Climbing the 'sustainable ladder' whilst still reaching the high expectations of members will always be difficult, but this is the mission at Bromborough Golf Club where Paul Lowe took over as Head Greenkeeper just eight months ago. His findings to date have been very interesting.
As soon as I arrived at Bromborough Golf Club it became very apparent that the course had not worked towards sustainability but towards producing an immaculately presented course. It is a very attractive parkland course set in the centre of the Wirral peninsular; a classic members run club with high demands and expectations.
From an agronomy point of view the task of climbing the sustainability ladder is reasonably straightforward. However, the club has a history of reaching high standards with sublime manicuring, very low cutting heights and cutting from fence line to fence line, producing lush growth throughout the course. Bearing this in mind changing members expectations towards a more sustainable approach is easier said than done. The way we start should not be underestimated; laying down the foundations and compiling an action plan is imperative.
Why do we need to change?
Why change a method that has proven to be so popular with our members in the past? Well, this intense maintenance practice does come at a price:
• High financial cost
• Playing quality
• Environmental impact
• Chemical restrictions
• Social responsibility
It's not just financial, although this is high. But it's true to say that the cost of maintaining our greens is far greater than the natural mixed sward I left behind at Rhuddlan. Reductions in green fees are also a problem. Winter greens, course closure and the weeks after hollow coring have a negative financial impact. We also must consider that more intense cutting regimes cost the club money. All this in the current financial climate must be of concern to any club.
It's a price also paid by the playing quality. I am of the belief that greens play better when they are botanically dominated with fine grasses. Firm, dry greens challenge all golfers and that is what we are aiming for. I believe rough should be just that - rough. Not the continually cut, dense agricultural rough, but the fine wispy rough that includes natural uncultivated grasses containing wild flowers and insects.
This makes for a much more pleasant place to play golf.
The environmental impact affects us all. We need to consider that the world of greenkeeping is changing. We now have a more environmentally conscious culture, and chemical applications are becoming frowned upon - and not just being frowned upon - they are becoming restricted, FAST. We have learned of the implications that chemical and nutrient levels have on our land and waterways. We are becoming more environmentally responsible. By becoming more sustainable we will be more prepared for every eventuality.
How are we going make the first step?
Well, I won't try to do it on my own. Everyone at the club needs to be involved; all the greenkeeping staff, committee or board, our STRI consultant agronomist, ecologist, architect, contractors, golf professional - everyone has to be supportive in our quest. But we need more than support. We also need to:
• Benchmark the course
• Produce an action plan
• Gather support
• Communication, communication and communication
• Document evidence and produce policy documents
• Create the right environment
Firstly, it is important to establish some benchmarking. Bromborough is a beautiful tree-lined parkland course. The greens have been intensively managed requiring monthly fungicide applications, high water demands and over 200kg of nitrogen fertiliser per annum.
Every inch of the course has been intensively cut and manicured to perfection. The greens consist of pure Meadow Grass Poa annua, producing a soft surface and uniformed appearance. The thatch content is a high 75mm. The thatch, blacklayer and shallow roots are noticeable, thus producing a very susceptible surface.
The utopia of resilient fine fescue/bent greens, with an assortment of colours and the texture of natural grasses, seems some way off. The thin, graceful rough we would like to define the course is a distant dream at the moment. But this is our aspiration.
The undisturbed areas, like the fairways and rough, do consist of fine grasses. Straight away this shows that fine grasses will prosper at Bromborough. We just need to give them the environment they prefer in order for them to flourish.
Now we have established some benchmarking we need an action plan. This plan will determine how, and how long. Our objective is to create an environment in which the fine grasses flourish. To alter the environment is again complex.
Each area will need to be assessed. Some areas require tree removal, to improve airflow and sunlight; whilst some will require additional drainage and design issues. The most important factor is the thatch and the reasons for having it. When that situation is under control this is when we can start to implement an overseeding, less disturbing programme.
For the foreseeable future we will concentrate on thatch removal by implementing a 'disturb as much as possible theory'. Then we can begin to restrict the disturbance and implement an overseeding plan.
How long will it take?
The simple answer to this frequently asked question is, sustainability is everlasting. There is no time limit or pace in which the process will be undertaken. We are simply shifting the way the course is maintained. We are climbing the ladder towards a future that insures our course will be in good health. I feel the ladder has no ending - we can always be more sustainable.
Empowerment of the Greenkeeper is important, but this will not be achieved with a bombastic and insular approach. We need to surround ourselves with support and assistance to be truly powerful. We are fortunate to have the massive support of the STRI, EGU and the R&A. The articles and publications are freely available for all to see.
Showing our employers the message will give confidence that other clubs, and our governing bodies, are backing the sustainable quest. It is important for the club to register with the R&A Best Practice website www.bestcourseforgolf.org as this will help enormously.
The entire key to success is centred on communication. First port of call was for the club to produce a Policy Document that highlights their objectives and goals. We told the members about the plans in a short presentation, and then we held an Open Forum for the members to ask questions. Although sustainable practices are close to my heart, it is just as important to have patience and be sensible. The biggest underlining factor for success is to have the members' support.
The most important part of communicating is listening. We are listening and also monitoring the members' feelings since, as many have said before, "losing your job is not very sustainable". With good communication, honesty and teamwork, this will not be an issue because we all work together.
Alas, one common communication problem is the readiness for members to express their concerns directly to the greenkeeping staff. It is simply wrong for members of a golf club to approach employees and pass negative comments or judgement to the staff, no matter how flippant. This sort of conduct is non productive, as it not only encourages communication breakdown and poor relations with the members, it also lowers morale and stops the staff from working.
Ultimately, the members pay our wages, but no more so than any shareholder of any organisation. It is essential that the members support the changes and that they are aware of the implications as much as the benefits of a sustainable golf course. Like any business a channelled communication procedure needs to be in place to eradicate this sort of culture. This is why it is essential to have a strong committee and a documented code of conduct.
The role of the Committee
This role should never be underestimated. Once members are elected to the committee they become the employer. As the employer they have the same responsibility as every employer. Not just the backing and support they should give, but they have a 'duty of care' to their employees. Major decisions made at the club are done so by the elected committee. I, together with the STRI, only advise and direct the committee and then implement their wishes.
Here lies a problem. Continuity can be, and often is, difficult, especially when the decision makers leave office. Newly elected members full of gusto may have good intentions but they can also be unsettling. This is when the club's Policy Document is helpful. I have also learnt that some have short memories and (excuse the pun) 'the grass is always greener on the other side'. This is why it is important to document everything.
All problems and successes are documented and I take as many photographs as possible. My point is this - we will perform operations that some will disapprove of; trying to please all the people all the time is a sure fire way of failure. The constitution of the club should be set up in a way that the greenkeeper is never the scapegoat, and over-zealous members are controlled. We all decide, we all move forward and we all work together. Sometimes we need evidence to help us along the way.
Good communication does not stop with our members. I am delighted to be involved with the Gingerbread Men. We are a small group of greenkeepers who are striving for the more sustainable golf course. Each case is different; we have different courses with different soils and characteristics to maintain and are on different rungs of the ladder. But we are all climbing the same ladder.
Networking with other Course Managers and Greenkeepers is of great benefit. The opportunity to exchange ideas, views and methods with like-minded experts helps enormously. We meet on a regular basis and talk on the phone. We have now become friends as well as contemporaries. Everyone at some point needs support and encouragement from friends, especially if going through transitional changes or carrying out unpopular operations.
Creating the right environment
I have never seen 100% Poa annuna (annual meadow-grass) across golf courses; only on greens. Why? This is down to the over-manicuring, high-input regimes we inflict onto our sterile putting surfaces on a daily basis. This type of attention is unnatural to the finer bents and fescues, whereas Poa annua thrives on it.
Changing regimes and the environment is imperative for the desired grass; this may include tree removal, thatch removal, drainage, and even raising the heights of cut. Changing maintenance procedures will be necessary by limiting chemical, fertiliser and water applications - but not too quickly or we would find greens without any grass and some very disgruntled members. We need to be sensible. The most important thing is the pace at which change is implemented.
It is obvious that we have a history of suffering with disease and thatch on the greens. The greens have been continually chemically sprayed, and they have also received an array of tonics to try to help fight the problem. This is part of the process we will have to contend with until the problem is under control. Continual aeration is the key. At the moment the greens have the perfect environment for disease attacks and we have the perfect host for attack.
We are making progress, in just a few months, and in dreadful wet weather conditions, the thatch/root structure is already showing signs of improvement. Maybe slight improvements, but we have stopped the rot! There are improvements in the root depth and thatch density.
We plan to enhance biodiversity within our course as part of our sustainable approach. We are conscious that our maintenance strategies should enhance the environment whilst maximising the enjoyment of the game. We have started by developing an Environmental Policy Document in conjunction with an appraisal of the course, and an Action Plan. Again this information is communicated to the membership.
Providing habitats for wildlife is critical for enhanced biodiversity. Log piles and sensitively managed areas provide homes for insects and butterflies thus providing food for other animals. Correctly maintained ponds enhance the aesthetics as well as the biodiversity.
Our main objective is to climb the sustainable ladder. Our desire is a course that no longer relies on expensive chemicals. Our aim is to have a course that sustains natural growth and not one being forced by excessive water and fertiliser. Our wish is to have a course that is allowed to change with the weather, and nature that is allowed to flourish. But our Utopia is doing all this whilst keeping the golfers happy.