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It isn't easy being green
The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is also the season of frosty mornings and course closures. It is the season that brings out the best and worst in golf courses as well in people for it makes grumpy old men out of the hair thinning middle-aged and, worst of all, it makes greenkeeping experts out of lounge bar philosophers.

Every golf club membership should be representative of the whole spectrum of social misfits but, for some hitherto unexplained reason, experts would appear to be attracted to golf clubs. Golf has little to do with their attachment. It is the amicability of the bar and the tolerance of polite ears that attracts them. Golfers have a high threshold of pain, are long suffering and are lumbered with the responsibility of etiquette. Golf clubs provide experts with a safe haven; were they to expound anywhere else they would be charged with inflicting grievous mental harm.

Experts can do little harm when they confine their opinions to swing analysis, rules interpretation or the sexual predisposition of the captain and his committee. It is when they focus the glare of their intellect on the condition of the course that they become dangerous. Nothing gets the attention of the bar like the opening line: 'Do you know what's wrong with this course?'

Expert lay agronomists have proliferated since the advent of televised golf and the opening of garden centres. All golf courses, it would appear, should be as green and pristine as Augusta or the most labour intensive few square metres of suburban front lawn. Fertilisers, fungicides and irrigation systems have become expert-driven topics of the lounge bar and Greens Committees and course superintendents are overwhelmed with unsolicited advice from experts that hitherto confined their attentions to the inadequacy of the bar steward.

Some sage once said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A little knowledge of fertilisers, weed killers and fungicides is easily obtained from plastic bottles on Woolworth's shelves and is equally easily dispensed in the bar. Knowledge of botany and ecology is, however, less easily acquired for it not only needs study and application but also observation and consequential thought. These attributes are not commonplace and would appear to be outwith the reaches of lounge bar experts. Green keepers and well meaning Greens chairmen have withered under the onslaught of demand for more and yet more fertiliser and have long since crumpled under the costs and effects of fungicides.

All is changing and will change faster as European Community directives on the use of insecticides and fungicides start to kick in and they will become more restrictive in years to come. Options on the control of worms, both segmented and unsegmented, is now severely limited and if the empathy of public opinion is extended from foxes to others of our furry friends, committees will have to adopt green approaches to problems other than the colour of the grass.

The EC directives may be a blessing in disguise and many of the better informed and more ecologically minded green keepers will be hoping the commissioners issue directives to regulate the use of fertilisers and restrict irrigation as well. Certainly those green keepers who live under the tyranny of a chairman or director demanding year round lush fairways and very green greens may see EC directives as the source of salvation for their courses.

Golf evolved on links lands too poor in nutrients and organic matter to support anything other than the native fescue and bent grasses that are sufficiently deep rooted to survive the dearth of food and water. With the proliferation of courses onto better, richer soils able to support a lusher greener growth, an expectation grew for uniformity in colour and texture. This was easily achieved on even the poorer soils with the application of artificial fertilisers and water. But it was achieved at a cost in ecological as well as in monetary terms. Grass species, particularly Poa, which had to struggle to survive on the poor links and heath, found a new niche with the enrichment and soon predominated. Without feeding and irrigation these species would not survive but in order to maintain colour and texture an increasingly costly cycle of fertilising and irrigation was brought about. A new fauna of insects and fungi accompanied this cycle and more expenditure was required for the increasing demands of chemical control.

It is hardly surprising that golf courses got a bad name as the public at large became better informed about the widespread use of fungus and insecticides. What is surprising is that it took EC directives and economic pressures to make Greens Committee chairmen sit up, pay heed, and take the heat off green keepers who were on a hiding to nothing - locked into a cycle that was increasingly hard to sustain.

Links and heath lands are naturally of a blue grey shade of green and are naturally self- sustaining. The compaction of the soil from continuous hard play is obviously alleviated by coring and deep tining and its temporary effects are something that we simply have to live with if we are to enjoy the benefits of its long-term effects. Augusta, where the green of the grass is surpassed only by the green of the waste bins, has probably less than 10% of the play of most courses and the Augusta National Club may be able to afford to re-turf entire fairways annually but this is a luxury that few can afford.

If we are to enjoy good putting surfaces and uniform fairways without worm casts, we are going to have to return to the natural way of things. It will be painful on the course as a programme of starvation takes effect and it will be worse in the bar where the expert is expounding his complaints despite the fact that his Poa lawn dies in the autumn and the mosses and fungi proliferate every spring.

It isn't easy being green. We have seen that it is possible but ultimately costly and very foolish.

©    30 - NOVEMBER 2004

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