Greenkeeping, since the advent of golf, is considered by many who play the game to be the ideal occupation for those who favour an outdoor job where the stresses and strains of society in general can be left at the door of the workplace. However, Golf Course Agronomist, Declan Branigan, suggests that all that glistens is not gold!
What could be better than working in a tranquil environment, experiencing the climatic vagaries of the seasons, experiencing the distinctive smell of cut grass, witnessing the natural progression of flora through the growing season, being in a position to view the fruits of your labour as you proceed through the day, and all of this without the constant interference of dogmatic supervision.
What better place to be than on a high tee at seven in the morning on a cloudless summer's day overlooking a scenic parkland vista or listening to the sound of the waves on a links. Surely, this beats winding your way through snarling traffic to spend a day in an office worrying whether your investments will come good or whether your order book will grow? Whilst all of this is true, it is good to remember the old adage; "all that glistens is not gold".
Greenkeeping has evolved significantly from the inception of golf, at which time the profession merely concentrated on keeping grass low enough to allow golfers - the few that there were at that time - to find their golf balls. There was attention given to greens where sand was spread in an effort to promote a surface where putts would roll as smoothly as possible, but, all-in-all, attention to detail was not nearly as important as it is today.
Whereas it was a pleasant job at that time, it was also considered to be a fairly unimportant one, in that it catered for a very small and privileged minority who played a very strange game, it paid wages that were lower than the most basic of labouring jobs of that time.
How different the task of greenkeeping is nowadays. It has evolved into a job where considerable expertise is required, and this was recognised by the Labour Court here in Ireland (Industrial Tribunal in the UK) some years ago. For the superintendent, and those in the higher echelons of the profession, it is a very demanding job where knowledge of growth cycles, the growing characteristics and nutrient requirements of different grasses, the life cycles of various pests, the impact of cutting heights on sward performance, climatic influences on both performance of swards and diseases, control methods (both holistic and chemical) of known pests and diseases, aeration requirements, the list seems endless, but such knowledge is a prerequisite for doing the job properly.
Added to all of this, the superintendent must manage a workforce and a very significant budget. He must also advise the committee on developing a template for course maintenance that best fits a specific site.
Finally, the superintendent must possess political skills that will enable him to convince a course committee that both his template for the course and his budget requirements are well founded. A fairly daunting array of skills and knowledge is required and one might ask is there any position in the world of business where any one individual is required to have such a vast array of both knowledge and skills?
The demands on assistant greenkeepers are understandably not quite as extensive; they include attention to detail, knowledge of the characteristics of quite a number of machines and the ability to identify and remedy faults that become evident during operation. They must be capable of identifying various diseases and they must develop a variety of skills that fit different operations.
Yet, despite all of this, the greenkeeper's position is still, in many quarters, considered to be nothing more than gardening and grass cutting, paying salaries that are considerably below the average industrial wage. Respect for the position, in most cases, is non-existent. Why should this be the case?
Many golfers have a small garden at home and spend a lot of leisure time tending it. They see greenkeeping as an extension to this; nothing complicated at all. However, they fail to take account of the fact that they are not cutting their grass outside of its comfort envelope, and those that do so very quickly end up with a lawn dominated by moss and weeds that would not be tolerated on a golf course. They fail to note that they do not have to take account of two hundred people per day walking over their lawn, taking the odd swipe with a sharp implement as they pass and creating major problems of wear and tear due either to compaction, sward damage by golf clubs or simply foot-fall pressure.
They see grass as grass and make little attempt at having a homogenous sward; they have little knowledge of the impact of cutting and rolling on a daily basis; of the need to accurately predict nutrient and water requirements; of the need for that dreaded term 'consistency'; of the need to keep pests and diseases at bay. If they did consider the basic requirements for sound golf course maintenance, they would quickly understand that this is a demanding job that requires years of experience and education if it is to be done properly.
Finally, whilst most golfers enjoy rigid start times in their own profession, and any request for a change to an earlier start time is normally accompanied by some payment, members of golf course greenkeeping staff are expected to be absolutely flexible with regard to start and finishing times.
A right to some sort of a social life or time off to deal with family affairs is rarely acknowledged. Acceptance of a three-day week in the non-growing season is now commonplace here in Ireland, as is working weekend overtime for time in lieu. The impact of applying for social assistance on individuals who have worked tirelessly throughout the growing season has a huge impact on morale but, again, is rarely considered when decisions are being made. If all of this were not enough, performance is critically monitored by upwards of two hundred golfers on a daily basis. One wonders how such golfers would fare if their own performance at work were monitored to the same extent.
Therefore, it is clear, from the above, that greenkeeping is a job that requires extensive knowledge of agronomy, that these requirements are not common knowledge and, consequently, not recognised or appreciated by golfers in general and that those involved must be willing to put their social life on hold at various times of the year.
Stress is now a word that figures prominently during conversations revolving around work, it is becoming more and more prevalent in the age we live in, where increasing productivity and keeping wages as low as possible exercise many minds in business. One could be forgiven for believing that greenkeepers have little to worry about in this regard.
However, in the United States, the USGA recently commissioned an independent psychologist to report on stress in the greenkeeping profession. The report concluded that greenkeeping, in many but not all golf clubs, was akin to living in an abusive relationship where many golfers blamed the greenkeeper for their bad golf, and the greenkeeper responded by working even harder to improve the condition of his golf course in the vain hope that golfers might offer some praise for the condition of the golf course.
Yet, the complaints kept coming. He also advised that, where there was a serious problem with some part of the golf course and a greenkeeper was filled with apprehension as he inspected the problem each day, that this was clear evidence that the relationship between the superintendent and his employers was abnormal and abusive. Many would feel that this represents compelling evidence that things need to change in the industry.
All greenkeepers are aware of the reoccuring critical remarks, "there is not enough sand in those bunkers and they are inconsistent". The real problem is normally down to an average golfer laying open the blade of a lob or sand wedge when playing a bunker shot, thereby resulting in the blade bouncing off the sand into the middle of the golf ball which then proceeds at speed either into the face of the bunker or the heavy rough forty yards over the green! If this is compared to a swimmer belly-flopping into a swimming pool with a resounding and painful smack, as he staggers from the pool stunned, he rarely says "there is no water in that swimming pool"; he will actually blame himself for his misfortune!
With regard to consistency of sand in a bunker, many factors influence this, such as the aspect of the bunker; is it facing the sun or not? Does the irrigation system cover the bunker (we all know that wet sand is more firm than dry sand)? And, finally, what is the proximity of the sand surface to the water table?
The keen observer will note that professionals will vigorously wriggle their feet into the sand prior to playing a bunker shot. This is not to just to build a stance, but is also testing both the firmness and depth of the sand and this influences how he plays the bunker shot.
One of my favourites is where a golfer knifes an approach to the green. It travels at a height of approximately six feet in the air and at such speed that it would evade air traffic control, and when it fails to stop he exclaims; "is the irrigation system broken or are you just too lazy to put it on?" My response would normally be that a concrete wall would not stop that shot.
Finally, probably the most popular criticism is "those greens are inconsistent". Of course they are. Given that the slope on every green is different and that slope influences speed, how can they be consistent with regard to speed. Given that greens with a southerly aspect will grow stronger than those with a northerly aspect, consistency during periods of growth is well nigh impossible.
They fail to understand that taking account of such details ranks equal in importance to correctly reading the line of a putt, and the onus is on them to do so. The strange thing is that top class amateurs and professionals rarely complain to the same extent. However, the greenkeeper must have sufficient sangfroid to take such remarks on the chin and advise that he will deal with the problem the very next day.
To conclude, being a greenkeeper can be very rewarding in terms of job satisfaction, but it is a job with very specific demands that are rarely recognised in full by the sport it serves. The superintendent and his staff must possess both knowledge and skills that are neither advertised to nor acknowledged by the golfing public. He must be aware of the politics of the committee system and react accordingly, and he must have the patience of a saint when dealing with complaints. A willingness to work flexible hours and in inclement weather conditions are part and parcel of the job. If the role was properly appreciated by those it serves, then the superintendent and his staff would be better paid, both in terms of financial reward and respect. Most would hold the opinion that the latter was the most important.
Declan Branigan has been a practising agronomist for forty years and has held the position both of Captain and Greens Convenor at his home club. As an acting superintendent, he has had to report to Greens Committees for the past 25 years. On the golfing front he has represented Leinster from 1972 to 1990 and Ireland from 1975 to 1986.
This article first appeared in Greenside, the official publication of the GCSAI.