Bahrain is an isolated island almost all consumables are purchased from international suppliers. The Royal Golf Club has a long-established relationship with Environmental Turf Technology (ETT) from the UK. ETT provide the club (through the Managing Director, Richard Lawrence) a high proportion of their fertilisers and support the club through event sponsorship.
Through the peak summer months of June, July and August, where temperatures can reach as high as 50OC, the system can lose as much as 12mm of water each day. It is important to have good monitoring systems in place as the sand greens only hold about 20-25mm of available water at field capacity. The club team uses a combination of the data from an on-site weather station, which records evapotranspiration, humidity, wind speed and rainfall. They also use a hand held volumetric moisture probe, on a daily basis, to assess each individual hole.
"There are a number of holes on our course that are either exposed and sheltered from the weather elements, and this greatly affects irrigation requirements" said Mark. "We aim to try and keep volumetric moisture levels at around 12%-15% through the summer months and 8-10% in the winter months."
High winds in Bahrain have also resulted in windblown fine sand and silt contamination migrating from the local surrounding construction. This has caused layering and some moisture retention problems on a few of the exposed greens. This has influenced the volumetric water percentage measurements, as the top 25mm retains a lot of moisture and artificially increases readings. The wind blown material is also very high in salt content. Fortunately, the paspalum has not been greatly affected by this.
"Winter months in Bahrain are cool and windy (<10OC), and the paspalum goes dormant in late December through to late March. During the winter months evapotranspiration is minimal and we concentrate efforts on maintenance and servicing of our irrigation system."
To cope with irrigation requirements, the club has a reverse osmosis water plant that produces approximately 6000m3 of water on a daily basis. Once the entire residential development (1000 homes) is completed, this supply will be supplemented with a further 3000m3 of treated sewerage effluent. This supply ensures both the golf course and all landscaping on the entire development has the required water supply to meet demand.
Being a young course, still in development mode, Mark has not scheduled any winter overseeding in 2009. He expands on this; "once the course has another growing season (2010) we will look to overseed our fairways and roughs. This year we invested in a Redexim drill seeder and we imported some high quality perennial ryegrass from New Zealand. We have run a seeding trial on our turf nursery this year to assess rates and sand topdressing requirements. We hope to be able to reduce seed and sand requirements by using a drilling machine (rather than a drop or spreader seeder on the surface of the paspalum)."
Results to date have been encouraging. They sowed seed at rates of 300, 400 and 500kg/ha into 400m2 plots and topdressed 50% of the plots with sand. The half which was topdressed with sand germinated about two days earlier than the other side but, after three weeks, there is little to no difference between the two sides.
Mark says, "the main drawback with paspalum is that it's not very wear tolerant. Buggy wear, coupled with winter dormancy, results in short rough through high traffic areas, and we have found that many golfers are finding themselves in fairway lined bunkers or desert areas when their ball should have been held up by longer turf grass growth."
The course is renovated twice a year. Renovation includes scarifying to a depth of around 5mm and hollow tine coring, followed by intensive dragging, fertilising and sand topdressing. Renovation is completed in early spring (March), which helps to 'wake up' the plant as it comes out of dormancy.
The second renovation is usually carried out at the end of August, which is hot and humid, so the grass recovers well at a peak growth time. On top of the renovations the team topdress the greens every two to three weeks during the growing season, with very light dustings (less than 1mm) in combination with vertical mowing. The fairways and tees are topdressed 3-4 times per year outside of renovations.
As this is a new course, Mark sees it as important to adjust and continually improve surface levels on an ongoing basis to achieve a smooth and firm surface. To achieve this they did lots of heavy rolling during the grow-in to improve levels and reduce wind erosion. As a result, the first two renovations produced excess sand on the surface as the rootzone was compacted. This negated the requirement for topdressing sand, and helped level off any additional depressions that had developed on the fairways and tees.
Pest control strategies
Although the Royal Golf Club currently has a pure sward of paspalum it is possible to use rock salt to spot treat unwanted weeds. Fortunately, paspalum has a very high salt tolerance and pure salt can be used effectively as a weed killer. At this stage, the team hand weeds any contamination with reasonable success. Roundup herbicide is also used in managing this task. Mark's team paint the chemical onto the weeds, translocating into the plant without damaging the paspalum.
Insect pests are a much bigger problem than weeds or fungal diseases. "In Bahrain we specifically suffer from two major pests, white grub (chafer), which hatch out in April and November, and army worm, which also hatches at this time" said Mark. "White grub is the root feeder; the armyworms are foliar feeders.
They have two cycles per year due to our climate. To help monitor and better understand insect pest lifecycles we invested in twenty insect traps and positioned them around our course. Insect traps enable us to spray insecticides at the correct time (after peak flights when the insects are hatching), using the correct products (rather than stronger, broad spectrum products that tend to kill off everything) at correct rates."
Oil wells and pipe lines
Bahrain is an oil producing state and The Royal Golf Club has been designed and constructed around oil pipelines and production wells. In December 2008, during the early hours of the morning, a gas/crude oil line burst under extreme pressure, shooting a mixture of crude oil and natural gas into the air to about 150ft. There was a very light breeze, which resulted in the fine oil and gas being pushed straight over the Par 3 Academy course (holes 3 and 4) and the main course (holes 3 and 8). To make matters worse it was a public holiday, so there was only limited staff on site.
When Mark arrived at daylight the damage was widespread but, through quick action, he and his team managed to hire a water tanker truck and purchase about fifteen litres of shampoo from a local shop. They washed as much of the turf areas as they could, 'floating' as much oil off the turf leaf as possible. Once this was done, they reduced the mowing height, using a Jacobsen GPlex, to approx 3mm and scalped most of the green vegetation off the turf. They also cut back all of the landscaping vegetation in the affected areas.
"As the oil and gas was very fine, only the foliage was coated. By mowing off the leaf material we managed to save all of the grass. Nothing died, but it was close to being as big a disaster as I've seen," said Mark.
During the grow-in Mark took the opportunity to sit with the developer and create a maintenance machinery inventory. As the team are isolated, they took the opportunity to select on their needs rather than on budget constraints. To this end, there is a 'rainbow' of colours in the workshop, which the team believe are the industry leaders in their respective fields. To give you an idea of the machinery selection, they have provided an overview below:
• Reel mowers for greens, tees and fairways - Jacobsen walk behind Eclipse, GPlex and LF3400 fairway mower
• Boom spraying/utility vehicles - Jacobsen Cushman Trucksters
• Rough mowing (rotary) - Toro rotary sidewinders
• Bunker rakes - Toro
• Renovation aerators - Toro Procore (both tractor mounted and pedestrian models)
• Renovation scarifiers - Graden
• Sand topdressing - Turfco
• Redexim seeding units
• Blowers - Buffalo Turbine
• Tractors - Iseki and John Deere
• Staff transportation - EZ-GO MPT
• Trailers - Tomlin trailers
It's been an exciting and challenging couple of years for Mark Hooker and his team. In 2009 he has had many successes and, in 2010, we expect to hear more good things about the condition of the course and the interesting trials and programmes that are being put in place. It will ensure The Royal Golf Club becomes known for its 'best practice in turfcare' for the Middle East region.