…for having the audacity to enjoy several weeks of continual sunshine earlier in the year! Scotland’s weather has an unwavering knack of evening itself out, so I suppose it should come as no surprise to us that ever since the rain finally did come, it has resolutely refused to stop again. While the damp and unusually warm spell of the last few weeks has been really helpful for germinating grass seed in places that had lost a bit of cover through the sunny period that preceded it, we have had to be constantly aware of the presence of turf disease and we have been keeping a careful eye on the health of our grass to ensure that we do not stress it to the point where these pathogens could get a hold and run riot in the humid conditions that have been ideally suited to their purpose. We humans are far more likely to catch the common cold if we are run down, stressed, or over-tired and it is no different for plants. Just as we need to look after ourselves, eat the right foods, drink plenty of water, and breathe plenty of fresh air in order to fight off the infections that constantly surround us, the plants that make up our playing surfaces need to be given the opportunity to do the same.
Why We Raise the Height of Cut in Winter
Somebody actually asked me about this the other day, as we quite obviously raised our greens height of cut last week. This issue follows on perfectly from the points I made about turf health in the paragraph above. In Scotland, we can regularly rely on 16 or more hours of daylight during the mid-summer months, which gives grass plants mown down to even the kind of heights that create optimum green speed plenty of opportunities to photosynthesise. Once the days get shorter, though, and the sun struggles to get high enough in the sky to shine at all on some of our sunken green sites, the same grass plants can struggle to produce enough energy to fuel their life-saving functions. As result, they become stressed, making them far more likely to succumb to the advances made by various disease pathogens that are always present in their living environment. The best way to ensure that the plant can receive enough sunlight to replicate its photosynthetic success of the summer months is simply not to cut it as short. This increases the number of light-attracting receptors (chloroplasts) on each leaf blade, which gives the plant more chance of capturing the amount of sunlight it needs to maintain perfect health.
This becomes more complicated still when we have a desire to increase the populations of finer-leaved grasses in our greens, because obviously a fine leaf blade will have less space for chloroplasts than a wide one does. It stands to reason then that
- fine fescues, bents, and some of the new varieties of dwarf ryegrasses would benefit from a further increase in the height of cut during periods of low light, and
- leaving the height of cut low in order to chase green speed at a time of year when the main golf competitions are over and there is very little left to play for is foolhardy and short-sighted and will only result in these finer-leaved plants going into unhealthy decline—while the more agricultural grass varieties with the wider leaves will survive much better.
Of course, if our greens contained only fine-leaved grasses, then they would putt at a decent speed regardless of the higher height of cut, and then we would be onto an absolute winner. This is the main reason why we spend so much of our time and effort overseeding our greens with fine-leaved grasses, because we are trying to win the battle that will see them become dominant. If we can manage that, we can leave the height of cut higher year-round, requiring less feed and irrigation, and will see our root systems increase in both length and mass and generally make our surfaces more self-sufficient and more consistent to play on throughout the 12 months of the year. Presently we are, like most links courses, stuck somewhere along this road, primarily because we constantly have to compromise plant health in order to produce satisfactory green speeds. That’s not a moan, it’s just a fact. As greenkeepers, we always have to balance the professional desire to improve the agronomic quality of our greens with the business desire to have the greens performing at an optimal playing level on any given day. In a nutshell, maintaining that balance is precisely what we get paid for and if we lose control of it either one way or the other, it is we who are not performing at an optimal level!
While this is all interesting stuff, I have side-tracked from answering the original question here. In summary, the reason why we raise the height of cut in winter is simply to allow the plant to still gather enough sunlight to allow it to produce the energy to drive its life-preserving functions despite the overall supply of sunlight being reduced by the shorter days and the lower sun.
A lot of players who re-visit Machrihanish Dunes having not been for a few years make comment about how playable the course is now. Initially, there was very little rough cut on the course, because the government-funded environmental body that regulates the maintenance of our site was wary that rare species might be negatively impacted were mechanical methods used to trim areas that had previously only seen grazing from cattle and sheep. With the animals gone and the balance that had favoured the growth of these plants upset, though, the rough quickly grew out of control and become thick and unruly, smothering the very plants that those environmental stewards were so keen to protect. The obvious thing seemed to be just to cut the grass, but unfortunately, when you cut rough grass and leave the clippings lying around, those clippings will be mulched down and will enrich the soil, which will, in turn, increase growth yields and favour agricultural grasses rather than the slow-growing species that were prevalent when the site was awarded its SSSI status.
How much long-term damage is done by this practice is hard to quantify, though, as anybody who played Machrihanish earlier this year will attest to. Areas that had for years been cut as semi-rough (with clippings left lying) for the benefit of golfers who wished to find their balls were grown in to make the course tighter at the request of the course’s agronomist, and the grass length quickly increased from a very playable 3 inches to, in some places, as high as 12 inches. It was very interesting to note, however, that these strips of rough were absolutely full of rare orchids during May last year—in fact, there were more early marsh orchids in those areas than I have ever seen in one place before and there were certainly more over there than there were anywhere on our site, regardless of the level of ground cover.
I am not here to argue with botanists over the potential long-term health of rare plants, however. These people are the experts and I am committed to helping them in any way that I can. While the early marsh orchids obviously thrived under Machrihanish’s accidentally effective program that resulted in their unexpectedly beautiful purple garden, it is entirely possible that other species were not faring so well, so if the man from SNH tells me that he wants the grass in certain areas of our site mown at certain times of the year and the clippings collected and it is logistically possible for me to do so, then that is precisely what he will get. We share his desire to promote the health of these rare plants, and one of the ways we plan to do this going forward is to use our new Weidemann Super 500 rough mower/collector throughout the winter to cut and remove excessive top growth from areas that we know have historically been populated with protected flora. In effect, what we will be doing by using this machine to manipulate the length of the grass in rough areas and to control the speed of its re-growth by removing the grass clippings is to replicate, as closely as possible, the conditions that were created by the constant grazing of sheep and the wintering of cattle. The machine is really versatile and can be set up to manipulate ground conditions in ways that were impossible for us to achieve before.
This rough management mission will have a positive impact on your enjoyment of the course, as well as on the condition of the site. Areas like the left side of the 11th, or the right side of 16, or anywhere we can safely go into with a tractor will be cut down on at least an annual basis with the clippings collected and this should make it considerably easier to find your ball and the rough cleaner and less full of the tall weeds that currently blight the appearance of some areas. Nobody wants to be hunting for ProV1’s in knee-deep marram and thistles!
Hole in One? Not in a Million Years!
It had been a year-long campaign to gather a baker’s dozen of worthy and enthusiastic souls to contest the final of the Mach Dunes Million, which was played out amid much drama on October 13th. Most of the contestants stayed with us at The Ugadale Hotel on the Friday night, from where they were bussed to the Golf House for coffee and a warm-up on the range. I say warm-up, but I think all anybody achieved was to get themselves even more cold and wet!
Once everybody had finally arrived at the 5th tee, the rules of the competition were explained. Each competitor was to receive one shot from a verified distance of 139 yards, and if that shot were to end up in the hole, that competitor would receive $1,000,000. No pressure then! Well in advance it had seemed so unlikely that anybody could actually have the fortune to ace the hole just when required, but with the 5th relinquishing a couple of high profile holes-in-one within the last few weeks (including one by Thomas Martin just the week before), expectations has suddenly been raised. One by one, the finalists took their place, announced onto the tee by General Manager Andy Hogan to receive some calming words of wisdom from PGA professional Ken Campbell. It was my job to lift the balls off the green and to mark the ball that finished nearest the pin.
Unfortunately, the closest that anybody came was about 8 feet, and even that shot from Bob Duncan never remotely endangered the hole. Luckily for the competitors, I was too far away in the murky weather to tell who was actually hitting, so the two people who topped it off the tee and the one person who actually knocked it so far left that it went out of bounds are safe from being mentioned by name in this report!
After the collective disappointment had passed, everybody was bussed back to the golf house to dry out and tell stories of how they should have hit one or two more clubs or allowed for just 15-20mph more wind.
Despite the grim conditions, a good day out was had by all. You can watch a recap video here.
Summer is Over…Winter League is Coming!
Our final major of the year, the Kintyre Autumn Pairs, was played on October 6th and was won by Michael Smith and Chris Jewell. Apparently, they had been runner-up in this event on at least a couple of occasions, so they were justifiably delighted with their narrow win over Jamie Robertson and Craig Ramsay. The Autumn Pairs was followed by our evening awards night and buffet, which was enjoyed unanimously. Men’s and ladies’ darts competitions (won by Gary Shepperd and Ann Bruce) and a quiz (won by the bar staff with the help of a very knowledgeable ringer!) were followed with music from the Wee Toon Tellers. This is definitely an event that we will persevere with in the years to come.
Our summer golf season at Machrihanish Dunes officially ends with the awards evening, but that does not mean that we have to put our clubs back under the stairs. There are monthly medals to play in off the yellow tees (with a CSS of 69), and there is a stableford winter league with a bigger, better, more inclusive format than ever before. Previously, winter league cards have only been accepted from play on a Sunday, but this year, we will allow play on any day of the week, with competitors having the chance to submit their best card from that 7-day period to add to their total. If you wish more information on any of these winter competitions, please just email me at email@example.com, or Jamie Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org.