Turf & Rec

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Golfers must think like superintendents


February 19, 2016
By Mike Jiggens


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AS much as golf superintendents have endeavored to pay more heed to the environment the past couple of decades. golfers themselves have yet to catch on for the most part.

If it was entirely up to the superintendent, fewer pesticides would be used, greens would be cut higher, and water would be used more sparingly.

Many golfers, however, won’t settle for anything less than perfection, and, as long as club members continue to call the shots, superintendents must continue to bend to a certain degree to their demands.

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Golf course architect Ian Andrew spoke in November at a forum organized by turf management students from the University of Guelph about the need to “get back to natural,” stating he believes in lower inputs on a golf course. The way to get there, he said, will come from a push by the superintendent.

“I think we have a certain responsibility,” he said, acknowledging that superintendents are well aware that most golfers will never lower their expectations.

Andrew sits on the greens committee at the Brantford Golf & Country Club and said he is often shocked by some of the things superintendents must deal with on a regular basis.

“I’m surprised at how many of them (greens committee members) are ‘experts.’”

He said as an architect he must adapt his own ideas in order for superintendents to be successful. Reflecting back on his beginnings in the industry in 1989, he said it all seemed to be about bunkers and adding new bunkers.

“Now, it’s all about growing environments. It’s an evolution, but I think it’s going to be an effective evolution. We’re getting to a better place by taking on the things that actually matter most.”

What is needed is a philosophy, Andrew said. Getting through to a club means having to state a goal aimed at improving the environment which will also make it easier for superintendents to accomplish a lot of the things they need to do. It is also imperative for superintendents to state their costs up front.

“The long-term savings actually exceed the costs up front. Essentially, they need to spend now and save later.”

What it comes down to is reducing the amount of maintained areas on a golf course. Andrew said the new generation of golfers—those who are in their 40s or younger—are more apt to embrace this philosophy than the sixty-somethings who tend to be “fixated” on Augusta National. It is the latter group who demand firm and fast greens and who aren’t overly concerned about what is needed to accomplish that.

He said architects working with superintendents must avoid intruding on the more sensitive areas of a golf course. Architects are asked to lengthen holes and to look at other areas they shouldn’t be looking at, he added.

Andrew said there comes a point when the architect must be responsible enough to say there is no need to go in a certain direction or there is no need to lengthen a hole. Lengthening of golf courses is rare these days, he said.

Both architects and superintendents must be aware of a golf course’s drainage patterns and be willing to work with those natural patterns.

“You need to maintain your natural filters,” Andrew suggested, adding some of the driest swales should be long grasses to allow things to filter.

Planting native grasses to slow and filter storm water is an important consideration, he said, adding the management of storm water will have to change because superintendents must bear a certain responsibility for the damage that comes from moving water quickly through the drainage system and onto adjacent property.

The planting of native species is for the greater good of golf, he said. About half the ornamentals found on golf courses tend to be invasive.

Pocket wetlands are small areas that allow water to infiltrate and permit silt to settle out. They are ideal for the slow release of storm water and also allow golf courses to collect it for use.

“Where we’re going is reuse, and the question is how far are we going to have to go?”

The only way golf courses can make inroads or achieve success is by striving for positive growing environments. Citing the St. Thomas (Ont.) Golf & Country Club as an example, growing environments were significantly improved in recent years through a tree removal program which allowed better sunlight penetration and air movement. Healthier turfgrass was realized which resulted in fewer inputs required.

Andrew said that when it comes to trees and members, it’s often easier to explain matters by using numbers. Relating the number of hours of morning light and total hours of daily sun is one such example.

“If you can get the membership to gravitate to a number they’re supposed to achieve, having a number allows them to grab onto that.”

About half of the clubs Andrew works with have it stated in their bylaws that the members don’t make any decisions about trees that surround greens. This puts decisions about a tree’s fate in the hands of the superintendent if he feels trees are detrimental to the turf’s health because of excessive shade. He can then order their removal without the membership being a part of the decision-making process.

He said several British golf courses get away with limited inputs because they experience full sun, are wide open to the wind and have well-drained soils. Golfers in the United Kingdom don’t demand green and instead understand seasonality.

“We need to get to that place. We need to reintroduce seasonality.”

Drainage must continually be addressed, he said. Poor drainage is usually associated with compaction which leads to ample poa annua. If the superintendent wishes to change that, he must first alter the structure beneath the surface.
Air flow is often underestimated, Andrew said, adding there can be variations on the same golf course in which the temperature of the turf in one area can be five degrees different from another area. Disease is brought on by wetness, and good air flow and sunlight help to reduce the likelihood of disease.

Although environmentalists wish golf courses to reduce their inputs and to use less water and retain as many trees as possible, it can’t be had both ways, he said, adding it must be fought politically to exempt golf courses from tree bylaws. Current bylaws force golf courses to act like wood lots rather than as playing fields. Tree bylaws are a hindrance, he said.

It’s been said that water, or the lack of it, is the coming crisis in golf. Some places, such as Calgary, cannot establish new golf in certain regions because water rights cannot be obtained. Andrew said one of the problems with trying to work with fewer inputs is that time is needed to get things the right way.

Some sources of treated water are fine, and some grasses are comfortable with it, Andrew said. Golf courses have to be careful because much of the water is salt-laden which could ultimately starve the plant, stopping fertility applications from being as efficient.

Superintendents must step in and prevent an agenda being placed upon them with which they can’t work, he said, adding architects must also be wary of that.

“We as architects need to understand what we can ask you to do.”

Andrew spends a fair amount of time in the United Kingdom and Australia and said he appreciates their approach to turf maintenance which is more of a “Darwinian approach” with little or no inputs.

Posing the question to his greens committee in Brantford as to whether members would prefer lush and green or firm and fast, he was told they wanted firm and fast yet “pretty.”

One option was that a little death is acceptable for a greater outcome while the other option is that no death will be tolerated.

If firm and fast is the desired option among club members, Andrew said it is up to turf consultants and agronomists to step forward to convince golfers that a little death is acceptable to achieve their preference. He said it is the forty-something members, who have a firmer grasp on environmental realities, who can push the agenda past the old school sixty-somethings.

“Turf colour should be seasonal. I actually think that’s going to come back a little bit.”

It’s a matter of not fertilizing or irrigating in areas that are meant to be out of play. Playing conditions would become dry, firm and fast as a result.

Australia is “miles ahead of us” in this regard, Andrew said.

Tree removal should be considered before regrassing, he said, noting he has seen clubs regrass and still have to deal with excessive shade issues. Regrassing is only successful when there is full sun, he stressed.

Managing expectations is critical. He said the superintendent not only has to sell a project to his membership at the immediate time, but must also sell it for the next couple of years afterward.

The aeration schedule, for example, must be sold for the next five years so that members don’t expect perfection in the first year. Approaches to the green must also be opened up so that the running shot is part of the game.

He said Australians believe in maintaining only where the game is supposed to be played, adding they can’t fathom the number of resources North Americans use just to keep up their roughs.

“They think we’re wasting our time. What I’d like to see in Canada are a lot more long grasses and native ground covers be used.”

The more texture there is, the more browns and beiges there are, he said, adding one of the ironies is that they also make everything around it look more green.

Andrew said superintendents must illuminate members to the current level of expectations, suggesting that although things may not look perfect, they won’t play any lesser.

“Golf could be a lot better if there was a lot less bunkering. I believe they are way too well maintained to be strategic anymore.”

Andrew said the ball tends to sit up on the sand anymore or will roll down onto the flat of the sand, making the game much too easy for the skilled golfer.

Asked by officials from a U.S. golf course if he would still endorse a push for fewer inputs, even if water restrictions were no longer an issue, Andrew said he would still endorse the philosophy because less water leads to firmer and faster conditions, and golfers would have several more options, making the game more interesting. The golf course would also become more sustainable and would save money.

“Why not just do the right thing? The right thing is to make better environmental decisions. If we can do the right thing, why not do the right thing even if there is no actual measurable benefit?”