Do greenkeepers just simply ‘cut grass’?

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir July 6, 2018 12:40

As most people are experienced in mowing a lawn, there’s an assumption from many that all greenkeepers do is ‘cut grass’. This attitude is not just offensive – it displays deep ignorance of the training, education and scientific know-how of the average greenkeeper, writes John Dempsey PhD

There was a recent hashtag on Twitter – #anyonecancutgrass – and it caused quite a stir among some greenkeepers. Typical responses to this were: ‘The classic phrase, all you do is cut grass. Just enjoy the surface you play upon’ and ‘I had a mortgage consultant telling me how to run my course this week’ and ‘if anyone’s doing the job for respect, acceptance or recognition then they’re in for a bad time’. There was also, however, ‘slowly we are getting the message through that we do more than just ‘cut grass’!’

The comment that ‘anyone can cut grass’ stirred me to put this piece together, so why should it cause me a second thought? Well, I’m a turfgrass professional, I have been maintaining amenity turfgrass and managing golf course surfaces for 35 years now and, like most professions, there’s more to it than meets the untrained eye. We’ve just had Wimbledon, the World Cup and the Ryder Cup is to come later this year. Obviously these all need quality turfgrass surfaces to allow the participants to perform to their peak ability and turf surfaces like these don’t grow on trees (oops).

Most people can cut grass OK, a lot of us will be spending some part of our weekends mowing our lawns, but getting the correct grasses to grow in the required manner 365 days of the year takes a blend of experience, craftsmanship and a good base of scientific research and knowledge. Experiences and craftsmanship can come with time, scientific knowledge can be obtained easily enough through many courses and colleges.

Most turfgrass career paths begin with learning the basic techniques and methods from other greenkeepers or groundsman and participating in a number of certification and / or diploma courses. This allows them to carry out the job of maintaining turfgrass surfaces adequately. However, with the added pressures to produce and maintain increasing higher quality sports surfaces, both for professional and amateur use, further understanding of the science needed to do this is becoming more relevant. Many greenkeepers are following a higher education path and pursuing and obtaining university degrees in relevant areas. The BSc honours degree in turfgrass science a typical example of the qualifications currently setting the bar for education here in the UK. And, yes, there are degrees in that!

So we cut grass; you might ask ‘is all this science necessary?’ It is; bear in mind the turfgrass manager is wholly responsibly for the maintenance and presentation of a multimillion pound asset, be it a golf course in Ireland, soccer stadium in Spain, cricket grounds in England or the Olympic venues in Brazil! The BSc honours degree requires passes in 20 modules, covering subjects such as plant biology and physiology, soil science, turfgrass species, cultivation and construction practices in sportsturf, drainage, irrigation, machinery management, research methodology and identification and control of pests and diseases. Upon completion of your degree, you have an understanding of the science required to produce quality sports surfaces used by many millions of people, either as participants or spectators. You can recognise the numerous genera and species of turf grasses, both cool- and warm-season, and understand their requirements in terms of growth media, nutrients, drought tolerance and resistance or susceptibility to pests and diseases. You will have covered recent research into biochemistry and intracellular functioning of plants, advances in plant breeding, including plant tissue culture, molecular techniques and genetic modifications … relevant to all plants of course. You’ll recognise the numerous soil chemical and physical properties and their influence on plant growth and development, understand the dynamic process of plant growth, metabolism and reproduction and be able to specify the development and use of artificially constructed rootzones for the production of quality surfaces for a variety of sports.

Upon completion of your degree you will have acquired a wide range of knowledge allowing to you understand the science underpinning the wide range of processes and tasks utilised to achieve quality playing surfaces. So, do you know all about turfgrass science when you finish your degree? Sadly, no! If you’re smart you will probably understand how little you do know about plant science and how much more there is to be learnt.

That was partly my experience: while I learnt a lot about the science behind the job I have been doing for the past 30 years, I realised there was a lot more I could do. In the final year, I undertook a research project on the suppression of fungal disease in turfgrass and it was an extremely interesting and successful project (I even got an invite to present it in France, which was nice!) This helped me decide to go the whole hog and start a PhD at the University of the West of England in Bristol, at the Centre for Research in Biosciences. The PhD in turfgrass pathology is research based and involves alternative methods to suppress fungal infection in amenity turfgrasses. The research has produced interesting and novel data, which has significance to turfgrass disease control, but is also relevant to other grass species such as cereals, like wheat, barley and oats. Resulting from this I have been able to present the findings not only to turfgrass professionals in Florida and Canada (very nice!) but also to cereal scientists in Scotland and plant pathologists in England.

How does all this academic study complement a position as a turfgrass manager? Well firstly and obviously, it will give you a thorough understanding of the science involved in turfgrass, and plant science in general. You will develop transferable and personal skills in areas of communication, time management, work prioritisation, critical analysis and report writing. The progress through academia will give you the ability and confidence to interact with other scientists, agronomists, employers and your turfgrass peers. Your research experience can allow you to develop methods and practices which could possibly help or influence how others manage or maintain their sportsturf swards, possibly throughout the turfgrass industry worldwide.

Would I recommend this pathway of academic progress to others? Sure! Apart from all the positives mentioned above, it is a great personal challenge, is very stimulating and can provide you with extreme satisfaction (eventually).

Can anyone cut grass? Sure, provided they can get it to grow in the first place!

Dr John Dempsey, PhD BSc (Hons), has been the course manager at Royal Curragh Golf Club, Ireland’s oldest golf club, since 1993. He has a first class honours degree in turfgrass science and a PhD in turfgrass pathology


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir July 6, 2018 12:40
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  1. john July 16, 12:09

    There’s far more to it than just cutting grass.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Nicholas July 13, 11:36

    And drink coffee

    Reply to this comment
  3. toby July 13, 11:30

    Fantastic read about the modern day “ Turf Manager” It is more than just cutting grass.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Pattu July 12, 18:16

    Brilliant articulation

    Reply to this comment
  5. AK July 11, 22:30

    Fabulous article Dr John.
    Having had 29+ years in the trade, I’m still amazed by the multi skilled Turfgrass professionals that I deal with.

    Not quite so impressed by a minority’ of members of the guys clubs who put undue pressure on the Head guys through expectations usually way beyond the clubs budget. I.e. Augusta syndrome.
    To all turf professionals, keep doing a great job, it’s really appreciated by the vast majority of sportsmen

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