Factual data is the key to improving a golf course

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 21, 2012 12:58 Updated

Factual data is the key to improving a golf course

For golf clubs to survive and thrive in this tough economic climate, it is a basic requirement for the course to be able to perform well throughout the year. Golf clubs need to deliver good value for money to the modern golfer and the provision of a tidy, playable course with good greens throughout the year is necessary to attract and retain players.

If good standards of performance and playability are not produced, then there is a danger that the golfers will ‘up sticks’ and go somewhere else. This article is about how we set about delivering good year-round performance for golf greens and how a new kind of agronomy visit can help spark improvements. An out-of-season ‘winter’ visit might be a really positive and important step in the development of your course.

Good year-round performance

Good year-round performance and playability is a tough call, especially for poorly-drained sites. Greens with poor drainage or high organic matter accumulations really struggle in wet conditions and produce soft, uneven surfaces that invariably suffer in an unhealthy growing environment. It is common for courses to struggle in this way and they often need a significant amount of effort in order to attain better and more acceptable standards of performance in difficult conditions. The problem is that year-round playability takes hard work and can cost a significant amount of money to achieve. If the club is to invest significant resources to improve the year-round performance of the greens, then it is crucially important to develop a good plan of action. You don’t want to waste good money on patching together a partial or ineffective solution.

The STRI Agronomy service aims to provide our clients with a plan of action that is designed to create playing surfaces that are able to achieve the desired level performance. We aim to conduct a thorough and accurate appraisal of the greens with measured assessments designed to confront the situation head-on. Our assessments accurately define the situation and allow us to compare the actual performance of the greens against our target levels, thus highlighting the areas where improvements are needed. We then communicate the situation to the club (through discussions, reporting, meetings and / or evening presentations) to help promote the best course of action. Our aim is to help the club to make good decisions about the development of the course and then make sure that the work is completed correctly.

Winter assessment

Our new out-of-season ‘Winter STRI Programme assessment’ of the greens may well be ‘challenging’ for the club. It involves a number of tests that are carried out to identify the weaknesses of the greens. Our aim is to build a critical understanding of their performance when conditions aren’t ideal and to highlight where they are potentially failing. To appraise the year-round playability properly, we need to conduct an assessment when the greens are being affected by adverse conditions (wet and cold) and are at their very worst. We need to know what standards are being set in such conditions to clearly identify where and why the performance of the greens is failing. A summer assessment is of little help if poor winter performance is the key complaint and in such circumstances it may be worthwhile for a club to change their schedule for agronomy visits. A summer visit is generally concerned with trying to achieve perfection, whereas a winter visit is more about maintaining playability and ultimately creating good quality surfaces out of the growing season.

The winter visit selects and tests three or four greens to provide a good crosssection of the situation. The appraisal involves the measurement of the playing qualities (speed, smoothness, trueness and firmness) using scientific equipment to accurately describe the standards being achieved. Essentially, our aim is to produce a set of greens that stay firm and provide smooth, true, consistent and well-paced surfaces for putting. If the performance of the greens is falling short of our target levels (too soft, slow or uneven) then we look to pinpoint the agronomic reasons that are causing the problems. We also measure other key agronomic factors (infiltration rates, soil moisture content and organic matter content) to relate the performance results to the underlying condition of the greens. We need to understand all elements that need adjustment before we can put our plan together. So, with our new winter assessment, we aim to improve the year-round performance of the greens. Just as importantly, we aim to communicate the results of the assessment to the club in a compelling way that drives positive action. The aim is to bring about continuous improvement.

Case study

The following set of results were obtained from a course that had been slowly deteriorating over a number of years. It is a parkland setting, the greens are soil-based and historically they have been considered to be quite acceptable in their year-round performance. In recent years, however, the greens have been slowly failing to provide good levels of playability. The putting surfaces become really soft and uneven during periods of wet weather and also remain too soft throughout the whole of the playing season. The greens have been deteriorating over the last ten years and the members have become extremely unhappy about it.

The reason for the decline is a common one. The club had spent a number of years thinking that surface disruption wasn’t necessary to maintain good playing qualities and hadn’t been managing the soil profile or keeping organic matter accumulation under control. The situation wasn’t helped with the provision of subjective, sometimes conflicting, advice over the years from a number of different agronomists. The problem with subjective opinion is that it is open to argument and it is easy for committees to find reasons for not following advice, especially when the members rear up in anger when any disruptive work is carried out. Without clear and incontrovertible advice there simply wasn’t the desire to carry out sufficient soil management work and enter into conflict with the members, who often believe that good golf greens don’t require any work. This is generally why deterioration in golf greens occurs.

It is a form of denial brought about by a lack of understanding about the work required to achieve high levels of performance, or a lack of desire to make seemingly unpopular decisions.

So, without sufficient maintenance, the soil profile became thatchy and the performance of the greens deteriorated. STRI was eventually contacted to provide an independent (and now objective and measured) assessment to try to shed light on the situation and make recommendations to bring about improvement.

A couple of assessments were carried out during early 2011 to review the condition of the greens when they were at their very worst (see tables).

Remember, our aim was to form a complete understanding of the situation and develop a good plan of action and then convince everyone to make it happen.

There’s no point otherwise.

The results of the assessment may be summarised as being…

• The greens were very slow.

• They were extremely uneven (caused by fusarium patch disease scarring and excessive footprinting).

• The putting surfaces were terribly soft and became uneven under play (as a result of footprinting, pitchmarking and maintenance traffic).

• All the greens were retaining too much moisture due to high levels of organic matter at the turf base and also the poor underlying soil drainage (this being the reason for the excessive softness and the cause of widespread ‘black layer’ soil stagnancy that was causing weakness in the sward).

• Organic matter accumulations were very high throughout the profile. This is the reason for excessive moisture retention, soft surfaces, high levels of disease activity and also contributed to the poor drainage.

It was also clear from the assessment that the disease control strategy needed to be revised and that sward composition could be improved from the current annual meadow-grass dominance to a better blend that contained a greater proportion of browntop bent.

The assessment revealed that the greens were failing in every aspect.

The greens spoke for themselves, the measurements were clear and there was no room for any argument at all.

We discussed the results on the day of inspection with further discussions ensuing in the following weeks. This allowed the club to form an agreed plan of action and calculate the resources necessary to make the improvements.

We also arranged to present the results and our recommendations to a (fully attended) members’ evening, thus allowing communication of the severity of the situation and achieve widespread acceptance of the work required (type and timing) for improvements. We formed our plan and set about making it happen.

The plan was simple, initially we needed to focus our efforts on reducing the level of organic matter in the top 80mm and try to maintain a healthier soil profile, whilst trying not to be too disruptive.

It was important to try to maintain reasonable playing qualities during the main playing season (pace, smoothness and trueness especially) to prevent an exodus of members during this initial restorative phase.

Resources were made available for the provision of a Graden deep scarifier with sand injection.

When initial progress had been made with the reduction of organic matter, we would then finalise the need for pipe drainage installation. We also needed to reduce the level of disease activity to maintain good levels of smoothness and trueness through the autumn and into winter.

This is what happened:

• Graden deep scarification with sand injection to a depth of 20-30 mm was carried out on four occasions during spring and summer to focus on reducing the level of organic matter in the very upper soil profile.

• Hollow tining (using 15mm and 12mm tines to a depth of 80mm) and top-dressing was undertaken on three occasions before the deep scarification, to reduce the level of organic matter lower down in the soil profile.

• Micro solid tining and sarel rolling was used to aerate the soil profile on a regular basis.

• Turf health was maintained with NK micro-granular and liquid feeds, applied as required to sustain healthy rather than lush growth.

• Regular verti-cutting in combination with top-dressing, mowing at 4mm (using sharp blades) and routine turf ironing provided excellent ball roll qualities.

• In August the disease pressure was high and the preventative use of fungicides in combination with appropriate nutrient inputs and cultural control measures (for example dew removal and iron sulphate applications) formed the basis of the disease management strategy (the need for fungicide applications will reduce as improvements are made but probably not completely disappear).

We scheduled a visit for late August 2011 to review progress. The assessment at that time revealed that the pace, smoothness and trueness levels were all within (or approaching) our target levels for summer play. The feedback from the players at that time was extremely positive. We had made real progress with the reduction of organic matter but further work was still required below 20mm, highlighting the need for continued hollow tining and general aeration. The deep scarification will be deployed less frequently in the future to maintain target levels in the top 20mm and will also become our chosen method for overseeding to improve the sward composition.

Nevertheless, it was becoming increasingly clear that the installation of pipe drainage would be required if we were to maintain good levels of year-round performance and create a drier growing environment that was less prone to constantly building thatch.

The surfaces were firmer but still too soft when wet. Our plan continued to develop based on the results of our monitoring assessments to ensure that the improvements continued. I will report further progress but it is clear that we are now on a good road, making progress and the members are happy.

Conclusion

The point of this article is that we need to schedule agronomy visits for when the greens are at their very worst, as well as when they are at their best. A critical appraisal carried out in the depths of winter can clearly highlight the need for improvement.

Year-round performance is extremely important to the modern golfer and the greens at their worst still need to be acceptable, if not good.

By taking a measured approach we can understand the situation and focus our efforts properly.

Most importantly, a measured assessment allows us to communicate our findings extremely effectively to achieve commitment and consent from the club to carry out the necessary improvement work.

We can move away from arguments and the fear of antagonising members into a situation where everyone understands what needs to be done and can all pull together.

Henry Bechelet is an agronomist at the STRI 

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 21, 2012 12:58 Updated
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