Noel Mackenzie: The common problems and solutions with irrigation

Tania Longmire
By Tania Longmire October 20, 2011 13:35

Noel Mackenzie: The common problems and solutions with irrigation

Managing water is crucial to the successful management of a golf course. It seems we either have too much of it or not enough of it!

It would be a fool who didn’t react when something is wrong, especially at a golf course. When a manager hears members complaining about an area of the course being muddy, or out of play, it is important that action is taken. If action is not taken and the problem is sufficiently serious then a ground-swell of political problems may well develop. In this respect it wouldn’t matter if it was a drainage or an irrigation issue, or indeed any other issue that impacted on the game, at some level there will be a political activation of club members if the problem is not fixed. And proprietary-owned courses know that unhappy members may vote with their feet, so they are normally more receptive to finding a solution before the bank balance starts to hurt!

Club politics and cash are serious matters and explain the urgency of reaction to difficulties. However, within the reactive management there is a risk of the club always chasing its tail. Members are notorious in grumbling about issues, often minor ones, so it is important that the matters are prioritised and given the weighting they deserve. This is normally overseen by the course manager and a secretary and / or chair of greens, so small issues are controlled and the darn right daft ideas that bombard people in these positions are held in check the majority of the time.

The disadvantage of reactive management of problems is that it is impossible to plan for work which has important implications for cash flow and project management, if the solution to the problem is a substantial project. This may seem unlikely, after all most clubs and courses in this country have been down a fair while now; even those courses built in the late 1980s boom years have had time to settle in. However, there are issues that spring up and catch out clubs and put them into a spin both from a playing and business management perspective. The case study on this page highlights this. What can be learned from it?

Firstly, the problem may have been preventable in that the build up of thatch was enormous on the new surfaces constructed since the arrival of the new greenkeeper. This thatch build-up had occurred on the old greens too, making a less than ideal situation even more calamitous. Lesson one: good maintenance may have prevented the rapid decline in the greens’ ‘drainage’ problems.

Next, the decline in the course had been so rapid that within a three to four year period things had got badly out of hand. The club had been in receipt of an annual visit and report from a ‘consultant’, but these did not highlight the problem of increasing thatch depth on the greens. The head greenkeeper had not noticed that thatch levels were becoming dangerously high either, claiming that this hadn’t been picked up in the ‘consultant’s’ report. Lesson two: Greenkeepers should take responsibility for observing the course on themselves as well as looking to expert help. Consultants should only be used with a good applied and academic pedigree.

Thirdly, when problems arose the club took a long time to decide what to do next. In fairness, the situation was complex and rebuilding the remaining seven greens was going to cost around £170K so drainage was looked at. Drainage was too difficult to complete technically due to the constrained architecture to some holes which would have required a total spend of not much less than £100K.

However, the membership were left to fester after an initial presentation by the club committee for a further 12 months plus, leading to a further loss of members. Lesson three: Identify the options and costs and make as quick and sound a decision as possible for the benefit of the club. Keep the information path to members open to reassure them.

Finally, the club decided to plough its own furrow and go for rebuilding with USGA greens, but considered it would do it in-house. No real analysis of the costs, materials or any related issues, such as project management during the works was undertaken. Quite by chance it was pointed out to the chair of greens that the cost of in-house rebuilding exceeded that by one contractor by £50K. Lesson four: Just because you think you have a solution doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be checked and checked again. Engaging a good consultant to support the club and head greenkeeper can be invaluable. In this instance it saved the club £50K!

Most importantly the lesson overall is that the poor drainage of the original greens could have been identified previously and the club could have developed a strategic replacement plan with plenty of time to put financial and political planning to good effect. This proactive approach would have ensured loss of members would have been minimal and the whole scenario would have had a more ‘managed’ feel to it.

Similarly, and most importantly, the management of the greens, had it been on top of the thatch build up, might just have negated the whole problem that the club found itself in. The problem was that once that of 50 to 75mm has accumulated there really isn’t an easy solution to the problem from a maintenance perspective!

Returning to the general thrust of the article, there seems to be opportunities to be had with a measured and strategic approach to problems that may be predictable. If fairways tend to burn up, thought needs to be given to why this is so and what management measures are appropriate. Simply installing irrigation may not be the answer any more and certainly, even if it is, it should be considered alongside appropriate management techniques such as seeding, dressing and so on.

Similarly, if drainage is suddenly a problem the club should consider if it has always been a problem. Has the area in question always been a bit damp and because of this winter’s exceptional wetness become too bad? Does that justify the spending of thousands of pounds to resolve the problem? Would maintenance operations like mole-ploughing or compaction relief, offer opportunities to avoid spending this much? Is this just a one-off problem?

Whether irrigation or drainage, works on a large scale demand some perspective. Assessing the course on an on-going basis by the greenkeeper and perhaps an external and independent consultant may facilitate proactive rather than re-active planning.

Tania Longmire
By Tania Longmire October 20, 2011 13:35
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