2 Colin Robinson goes AWOL

mumbai-pic.jpgWhen did I first have thoughts of packing my job in and travelling the world? Was it when I was getting up at 4.30am on a wet Saturday morning to change holes for a club competition, or sat at a greens committee meeting explaining, for the one hundredth time, why we need to topdress the greens? Or that cutting the greens shorter and shorter is NOT the right thing to do? Or maybe it was when I was out working on the golf course and a golfer would look in the other direction and criticise the course just loud enough for me to hear? Perhaps a bit of all of them.

Colin Robinson, former Head Greenkeeper at John O'Gaunt Golf Club, has a bit of a rant about green speeds

I have always done the best job I could and, like most people who work with sportsturf, I take criticism personally. Who of us goes home at the end of the day and doesn't think about how the surfaces are playing or is it going to rain? It's a full time job - and I mean 24 hours a day!

I could have a hundred people tell me that the course is great but it's the one moan that I would remember.

So how could I put myself above criticism and get away from the feeling of wanting to leg it? I know, I'll go to University and get a Masters Degree in sports surface technology. This will surely prove to one and all that I know what I am talking about.

So off I go to Cranfield University in Bedfordshire to meet Alex Vickers, the course leader and a very nice bloke to boot. He tells me that he thinks the course is for me and that I was capable of doing it.

To cut a long story short, three years later, there I am, having photos with my family in my mortarboard and gown.

Don't get me wrong, it was not easy; there were times I felt like giving up. It was very hard work and there were also times I didn't know my rear end from my elbow. But stick at it I did. If I am one thing, I am a determined person who sees things through. I suppose I have to be being a Leeds United fan.

Looking back, University was great. The course was extremely well run and I would recommend it to anybody, but what did I have to put up with during break times? Where all the other students were going to travel too during their gap year.

All the feelings of wanting to travel the world came rushing back, after all when I have my degree I'll be entitled to it. So much for trying to lessen the feelings of wanting to leg it!

When I first mentioned it to my wife she was very much against it. Why give up what we have? But, over time, she began to change her mind. She worked in a world renowned heart transplant hospital seeing patients who would have loved the chance to travel the world but who didn't have the choice - some who were perfectly fit one week then needing a heart transplant the next. There attitude was do it if you can.Colin2.jpg

So we agreed to travel.

What made it better was, when we told our close friends, they asked if they could come with us. That would be great, friends to share the experiences and safety in numbers.

October 10th 2006. Our first flight took us from Heathrow to Mumbai India, the first of, what turned out to be, 29 flights world wide. A word of warning at this point. If while walking around the sea front in Mumbai, a holy man wants to bless you, let him do it and give him a decent tip. Then you might be spared the coconut falling out of a tree and landing straight on your head. I swear to god I thought I had been hit over the head with a piece of 2 x 4! After the wife and friends knew I was okay much p*** taking was the order of the day.

They weren't laughing though, a few days later, when we all got chased down the road by a heard of bulls. My wife and best mate started running first which left me and my mates wife. She said "Are you scared? Aren't you going to start running?" "Not yet," I said, "because I know I can run faster than you!"
What has all this got to do with turf management you might ask? Well, not a lot, but what it does raise is the pressure that most, if not all of us, are put under.

Yes, I know there are some turf managers who are not up to the job, these I suppose deserve the criticism they get but they are few and far between. The majority of turf managers are hard working, dedicated, people who are happy to give up their home time to ensure that their turf surfaces are at their best.
The biggest problem, certainly in golf, is this ridiculous need for green speed. Actually, to say a green is fast is nonsense; I can get a ball to move fast across any green if I hit it with a 4 iron. What is measured is how far a ball will roll over a green when started at a set speed (enter the stimp). This then allows a comparison to be made between greens.

But who says what is fast? Only 30 years ago articles in golf magazines talk about greens being exciting to play on because they had a roll of 6 to 6.5 feet. Now, I'm pretty sure that, today, if any course manager had a summer roll of around 6 feet he would be hung, drawn and quartered.
So what has changed? I'II tell you what it is. It is the golfers perception of what they think it should be, and the pressure they then bring to bear on the greens committee, who then pass it on to the turf manager. So what's caused this?

Has TV got anything to do with it? The answer has to be yes. Don't get me wrong I love watching these great golf competitions on those fantastic courses, the ball seems to roll for ever. And there lies the problem, that's what golfers think is the norm. Never mind that the course may have cost millions to construct and have a budget that would buy a small Caribbean island. Even then, as soon as the competition has finished, heights of cut are taken up and many hours of staff time are spent nursing the course back to health.

I have to admit not all televised golf competitions are held on multi-million pound courses with massive budgets. Look at our Open Championship courses. Can these be compared to your local club? No not at all, why do you think golf started on these perfect pieces of land? Do you think it has anything to do with the superb drainage which goes a long way to help support the best grasses i.e. fescue and bent? If these courses are then maintained properly, which, in my experience they are, the grasses can then give great ball roll without having to cut the greens so short that the turf is damaged.

So how do the rest of us try to keep up with these demands? Possibly by employing techniques that are not good for the grasses, such as scarifying to the point of thinning the turf or, more likely, cutting the grass lower and lower to the demise of the quality, playing into the hands of annual meadow grass and all the associated problems.

I know there are exceptions to the rule, some of the new creeping bent grasses need cutting as low as 3mm to get the best out of them, but most of these, if not all of them, are built to very high standards using the best materials.

I'm talking about the majority of golf courses that don't have the best natural soil which has been used to build pushed up greens with the resulting limited drainage.

During my travels it was hard to spend much time looking at every golf course that we passed as my wife and friends couldn't care less if the green I was looking at had a bit of thatch, or quite a bit of annual meadow grass. They thought that Big Bertha was a lady we were invited to see doing her thing in a bar in Bangkok!

But the question I had was, is this shaving of the greens to get speed or why else do it? Is it a global thing or is it limited to our fair shores? Well, I have to say we are not on our own. Every country I visited with the excepting of one cut the greens too low. One of the worst examples I saw was in Alice Springs, Australia.

This course had the write up of being one of the best desert golf courses in the world. I couldn't wait to have a look. Now, I have to say, I didn't talk to any greens staff regarding actual heights of cut but I know shaved grass when I see it. I had visions of Geoffrey Boycott on his knees sticking his car keys into the green saying, "Ey up, I told you he should have batted first".

The greens were brown and thin; they even had bare patches on some high spots. On one green I noticed from a distance a small green spot, on closer inspection something had caused a small depression, only a mill or two deep, possible caused by an insect or maybe a little thatch fungi, I'm not sure but, because that grass was able to grow that extra one or two millimetres it looked so much healthier. The irony is that on this occasion green roll may well have been increased by taking the height of cut!

It should be remembered that ball roll is mainly affected by three things; the firmness of the surface, the grass species and the uniformity and smoothness of the surface. Taking the height of cut up would have certainly allowed the grass to form a smoother playing surface and therefore less resistance to ball roll. That's not to mention the other benefits such as using less water, less fertiliser and reduced disease threat.

The only country that gets the big thumbs up from yours truly is Canada. Not only did every golf club that I visited cut all their grass areas at reasonable heights even the grass verges along the road side were cut at about 20mm. Unlike ours, that are shaved until the grass is bare or muddy.
This may mean that cutting has to be undertaken more often but its well worth it just for the visual aspect. What these enlightened golf clubs have is sustainability, allowing the grasses to perform to their optimum must give the best possible year round conditions.

So is all doom and gloom? No I don't think so. I hear of some golf clubs that have taken the Greenkeepers advice and stopped the shaving of the greens taking the heights of cut up to a sensible 4 or 5mm. Sure the greens may not roll quite as far but their still getting stimp readings of 8 to 8.5 feet and noticing all the benefits that go hand in hand with healthy grass.

You may say it's alright for you to air your views in a magazine, its quite different putting it in to practice, and I couldn't agree more. I have, over the years, tried my best to educate some clubs that I have worked at with limited success. Under those circumstances you have to remember who puts the food on the table. There is many a hungry martyr.

My view is that, ultimately, the members should have what they want, after all they pay for it. However, I then decide whether I can work under those conditions or not. All I would say is don't give in. As the expert at your place of work you are honour bound to keep giving the best advice and hope you have employers who will listen to you.

These are my views which have been formed over 30 years, yours may be quite different. Why don't you write to Laurence at Pitchcare and let him know.

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Contact Kerry Haywood

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