When it comes to producing good quality putting surfaces, there is no set formula, with each course having differing topography, grass type, soil conditions and playing demands. In this article, Chris Roberts looks at two Shropshire courses that are less than ten miles apart. However, this is where the similarity ends, especially in relation to their greens and how they are managed
In May 2007, Chris Roberts Agronomy started work with Shrewsbury Golf Club, a parkland golf course on the outskirts of the county town which has been at its current location since 1972. The club currently boasts a healthy active membership and a stable visitor income.
The membership at Shrewsbury are extremely proud of their greens and, since 2007, are used to playing on main greens throughout the year.
There is an expectation that the greens will be smooth and quick throughout the playing season. The current target greens speed is 10.5 for general play and 11 for any major competitions.
Along with greens speed, the membership wish the greens to be relatively receptive in the summer, yet firm enough to withstand winter play.
The greens are soil push up that have been laid on a thin stone carpet. Over the stone carpet are varying depths of topsoil and, in relation to drainage, has little benefit. The soil on which the greens have been built is indigenous clay and drains relatively slowly.
Deep within the current soil profile, it is clear to see numerous applications of peat. This is believed to have been applied shortly after the club relocated to its current site, to help and retain moisture on, what were at the time, non-irrigated greens.
Since then, years of topdressing has seen a rootzone build up of approximately 150mm over the top of the peat and indigenous soil.
We started working with Shrewsbury in 2007; the greens were dominated with poa and, often, the club had to employ temporary greens in the winter months, as the surfaces were unstable and could not tolerate play in spells of heavy rainfall. This was mainly due to the greens having impeded drainage and higher than desirable thatch levels that adversely affected the greens performance.
At this time, the club were spending precious time and resources improving the standards of the temporary greens due to the amount of time spent playing on them in the winter months.
Rather than continue with this, we chose to put more emphasis into making the greens fit for winter play. This philosophy has seen drastic improvements, and now only on very rare occasions is a temporary green required.
These improvements were initiated by a more vigorous topdressing and aeration programme. On average, the greens at Shrewsbury receive approximately 120 tonnes of sand per annum. The club did originally use a traditional 70/30 mix dressing but, due to cost, turned to using straight sand. The sand is applied on a little and often basis, and is applied as frequently as weekly.
In the early years of this more intensive programme, the greens where deeply scarified using a pedestrian Graden scarifier. This, coupled with more dressing and solid tine aeration, has seen the thatch reduce significantly from 9% to just over 3%.
With the thatch now down to a manageable level, the greens are tined with 8 or 11mm tines on at least a monthly basis to a depth of between 125-200mm. By constantly keeping the surfaces open, it gives the greens the best chance to cope with any heavy rain that they have to endure. In the winter months, the greens are regularly slit, sometimes on a weekly basis. The slitting again aids the drainage of the greens by keeping an open passage so that water can flow from the surface to any tine holes or freer draining sub soil.
As well as aiding drainage, the frequent aeration encourages root growth and, along with the topdressing programme, helps to control the thatch on the greens to desirable levels without the need for any intrusive thatch removal processes.
As stated, the greens in 2007 were poa dominated, with only small pockets of bent grass on the backs of some drier greens. The objective from the start was to produce good quality, quick putting surfaces that could be played on all year round. Seeing this was being achieved with poa, there was little reason to change the grass composition.
The problem, if it was a problem, was that the greens were to such a high standard there was little appetite for changing grass species.
Therefore, instead of chasing the so called "more desirable" grass species, we have concentrated on producing top quality, sustainable poa putting surfaces that the members are proud of.
To obtain the greens speeds required, the current height of cut on the greens varies from as low as 2mm in the summer to 4mm in extreme winters.
In the summer months, the greens are verticut lightly, usually on a weekly basis. This helps to remove lignin rich material from the grass plant and, in turn, helps with controlling thatch accumulations. As well as helping to control thatch, the verticutting has a positive affect on greens speed. This, coupled with the use of the club's vibrating rollers, allows us to achieve the smoothness and the speed that the members desire.
In the early years of working with Shrewsbury, fertiliser inputs on the greens were very minimal, with approximately 40kg of nitrogen being applied per annum.
This was mainly attributed to nutrients being released as the thatch layer in the greens started to degrade in situ. To encourage soil life that, in turn, would accelerate the breakdown of thatch, cold processed seaweed was applied at monthly intervals.
These low inputs continued for the first five years until it was clear that the greens started to need more nitrogen. Nitrogen was then tank mixed with the seaweed as a tonic, to take the stress off the greens without creating excessive growth.
To control growth further, applications of Primo Maxx growth regulator were made at 300ml per hectare at monthly intervals. Keeping growth on the greens to a minimum ensured that the greens speed or quality did not deteriorate through the day.
We began our work at Church Stretton Golf Club in the spring of 2011. The Harry Vardon and James Braid designed course occupies a hill top position in picturesque south Shropshire countryside. The site benefits from free draining soil that holds a high percentage of fescue and bent grasses throughout the course.
The club has a small active membership and actively encourages visitors and societies to boost their income.
With its free draining characteristics, the members are used to playing on main greens throughout the year. Like many clubs, they require the putting surfaces to be the highest standard possible through the playing season.
The greens have very limited irrigation and, therefore, the members are used to the greens becoming firm and are content to play the more traditional running golf game. It is felt that the green speed at Church Stretton should be between 8.5 and 9.5 on the stimpmetre, as this suits its clients as well as its exposed location.
The greens at Church Stretton, like Shrewsbury, are soil based in nature, but that is where the similarity ends. The soil base of the greens here is free draining loamy sand. This free draining base supports a fescue and bent dominant sward, with only small pockets of meadow grass in more compacted areas of the greens.
When we started working with the club, the greens were struggling due to drought conditions the previous summer. This dry spell, coupled with a limited irrigation system, had resulted in areas of grass loss.
The greens have no fixed head sprinklers and, instead, rely on hand watering through hoses or the use of portable sprinklers.
Because of the nature of the course, getting water pressure to the top is problematic, so much so that the 10th and 13th greens at the furthest end of the course only register 0.25 bar of water pressure. In this hostile environment, only fescue and bent have any long term future.
For this reason, the greens were over seeded with straight fescue, as it was ultimately the grass species we desired, even over bent. The overseeding was problematic at first as soil temperatures limited germination. But once soil temperatures started to rise, good germination and establishment of the fescue was achieved.
To help the greens endure periods of drought, a full wetting agent programme was employed. This has aided water penetration into the greens, and helped re-wet areas that had become hydrophobic.
Luckily, the summer of 2011 was kind and, with ample moisture, the greens recovered well and, one year later, boasted virtually full grass coverage.
Fertiliser is kept to an absolute minimum, with less than 30kg of nitrogen and 60kg of potassium applied per annum. There has also been a policy to use zero phosphates. This was employed to ensure that as little encouragement as possible is given to the annual meadow grass. Because of budgetary constraints, there are no biostimulants such as seaweed applied to the greens, yet this appears to have had little negative affect on the greens and their root development.
With only very small quantities of disease susceptible poa present, no fungicide has been applied since 2011 and, with the current programme on the greens working well, there is little chance of any applications in the near future. Because of low nitrogen inputs, the greens are susceptible to red thread disease, however, this has no affect on the putting surface and, instead, this cosmetic disease is treated with small application of nitrogen.
In contrast to Shrewsbury, the cutting heights at Church Stretton range from 3.5mm in the summer to 5mm in the winter. The greens are brushed regularly to pick up any lateral growth from the bent grass. The brushing helps blend the bent grass with the finer leafed fescue and this, in turn, has a positive affect on the quality of ball roll and greens speed.
Even before we started working with Church Stretton, the club had a relatively extensive topdressing programme, applying approximately 90 tonnes of dressing over 8000 square metres of greens. Although this is less than 120 tonnes applied at Shrewsbury, it is more than enough to control organic build up within the greens profile.
With us wanting to retain moisture in the greens, it was decided to stick with the sand and compost mixture the club had been applying. This would not just help the green retain moisture but, when applied, would also provide the greens with small amounts of organic nitrogen.
Because the club doesn't have an extensive list of aeration equipment, a local contractor is employed to verti-drain the greens once a year. To complement this, the greens are aerated throughout the year using sarrel rollers and a solid tiner to keep water penetrating through the surface.
The greens at Church Stretton have performed consistently well since 2012, with minimal nutrient inputs and no fungicide applied. It is estimated that the greens are currently holding less than 5% poa and, although overseeding was carried out in 2011, only localised areas have been seeded since. Instead, the fescue and bent have become the dominant force, pushing the meadow grass out.
The proof that the programme on the greens has worked is not just the improvement in agronomic conditions, but comments by members and visitors a like.
Ultimately, a golf green needs to be fit for purpose and, what suits one golf club, doesn't necessarily suit another. It is primarily down to the turf professional at each club to assess the type of course he or she is working on, and whether their greens are fit for the client they are wishing to cater for.
Although many in the industry seek the 'sustainable' ideal of fescue and bent, it is little good if the end product is not something that the membership or visitors desire.
Nor may it be prudent to produce receptive poa green on a traditional heathland or links where the running game is lorded.
Each club will have differing expectations, budgets and infrastructure, so what may be sustainable for one may not be sustainable for another.
At Shrewsbury Golf Club, they have the ability to maintain meadow grass greens to a very high standard that, ultimately, has had a positive affect on membership and green fee income. Yes, it's true that more money is spent on the upkeep of these meadow grass greens, with the annual budget being circa £11,500 but, with a healthy membership, there is currently little concern. What would not be sustainable is to lift the greens mowers to 4mm on the search of finer leafed grasses.
Church Stretton Golf Club has taken an approach that suits their course. With a smaller greenkeeping team, limited irrigation and smaller budget, they have got greens that are easier to manage, with minimal inputs. The club's annual spend on the greens is less than half that of Shrewsbury's at £5,000, with £3,700 of this being on dressing, leaving only £1,300 on fertilisers, wetting agents etc.
There is no doubt that fescue and bent greens suit Church Stretton's, as the rest of the course is dominated by these grass species. The thought that greens needed to be fescue and bent became even more apparent when these grasses started to dominate the greens, even with little or no seeding taking place.
As stated at the start of this article; "when it comes to producing good quality putting surfaces, there is no set formula", however, putting surfaces must be sustainable and tailored to client needs.
A golfer might not know his poa from his fescue, but he does know a good green from a bad one.