Noel Mackenzie: Why club captains should not dictate changes to a golf course

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 14:07

Noel Mackenzie: Why club captains should not dictate changes to a  golf course

The landscape of a golf course should be unique; every course has its own character and charm. Many of our best courses simply rely on what, as the old golf course architects said, “God gave us in the land”. Of course, many of the classic designers worked with very little in the way of materials and man-power and much of the work could only be done with very rudimentary, early earthmoving equipment. Today it is possible to move millions of tonnes of material to create a golf course as there are such powerful excavators and earthmoving machines available. Whether we should use such large scale efforts to make a new landscape is another issue to discuss another time.

The issue of landscape quality is a difficult one. The landscape is what we see around us and it is normally affected in the UK by anthropogenic, or human, activities, for example farming, industry, or, in our sphere of interest, sports grounds and golf courses. What one element of the population accepts as a benefit of an activity and finds attractive, another may not. It is a fairly accepted view that agriculture produces pleasing landscapes … unless you are also an ecologist. However, it is usually considered that industry does not, in most instances, create such pleasing aesthetic views. Golf has attracted some criticism from those who like to express an opinion about visual impact on the landscape because a course might detract from what a person considers is their right for an unfettered and aesthetically pleasing view.

It might help us to think of the landscape impact of a golf course at different scales and perspectives. At the largest scale, which would certainly result in visual impact, would be whole new course developments. At this level local public opinions are usually strong, as can be the political activity should the development be unfavourably received. Naturally, planning consent is required for such developments that demand a significant change in land use. Large scale developments are normally covered by the professional support of land agents, planning officers, architects and so on, and the decisions that are made by these people have a direct and significant impact on the character and aesthetics of the course, as do the existing landscape and budgets.

On a medium-scale would fit issues such as the creation of a new ‘hole’ or some tree planting or felling work around a course. These might well have a visual impact on the landscape and draw comment from the wider public. Planning consent may well be required for such activities.

At the lowest level we have micro-features, small mounds, bunkers, tee extensions or re-builds, green constructions, all of which are minor and rarely have much in the way of visual impact. Their importance should not be overlooked however because single green and tee re-builds can be subject to planning consent! What are seldom considered are the smaller works that can equally have an impact on the course but, worryingly, often with a significantly reduced degree of control. These smaller works tend to arise out of well-meaning activity within a committee or by an individual within the club.

Probably the most common of these smaller works involve the departure of someone from a club. It is common for a departing captain, for example, to want to leave his / her mark in some way on the course, or for the friends and family of a deceased member or employee to wish to commemorate their loved one. These gestures, if not appropriately handled, can give rise to features that can be likened to the 18th / 19th century architectural ‘folly’, an eccentric, largely non-functional structure erected to enhance a landscape but generally considered to have shown folly in the builder. On a golf course ‘follies’ are usually of minor landscape impact but they can be a curse ever after.

Some ‘follies’ are almost permanent features. They may involve large scale excavations or importation of a good amount of rock, wood, or other materials. Even if they don’t and the ‘folly’ is just a minor piece of work that could easily be wiped off the face of the course they often stay. They stay because they represent something, a physical presence of someone who has gone and a reminder of something past. From fear of political reaction or not wanting to cause offence the feature stays! After all, would you be brave or brash enough to cut down the tree that was planted in memory of dear old Michael, member for 43 years, who loved the course? Even if it was an eye-sore, ecologically inappropriate and compromised the course? No, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to either!

There are several elements to the damage that ‘follies’ can cause. Firstly, they may simply physically detract from the course by reducing its visual merit, perhaps making the course look more like a garden than a golf course (for example flowering cherry trees, flower beds and so on). However, there is a secondary, often hidden, level of damage that they cause. This is subtle and easily overlooked because the average player and, dare I say it, new committee member, has very little understanding of how the course is maintained. The real damage arising from ‘follies’ affects the whole course! But how can the planting of a flower bed near a tee affect the whole course?

The greenkeeper’s job is to keep greens; this is his / her fundamental role and responsibility. It is a time consuming and expensive task and even the basics of this work consume a very large part of the club’s budget. Maintaining flower beds, edging around prominently located trees, and building ‘features’ that have no relation to how the course plays or performs, are also time consuming. The construction or installation of any feature other than that relating to the course and how it plays is therefore a distraction to the greenkeeping staff. If the greens’ staff spend time weeding a flower bed then they are not maintaining the course. The course then declines in quality for all players on all surfaces unless extra resources are created to allow course inputs to be maintained. Which ex-captain or dead member would really want that? I would wager none of them! Their gestures, their ‘follies’, are well meant but flawed by the fact that they actually detract from the course in virtually all instances.

So, bearing in mind the constant desire from the departed or the departing to leave their mark, how can a club manage the situation? This is where the course policy document comes into play, or can come into play if it is used as it should be. When someone wants to buy a tree or make a feature the club officials can refer to the policy document. How will this help? The policy document should identify that any additional course furniture or changes should be only undertaken if it will enhance the course. The policy may go further and identify that in the case of a memorial to past members a fund may be established to contribute to a certain aspect of the course management, for example the planting of a tree, in line with tree introduction policy, that is, native species only in approved locations. This would also alleviate the angst of greenkeepers being given inappropriate trees, usually of doubtful quality or ecological or landscape value, at the wrong time of year, to plant on the course in a way that can be seen but doesn’t interfere with play.

The policy document is also helpful as it defuses the emotion attached to situations where someone wants to do a very personal thing generated deep within themselves (often with enormous conviction and heartfelt necessity) which is inappropriate. This then avoids the problems of having to deal not only with a difficult problem for the course but also an affronted, though well meaning individual, who cannot drop the emotional baggage they carry at a given time. The policy document represents the views of all members, not just the official.

Landscaping issues are usually associated with new building projects but I hope I have highlighted the subtle ways that a golf course can be affected by minor landscape developments, and especially by well meant, but often, at best, purposeless, ‘follies’ that are so easily created yet so difficult to remove. To protect the maintenance practices of the greens’ staff on your course from the distractions of ‘follies’, the desire of people to ‘leave their mark on the course’ needs to be managed actively but also with some sensitivity. A policy document can be a useful vehicle by which to achieve this control and avoid a course full of ‘marks’ that leave it looking less like a golf course and more like a cross between a cemetery, garden and arboretum.

The essence is to manage the difficulty involved in marking departures, not roll over in the face of emotional pressure and leave the course subject to detractions.

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 14:07
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