2 Can an Agronomist improve your Turf?

Fairway 1.jpgAs an agronomist writing this article you might expect me to be biased and respond with an unequivocal yes in answer to the question, yet if I were to be honest a truer response might be yes, possibly or even no! Unfortunately the role of the agronomist in modern turf culture can be one of the most misunderstood within the club committee structure.

Why use an agronomist?

There are many reasons why clubs use an agronomist either regularly or on an occasional basis. In this article I have highlighted some of the most common reasons that I believe a club might consider using the services of an agronomist and where they can help.


[1] Course conditioning

Unfortunately, most golf clubs still rely upon a committee structure for management. They appoint a qualified club manager, golf professional and superintendent and then invariably make them accountable to a body of poorly trained, thoroughly inexperienced club members who are eager to run the operation.

Most individuals when appointed to the green committee wish to make a contribution but this often means change, after all new committee members have played golf for many years and therefore have had an opportunity to play most of the different courses in the area, as well as many of the fine courses throughout the country and even abroad.

He/she has drawn conclusions of what they think makes a great golf course from an architectural, maintenance and agronomic perspective. They may well have a handicap in single figures, are held in high regard and esteem within the club and therefore must be an expert. Now, recently appointed as a member of the committee they have an opportunity to implement all of the changes both they and their colleagues have been discussing at the bar for years.

It is always easy to criticise, Disraeli summed this succinctly when he said, "It is much easier to be critical than correct".

I don't dispute that playing conditions can always be better and even if the course is better conditioned than others in the neighbourhood, there is always room for improvement. Nonetheless, reconciling member expectations against available resources is the greatest challenge facing the course superintendent. Here, the agronomist can bring a sense of realism to the discussion. Are the maintenance programmes balanced enough to ensure that maintenance priorities are focused where they should be?

Unfortunately, the modern trend towards course appearance and the adoption of wall to wall maintenance has meant that many mid-level courses are becoming average throughout instead of excellent on greens, tees and fairways.

Alistair MacKenzie's thoughts on this are quite interesting, writing in The Spirit of St Andrews he states,

"It is possible to have too high a degree of perfection. If we have never had a bad lie we are not likely to appreciate a good one, and moreover, the ability to play from a bad lie differentiates between a good player and a bad one"…. how true.

Within the golf club three key people should be responsible for setting course maintenance objectives. In order of priority they are the course manager/superintendent/head greenkeeper, agronomist and chairman of the green committee.

[2] Establishing long range plans

Any good business will have a business plan and a golf course maintenance programme should be no different. If fundamental problems exist then these need to be identified and appropriate maintenance programmes put in place to rectify the problem. Avoid the so-called "quick fix" or instant remedy that may be proffered by unscrupulous sales reps. If they sound credible then they should be discussed with your agronomist who should be able to place them within the context of current scientific research. The agronomist can pay a pivotal role in identifying problems, determining goals and setting objectives, as well as timelines over which progress can be made specific to the site and abilities of the club. The agronomist can then monitor and report on progress as these are implemented.

[3] Problem solving

Growing grass to produce near perfect conditions year round is the combination of many complex interacting factors and many problems can arise that may be weather related or management induced. Agronomists are often consulted when problems occur or the expectations of the club membership are not realised. The agronomist should objectively analyse the situation as presented and offer both short and long term objectives.

Such visits can be difficult as some clubs might use this as an opportunity to "witch hunt" or as a mechanism by which the club can gain sufficient evidence to dismiss the superintendent. A good agronomist will be supportive, view all aspects of the maintenance operation and offer constructive comments. A good working relationship between the superintendent and agronomist is essential if progress is to be made. The majority of superintendents will have little to fear from an agronomic visit, indeed the more enlightened value the advice and support that an agronomist can bring to the discussions. These superintendents use an agronomist as a second pair of eyes or a "sounding board" to discuss and review maintenance programmes or proposals.

[4] Provide objective, unbiased advice

If real progress is to be made, the advice offered to the club must be objective and not subjective. The agronomist should be emotionally removed from the internal workings or politics of the club to give advice that is in the best interests of the course. Advice from the agronomist should be completely independent and free of commercial bias; this cannot arise if other vested interests cloud his judgment and subsequent recommendations. At best, the club might pay for something that was unnecessary or at worst compound the problems in the short or longer term. This can be particularly true of some fertiliser products or top dressings. Ideally all golf clubs should use agronomists who are on The Register of Independent, Professional, Turfgrass Agronomists (RIPTA). For further details see www.ripta.co.uk

[5] Advocates for the turf

Within the golf club there are many egos to be massaged and agendas to be managed. Each individual who sits on a committee will have a perspective on turf management including the superintendent, but who speaks up for the turf? Are the management programmes appropriate, economically sustainable and in the longer-term interests of the club and its surrounding environment?

The agronomist must balance the playing quality needs of the majority of the members within the club, perhaps the abilities of the superintendent as well as the resources available for conditioning the golf course. Realistic objectives for maintenance should be set.

As the agronomist has visited many courses over the season and has seen varied turfgrass conditions, he is best placed to put in to context the condition of your turf, be it healthy or otherwise.

Most superintendents today are better qualified than their predecessors, some with degrees. However, the demands are greater and the management techniques are more exacting than they were 10 to 15 years ago. A recent USGA Green Section study showed that the average pace of putting surfaces in the US had increased by 3-4 feet over the period 1977 to 2003, so much so that the average member's club in the US are now producing green speeds that were usually only associated with tournament preparation 20 years ago.

[6] Specialist expertise

The profusion of fertiliser products and formulations has changed dramatically in the past 5 to 10 years making the appropriate selection somewhat bewildering to the uninitiated. In spite of better education, many clubs believe that the sales rep or agronomist should produce a "nutritional programme" an elixir of products and cocktails to improve the quality of the turf. Would you trust a dietitian to tell you exactly what, how much and when you should eat for a 12-month period? Guidance yes but to be absolutely categorical on the fine detail would be a mistake.

An agronomist can discuss principles and help the superintendent make more informed choices without the hard sell. Likewise, the range of pesticides for disease and pest control can be reviewed in an unbiased forum. Misdiagnosis could result in the misuse of pesticides, adding unnecessary costs to the maintenance budget. The agronomist should also provide specialist advice on materials selection, e.g. sands for top dressing or bunkers or appropriate grass selection based on course type and existing sward species composition.

[7] Forum for communication

The agronomist's visit should be as productive as possible so that the superintendent and green committee can gain as much from the site audit as possible. The agronomist is there to provide understanding and impart knowledge to the green committee and superintendent. Initial visits may be nothing more than confidence building exercises so that real progress can be made in the longer term.

The success of any programme or dramatic change in direction is going to be determined by those on the ground and within the club who are tasked with implementing the agreed changes. The green committee should act in an advisory role rather than a supervisory capacity. The visit provides an opportunity to discuss, review and formulate policy.

The agronomist, from an independent viewpoint, can provide a pivotal role in strengthening the superintendent's opinion to the committee or indeed vice versa. The committee is then responsible for disseminating this information to the general membership. Once presented with the facts, most will accept any necessary inconvenience provided it is communicated effectively.

The agronomist's report placed on a club notice board can help as part of the education or communication process. The site visit gives the agronomist a "snap shot" of conditioning but can also help review progress since the last visit. Maintenance programmes may have to be adjusted or fine tuned depending upon progress.

Conclusions

There is more to an agronomic visit than a walk round the turf areas and a report. Clubs that gain greatest value from an agronomic visit engage with the agronomist, are open minded and honest about their maintenance programmes, include as many members of the committee as possible and are interested in making real progress. The old adage "the more you put in, the more you get out" applies very much to the agronomy visit and any subsequent back-up service given by the agronomist.

Ian McClements
STRI Area Manager for Scotland & Ireland

www.stri.co.uk

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