Well, This is What We Get, Isn’t It…

A rare morning in September when it wasn’t actually raining. This isn’t a bad panorama, it’s a shame I couldn’t keep the horizon as straight with the camera as I kept my lines with greens mower though!!
A rare morning in September when it wasn’t actually raining. This isn’t a bad panorama, it’s a shame I couldn’t keep the horizon as straight with the camera as I kept my lines with greens mower though!

…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.

Rough Management

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!

Gus drives the new Weidemann super 500 into its first attempt at controlling unwanted growth in the dune slack to the left of the 4th fairway.
Gus drives the new Weidemann super 500 into its first attempt at controlling unwanted growth in the dune slack to the left of the 4th fairway.

 

And this was the end result. Superbly tidy without us having to reach for the hand rakes...SNH is going to be just as delighted with that as we are!
And this was the end result. Superbly tidy without us having to reach for the hand rakes…SNH is going to be just as delighted with that as we are!

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 simon@machdunes.com, or Jamie Robertson at handicaps@machdunes.com.

The sun sets on another summer of competition at Machrihanish Dunes!
The sun sets on another summer of competition at Machrihanish Dunes!

 

A Summer of Two Halves!

It was all blue and brown last month...now it’s back to grey and green!
It was all blue and brown last month…now it’s back to grey and green!

The last time I penned one of these updates was just after the weather had broken at the end of the longest dry spell I have seen during my tenure at Machrihanish Dunes. I think it has rained pretty much every day since! Although the changeable conditions we have seen over the last few weeks have obviously eased the pressure on us and our irrigation equipment, a lengthy spell of overcast weather with high levels of humidity bring with it its own set of problems. Greens surfaces that were already stressed from drought and compaction and were, in some places, suffering from a lack of nutrition (granular fertiliser can be difficult to apply if there is insufficient moisture available to wash it in) were suddenly placed into an environment where they faced pressure from disease pathogens, and we suffered some scarring around the edges of the greens from an outbreak of anthracnose. The progress of this disease can usually be slowed with a judicial application of nitrogen-based fertiliser, but if nitrogen levels are low and it remains unchecked, it can cause a lot of damage in a very short space of time. Of course, it is important not to throw too much nitrogen around during spells of muggy weather as this can invite similar attacks from fusarium patch. At times like this, it is very easy to get stuck right between a rock and a hard place!

Our old adversary, annual meadow grass, is particularly susceptible to attacks from both of these diseases, and as a result, it is very possible to use these outbreaks as a maintenance tool to put this least favoured grass on the back foot and to make room in the sward for us to plant new fescue or bentgrass seeds. That is all very good in theory, but of course, it is only really an acceptable practice if you have a large enough percentage of those preferential species in your sward in the first place. It is all too easy to underestimate the percentage of annual meadow grass that actually populates your greens, but a big disease attack will soon show you what you would be missing if you allowed these pathogens to run riot. In our case, and despite our best efforts over the last few years, we have far too much annual meadow grass to ignore and so we must–for the meantime anyway–be vigilant to ensure that these diseases do not get a good foothold. Unfortunately, spraying fungicides is the last thing we want to do. These chemical remedies are extremely good at halting the progress of diseases by killing the fungal pathogen, but in doing so, they kill everything else in the soil as well, immediately undoing all the good work that we have undertaken with our compost tea and biologically enhanced fertiliser programs. In this regard, we even have to be careful with what fertilisers we use, as those with a high salt index will also have a detrimental effect on the health of (both good and bad) soil bacteria. We were always taught, for instance, that iron products could be used as a mild fungicide, and I’m sure most of us once believed that the benefits we gained from using this element to our advantage in the war against disease were due to its acidifying properties. I now wonder whether its anti-fungal properties actually stem from its high salt content which would have had a toxic effect on not only the pathogen causing the disease outbreak but also on the health of many beneficial species in our soil. I used to use a lot of iron sulphate to control moss and disease when I worked at Machrie, and looking back, I can’t help but theorise about whether that had a contributory effect to the greens there suffering from outbreaks of red thread disease during periods of muggy weather. Did I help to cause that by accidentally killing off the bacteria that would have naturally fought for supremacy against the pathogen that caused that particular disease? Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself–maybe the outbreaks of red thread were more noticeable there because those greens had such a high percentage of fescue in them, and that is the grass species that suffers the most damage from red thread. Maybe one day I will manage to grow so much fescue in the greens at Machrihanish Dunes that I will have to start looking out for red thread here, too. That would be nice!

It is easy to punish yourself when disease pathogens, or indeed any number of outside influences, threaten the health of your greens. We greenkeepers try so hard to create ultimate golfing conditions while simultaneously attempting to maintain perfect plant health. But in order to present putting surfaces that are as good as we can muster on any given day, we inevitably have to run our greens on a nutritional knife-edge that does make them susceptible to attacks from all sorts of adversaries. When we do occasionally get caught out like I was recently by the bouts of anthracnose and fusarium, it weighs heavily on our minds, as we mull over how we could have been so stupid and then spend far too much time looking at small patches of affected turf that look enormous and career-threatening to us, but are, in reality, so minimal and unimportant that hardly anybody else even notices. We have had many compliments during the last two months for the condition of our putting surfaces, so we can’t be doing that much wrong!

Full recovery will happen- as long as we roll up our sleeves and put in the work!

A regular visitor complimented me just the other day, noting how well the tees had recovered from the recent dry spell in comparison to some areas of fairway which have taken a little longer to revert to full green cover. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be a compliment, but I took it as one because it is purely due to hard work on our part that these tees have recovered so well and will continue to improve still further over the course of the next few weeks. You will remember that we took the decision during May, June, and July to concentrate our watering efforts on greens and the tees that got the most play, therefore ensuring that we retained enough water at our groundwater source to avoid running the well points dry. I still maintain that we judged this very well, but this policy did mean that some of the back tees did not receive a drop of irrigation water throughout the whole summer and as a result, went completely brown.

Once the rain came and normality was resumed, we immediately sprayed our tees with a combination of penetrant and matrix wetting agents and took our Toro Procore aerator over them to relieve any compaction and to open up a grid pattern of inch-deep, 19mm-wide holes. We then spread the best quality grass seed into these holes and top-dressed the tees heavily with an 80/20 sand/soil mix, before leveling them with the back of a rake. As you will know if you have played at Machrihanish Dunes, a lot of our tees are very small, and it is therefore impossible to top-dress them with a machine. The only option available to us is to use shovels and spread by hand, which is time-consuming and labour-intensive, but in circumstances like this, you just to have to roll up your sleeves and get on with it (in fairness, it was mostly Craig and Sebastian’s sleeves rather than mine!).

All this effort that everybody gladly put in was rewarded with a spell of weather which has been extremely conducive to germinating grass seed and therefore, the results we achieved were as good as we could have ever hoped for. Never ones to rest on our laurels though, we waited until two weeks after the first seedlings had popped through, applied some fertiliser to help bring them on to maturity, and repeated the whole process over again. This second batch of seedlings has yet to germinate (they were only seeded out a week ago), but the perfect growing weather has continued and looks set to last for long enough to ensure that we are just as successful this time as we were a few weeks ago.

That tee is dead, isn’t it Simon?
That tee is dead, isn’t it Simon?
No...apparently it’s not!
No…apparently, it’s not!

Sometimes you can undertake a mission like this only to be thwarted by weather that makes success impossible, but on this occasion, it looks like we were justified in spending so much of our resources in an attempt to improve tees that were looking a bit sorry for themselves. We are very hopeful that we can retain a large percentage of the new grass that we have planted, which will, of course, be of superior quality to that which died out during the weeks of dry weather. The end result will be tees that are better than they ever have been, but that is just what we deserve really considering how hard we worked to achieve this.

Competition season…it is nearly over already!

Two majors have come and gone since I last wrote one of these reports. Gary Shepperd retained our Cub Championship in the rain and in some style, producing 36 holes of strokeplay golf that the rest of the field could not handle. If he shot 70,72 for a 142 total on two good days he would rightly expect to win, so he was never going to be caught after scoring that well in persistent rain. Steven Gilmour won the handicap championship on the same day.

The Black Sheep Cup was played in even more inclement weather, but Jonathan Bruce still managed to amass 36 points, which was enough to emerge victoriously. Congratulations to all of you if you’re reading this!

Gary Shepperd and Steven Gilmour with the club championship trophies, and Jonathan Bruce with the Black Sheep Cup.
Gary Shepperd and Steven Gilmour with the Club Championship trophies, and Jonathan Bruce with the Black Sheep Cup.

Next up is our Autumn Pairs competition on October 6th, which is always well attended. Please contact Lorna or Peter at the Golf House at your earliest opportunity if you wish to compete! This year, we are combining the Autumn Pairs with our annual member’s evening, which will see us host a buffet at The Ugadale Hotel with entertainment to follow. I am not sure yet exactly what that entertainment will involve, but it’ll probably include some darts and a quiz because that always seems to go down well and we are always keen not to mess with a winning formula. If anybody has any suggestions, though, for something that might be light-hearted fun, please do bring them to me. If you wish to attend the members evening and you would like to book a table or receive more information, just give Lorna a call at the Golf House on 01586810058.

Restoring Factory Settings

I hope you all had the opportunity during our fine extended spell of stunning weather to experience just how much fun it is to play golf at Machrihanish Dunes when the fairways are burnt out and golf balls run forever on the rock-hard surfaces.

Just in case you didn`t get the chance to see how burnt out our fairways actually did get during early July, here is a picture of our brand newbrand-new John Deere Gator parked on the 3rd. Usually John Deere machines are pretty well camouflaged on a golf course, but this one has been standing out like a sore thumb ever since its arrival!
Just in case you didn’t get the chance to see how burnt out our fairways actually did get during early July, here is a picture of our brand-new John Deere Gator parked on the 3rd. Usually, John Deere machines are pretty well camouflaged on a golf course, but this one has been standing out like a sore thumb ever since its arrival!

Although these conditions create a few headaches and a bit of extra work for us greenkeepers, we would never wish it any other way. We remain upbeat about the weather even when our free evenings are taken away from us because we have to come down and water greens in order to keep them in good condition, for in truth there are few more glorious places to be on a sunny evening than out on the Kintyre coastline.

Managing our resources in the most efficient way possible can be both stressful and rewarding. For me, the stress comes from having to rely on things that are outwith my control to keep the course in the best condition possible. Our water is pumped from 16 well points situated near the golf house into two large holding tanks at our maintenance facility. From there another pump feeds a closed underground circuit of pipes that spur off at every green to provide a water feed for several automatic sprinklers and a coupling point where we can attach a hose. Programs can be set up on a computer in our office to provide solenoids at each sprinkler with a defined signal that supplies each green in turn with an exact, pre-determined amount of water.

2.5mm of water (or indeed any amount between 0.1 and 6.0mm), applied evenly to the greens while I`m fast asleep? Available whenever I need it, at the click of that OK button. What a great irrigation system we have here at Machrihanish Dunes!
2.5mm of water (or indeed any amount between 0.1 and 6.0mm), applied evenly to the greens while I’m fast asleep? Available whenever I need it, at the click of that OK button. What a great irrigation system we have here at Machrihanish Dunes!

This system is absolutely brilliant and saves countless hours of manpower while providing the greens with water at the very time they need it (the middle of the night when it has the best chance of penetrating into the soil without losing too much via evaporation). To be this good though, the system has to be quite complicated, and if any spoke in this elaborate wheel were to let us down at any time the results could easily be measured in terms of the drought damage caused to turf.

My biggest worry always comes from the potential for us to run out of water altogether. Any mechanical part of the system can be replaced in a relatively short period of time, but if that natural supply of water dries up on us then our mechanical resources are rendered completely useless. Luckily, we are in Scotland, so this has not happened to us yet, as dry spells of weather in even unusual years like this never tend to last for long and winters are usually wet enough to completely restock supplies. Relying on that knowledge doesn’t help me sleep any better at night during sunny periods, though, so I am always looking for ways to reduce the amount of water that I put on the golf course.

What we did during the recent dry spell in May and June was to concentrate our watering efforts on the greens and to water tees only when they were starting to suffer from wear. Dormant perennial grass wears out very quickly when subjected to wear from foot and machine traffic, but this eventuality can be avoided if you know from experience where the point of no return is. If you were to look at the course today you would see that the greens look entirely healthy, the white and yellow tees (the ones that suffer the most play) look pretty healthy, the red tees look a bit more burnt than that and the blue and black tees look like Ryvita biscuits. I know that those blue and black tees have a good percentage of perennial fescue and bentgrass plants growing in them—it is easy to keep them in good condition because they hardly get any play—so I know that I can afford to not water them at all because those plants have a mechanism whereby they can go into drought dormancy and then return to full green health when conditions allow. Likewise I know that the white and yellow tees contain more poa annua (due to the aforementioned wear issues and because these tees are covered in irregularities (i.e.divot marks) that provide ideal seedbeds for poa seeds to steel and establish) so I know that I cannot afford to take as many liberties with them without impacting negatively on their long-term health. The red ladies tees lie somewhere in between these two parameters.

Despite having one of the best automatic irrigation systems in the country at my disposal, I am a big fan of hand-watering. Looking back through the irrigation reports on my computer, it appears that we will use somewhere in the region of 45,000 litres of water to execute a 2.5mm automatic watering program. When 3 men go hand-watering with hoses to apply roughly the same amount of water, that figure is closer to 25,000 litres. That makes a huge difference because even when I know I can rely on my supply from the well points to provide me with a good return, I can only really expect to pump around 50,000 litres a day back into the tanks from there. With hoses and a human brain to operate them, we can apply water to exactly where we need it, focussing on burnt areas and high spots and avoiding wasting water by targeting areas that are not on the green itself. Obviously, a sprinkler has a triangular arc to complete as it goes through its cycle, and every time it reaches the ends of that arc the extremities of its spread are falling off the green rather than on it and that not only wastes water but also produces inconsistent golfing conditions. There are many evenings on the west of Scotland where it is also simply too windy to use an automatic irrigation system. They are very effective up to about 12mph, but once the forecast suggests that wind speeds will be elevated beyond that we know that results will be inconsistent and we make plans to hand-water the greens instead.

I don't know who that man is with the very long legs, but he is doing a fine job of controlling water usage at the 17th green!
I don’t know who that man is with the very long legs, but he is doing a fine job of controlling water usage at the 17th green!

One thing we experiment with a lot at Machrihanish Dunes is wetting

agents. These substances have been used for decades to ensure that when water is applied to a dry area of turf it can penetrate into that area rather than running off completely or collecting in low areas. The technological advances in this field have been huge in the last few years, and we can now choose from a variety of products that can help us manage the percentages of water in our rootzone and also how quickly that water travels from the surface to the subsoil.

A Quick Guide to Wetting Agents

Type 1: Penetrants

Penetrants. These are designed to help water to penetrate the surface, but they contain no technology to stop water from moving quickly all the way down to the subsoil. While a penetrating wetting agent may be very effective at keeping the surface dry and free from morning dew and pressure from disease, sandy rootzones treated with straight penetrants can dry out frighteningly quickly and may require a huge input of water in order to keep grass plants healthy.

Type 2: Matrix Flow

These are designed to hold water in the rootzone. Don’t ask me how they work…I could give you a basic explanation but it is far easier just to accept that they can do what is claimed and attribute it to voodoo! These products are obviously very popular with greenkeepers, as not only do they store water exactly where we need it to be stored but they reduce evaporation during hot spells by keeping rootzones cooler and therefore protecting roots from drought stress. The only downside to matrix flow wetting agents is that they keep rootzones more artificially saturated than we would actually like. Although we won’t argue with that when our backs are against the wall during a prolonged spell of hot, dry weather, we know that using a matrix flow wetting agent all the time will only play into the hands of that laziest and most inefficient of grass plants, poa annua. Saturation figures vary from product to product, but I don’t think I would be far away from the truth if I were to suggest that saturation point on a sandy soil when using a typical matrix flow wetting agent might be around 30-35%, whereas a healthy, untreated similar soil might never contain more than around 25%.

Type 3:

A third type of wetting agent has become available in recent years, and this one is designed to physically attract water to individual soil particles. This is brilliant when you think about it, because it holds a percentage of water in the rootzone while still allowing plenty of room for air, and seems at first thought to be the ideal answer to our water storage issues. It has been suggested that field capacity using these wetting agents is around 22-25%, therefore mimicking the moisture levels that would be found in an untreated sandy soil sample but actually containing far more available water which is stored exactly where it is most advantageous to the plant.

We have experimented with all three types of wetting agents at Machrihanish Dunes, and we use a variety of them for different reasons. Obviously, we resort to using a matrix flow wetting agent during the mid-summer months, but we wish we didn’t have to as it goes against everything else we are trying to achieve in our program. We have tried to use the third type of wetting agent mentioned in the box above during dry spells, but because our rootzone is so light and well aerated we have had issues with soil temperatures becoming rapidly elevated on days where the air temperature rises to over 20 degrees Celsius and this has exacerbated problems that we have had with fairy rings and dry patch. This year, we have been messing about on the tees by mixing two products together in order to see whether we can stretch the area affected by the matrix, reduce the percentage of water held in the rootzone at field capacity by that matrix, or even hold it lower down in the profile to encourage plants to root deeper and store water at a level in the rootzone where it is cooler and where evaporation is less of an issue. Results from these kinds of experiments are hard to quantify though—successes must be based on knowledge of the product and what we see happening in front of us. If we know products are designed to work in a certain way and we mix them because we perceive that a benefit can be gained on our particular site and for our particular maintenance program from doing so based on our knowledge of the science behind it and we do not encounter any negative consequences from conducting the experiment, then we can probably conclude that our experiment has been successful. It would be extremely brave to take a mixture like this from the tees onto the greens, where the grass is cut shorter and stresses are so much higher, but we wouldn’t shy away from doing this if we thought we were onto something (especially if we had the backing of a knowledgeable expert from the company supplying the materials and had discussed this with him at length).

Hydrophobia – the biggest fear of all

One of the main reasons why greenkeepers started to use wetting agents in the first instance was because they found that their intensively managed turf became hydrophobic when it dried out in summer and that it required huge volumes of artificial watering to keep it alive and to re-wet the whole soil profile. Most of the time, hydrophobic symptoms are caused by bacterial life in the soil, who munch through organic material deposited in the rootzone from decaying plants and then secrete a waxy material as a by-product that becomes hard and impervious to water when it dries out. Because this waxy material has been deposited in the upper rootzone, areas affected by this process will not be effectively soaked by irrigation water, as that water will be blocked by the waxy layer. Areas close-by that have not been affected by this bacterial activity may require only a small amount of water to completely soak the whole soil profile, while the area that has become hydrophobic may only be penetrated to a depth of a few millimetres, and can, therefore, dry out again extremely quickly when the sun comes back out the next day and evaporates everything that has been applied. There are several reasons why dry patch is such a huge problem on golf greens, the first of which is that levels of organic matter in the upper portion of the rootzone tend to be quite high as it is intensively managed. That portion of the rootzone tends to be rich in cellulose, and water levels near the surface are usually kept at a level that are favourable to the bacteria’s health. Finally, some of the daily maintenance practices that we undertake in order to produce firm, fast putting greens inevitably increase compaction levels and contribute to surface sealing.

Once a green has shown signs of hydrophobia during a dry spell, we have to be careful that we do not allow our turf to suffer from catastrophic drought stress. We know that water is not penetrating as it should, so we have to add more than we would like and we have to add it more often. Obviously, the poa annua that populates healthy, unaffected areas of the green loves this, as it is being watered far more regularly than the perennial grasses that it competes for space with really need it to be, and it flourishes in these conditions. The longer the dry spell goes on, the longer we need to keep applying too much water and the longer the spiral of decline continues. This kind of outbreak can be avoided or at the very least reduced if we implement a properly planned maintenance regime. If we keep our rootzones properly aerated, plan feeding programs to give our surfaces only what they actually need in order to survive, topdress regularly to dilute thatch layers,  keep air circulating in the upper rootzone, and do anything we can to promote the growth of perennial grasses over the thatch-producing menace that is poa annua, then we have a chance of reducing or even completely eradicating outbreaks of dry patch and fairy rings, and then we will find ourselves in a situation where we can drastically reduce the amount of water that we need to pour onto our greens. This will reduce costs, reduce wear and tear on our irrigation equipment, help us still further to promote the growth of deeper rooting, perennial plants and will undoubtedly reduce the stress levels of the greenkeeper. One day I might actually be able to enjoy a spell of sunny weather rather than lying awake worrying about things and secretly praying for rain!!

What was that about restoring factory settings?

Okay, back to the beginning. When we have had a spell of dry weather that has lasted as long as the one we “endured” recently, our surfaces inevitably get a bit tired. The rootzones under the greens at Machrihanish Dunes are getting easier to manage, but they do still suffer from poor rooting and a bit of dry patch when they get stretched to the limit. Now that summer conditions have eventually reverted to the west coast average, we have finally had the opportunity to get an application of matrix flow wetting agent, some topdressing and some granular fertiliser out onto the greens and an application of our secret mixture wetting agent, a whole load of grass seed and sand and some fertiliser onto the tees. It is possible to apply these products and then water them in with our irrigation system, but we never have the amount of water available at any single moment to do this effectively so if we want these applications to work as they are designed then we need a suitable amount of rainfall. 10mm in a day just about covers it. Carefully planned applications of the correct products, washed in by 10mm of good old natural rain, restores factory settings. The sun can come back out now if it wants. We are good to go again!

My reward for staying down at work to hand water greens in the evening is that I get to see the sun setting over Port Ellen (the real capital of Islay!) from behind the 10th green. I've got no real reason for tacking this picture onto the end of my report, but it just seemed a bit unfair for me to keep an image quite this magnificent to myself.
My reward for staying down at work to hand water greens in the evening is that I get to see the sun setting over Port Ellen (the real capital of Islay!) from behind the 10th green. I’ve got no real reason for taking this picture onto the end of my report, but it just seemed a bit unfair for me to keep an image quite this magnificent to myself.

What’s up next at Mach Dunes?

Our 36 hole stroke-play Club Championship is being held next weekend (28th – 29th June), and there are still times available if you wish to enter. After that, it is everybody’s favourite, the Black Sheep Cup, on Sunday, August 26th. For more information on either of these events, please phone Lorna or Peter at the Golf House on 01586810058. Apart from that, it is business as usual, except for a staff change here in the Greenkeeping department. Craig Barr is leaving us to take over as Head Greenkeeper at Machrihanish Golf Club and we wish Craig all the best in his new endeavour. He has been a fantastic servant to Machrihanish Dunes and the members at Machrihanish Golf Club are understandably delighted that they have recruited a greenkeeper of his calibre to help take their course forward. We have recruited Malcolm Mitchell to join us here at the Dunes. Malcolm has worked at Machrihanish Golf Club for the last two years as first assistant and we are looking forward to him starting work with us on August 6th.

 

Well That Was a Bit More Like It!

These glorious summer conditions have been a feature of recent weeks.
These glorious summer conditions have been a feature of recent weeks.

Although May started off pretty poorly and looked set to continue the theme of cold, damp weather that we had been enduring for a whole year, the sun suddenly appeared and turned the whole shooting match right around. Stunning day followed stunning day in May, and by the time we got to the weekend of 2nd-3rd June, things had become so warm that I started to swap out my early afternoon bike ride for a siesta in the garden! The course has obviously changed colour a bit over the last couple of weeks, with the verdant green conditions that have been a constant feature of the last 12 months suddenly replaced by a hue more reminiscent of a digestive biscuit. While this obviously brings a certain amount of stress because we inevitably have to start relying on mechanical equipment to keep the golf course in prime condition rather than trusting nature to do it like we usually do, we can see how much enjoyment golfers get from playing the links when it is running hard and fast. It is impossible for us not to get sucked along with this enthusiasm despite having extra logistical headaches to deal with. Long may it last…but maybe a wee bit of rain at nights might not go amiss once in a while!

“You Shouldn’t Be Watering Links Greens”

Hand-watering dry spots on greens for a couple of hours in the evenings is never a chore. That sun is getting low in this picture and it looks like the sunset will be world-class. An image of that is tacked onto the end of this report, for no reason other than it is stunning.
Hand-watering dry spots on greens for a couple of hours in the evenings is never a chore. That sun is getting low in this picture and it looks like the sunset will be world-class. An image of that is tacked onto the end of this report, for no reason other than it is stunning.

I heard this old chestnut recently for the first time in ages. The statement wasn’t delivered as an angry instruction, but more as a friendly suggestion delivered by someone who genuinely believed that his experience gained from many years of playing the seaside game afforded him the luxury of offering his professional advice. It is by no means the first time I have heard this during my career as a greenkeeper, and although the statement is undoubtedly one of the most massive generalisations I have EVER heard (for surely every set of greens is different, and therefore cannot be looked after in exactly the same way), it does have some merit at its base level. What the gentleman who offered the advice meant is that letting greens dry out almost to the point of death will do less damage to the deeper rooting perennial grasses that we wish to favour in our swards than it will to shallow rooting annual meadow grass. As I have said before in these reports, fescue plants have a symbiotic relationship with soil mycorrhiza and one of the attributes that these microscopic fungi possess is the ability to attract and store water from the soil and make it available to the plant. In effect, a strong population of these fungal hyphae around the extremities of the plant root system almost act like an extension of the root system itself. Because there does not appear to be a similar relationship going on around the root systems of annual meadow grass (or not to the same extent, anyway), annual meadow grass will not survive nearly as well in drought conditions as will fescue and indigenous highland bent.

But—and this is an important but—how dry would a golf green actually have to get before we could physically remove annual meadow grass by drought, and how much negative impact would that have on:

a) the condition of the rest of the green and
b) playing conditions?

I don’t want to sound like I am blowing my own trumpet here, but I believe that there will be few people in the British greenkeeping industry today who are as well qualified to answer that question as I am, for before I was fortunate enough to be given the course at Machrihanish Dunes to look after, I spent 15 years looking after a high quality links course that had no irrigation at all. To begin with, this was a truly frightening experience, as I (like many of my peers) had never really seen a properly dry green before. When I started at Machrie, the greens were so bunged up with organic matter that they would dry out immediately when the sun came out and the first breath of easterly wind kicked up in the 2nd week in April, and would then go horribly hydrophobic and resist any attempt from passing showers to penetrate into the rootzone until eventually they would become wet from below once again when the water table would rise sufficiently to allow them to become saturated for the winter. Predictably, there wouldn’t be much left of the surface by then, and the greens would resemble a threadbare carpet. Granted, a lot of the grass that had died out would have been annual meadow grass rather than fescue and bent, but when Autumn arrived and there were gaps to fill, what plants do you think opportunistically jumped into the voids that had been created? Yes, that’s right, annual meadow grass! And moss. All we had really achieved was to thin out the surface sufficiently in the summer in order to make them terrible to putt on, only to then see them fill back in with the same unwanted plants in order for the same thing to happen again the next year! After a few years, we sorted a lot of the problems that had blighted the greens for decades until eventually, we had a massive, fully operational root system and had instigated wetting agent application and aeration programs that were very efficient at ensuring that dry patch and fairy rings were not allowed to get hold of the rootzone and turn it hydrophobic in the first place. This laterally enabled us to ride out what were admittedly relatively short spells of dry weather without losing any ground cover at all.

I would hazard a guess that the gentleman who offered me the advice that I should not be watering my greens had assumed that I, along with most people from my pampered greenkeeping generation, had never seen a properly dried out green. But because of my unusual background, I do know what a properly dry green looks like, and I know just how much damage could be caused if I was to allow the greens in my care to dry out to that extent without having in place the kind of bulletproof conditions that I eventually managed to build at Machrie.

Three grainy old photos that show just how scorched things used to get during my time at Machrie...and this was after we had sorted out the hydrophobic problems and got the roots working for us! I was too embarrassed to take pictures before that! That first picture is still my favourite Machrie image, taken on the morning of the 36-hole club championship. That was a tough golfing day! Does anybody know which greens these are (from the old layout, of course)?
Three grainy old photos that show just how scorched things used to get during my time at Machrie…and this was after we had sorted out the hydrophobic problems and got the roots working for us! I was too embarrassed to take pictures before that! That first picture is still my favourite Machrie image, taken on the morning of the 36-hole club championship. That was a tough golfing day! Does anybody know which greens these are (from the old layout, of course)?

This is what I said to the gentleman in question. We are going in the right direction. We will, at some point in the future, be able to safely allow our greens to dry out far more than we do at present, without fear of negatively impacting on the health of the grasses that we wish to preserve. Once we reach that point, we can rely on those grasses to survive on their own much more effectively and will therefore be able to put more pressure on the annual meadow grass and see it slip into gradual decline over a long period of time when its demise does not have an overly detrimental effect on the quality of the playing surfaces. The added bonus will be that we will be able to run our surfaces firmer during periods of dry weather, and that should make them run faster and truer and be more fun to play golf on. Although we are going in the right direction, we are not there yet. We need to forge ahead with the program that we have tailored specifically to improve root mass development, and we need to fine-tune our aeration and wetting agent programs to ensure that we don’t get caught out and tripped up by insidious malaises such as fairy rings and dry patch. These two horrors are caused by fungal outbreaks below the surface and inevitably don’t rear their ugly heads until their effects have been noted on the surface, with the result being that we then have to add remedial applications and extra water to bail the surfaces out in order to ensure that the affected spots do not become catastrophically parched.

I think the most important thing is that we accept that we need to continue to learn and educate ourselves and to try to strike this fine balance between favouring perennial grass species and retaining full grass cover in order to ensure that we can provide golfers with optimum playing conditions all year- round. There are a lot of variables and we don’t have full control over all of them. I would love to be in a position where I could take this gentleman’s advice and never have to artificially water my greens but compromising the long-term condition of the surfaces under my care in order to bullishly follow a flawed generalisation set many decades ago would not be a very professional thing to do. Anybody who tells you that links greens were always great in the 1970s when they never received a drop of water is looking through rose-tinted glasses. Sometimes they were great, but most of the time they were actually pretty terrible.

Don’t Worry, I’m Going to Jump Down from My High Horse Now!

That is quite enough opinionated ranting for one day, so I’m going to focus on roots now… new roots. A couple of months ago, I showed you some images of hole plugs  that I had removed from our greens and I explained how we had been using humus-rich fertilisers and sensible topdressings during my time at Machrihanish Dunes in order to build ourselves a suitable living environment into which to add beneficial bacteria and fungi that would hopefully help us to extend the root mass under our greens and make our grass plants more self-sufficient, therefore reducing the need for us to artificially apply so much fertiliser and water. We have already seen some pretty impressive results from this, as you can see from the two images below. Because those hole plugs in the earlier report only showed a good amount of humus down to between 6-8 inches, my goal was never to have roots as long as my arm. What we have done already in some areas, though, is to considerably increase root mass in the humus-rich upper area, which has resulted in the greens being far less prone to drying out and being far less susceptible to damage from machine traffic. The first image is from the par-3 5th, which looks particularly strong at the moment, and the second image is from the middle of the 7th green. This second one is particularly pleasing, because that was the weakest area of green on the whole golf course last summer. Of course, we can get these a lot better than their current condition and in no way are we suggesting that this is the end result (it is only the start), but considering the extremely short period of time that we have been working at this and that the results are going in the exact direction we planned, we are pretty excited about the prospects for future development.

The plug on the left is from the 5th green, the one on the right from the 7th. They looked more impressive than this before I shook them violently to remove a lot of the rootzone from them, but I had to do that so that the root mass itself would be visible in the pictures. There are still many areas that are not as good as this, and we need to change that!
The plug on the left is from the 5th green, the one on the right from the 7th. They looked more impressive than this before I shook them violently to remove a lot of the rootzone from them, but I had to do that so that the root mass itself would be visible in the pictures. There are still many areas that are not as good as this, and we need to change that!

What’s Next at Mach Dunes?

We all know what’s next at Mach Dunes, don’t we? That’s right, it’s Campbeltown Open time! Held this year over the weekend of June 30th-July 1st, the tee sheets for our annual festival of golf are already filling up quickly. If you have played in the Campbeltown Open before, you will know just how much fun it is, so if you haven’t already booked up and you are planning to play then I suggest you phone Lorna at the Golf House on 01586 810 058 and arrange a tee time at your earliest opportunity. Lorna is also taking bookings for the Ladies Campbeltown Open (one round of 18 holes only, on Saturday 30th) and our Junior Drive, Pitch & Putt competition (on the afternoon of the 1st). Accommodation packages are available for this event, and there will be entertainment and a buffet on the Saturday night and a barbeque at the Golf House on Sunday. For more information on any details of the Campbeltown Open weekend, click here.

Enjoy your golf in June. Let’s hope this weather sticks around!

Here is the sunset that I promised you earlier. It’s great to be able to finish work and go straight to the beach to end the day with a view like this!
Here is the sunset that I promised you earlier. It’s great to be able to finish work and go straight to the beach to end the day with a view like this!

Perfect Conditions

Usually, my Facebook feed is full of posts from other links greenkeepers moaning about the weather, and while it has been colder than average throughout April, I have heard precious little negativity voiced on social media. While our cohorts inland have struggled to get their courses dried out sufficiently in order to avoid early season damage to their playing surfaces, down at the seaside we have enjoyed an almost-perfect mixture of sunshine and showers that nobody could really find a reason to complain about. The course dried out a bit following four consecutive days spent under constant scrutiny from the big ball of fire (27th-30th April), but as has happened so often this spring, just the right amount of rain arrived to stop me from even thinking about reaching for a hose. Since then, things have cooled back down, hampering our prospects of achieving much recovery from what little winter damage we encountered, but certainly making our lives pretty easy in general! I am sure things will start to heat up a bit as we go into May and head towards the longest days of the year, but if these ideal conditions continue, then we should be able to produce some pretty good conditions for you over the weeks ahead.

A fabulous early-morning view of the 2nd green, just after mowing. It is not always like this on the west coast of Scotland, but when it is, we must have the best office in the world!
A fabulous early-morning view of the 2nd green, just after mowing. It is not always like this on the west coast of Scotland, but when it is, we must have the best office in the world!

What Works on the Greens Doesn’t Necessarily Work Everywhere Else

Last month, I went into infinite detail about how I feel we are now in a position where we can cut back on the amount of nutrients we apply to our greens, and why we would want to do that. I explained how we had worked to increase the humus content of our rootzone in order to favour the growth of fine-leaved, perennial grasses and how I felt that with the aid of compost tees, humus-rich fertilisers, regular aeration, and the employment of sensible heights of cut, we felt like we were going in the right direction—a direction that would lead us towards having strong, resilient, fescue-dominated surfaces that would make it easy for us to present consistently good greens all year ‘round. So, given that we appear to be on the right track in that regard, it would make sense that we would treat our tees exactly the same way, wouldn’t it?

A typical tee at Machrihanish Dunes. The design creates a great visual impact but they are very small, with limited scope for shifting markers to allow germination of new seed and recovery from wear.
A typical tee at Machrihanish Dunes. The design creates a great visual impact but they are very small, with limited scope for shifting markers to allow germination of new seed and recovery from wear.

Well… maybe.
In an ideal world I would say, yes, it would be great to think that we could limit nutritional inputs to help promote the growth of fescue and bentgrass over poa annua on our teeing grounds, but this method has not been working for us for several reasons:

  • Many of our tees are very small, which gives us limited scope to move the markers around in order to spread wear from feet and damage from divots. Once an area of tee has been damaged in this way, it must be reseeded in order to fully recover, and it is notoriously difficult to establish new grass seed when a surface is still being played on and mown at a low height of cut. If we compound the issue by trying to implement a low fertility maintenance program, the chances of establishing that seed are compromised still further. When we think about the intensive program of feeding and watering that we would employ if we were building a new tee from seed, and how vehemently we would protect that area from being compromised by foot and machine traffic until establishment was complete, it is unsurprising that our reseeding efforts fail so regularly.
  • Damage from insects has become more widespread since the implementation of a ban on the cost-effective pesticides that we used to have at our disposal to fight against them. We have used expensive natural treatments on our greens this year in an attempt to discourage crane fly and minimise the effects that their foraging larvae (leatherjackets) have on our root systems and have achieved limited success with these. But we would need to see a far greater positive impact from these treatments before we could justify the financial impact of using these on our tees, as well. We have noted damage on a few of our tees caused by leatherjackets, but because we have kept nutrient inputs at a healthy level during the last two months, we have been able to offset that damage and present playing surfaces that would be considered more than acceptable by golfers, despite the relatively cool spring temperatures.
I’m glad to say that this is the area of tee that has suffered the worst from leatherjacket damage. The grubs hide down old aeration tine holes and then come to the surface under cover of darkness to nibble the grass around the edge of the hole. What was a 13mm solid tine hole is now a 25-30mm indentation. The damage will not get any worse than this and now that temperatures have been sufficiently elevated to allow strong growth, the tee will quickly recover from this infestation with adequate nutrition. We currently have five tees (out of 79) showing these symptoms, which is annoying but certainly justifies our decision not to spend the huge sum of money that it would cost to prevent this using materials which I do not fully trust to work effectively in the first place! In the past, it was an obvious decision to just spray a cheap insecticide on the tees but that option is no longer available to us. My experience tells me that attacks like this are very random, and seeing this level of damage on less than 10% of our surfaces while most of the other tees appear to have suffered no infestation at all is just what I would have expected.
I’m glad to say that this is the area of tee that has suffered the worst from leatherjacket damage. The grubs hide down old aeration tine holes and then come to the surface under cover of darkness to nibble the grass around the edge of the hole. What was a 13mm solid tine hole is now a 25-30mm indentation. The damage will not get any worse than this and now that temperatures have been sufficiently elevated to allow strong growth, the tee will quickly recover from this infestation with adequate nutrition. We currently have five tees (out of 79) showing these symptoms, which is annoying but certainly justifies our decision not to spend the huge sum of money that it would cost to prevent this using materials which I do not fully trust to work effectively in the first place! In the past, it was an obvious decision to just spray a cheap insecticide on the tees but that option is no longer available to us. My experience tells me that attacks like this are very random, and seeing this level of damage on less than 10% of our surfaces while most of the other tees appear to have suffered no infestation at all is just what I would have expected.

I believe species selection is far less important on tees than it is on greens, so it is of limited concern to me if we are unable because of factors outwith our control to promote a monoculture of the species of grasses that we would ideally like to have on our teeing grounds. Greens need to be firm and fast, have the necessary resilience* in the grass to reward a good shot, be consistent across the site, and remain playable throughout the toughest weather conditions. Tees on the other hand… well really, they just need to be flat and be covered in grass. We have found that trying to limit nutritional inputs on our tees in order to favour certain grasses has not worked for us for all of the reasons I have stated above, and we believe that in the future, we would be better served to ensure that the grass in our tees has sufficient food reserves to allow it to recover quickly from wear, to provide an even, consistent surface, and even to establish new mature grass plants from the seed that we apply. My experience leads me to expect that we will still end up with a mixture of fescue, bent and annual meadow grass no matter how much we feed and water, but that this mixture will have a lusher appearance than it has had in the past and will probably need to be mown shorter and more often. At this juncture, I would rather have that than tees full of old divot marks with some showing signs of severe insect damage. We will, of course, monitor this program as we go through the season and adjust our maintenance practices as, and when, required.

*resilience. One of the benefits to the golfer of promoting the growth of fescue and natural bentgrass in greens is that the leaves of these plants are rough to the touch and will, therefore, help to grip a golf ball when it lands. A well-struck iron shot played into a green populated by these grasses will spin and stop no matter how firm that green is, whereas a surface made up mainly of annual meadow grass or ryegrass plants (both of which have smooth, shiny leaves) will have little impact on a ball no matter how much spin has been skilfully applied to it. It has been a long-held belief among supporters of the links game that the ultimate seaside green should be as firm as possible and be completely populated by fescue and bent, in order that the player who has the skill to impart the right amount of spin on the golf ball should be able to gain an advantage over a player who does not have the skill to do so. This resilience of leaf is critical if we find ourselves playing a course which suits the running game, as it allows us to use the spin imparted from a clean strike to control the ball when it lands. This resilience of leaf will be less important in the grass on teeing grounds, as most of the spin initially imparted on a golf ball will come from the grooves on the clubface itself.

What’s Up Next At Machrihanish Dunes?

We are well into the main body of the season now and the hotels are regularly full of golfers playing all three courses in the area. Competition-wise, though, things are relatively quiet in May, with a medal at the end of the month being the main attraction. It won’t be long though before the Shepherd’s Cross is upon us (held on June 17ththis year), so if you wish to enter a team into that, please contact the professional shop at Machrihanish Golf Club at your earliest opportunity as this is always a busy event and I would hate for you to miss out! This year the Shepherd’s Cross will revert to its original orientation, being played over the first 9 holes at Machrihanish Golf Club before crossing the fence to play a selection of holes at Machrihanish Dunes, finishing at the 18th.

Hot on the heels of the Shepherd’s Cross comes our weekend festival of golf, the Campbeltown Open (30th June-1st July). Most of you will have played in this stroke-play tournament before, but for those of you who haven’t, we have the following itinerary planned:

  • The 36-hole strokeplay Campbeltown Open itself
  • The Colin Chrystie Cup- an eclectic competition where players can amalgamate their best scores at each hole from their two rounds
  • The 18-hole Ladies Campbeltown Open
  • The Junior Drive, Pitch, and Putt competition
  • Saturday evening entertainment in The Ugadale Hotel and a Sunday barbeque at the Golf House.

If you have any enquiries about any of these competitions or would like to book your place in the Campbeltown Open, please phone Lorna Barr at the Golf House on 01586810058 or email her at golfhouse@machdunes.com.

We hope you enjoy your golf throughout May, and we look forward to seeing you out on the course!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fescue to the Rescue

Well, March Was No Better Than January!

It is tradition that I start these reports by having a moan about the weather, but this time it is with a good amount of justification! February ended with a couple of glimmers that gave us hope of some early growth that we might be able to use to get ourselves ahead of the game, but those hopes were dashed almost immediately by the “beast from the east”. Because we luckily missed the snow, it could be argued that the beast actually did us a favour by drying the site up a bit, but easterly winds as ferocious as that always have a negative effect on air and soil temperatures. Easterlies have been a feature of the weather of late and because of this prolonged onslaught, the course still looks as if it is in the throes of winter. When we get conditions like this in March, we can easily be panicked into trying to rush the course into summer by cutting everything down to the heights we would ideally wish to implement rather than the sensible, carefully considered heights we actually should be implementing. We greenkeepers quite often moan about Augusta syndrome, a phrase historically used by people in our industry to describe a golfer’s lack of patience with the early season condition of the greens at their own club when they see how perfect everything is at the Masters. But I’m aware of how lucky I am in this regard not only to be tending a relatively dry and healthy course (which can be very playable all winter and will look pretty reasonable by the second week in April regardless of the weather), but also to be working with a group of members who appreciate that we are trying our best for them at all times and that we have their best interests at heart. Obviously, we will occasionally take short-term liberties to provide optimal playing conditions, but that attitude is always carefully considered against the detrimental effect it might have on long-term plant health.

The 10th green after a fresh cut on a freezing cold Monday in April.
The 10th green after a fresh cut on a freezing cold Monday in April.

So How is Plant Health at the Moment?

Considering the unseasonably cold weather and the subsequent lack of growth, we are quite pleased with the condition of the course in general at the moment. We have been doing a lot of patching, replacing worn-out areas of turf, and covering over rabbit damage. Craig and Gus have also been successfully waging war on moles. I’m not sure exactly how many they have trapped but I do know it has made a massive difference to the number of unsightly mounds of soil that blight the look of the golf course when these pests are up to their nonsense. I know John Rennie and Stewart MacMillan have trapped at least as many moles on the Machrihanish side of the fence, and I’m sure every landowner would commend the considerable effort that has been made by everyone involved in this initiative. The greens and tees at Machrihanish Dunes are being hand-mown regularly and we are constantly monitoring the speed and condition of the greens to ensure that we can maintain health during this period of colder-than-average weather while still providing decent conditions for golf. The greens are more consistent from site to site than they have ever been and they have a higher percentage of fescue going into the season than they have had during my time here. This is, of course, a shift in physical make-up that we want to encourage, because I believe there is a tipping point in terms of grass species composition where fescue becomes sufficiently dominant in the sward that we can tailor our maintenance regime to suit the desires of that grass rather than to suit the somewhat greedier needs of annual meadow grass and non-indigenous bentgrass.

For me, the nirvana in greenkeeping has always been to reach a point where everything works in harmony with nature to such an extent that all we have to do is go out and cut the grass. Golfer expectations have gotten the point now where reaching this goal is pretty unrealistic but designing our maintenance program to favour fescue gives us the opportunity to get closer to that idyll than if we were pandering to the needs of the other species I mentioned. There are many pros and cons to consider and to describe all of these in my usual flowery language would result in you, the reader, needing to take a week off work to read this report, so I’ve boiled it down to a few key points to think about:

Bentgrass/Annual Meadow Grass:
1) Both grasses require similar levels of nutrition, with the result that annual meadow grass will win a straight-up fight on our specific site for several reasons:

  • The alkalinity of the soil
  • The low levels of light and relatively high temperatures in late autumn and winter
  • The likelihood of fusarium patch disease when the relatively high nutrient inputs required by these species are added, and
  • The relatively high disturbance from aeration machines required to mechanically break down thatch caused by the more aggressive maintenance regime helps the annual meadow grass to prosper.Remember, meadow grass is the shallow-rooted vacuum grass that grows in your gutters, the gaps in pavements, and would probably grow happily on the soles of your shoes if you stood still for long enough. Because of this resilience and the fact that it can seed at such low heights of cut, it is going to win a battle for supremacy over bentgrass every time stress of any kind rears its head. Every bentgrass plant that withers and dies in a green for any reason provides space in the sward for an annual meadow grass plant to seed into.

2) Because inputs are higher in terms of nutrition, water, and the mechanical actions required to keep them in good health and to keep surfaces in optimum playing condition, these two grasses in a mixture are more expensive to look after.

3) Because more mechanical work is needed in order to keep these plants in good health and optimum playing condition when we need them the most, bentgrass/meadow grass surfaces need to be disrupted more often, and the type of disruption they need takes longer to recover from.

4) Typically, these two grass species are more prone to disease and at this time when governments are imposing ban after ban on the chemicals we have relied on for decades to fight these disease attacks, more and more often we are seeing diseases cause higher levels of damage to green surfaces.

5) I have found that these two species are far more suitable than fescue for use in poor-performing soils with a low humus content. They can be artificially maintained to grow on pretty much any medium, whether that be straight sand, a USGA greens mix, an agricultural soil, or even a clay soil. Because they require higher inputs to flourish and then mechanical actions to control their organic matter build-up, greens with poor structure populated with these grasses can be manipulated easily to provide a good surface. Once this aggressive strategy is implemented, though, fescue will inevitably go into decline as it is inevitable that the green will be cut at a height that suits the other two grasses better in order to provide the golfer with an acceptable playing surface. Once this decline has started, all the negatives noted above will have to be taken into account.

Fescue/Annual Meadow Grass:
1) If it is growing in a healthy medium suited to its general health, fescue can survive quite happily with far lower nutritional inputs, which obviously weakens the onslaught of the annual meadow grass. Although the two grasses grow happily side by side in our specific environment to provide a good putting surface, it is possible to use a low-nutrient, low-disruption maintenance program that will result in the preferred species dominating rather than being dominated. Fescue is also less susceptible than either bentgrass or annual meadow grass to the two diseases (fusarium patch and anthracnose) that most often affect our greens. It stands to reason then that the more fescue we can introduce into the sward, the less scarring there will be from disease and the less important it will be to us that the products we have come to rely far too much upon are being removed from the marketplace. As I said earlier, I have always believed that there is a tipping point where the percentage of fescue in the sward reaches a point where we can start to tailor everything to its needs, including using disease as a weapon to further weaken the weaker grass. I would never encourage incidences of disease, but I would be much slower to reach for the fungicide in the future if I knew that the results of a major outbreak were only going to impact on a small percentage of plants that I didn’t really want to favour in my greens anyway!

2) Because of the lower inputs and the resulting slower pace of growth, disruption from the more intrusive forms of aeration can be kept to a minimum as thatch growth will be far slower. Every soil needs to be aerated in order for plant roots to remain healthy, but it may be possible to use regular solid tining, spiking, and brushing instead of hollow coring and verticutting when using a low input program.

3) Because fescue and indigenous bents that also thrive under lower input maintenance regimes are true perennials, greens that are dominated by these species will perform well all year round and can provide good putting surfaces during all four seasons.

So How Do We Go About Creating a Healthy Medium?

It would seem from reading the previous section that, in an environment like ours, it is surely worth chasing the fescue dream. After all, the fairways are full of fescue, and it looks superb. Tight-knit, healthy, and really easy and cheap to look after! Surely, if we got the greens to look just like a closely cropped version of the fairway, they would not only be cheap and easy to look after but would also perform superbly, right?

Well yes, theoretically they would. That was kind of what I had at Machrie by the time I left Islay (although those greens were never cut short and were always quite slow. We didn’t have a roller to help us back then though), and it is what I have been hoping to achieve since I came to Machrihanish Dunes. To do this though, I knew that I had to make the rootzones more humus-rich and, therefore, a more suitable environment for fescues to healthily grow in. In other words, we have been looking to turn the rootzones under our greens into something that resembles the rootzones under that good grass that is in our fairways. So many people assume that links courses grow on sand but that is absolutely not true. Although, I will admit that the soils under our fairways do not contain much organic matter or a high concentration of nutrients, they are made up of a healthy, well aerated, friable soil teeming with bacterial and fungal life that is the perfect natural environment for fescue to grow without us ever having to pass over it with a sprayer or a fertiliser spreader. The delicate balance of many greens’ rootzones have been ruined by greenkeepers spreading salt-laden fertilisers containing sulphate of ammonia and sulphate of iron and liberally spraying chemicals which kill the indigenous bacteria and fungi that work constantly to keep the natural functions of the soil operating. Of course, we have been getting better at this over the last few decades, but there are still rootzones out there that will have had their bacterial populations decimated by greenkeepers utilising such extreme measures as spreading mercury powder on them to kill leatherjackets! Imagine you suggested spreading mercury on greens now…you would be strung up! Since that many of the products we have used as a crutch for years have been taken away from us by bureaucrats, we now have to consider soil health more of a priority than we have at any time during the last century.

The more that damaging products are taken off the market to protect our own health, the more we are going to have to rely on nature to look after the health of our soils!

That forecast might sound a bit gloomy, like the removal of tried and tested products is leading us down a path towards inferior surfaces blighted by disease or insect infestations. But do we see these symptoms affecting the healthy fescue in the fairways that we have already mentioned, the fescue that we would love to see provide strong, easy-to-manage surfaces that could provide fantastic playing conditions at a much lower cost? No, we do not!

One thing we have re-implemented this year is a biological program starting with the construction of a compost tea brewer. My predecessor regularly used compost teas to introduce bacterial populations into our rootzones, and I hope we can replicate what Kevin did with even more success now that we have spent the last 4 years building up a good layer of humus-rich growing material in the rootzone of our greens. I have seen us successfully seed fescue into our greens over the last two autumns and have watched it survive there long-term, which indicates to me that we are now in a position where we can maintain these greens to favour that grass species. Using biological techniques such as compost tea brewing, while simultaneously avoiding using products that have a negative effect on the bacterial populations that should flourish in the more humus-rich rootzones should only encourage the spread of fescue even more and will hopefully result in:

  • greens in the future that are more consistent from site to site
  • have considerably better root development
  • are less prone to disease attacks
  • need less intrusive mechanical disruption (not that we currently have had to do too much of that anyway), and
  • are cheaper and less volatile to run

Obviously, everything has to be balanced against providing optimum playing conditions and ensuring that we balance our maintenance program so as to promote long-term health rather than just a quick experiment. But if we work with the general mindset that we constantly want to improve rather than destroy the healthy infrastructure of our soil, then maybe we will get to the point where we find we didn’t actually need to pour all those chemicals and salt-based fertilisers onto our greens in the first place. Just as we didn’t need to pour them onto those perfect, natural fairways!

Plugs

These two plugs were extracted just a few feet apart. The one on the left is from the 3rd fairway and is in an area that has never, to my knowledge, been disturbed by an excavator. The one on the right is from the 3rd green, which was artificially built during the construction of the course. When I started working at Machrihanish Dunes four years ago, the profile of the plug from the green would have been almost entirely made up of the sand you can see in the lower section of the plug, whereas now, it has a humus rich upper layer that almost replicates what naturally occurs in the fairway. Now we have reached this point, we are finding that it is far easier to maintain these greens using a low-input approach than it was before, and far easier to get fescue to germinate and mature in our rootzones. Hopefully, we can promote this development still further by continuing to use humus-rich fertilisers and sensible topdressings, continuing to aerate the soil regularly using a variety of solid tines set at varying depths, and by implementing new ideas such as compost tea brewing that are designed to augment the actions of nature. Using a low-input approach means thinking carefully about everything we artificially apply in order to ensure that we don’t put ourselves on the back foot. Even something as simple as spraying mains water onto a green can have a negative effect on bacterial populations and soil health, as mains water deemed “fit for human consumption” is full of chlorine. When I see what damage these simple issues that we take for granted have on the health of our soils, it does make me wonder what kind of damage we are doing to our own bodies!

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Our compost tea brewer. It is basically just a 1000-litre plastic IBC tank with a mains-operated pump running a submerged aerifier…a bit like a giant fish tank. The green outlet hose feeds straight into our tractor mounted sprayer. The idea is that, once the water has stood for at least 24 hours to let the chlorine gas dissipate into the air, a specially blended dried compost containing many different types of beneficial bacteria and fungi is suspended in a permeable sock in the tank and an activator is added along with some concentrated seaweed. Once the mixture becomes wet and is constantly aerated for a period of time, the bacteria and fungi present in the compost multiply extremely rapidly and a massive number of them populate the water. After 24 hours, the mixture is ready to be decanted into the sprayer and applied to the greens, where the bacteria will hopefully develop a liking for our humus-rich rootzone where they will live happily, naturally fighting off disease pathogens, breaking down nutrients, devouring organic matter which they will turn into plant food, all as part of their daily existence. The more we can rely on natural processes such as these, the less we should have to spray chemicals and apply fertilisers, which will, in turn, allow us to maintain our greens in a way that favours the growth of fescue. The end result of this, as I discussed earlier, is a set of bulletproof greens that are consistent from site to site, require very little mechanical disruption and are as good to putt on in December as they are in July.

What’s Next for Machrihanish Dunes?

By the time you read this, the Kintyre Club Charity Am-Am will have been played, but it is only a few weeks until the Kintyre Team Championship, which is played over two days at Dunaverty and Machrihanish Dunes. If you have not already entered for that event and would like to play, you should phone Lorna at the Golf House on 01586810058 or fill out this form as soon as possible because the tee sheet is already pretty full.

Whether you play in competitions or not, we hope to see you out on the course over the next few weeks and hope you enjoy your golf. If you have any questions for us about the golf course, please do just come over and ask!

 

 

Golf Season Is on the Horizon

Summer is Coming!

This seems to have been a very long winter, and the Greenkeeping squad at Machrihanish Dunes is looking forward to the end of it just as much as I’m sure you are. Considering the battering our site has had this winter, the fine turf surfaces on the golf course actually look pretty healthy at the moment. Our priority now is to retain the grass cover we have and ensure that nutrient levels in the soil and plant leaf are adequate if and when temperatures become sufficiently elevated for growth to become properly activated. The trick at this time of year is always to provide just enough nutrition to allow nature to complete its essential processes in the most efficient manner without promoting lush growth that could produce elongated growth, weaken plants, and encourage disease. The sun has been making fleeting appearances as I write this and when it has poked through the clouds, there is just a little bit of warmth that has not been there before. Even the birds were singing—I haven’t heard that for a while! Hopefully, the old saying will be true and March will go out like a lamb, because it definitely came in like a lion!

Preparing for Tournaments

Although it feels like we are still in the last throes of winter, we are well aware that spring is only a matter of weeks away, and when it does arrive, the competition season will be instantly upon us! Although we have monthly medals all year round, we tend to focus our maintenance towards having the course in peak condition for our “majors”. Somebody asked me recently how far in advance we plan for our biggest competitions, and the truth is that we are always planning for them in some way. Obviously, this effort becomes more focused the week before an event, but I already have a season-long plan written down that should help us to have the course in peak condition for our biggest events.

2018 MD Kintyre Charity Am-Am_Blog2Our first tournament this year is a charity four-person Am-Am on April 8th,  which serves as a fundraiser for our Kintyre Club charity. We are delighted and extremely appreciative that Glen Scotia Distillery and their parent company, Loch Lomond Group, have agreed to sponsor the prizes for this event, as it maximises the potential for us to raise money- every penny of which will then be re-distributed to worthy causes in the Kintyre area. For those of you who are unfamiliar, this not-for-profit charity was set up by our parent company, Southworth Development, in 2012  and has since donated over £50,000 to—among other things—educational endeavours, junior sports clubs, and musical bands and groups who actively encourage the development of young people. Without the backing of local charities and organisations such as the Kintyre Club, it would be impossible for some of these clubs and organisations that support and encourage our young people to survive. In many cases, grants backed by local and national government funding that would have been relatively easy to access in years gone by have now dried up completely, and charity funding is one of the few avenues that the hard-working organisers of these clubs and ventures have left available to them. Writing these updates gives me the opportunity to appeal to its readers on a monthly basis, so please give serious thought to participating in this event if you possibly can- least of all because a four-person Am-Am at Machrihanish Dunes will be brilliant fun and a great way to start our competitive season, but also because every penny of the money we raise on the day will be redistributed to worthy causes in our own community.

2018KintyreTeamChampionship_BlogOur second four-person team event is the Kintyre Team Championship, run in conjunction with Dunaverty Golf Club over the weekend of 21st-22nd April. This competition has become a firm favourite since its inception in 2015 and comprises a 2-ball better ball competition at Dunaverty on Saturday followed by an individual Stableford at Machrihanish Dunes on Sunday, with 3 of the 4 individual scores counting towards the team total. In my opinion, the popularity of this tournament stems from its diversity—it has facets of individual, pairs, and team play which maximises the potential for competition between the teams and also between the individuals who make them up. It is great fun.

By the time these two tournaments have been contested, the summer season will be well underway. The Shepherd’s Cross, run in conjunction with Machrihanish Golf Club, will be held on Sunday, June 17th. As regular competitors will know, this long-established team event is played over the first 9 holes at Machrihanish, before competitors cross the fence to play a composite “back nine” at Machrihanish Dunes. After the rounds have been completed, golfers are shuttled back to Machrihanish on our buses for refreshments and a prizegiving at the Ugadale Hotel.

Campbeltown Open Logo FINAL 2018Hot on the heels of the Shepherd’s Cross comes our flagship event, the Campbeltown Open. Although it is primarily a 36-hole stroke-play tournament, the Campbeltown Open is multi-faceted, running side by side with two other events:

With a barbeque running, Peter’s legendary soup flowing freely, and entertainment planned for the Saturday evening, Campbeltown Open weekend has a gala atmosphere and is not to be missed.

In all honesty, we have struggled to find a formula for our Club Championship that suits everybody. This year, we have elected to run this members-only event over the weekend of 28th-29th July, with 18 holes stroke-play each day. We cannot think of a better way to decide this most prestigious of club tournaments without making it virtually impossible for members who live outside of Kintyre to compete, and we believe it is imperative to the continued growth of the Club to ensure that as many members as possible are given the opportunity to compete in the Club Championship regardless of where they are based. We will review the success of this format after this year’s tournament, and as always, we welcome your input and ideas on how we can improve these events in the years to come.

2018_BlackSheepOpen_BlogThe Black Sheep Open has become one of our most popular events, which we are delighted about because it is actually very simple to run! An 18-hole Stableford Open is the most friendly and least attritional way to decide a golf tournament and I think this helps to promote the friendly, relaxed atmosphere that surrounds the competition. Maybe this is the key to promoting a successful event—make it inclusive for everybody, fun to play in, and ensure that everybody can return a score regardless of how difficult those nasty greenkeepers set the course up to play!

After the winter we are just emerging from, it pains me to even mention the end of a golf season, but for us, that is what the Autumn Pairs signifies. One of Machrihanish Dunes’ longest-running events, the Autumn Pairs Open will be run this year in conjunction with our popular members’ awards evening. This would be an ideal opportunity to plan an overnight stay and enjoy some semi-competitive golf, excellent food, and whatever interactive entertainment we decide to set up for you to participate in this year. Darts could feature again. Nearly everyone loves the darts! Maybe a quiz? Some music? I don’t know for sure yet but I’ll put my thinking cap on and I am definitely open to suggestions!

I don’t know about you, but I am really looking forward to preparing for and helping to run these tournaments in 2018. It would be a monotonous existence for a greenskeeper if he had no tournaments to prepare for, but a packed schedule such as this gives us just the right number of peaks to aim for.

If any of these tournaments appeal to you and you want more information than I have supplied here, please phone Lorna on 01586810067, email her at golfhouse@machdunes.com, or fill out this form.

The Club Championship and the Shepherd’s Cross are the only member-only events we run, and we welcome anybody with a recognised handicap to enter any or all of our other events. All of our golf events are designed to include gents, ladies, and juniors and we actively encourage everybody to take part. Many of these events are also run in conjunction with evening entertainment at The Ugadale Hotel, and a discounted competitor’s rate is quite often available should potential entrants wish to stay in either of our hotels or our cottages. The best way to make yourself aware of just what is on offer is to phone us and ask. Our reservations team is armed with all the information you could ever need and is willing and ready to put together a package that suits your specific needs. Accommodations for the dates of these competitions do sell out quite quickly, so my advice if you are keen on taking advantage of these offers would be to make contact as early as you possibly can.

Enjoy your golf in March. Hopefully, the weather will take a turn for the better!

A Change Is as Good as a Rest

These updates have been pretty upbeat recently, and justifiably so. The favourable weather throughout November and December allowed us to complete a good number of our planned construction projects before most of the greenkeeping team took a well deserved festive break. Unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worse since New Year. High winds, torrential rain, and regular batches of snow and hail have hampered our progress and “forced” us inside. After two weeks which were predominantly spent painting the inside of the golf house, servicing machinery, and making new tee markers, the opportunity suddenly arose for me to leave all this “misery” behind and jet off to our sister club in The Bahamas, The Abaco Club, to help the greenkeeping team there to prepare for the Web.com Tour event they were hosting. Now, I know this blog is supposed to be all about Machrihanish Dunes, but I am also aware of just how depressed you will all be with the grim conditions that have engulfed Scotland’s golf courses of late. I figured that recounting the story of my trip might make for an interesting read, and that the accompanying pictures might, at the very least, cheer everybody up a bit!

This is the view of Winding Bay from the 5th tee when the sun came up on my first morning at Abaco. Welcome to the Caribbean!
This is the view of Winding Bay from the 5th tee when the sun came up on my first morning at Abaco. Welcome to the Caribbean!

The Island and the Resort

I had never been to the Caribbean before, and although I had obviously heard of The Bahamas, I hadn’t ever studied a map of them. I had never realised that there was such a collection of small islands governed from one central point, and I found the similarities between The Bahamas and the islands off the west coast of Scotland to be very interesting. Great Abaco (the island where the resort is situated) is west of Freeport and north of Nassau, and the population is around 17,000. The main port town of Marsh Harbour is served by a small airport and about 6,000 people live there. Even just digesting these initial numbers suggests that the same issues that account for both the unspoilt charm and the logistical issues that characterise our own islands should also be indicative here and this is absolutely the case. The cost of living is high, the links to the wider world are expensive and can, in some cases, be unreliable, and there is limited availability to some of the “luxuries” that people living in large conurbations might regard as essential. But the sense of community, the quality of the local cuisine, and the culture that define the island have been retained in a way that might be impossible if further development were financially viable or even possible. Having lived on a Scottish island with a proud heritage for many years, I am aware that life there will thankfully never change, and I think the same will most probably turn out to be the case for a lot of these idyllic Caribbean islands.

The Abaco Club on Winding Bay is situated right in the middle of this island paradise. The magnificent Steel/MacKenzie-designed golf course hugs the coastline, surrounding the development on all sides. The houses and restaurants that are perched on the cliff face afford mind-blowing views out into the Atlantic that would stretch all the way to Lanzarote if only the earth were flat. Some of the houses are privately owned but there is a range of accommodation available to rent for holiday purposes, and these are served by a selection of on-site restaurants and friendly bars that offer up sensational food and relaxed conversation on a daily basis. There is no hint of snobbery here and I had a great time chatting with people from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life.

The Tournament

The schedule for the Web.com Tour looks exhausting. There are 27 events in all, starting with two stops in the Bahamas in January before heading to Panama, Colombia, and Mexico, and finally landing in mainland USA in March for a drive around the country that eventually leads to a tour championship in Florida at the end of September. The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic is the second tournament of the year, and the set-up for this is scrutinised every bit as carefully as it is for the elite events on the main PGA Tour. An agronomist is based on-site in the weeks before the players arrive, and his job is to ensure that the course is maintained to a suitable standard to enable the tournament to run smoothly and provide a fair and exacting test of golf.

There are many spectacular holes at Abaco, but the driveable par-4 5th is a brilliant piece of architecture as well as being a bit special to look at. It has every base covered!
There are many spectacular holes at Abaco, but the driveable par-4 5th is a brilliant piece of architecture as well as being a bit special to look at. It has every base covered!

Needless to say, Abaco passed this examination with flying colours. The surfaces of the paspalum greens were flawless and the grass was in excellent health, so it was relatively easy for Superintendent Matt DiMase to manipulate them to provide the tour with exactly the green speed that they were looking for. Fertilisation had been carefully monitored to ensure that clipping yields from regular mowings were extremely low during the week of the tournament, and the surfaces were very firm with little sign of excessive organic matter. No topdressing was done during my time at the Club, but clearly, a good regime is in place here that ensures the sandy profile of the upper rootzone is kept in prime condition. Working with paspalum was interesting and I could relate to Matt’s battle to create a monoculture of this species through the greens, tees, approaches, and fairways as it mirrors our own work at Machrihanish Dunes as we attempt to favour perennial bents and fescues over invasive annual meadowgrass. The bermudagrass which tries to infiltrate the paspalum surfaces struggles due to relatively poor salt tolerance.On the shoreside holes, it was clear to see that the paspalum was winning the battle. It provides a brilliant putting surface when it is maintained as well as it was here. Even I could hole out with monotonous regularity. It’s actually a shame that it is far too cold and far too dull on the west coast of Scotland to try and grow this grass here, as its other characteristics would ensure it would compete well on our shoreside holes. But I think our weather would be as welcome to this grass as it would be towards the Bahamian greenkeepers who look after it!

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The paspalum on the 7th green looking flawless. The huge Colonial style house in the background was my favourite pad on the site.

There was a squad of around 20 local guys working on the course under the supervision of Matt and his assistants, Juan Carlos and Sherwood, and they were keen and hilarious. Working with them was like watching the film Cool Runnings with five times the size of cast. There are some real characters there. They know how to put a shift in, though, and they would always turn up before the 5am start time, ready to go almost instantly. Collectively, they had a real interest in the golf course and greenkeeping and they welcomed me onto their team immediately, bombarding me with questions about grass, what our course was like in Scotland, and how our lives compared with the relatively sheltered existences they were living out on their own wee patch of paradise. They drooled over pictures on my phone of Machrihanish Dunes, but they were absolutely horrified by some of my images of our weather!

In the days leading up to the tournament, I was put in charge of collecting performance data for the tour agronomist, which would get logged on a spreadsheet and saved for posterity in order to assess what improvements were being made to turf conditions. The Bahamas government signed a 3-year deal to host this event, so the data will provide Matt and the tour with useful information in the run up to future tournaments. Although it might sound like collecting data was an unimportant task in comparison to changing holes or cutting greens, I was pleased to be able to take the responsibility away from Matt, as he knew he could trust me to log the information responsibly. As it was, he still ended up running about in all directions trying to direct his team while being pulled all over the place by the various officials that inevitably needed his input. Collecting the data twice daily gave me the opportunity to see at first hand how the paspalum greens reacted to the subtle changes that were made to the maintenance program, and it was interesting to see how similar these greens performed to our own. Missing a roll made them run a few inches slower, whereas rolling twice a day had a marked effect on speed and firmness. By the Friday before the tournament started, (this Web.com Tour event ran from Sunday-Wednesday) they were brick hard and rolling at least 6 inches faster than the tour had requested. The weather had been relatively cool (I had my shorts on, but most of the local lads were shivering in jackets) and moisture levels were around 12-15 percent, so the standard cutting and rolling regime had been enough to turn the greens into scary monsters overnight. I have often scoffed when watching greenkeepers mess about with stimpmeters and firmness testing equipment, but in a situation like this, the data that these instruments provide really do help in the decision-making process. A quick adjustment to the program saw the performance of the greens calm down sufficiently that they were perfect going into day 1 of the tournament, and stayed that way until well after the pampered pros had finished with them. They enjoyed putting on them every bit as much as I did.

This pin at the 15th on day 2 bordered on the obscene. With a quarry flanking the entire right side of the hole, aiming straight at this was a foolish move. Great to see that the tour officials have a sense of humour!
This pin at the 15th on day 2 bordered on the obscene. With a quarry flanking the entire right side of the hole, aiming straight at this was a foolish move. Great to see that the tour officials have a sense of humour!

Daily course preparation went like clockwork, despite the greenkeeping team being forced to deal with a two-tee start and a delay at the end of day 1 that meant some players had to come back out and finish their rounds the next morning. We could not even begin to see where we were going until 6.20am, so with golfers due to tee off on 1, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 18 at 6.50am, that second morning turned out to be a major logistical headache. If you have enough machines and manpower and you are well enough organised, you can achieve pretty much anything, though, and these boys were pretty good at mowing with their lights on.

The tournament turned out to be highly competitive and was extremely good entertainment. I’m sure some people would have liked the winning score to have been a little lower than -17, but with at least half a dozen players in the mix right up to the last hole, it made for compelling viewing. The 18th at Abaco has a relatively wide fairway but it is flanked on both sides by coral shelves and absolute jungle. It would be a frightening prospect if you were protecting a lead, so even though the scoring was good, there is no doubt that the course provided a worthy winner in Adam Svensson. The prizegiving was an extravaganza, with all sorts of local officials and dignitaries present. This showed just what an event of this stature means to a place like Great Abaco and The Bahamas as a whole in terms of exposure and marketing potential. I am sure the government will be keen for the event to showcase the undoubted beauty of their islands for many years to come!

Adam Svensson patiently waits to get his hands on the trophy. Every one of these dignitaries wanted a word first!
Adam Svensson patiently waits to get his hands on the trophy. Every one of these dignitaries wanted a word first!

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I loved my trip to The Bahamas. The local people were exceptionally welcoming, the food was incredible, and some of the places we visited outside of the resort were stunningly beautiful (Sandy Point was an obvious highlight). I would definitely recommend Great Abaco as a destination for anybody who is looking for somewhere relaxing and surprisingly unspoiled to go on holiday. I don’t think I could live there, though, any more than I could go back to living on a Scottish island. I have it too good here in Campbeltown, and it only took a fleeting appearance of the winter sun this week to remind me that there aren’t many finer golf courses to work on than Machrihanish Dunes. It is worth putting up with the bad days on the west coast of Scotland in order to truly revel in the good ones!

Passage to Paradise: Win a Stay at The Abaco Club

It’s winter – and if you’re anything like us, you find yourself daydreaming about warm sunshine, sandy beaches, hammocks wrapped around palm trees, and endless blue island waters. In fact, you may find yourself coveting that even more than a solid links golf holiday (as sacrilegious as that may sound). Well, at Mach Dunes’ sister club The Abaco Club in The Bahamas, you can have both – and you could win a free stay there just by staying at Mach Dunes this March!

We know it sounds too good to be true, but it’s a fact: enjoy a luxurious stay at The Royal Hotel or The Ugadale Hotel & Cottages during the month of March and you’ll automatically be entered to win 4 free nights for two in one of The Abaco Club’s luxurious, 1-bedroom suites*!  You can even take advantage of our March offers to enter, including our Spring Swing Stay & Play or our ever-popular Girls Night In.  The prize draw has already raised a lot of eyebrows, so, before reading on, you may want book now before the hotels fill up!

Don’t say we didn’t warn you…

BASWAS Aerial

Like Mach Dunes,  The Abaco Club is a Southworth property, so you know it’s more than just a fantastic golf escape. In fact, The Abaco Club is a private sporting club with all the amenities of a 5-star tropical resort.  The secluded beach that lines the property is a 2.5-mile stretch of white, powder soft sand, and the clear, warm waters of Winding Bay provide the perfect playground for the many water toys and snorkeling gear the club offers its guests (free of charge).  Two oceanview restaurants offer island fare that’s fresh, colorful, and made to order. The European-style spa, fitness facilities, and tennis courts are at your disposal during your stay, and the Cabana suites are both private and convenient – just steps from both the 1st tee and the beach.

BASWAS Amenity 2

And then there’s the tropical links course perennially ranked #1 in The Bahamas.

BASWAS Golf

The course is a beautiful – and beautifully designed – experience that can serve as both a compelling test of skill and a fun and casual romp.  It’s played host to the Web.com Tour’s Bahamas Great Abaco Classic in 2017 and 2018 (much to the delight of the players), and is a home-away-from-home for 2016 Ryder Cup Captain Darren Clarke.  He frequents his home there often, both to clear his head after a tournament and to tighten up his game on the award-winning course.  He recently spoke about the Club on the Golf Channel.

Suffice to say, The Abaco Club is an extraordinary tropical experience, and we’re delighted at the opportunity to offer the lucky winner a free stay with friends!

So have you booked your March stay at Mach Dunes yet?  No?  Well, what are you waiting for?  Call +44 1586 810000 or click here to book your Mach Dunes getaway and a chance to win a stay in paradise!

*Click here for full terms and conditions.

2017: A Year in Pictures

Mrs. Freeman will justifiably tell you that I spend way too much time messing around on social media, but my endless bombardment of Instagram with photographs of Machrihanish Dunes does provide a handy archive of inspiring images. Just in case you have been doing something more worthwhile with your time this year and have therefore missed these, here is a selection of the best ones I took and uploaded in 2017.

January

As always, the weather on the west coast of Scotland came from every direction in January, which meant a mixture of conditions and a range of temperatures that people in other parts of the country might have difficulty believing. Southwesterly gales around the middle of the month raised the needle to 13C, which is the last thing we need when the days are short and sunlight hours are limited. This time of year can be a day-to-day battle to keep greens and tees turf healthy enough to survive until the longer days of spring arrive to relieve the pressure. The day this picture was taken was typical of January; it had been tipping down with rain and blowing a gale all day but just as the sun started to set, the whole sky cleared from the west to leave us with this phenomenal sunset. After being cooped up in the shed all day making tee markers, I was glad to get out for a run down the beach where I could admire this view in all its glory. #thewestisthebest

Jan-2018-1

February

A lot of discussion had gone on during summer 2016 about the condition of the bunkers at Machrihanish Dunes. Some of the ones that had been fringed with marram when the course was built had become hopelessly overgrown and many had collapsed and lost a lot of sand. The course had been widened a lot since its inception which resulted in some of the bunkers that were full of marram being surrounded by cut grass. This obviously led to a lot of frustration among golfers who lost balls in the faces while their partners who had missed greens by wider margins found themselves left with perfect lies. We made the decision to revet the edges of the bunkers that were surrounded by cut grass and to leave wild the edges of the bunkers that were still connected to the rough. The greenside bunker at 14 is a classic example of this new genre, with one side smartly revetted and the other side left wild as the architect intended. #controversywillalwaysaccompanychange

Jan-2018-2

March

The 5th green was hit hard during the period of southwesterly gales that we experienced in January. We learned that when greens get covered in a layer of windblown salt that is not subsequently flushed through the rootzone, a pan can form which is extremely toxic to the grass. It was frightening to watch how quickly the green tried to die on us, so we applied some penetrating wetting agent, connected up a hose, and hand-watered it until we had washed all the salt through. After that, we applied our favoured recovery mix of products and watched as the health returned just as quickly as it had disappeared. By the time I returned from two weeks’ holiday on the 7th March, the green looked this good. This experience has taught us that the really dangerous gales are the ones that are followed immediately by calm, sunny weather (the kind of scenario typified by my January picture). You might automatically assume (as I did) that a calm, sunny day would help a green to recover after a brutal day of being pounded by salt and windblown sand but in actual fact, the exact opposite is true. Now we know that if we suffer a gale of 50mph or more that is not followed by heavy rain, we need to whip out the hoses and flush the shoreside greens before the sun and salt combine to kill our precious grass. Hand-hosing greens in January may look strange, but the effects of not doing it can be catastrophic. #thinkingoutsidethebox #stripesdontcomeanystraighter

Jan-2018-3

April

Another fantastic west coast sky, which the camera on my phone did absolutely no justice to! What a view it is from the shoreside holes at Machrihanish Dunes over towards Islay and Jura, where thoughts inevitably stray towards the two golf developments which are due to open there in 2018. I spent a long time at Machrie before moving to Kintyre in 2014 and obviously I have fond memories of playing the old course, but I have to admire the job Dean Muir and his greenkeeping team have done to get the new course looking as good as it does in such a short space of time. Is it as good, or is it maybe even better? Only you can decide that–you will need to come down this way and have a look for yourself! One thing I can tell you is that the new hotel is incredible. I was given a guided tour of it in October when it was still far from finished and what they have built undoubtedly retains the aura of the original hotel on the east side while masking a fabulous new west wing which contains a raised bar and a huge restaurant area from which the views are, in my opinion, unparalleled. I am sure I speak for everybody involved with Machrihanish Dunes when I wish the owners and Dean and his team every success when Machrie opens for commercial business early in 2018. The paps of Jura can be clearly seen on the right side of my picture, and these iconic hills form the backdrop for another new golf development at Ardfin. Designed by eminent Australian architect Bob Harrison, Ardfin is an uncompromising course developed simply to make the absolute best use of the land available. It is a massive site with huge changes in elevation, and many of the holes are breathtakingly stunning. The holes that hug the shoreline from 8 through to 14 are actually mind-blowing. Rumours of exclusivity are rife, so whether you or I will ever get the chance to play this course remains to be seen. Nobody has officially said “no” though, so there is definitely hope. I am working on the premise that if you don’t ask, you don’t get! What knock-on effect the development of these two brilliant sites will have for Machrihanish Dunes and our associated hotels remains to be seen, but I would imagine that having more excellent courses to play in the area will only serve to encourage even more people to make Kintyre and our adjacent islands their chosen holiday destination. #excitingtimesfortherealsouthwestofscotland

Jan-2018-4

May

Right, that is enough talk about our neighbours…back to Machrihanish Dunes! April 2017 was a fine month with a lot of dry weather, and as we moved into May with its higher temperatures, the course burned right out. Although these conditions cause a few headaches for us greenkeepers, it does make the course so much more fun to play. Machrihanish Dunes was designed to be played as a running course, and having the opportunity to play that kind of golf on a hard, polished surface is an unusual treat. The course looks brilliant during extended periods of dry weather, and it is always nice to look back at these images during the bleak days of winter and to look forward to the time in the not-too-distant future when we will hopefully enjoy these conditions once again! #scorched #summeriscoming

Jan-2018-5

June

Our main focus in June is always the Campbeltown Open, and this year’s event featured a dry weekend for once. This meant fabulous, but testing conditions for golf, with an ever-present westerly wind ensuring that only the most talented golfers in the field could hope to compete. The dry wind blew a lot of salt and sand onto the shoreside holes and once again, I was forced to haul out the hoses on Sunday evening to flush the greens and give them a bit of relief going into the week that followed. Of course, the long-term effects of salt burn are not as pronounced in June as they are during the short days of January, because as long as you bring the water to them early enough, recovery during periods of higher temperatures and high levels of sunlight is always swift. #canttakeyoureyeofftheball

Jan-2018-6

 

July

The fabulous Machrihanish Dunes garden is always in full bloom during July. The slightly blinkered but understandable obsession with the rare orchids on our site actually takes too much of the focus away from the beauty of the rest of the flora, most of which seem to survive very well under a management regime admittedly tailored towards the needs of golf rather than the requirements of plants. There are about a dozen species of wildflower in this image alone, and when weather conditions are optimal, our machair semi-rough is stunningly beautiful. #donttakedivotsoutofmyflowerbed

Jan-2018-7

August

Somebody once said that if you can find a job that you genuinely enjoy doing then you’ll never need to work a day in your life. While it might look from this image like Craig and Sebastian have found that nirvana at Machrihanish Dunes, the reality was that they had spent most of the previous four weeks hand-pulling thousands of ragwort plants that had colonised the deep rough. Under the terms of our management agreement with SNH, we are required to control the spread of this weed and it is a heinous job that turned out be even worse than usual this year as the mixed weather conditions in June and July ensured that a bumper crop grew up around us. This image was taken just after the last load had been collected from around the 13th tee, which might explain why the two of them are looking so pleased. #chilledout #bestbuds

Jan-2018-8

September

September is historically a brilliant growing month on the west coast of Scotland, so it is an ideal time to do some work on the greens and tees in an attempt to improve the sward. Chris is creating a seedbed here by aerating the sanded greens to a shallow depth using a Toro Procore fitted with large 19mm tines, after which we broadcast some quality fescue seed onto the surface and then brushed the whole lot into the holes the aerator had left. A quick roll finished off the job which, thanks to the ideal conditions, was completed in record time. All we could do after that was sit back and hope that all that grass seed germinated. #ifyouplantitwillcome

Jan-2018-9

October

These two pictures were actually taken only two weeks apart, but in this image taken on the 1st October, the new grass growing in the grid pattern left by Chris’ aerator can clearly be seen in the light of the early morning sun. I actually had to dumb the light down quite a lot on this one as it was a glorious day, but unfortunately, the rest of October turned out to be a bit of a letdown. Normally, we would expect to get a lot of fine weather through this month but Autumn descended depressingly quickly in 2017. #fescuetotherescue

Jan-2018-10

November

There is a definite symmetry about this selection of photos, with the 2nd to last month of the year again featuring bunker construction. The 11th at Machrihanish Dunes is a great hole which is flanked by the beach and the Atlantic Ocean on the right and by an environmentally rich area of dune slack on the left. Originally, the tees hugged the sea wall, but these were moved inland to great effect a few years ago. It proved far easier to find the fairway from the new tees, and it has always been our desire to move the yellow tee even further left if the opportunity arose. Regular visitors to the course will be glad to hear that we have now constructed this tee and we have also done some re-contouring work in the fairway which will reduce the potential for a drive to kick left into the wetland. Add to this the big visual impact that is made by the rebuilt greenside bunker in this image, and the 11th promises to be a massively improved hole in 2018. #jobdone

Jan-2018-11

December

Just to add to the symmetry I already mentioned, the year in pictures ends with another magnificent west coast sky scene! This one is a sunrise rather than a sunset, and it is a common view for me in winter as I set out to prepare the course for the members that understandably like to play as soon as it is light. It is always our desire to have the course set up as well as we possibly can for every golfer that tees it up, so to this end we will use headlights whenever we can to get ourselves ahead of play. There is no hardship in this, for although it is still pitch dark in this image and I was on my 4th hole of bunker raking, it was probably already after 8 AM (that is the middle of the day on the greenkeeper clock!). And look at the view I get to enjoy while most other people are still at home planning what to do with their Sunday! The watchtowers in the old airbase may be ugly, utilitarian buildings by day, but they do provide a really good focal point for images taken in the early morning light. What is it they say about red sky in the morning…? #itoldyouthewestisthebest

Jan-2018-12

Whatever next?

Well I don’t really know. I guess we will just have to wait and see, won’t we! Just putting this update together (on December 30th) has got me looking forward to 2018 already, and I hope you can muster similar levels of enthusiasm for the year ahead. We look forward to welcoming all of our friends back to Machrihanish Dunes at some point during the year ahead, and of course we are keen to welcome new visitors to the links for the first time. I am sure there will be plenty more photo opportunities for me to waste my spare time flooding Instagram with in the coming 12 months. Hopefully, I can bring another dozen images back to you at the end of this year to showcase just how great 2018 was for all of us. Bring it on!