That blessed theory
I would hope that we have all heard of the Disturbance Theory by now. It has been preached by Richard Windows and Henry Bechelet for long enough. It discusses how to set the right level of management to encourage the finer grasses into our greens, while improving playing standards and enabling an increased level of year-round play etc.
But, is that just a fanciful dream or the wishings of dusty advocates of traditional golf from yesteryear? Just like the water powered car, great in theory but, in practice, it's a dead duck. Right? Wrong! This is the story of how I found out.
Setting the standards
My experience of the Disturbance Theory is that it is unbelievably simple in practice. It is all about setting standards and achieving goals. As greenkeepers we know when our greens are good, when they are at their best and when the have to be at their best. The Disturbance Theory is all about allowing the sward to progress whilst still maintaining those highest standards.
A common misconception is that playing standards have to drop to achieve sward species progression. This is a great urban myth alongside others like the names of the Captain Pugwash characters. DT is all about maintaining playing standards. We determine the standards being set at present and we work to optimise them in future.
Colne Golf Club is a terrific little 9-holer set near the Pennines in east Lancashire. We are moorland/parkland in nature and set on extremely heavy soils. The course was established over 100 years ago in three farmer's fields. I kid you not that the fields were named on the map as "Bog", "Marsh" and "Swamp". Although the club have limited resources, the attitude here is progressive, and we have spent a lot of time and effort trying to improve the drainage of the site, the condition of the bunkers and naturalising the rough. Our aim for the greens is to create firm, smooth and true putting surfaces that are well paced. Part of our aim is to transition the annual meadow grass dominance to a better blend that includes finer bents and fescues, but we wish to achieve this without compromising on playing qualities along the way.
Setting our objective
Through the agronomic consultancy process between Course Manager and agronomist it is possible to flesh out the desired playing quality parameters throughout the year. This will help guide the management that aims to achieve the desired results. This should centre on objectives for speed, smoothness and firmness and take into account organic matter content, construction, sward composition, water infiltration and percolation and previous management, all working around our individual climates. These factors give a clear indication of where you are and what needs to be done.
In the final DT article "Pride and Joy" the four phases of "transition" greenkeeping are described. These describe the steps necessary to progress the sward from Poa annua dominance towards a better blend with an increased level of bents and/or fescues.
Initially, we work to create decent drainage and a sand dominated soil profile, then we work to provide the required conditions for the finer grasses to flourish before thinking about discouraging the annual meadow grass and then keeping it from re-invading. Each phase requires a different strategy, so it is important to know where you are and what you need to do to progress to the next stage.
For instance, our greens are phase 2. We have built the base of our management pyramid, done the hard aeration work to improve water migration, root depth and removed organic matter (see table). We have topdressed to establish a good, firm relatively free draining base to our sward. This was managed without affecting, too much, the overall playing characteristics. It was just a case of highlighting the need and planning appropriately, and doing so with sensitivity to both golfer and timing each process to maximise the results. Our strategy is now firmly on overseeding and keeping damaging treatments to a minimum.
The problem is…
We mentioned earlier that we know when our greens have to be good and so does the golfer. How many of us have had that conversation with the Chairman of Green about improving green speed. We have, on many occasions too. Back in the early part of June 2007 my new Chairman had the familiar chat, "Important week for the club coming up, would be good if the greens were just a little faster". Been here before?
The problem that we faced was that we had set the management programme for the year, aeration, fertility level, height of cut and verti-cutting, all with the view of the long-term improvement of the greens, but had we lost sight of the most important thing? Playing quality. The DT way of thinking doesn't compromise on playing quality.
Solving the problem
Here's what we did. We took it upon ourselves to intensify our actions. We didn't want to throw away the management programme, but we did want to focus upon increasing the speed of the greens and satisfying the golfer. We had very specific targets to aim for with a speed of 8.5 - 9ft on the stimpmeter being ideal for our style of course.
We kept our height of cut the same, 5 mm, but we increased the frequency of cut from our typical four times a week to twelve. In conjunction, we increased our brushing frequency to daily, before cutting.
In order to quantify what we were doing, we recorded the daily speed of the greens with a stimpmeter to measure that improvement.
We employed such typical practices as double cutting at 90 degrees to remove more grass. We brushed, cut, brushed again and cut again. We even employed the American "freaky" style of cut to try to increase the speed of the greens throughout the week. The freaky cut did appear to increase the speed of the greens, more so than traditional double cutting.
The result was that we did increase the speed of the greens. After employing an additional twenty hours of work on the greens, (we are a 9 hole facility, so double it for 18) we managed to obtain an extra 1-foot of pace, that's all.
The members noticed the improvement of pace, they even appreciated it, but was it worth it? My Chairman asked the question if we could keep the greens that way for the rest of the year. This is where that word sustainability comes in. The answer was a disappointing "no". When we detailed the additional workload, time constraints, the fact that we left other areas of the course to focus on the greens, which now need our attention, it just didn't stack up. It was, ultimately, unsustainable.
The drawing board
Now, we know what some of you are thinking. Why not lower the height of cut? Fewer inputs for the greenkeeper and better speed for the golfer, we all win, right? Wrong.
We were at the final stages of phase 1, which had taken us four steady years. Our focus was on gradually improving what we had and we were bearing fruit from our efforts. The bent content of our greens was increasing, fungicide usage was down and, so too, was fertiliser inputs. In short, the greens were improving, surely it wasn't worth throwing in the towel now.
The result was that we would stick to our guns, for 2007 anyway, but review our agronomic practices for 2008 with Henry Bechelet at his next visit.
All of this got me thinking about rolling. We'd read about them, heard that Richard Windows was waxing lyrically about them at St Andrews, and Henry believed in them, but seeing is believing.
While all this was going on Dr Christian Spring, also of the STRI, contacted the club to see if we would help the STRI research bods to calibrate the smoothness meter. For this Christian wanted to take measurements of the smoothness of the greens before and after mowing, and before and after aeration, to determine the overall time taken to restore the greens smoothness to before aeration.
In conjunction we were able to borrow a set of the Select-A-Vibe vibratory rollers from GreenTek to assess alongside the trueness meter. Our thanks go to them for being so kind.
The effect of the rollers was quite amazing. By aerating the greens (9mm solid tines) we increased the uneveness by over 100% - so much for minimal disturbance!! But, double cutting after aeration reduced the disruption to 35%. By cutting once and rolling once we removed all unevenness back to the original levels.
These results really charged the imagination. Could we improve the speed and the smoothness of the greens by using these rollers?
During the autumn of that year a trial was agreed between Henry, Christian, ourselves and GreenTek, on the basis of obtaining the vibratory rollers to gain credible data to fully assess the impact that regular use of these rollers would have on the speed of our greens.
The proof of the pudding
To that end we were allowed to have a set of vibrating rollers and machine for the month of August 2008. Christian returned every week or so to record the impact upon smoothness, and carried out daily stimpmeter readings.
I'm sure I won't need to remind anyone that August's weather was appalling, not what we had hoped for at all. In fact we had twenty-five days of rainfall during August, giving a grand total of 142mm, when the average is 20-40mm.
The only difference in our management programme was that the greens were cut at 4.5mm, instead of the 5mm for 2007. Nevertheless, on 4th August the trial began. During the first week we aimed to see just how fast we could get them. The answer was too fast, for some. With the daily use of the vibrating rollers, plus the occasional double cut, the greens speed increased on average by 2ft, some greens by more. We had all of our greens at well over 9ft. This may not sound too fast, but the greens we have do possess very prominent cross slopes on them and we had to be careful not to over do it.
We then scaled back the intensity of the rolling and cutting in the following three weeks, partly due to the weather and the fact that the greens retained some of their pace even if we missed a day or two. For the rest of the month we managed to attain all of the greens to a near consistent 9.25ft.
As for the all-important smoothness, Christian recorded that the soil based greens had a 50% improvement in smoothness (twice as smooth than when we began), and the sand based green was 25% smoother than before the trial.
Golfers bottom line
Throughout the period of the trial we have never received so many compliments regarding the quality of the greens. All of the members were delighted with the speed, they were especially delighted with the increase in smoothness and ball roll, the pair of which seemed to feed off each other, the smoother the green, the faster.
The rollers certainly passed the test that we put to them. There is a growing movement within the club for us to buy a set to try to ensure we achieve these standards for 2009. As of now though, the rollers may be out of our financial means.
Greenkeepers bottom line
From a management point of view we were able to attain the 2ft increase in speed by increasing the input of man-hours to around the 7-9 hours per week. Half as much as previous but with double the result. All of this was achieved without having to sacrifice our long-term agronomic goals and to achieve higher standards.
All of these positive results have given a quite unexpected bonus. Despite the economic down turn and other clubs around us suffering the nomadic golfer problem, we have, touch wood, retained a full membership and, at present, are slightly over-subscribed. Sounds like a win win scenario.
So what does all of this mean to me as a greenkeeper? Firstly, that you can have your cake and eat it. It is possible to work with the DT theory and achieve agronomic results without sacrificing the playing qualities of the course. That the theory can work hand in glove with sound greenkeeping practices.
Secondly, that you need to have the right tools for the job, I'm not just talking about the machinery, which is crucial to any successful goal, but what I'm really on about is desire. You have to have that desire to want to change both yourself and your practices to achieve the results on the greens.
Thirdly, how important it is to remain open minded about greenkeeping - there's always another way, you just have to look for it. It may take more time, research and organisation but, if you have the desire, and are prepared to put in the effort, then you can marry the goals to the results to everyone's mutual benefit.
Lastly, it's worthwhile listening to those, crusty, old, dusty advocates of traditional golf, Mr Bechelet and Mr Windows, that they might just know a thing or two after all.
I am confident that I can create my ideal greens given the time and a little investment. "There is always more to learn" is a good lesson to learn. The student has graduated.