Over the past eight years, Greg Evans (Course Manager at Ealing Golf Club and Chief Agronomist for the advisory company, Complete Golf Solutions) has devised course maintenance plans for different golf courses that allow greens to be cut as low as 2mm, yet remain sustainable. Evans' methods initially encountered a surprising amount of opposition from certain quarters in the greenkeeping profession. Some worried that the greens would die while others thought that Evans was upping the stakes too much, putting pressure on other greenkeepers to follow suit.
Evans firmly believes that his approach is beneficial to both the grass plant and the industry in general. Some of the most respected heavyweights in the golfing world seem to agree. One is Peter McEvoy who wrote in the June edition of English Club Golfer that Ealing Golf Club has: "the best greens that I have ever putted on in the UK, bar none." Another is Luke Goddard, the English Amateur Champion & Walker Cup Player whose commendation goes even further: "I've been lucky enough to play all around the world over the last few years and these greens are as good as I've putted anywhere." It is plainly obvious to anyone who has played the Ealing course recently that the greens have been vastly improved since Evans took the helm three years ago.
Pitchcare has invited Greg Evans to address some of the questions raised by fellow greenkeepers whilst the debate raged and, in particular, how he has managed to keep greens sustainable when the height of cut is reduced. Pitchcare also suggest that readers pay a visit to Ealing Golf Club, just to appreciate the greens.
Greenkeepers have all heard the cries of "why are the greens so slow" or "try engaging the mower blades next time you cut"! The reason for these complaints is that the general golfer wants to putt on fast, true greens in all environments. I have yet to hear a golfer walk off the 18th green with the remark "Wow, those slow greens were great!" Golfers really don't care what type of grass species they putt on, just as long the ball travels in a fast, true fashion. A recent survey in America concluded that golfers think 10.5 feet on the stimpmeter is just about perfect.
The subject of sustainability has been an important topic covered by the greenkeeping press during recent years. As a result, many greenkeepers have reintroduced finer grasses, fescue and bent, back to the putting surfaces. However, the average golfer is often oblivious to the type of grass he putts on.
It could be weeds, such as daisies, just as long as the greens are fast and true. The best grasses, fescue and bent, are fine on a links or heathland courses, blessed with sandy soils and no trees but, as soon as you move inland where the majority of courses in this country are clay based parkland, these grass combinations have become rarer.
Meadow grass is the dominate species on the inland courses. But, do golfers really like putting on meadow grass cut at 4 or 5mm? The answer is no, because of the 'snaky' slow ball roll that it produces.
The average golfer plays once or twice a week. He pays his subs (ranging from a few hundred pounds in the north to several thousand in the south). When he comes to the club, the last thing he wants to hear is that the course is undertaking a grass species change. Moving from meadowgrass to the finer grasses means that the height of cut will range from 4 to 5mm during the grow-in period, which is likely to take several years.
In the meantime, they will be slow, bumpy greens at certain times of the year. The average stimpmeter reading will be around eight feet. If you play in the club championship the reading may go up to nine, but will then drop straight back down. No wonder there is pressure being put on the greenkeeper to lower the blades.
How do we produce fast putting surfaces on a normal parkland course?
'Cut it shorter' is the logical answer. It will certainly work in the short term, but can you make this sustainable over the longer term? I believe that you can. The main reason why a 2mm height of cut was previously thought impossible was because of the limitations of older machinery.
Scaremongering stories of the greens dying abound, but I have yet to see a green die purely because of a low height of cut.
Anaerobic soil and consequent high thatch levels will kill greens, but low height of cut should not. A lot of these stories go back to the sixties and seventies, when the greens were over fed and over watered. Back then, the machinery available didn't have the capabilities of what is on offer now - the verti-drain (deep spiker) wasn't even invented until the eighties!
The modern ride-on mowers will allow a 2mm height of cut through finer, smoother cutting and tighter turning capabilities (Toro has just produced a 14 blade pedestrian mower that can cut down to 1.5mm). The ride-on mower that we have at Ealing will make a 360 degree turn without leaving a mark on the turf. Try very tight turns on an old mower and you will find the mower units bouncing around the turf as it cuts, leaving scalped grass in the process. Bottom blades have also become thinner and more durable. We have yet to change over a bottom blade on our greens units for this season. Tools such as the accu-gauge now allow greenkeepers to set the height of cut to within a fraction of a millimetre. Gone are the days when a coin was used to set the roller to bedknife gap.
Fertiliser technology has also progressed. Until recently, the research that went into fertiliser was predominantly for the agriculture market. A granular feed of NPK at around 35g/m2 was the norm for greens feeding. This left many soils unbalanced and toxic. Modern feeding calls for very low application rates with a mixture of soil and leaf feeding.
Organic feeding is also encouraged, with the emphasis on seaweed for the micro-nutrients and organisms. Just because you see spraying happening once a fortnight, don't assume the greenkeeper is 'throwing on the feed'. He could be putting on small qualities of nitrogen ranging from 3-6 units per hectare.
But, what about the grass plant? Won't it die if it is cut at 2mm?
No, it won't! There is no scientific evidence that suggests cutting at this height will mean certain death for the grass plant. The only legitimate factor that held back the short cut (2mm) in the past was the limited machinery capabilities. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that cutting at this height can be beneficial to the greens in terms of disease control, due to the drier plant that results. Thatch (organic matter) production is reduced with the short cut as there is less leaf mass to break down, which naturally aids the plant's survival rate.
The natural process for the grass plant is for it to grow without being cut at all. Cutting this plant at 5, 6 or 7mm is not a natural process. So, what's the difference in cutting it down to 2mm? Shorter roots and less photosynthesis is the answer. But, is this reduction enough to harm or kill the plant? I think not. I have found that the density and condition of roots cut at this height, in the top 100mm of the soil profile, remain healthy and robust. I have been successfully maintaining greens cut at 2mm for seven seasons. From experience, I am convinced that cutting at this height has no additional detrimental effect on the grass plant than a cut at 4 or 5mm.
Won't cutting at 2mm put additional demands on my course budget?
The course budget at Ealing was increased by 3% in both 2007 and 2008, but no increase was necessary for 2009. During this period, the price of seed and fertiliser has increased by between 20% and 30%. Fuel and other materials, such as sand, have also risen in price. In real terms (actual spending power) my course budget has remained broadly in line with inflation, so my experience confirms that it is possible to maintain a "short cut strategy" without putting additional strain on the greenkeeper's budget.
Any good course needs a solid greens maintenance plan, whatever the height of cut. Lots of aeration, frequent topdressing and a balanced fertility and water programme are all needed to produce the optimal green. The real difference is that greens cut at 2mm will produce a faster ball roll than greens cut at 3, 4 or 5mm. The short cut also produces a smoother roll on meadow grass.
"You cannot have fast greens on a clay based, meadow land parkland environment without introducing bents and fescues."
I do not agree with this statement, which I have heard many times. It doesn't mean that you have to dig up greens and lay down U.S. specification greens either. Meadow grass, when maintained correctly, will produce very fine greens, comparable to those of modern creeping bent. Parkland courses have, historically, produced slower paced greens than links or heathland courses and this has been put down to poor soil structure and grass species.
The links courses, with their sandy soils and fine grasses have, in the past, produced quicker greens. However, with modern technologies, this is changing. Techniques such as straight sand dressing has improved the drainage and firmness of the parkland greens. Modern aerators have allowed spiking to be completed with efficiency and minimal disruption to the surfaces. Most importantly, certain turf managers (me included) have embraced the parkland meadow grass instead of spending thousands of pounds trying in vain to eradicate it. In the past, meadow grass was regarded by some as a coarse weed and, when cut at 4 or 5mm, you can see why. But, reduce this height down to 2mm for long periods and this grass evolves into a fine leafed plant, bearing no resemblance to the seed headed grass described above.
Meadow grass will produce a thatchy, disease ridden surface
I agree, but only when it is poorly maintained. When spiking, topdressing and cutting are done properly these problems are avoided. It's not the grass species that's important, it's the environment that it is grown in!
Ah, but you must be saving the plant by throwing the fertiliser and water to rescue it!
When a green is heavily watered and fed, the result is a soft, spongy surface, and cutting this surface at 2mm often leaves scalp marks behind. A low cut requires a firm surface, so just 'throwing on the feed and water' is not an option. A good, balanced fertility and water programme is required. All grass plants have their daily requirements during all seasons. But, throwing on these two energy sources is probably a throwback to the sixties and seventies; a time when (old timers tell me) lots of greens were over fed and watered, leaving them soft, spongy and disease ridden. Under these circumstances, greenkeepers had no alternative but to cut at around 5mm. At Ealing, we now use less fertiliser and less water than previously.
Since my earlier articles advocating "the short cut" there have been many calls of support as well as debate within the industry. Almost everyone agrees that the debate has been useful. But, the top priority of all greenkeepers remains; to produce and maintain top quality playing surfaces. It is easier to do this on a sand dominated course, with fescues and bents the main species, but on parkland, meadow grass courses this is more difficult. Each greenkeeper needs to start with the unique environment dictated, in the main, by the location of his course.
The greenkeeping profession is changing. Over the recent decades the image of greenkeepers as mere 'grass cutters' has lost any credibility it ever had (I believe it never had any). We are skilled professionals.
Producing fast, true greens is one of the most important parts of this process. It's about giving golfers a surface that they want and demand. Over the years, golfers' demands have increased. Bumpy, slow greens are just not tolerated any more, and nor should they be. Where greenkeepers produce a well maintained course, the business will come. Over the past year, Ealing has increased its playing membership by 8% and golf society booking have risen by 26%. Respectable figures in the current climate.
Debate should continue about the way forward, because no single person has all the answers. Some will say that no fertiliser is the answer and that sheep should be brought back to graze the fairways. Others want to move the industry forward. But, where we all agree is that everything has to be sustainable and have a future.
Golf in this country has, in my opinion, been underdeveloped for years and now we are starting to wake up. Golfers used to put up with poorly maintained courses because they didn't know any better, but not anymore. With careful planning and a sound maintenance programme, much higher standards can be achieved. It need not cost the earth and should contribute to your club's income as well.
I will leave you with one final question. On a parkland, meadowland environment, what is the indigenous species? Annual meadowgrass, of course! What do you do: fight it or embrace it? That is the choice we all have to make.
Greg Evans is Course Manager at Ealing Golf Club. He also runs Complete Golf Solutions. He can be contacted on 07951 157208 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org