Goodbye, October – You Won’t Be Missed!

I know it’s not like me, but I really haven’t got too much to say about October. I’m sure most of you who suffered through it with me would agree that the less we say about it, the better! It was the wettest and dullest month in recent memory, and probably the only positive we can take from it is that nearly all the fescue seeds we buried into the surface of our greens and tees have germinated and come to maturity without ever becoming even remotely dehydrated. We raised the mowing height on the greens after the Autumn Pairs to allow for recovery from the wear that inevitably accumulates during a typical golfing season–a time when we subject the grass to a near-death experience every single day in a relentless quest to provide players with tournament-level green speeds. Eventually, something has to give to ensure that we enter the harsh winter months with enough grass cover on even our weakest greens to avoid small bare patches from quickly turning into large bare patches. The decision to raise the cutting height slightly to give the greens a break while soil temperatures (and moisture levels!) were still relatively high has yielded good results. Although we remain constantly vigilant, we are quietly pleased with the recovery that we have seen over the last three weeks.

The 8th green bathed in Autumn sunshine...a rare sight this October.
The 8th green bathed in autumn sunshine…a rare sight this October.

Balancing Turf Nutrition to Promote a Healthier Soil

Monitoring nutritional inputs is massively important at this time of year, as the threat of turf disease is never far away. We have been on the cusp of a fusarium outbreak for several weeks now, but have managed to keep our greens healthy enough to avoid the need to spray a remedial fungicide onto them. The longer I can maintain that position, the happier I will be. Not only are effective fungicides massively expensive, but they inevitably kill beneficial fungal bacteria as well as the bad guys that cause disease. Over-using these products would drag us into a negative spiral where we would need to constantly rely on them as a necessary component of our chemical arsenal rather than as a last resort. In an ideal world, our soil will be densely populated with all kinds of beneficial bacteria that break down thatch and turn it into plant food, protect plant cells from disease pathogens, and help the perennial grasses that we want to promote in our swards to form a positive bond with their rootzone that they are growing in. None of this would happen if sufficient colonies of these organisms were not present. In this situation, we would have to apply more artificial fertilisers than we would like, which would leave us open to attack from fungal outbreaks that could only be checked by reaching for artificial cures. We want our soil to contain natural predators that have the instincts to control those pathogens. Relying on chemistry alone would result in us working within a massively expensive and highly stressful vacuum in which everything we grow would only do so because of the applications we make. We don’t want that. Balancing chemistry with biology helps us avoid creating the kind of stressful environment that could negatively impact the health of the organisms that we rely upon to do our job for us. I was taught very early in my career that successful and cost-effective greenkeeping is entirely dependent on this good working balance between chemistry and biology. The longer I work at the seaside, the more I believe this is absolutely true. Unfortunately, so many of the things we do in our quest to provide golfers with consistently good playing conditions compromises the health of the grass and the soil that it grows in, which is, of course, why you see us running around making regular applications to the greens. But you hardly ever see us do anything to the outlying areas of the course where grass grows quite happily despite seeing very little maintenance. There is a direct correlation between the amount of stress that we subject an area of grass to and the amount of investment and effort it takes to keep that area of grass alive!

My goal at this time of year is to work with my soil analysis results and interpret what I see on a daily basis, then apply just enough of the exact nutrients that our greens need in order to go into December (gale season!) in perfect health. Apply too little or keep the height of cut too low and recovery before winter arrives will be too slow, leading to bare patches that will grow at a horrific pace with every salt-laden westerly wind that batters the course. Apply too much or aerate too little, or miss an opportunity to remove a dew that has settled on leaf blades, and a disease attack will smash through the overly-lush grass, forcing us to crack open the fungicide and send us right back to square one. Creating something that appears to be entirely natural is, in reality, all one big, complicated balancing act!

The 10th green, freshly cut on a Saturday morning. If you look carefully (you might have to zoom in and squint!), you can see the lines of new grass that we germinated during our renovation work last month.
The 10th green, freshly cut on a Saturday morning. If you look carefully (you might have to zoom in and squint!), you can see the lines of new grass that we germinated during our renovation work last month.

Winter Projects

The absolute best thing about our job is the way our tasks on the course fluctuate with the seasons. Spring revolves around preparing for the golfing season; summer is basically all about cutting grass and producing the best possible playing surface; autumn is about relieving the negative effects of what we do in summer, while winter — well, winter is mostly about regular aeration and construction. Last winter, we rebuilt a lot of bunkers with the aim to make them fairer and easier to play from. Eventually, we ran out of both time and turf, so we still have half of this project left to complete this winter. Being able to step back and see how the bunkers we built worked in practice and how they were received by guests and members has worked in our favour though, because although we have received a lot of good feedback about them, there is no doubt that some have not performed as well as we would have liked. The change of style was so drastic that I will admit, I compromised the design of some bunkers. The compromised ones are the ones that have suffered from excessive wind erosion and turf damage. There is no need for me to go into the technical details of how I think we can do better this next time around, but studying the progress of the ones we built last winter has definitely taught me some lessons that should ensure the ones we construct this year will work out a lot better.

The fairway bunker at the 13th undergoing reconstruction work. This one has been stripped back a little bit further than some of the ones we have done previously as we wanted to lower the top line of the hazard, removing some of the blindness that frustrates first-time visitors on this hole.
The fairway bunker at the 13th undergoing reconstruction work. This one has been stripped back a little bit further than some of the ones we have done previously as we wanted to lower the top line of the hazard, removing some of the blindness that frustrates first-time visitors on this hole.

The other job we are carrying over from last year is the replacement of all the wooden bridges on the course, except for the long boardwalk at the 17th. The wooden bridges were an attractive feature, but now, well, let’s just say they’ve seen better days. We were faced with the choice of either rebuilding them in a similar manner or changing the style to something a little less “eye-catching.” The design we came up with was very simple, and just involves burying a plastic culvert pipe under sand and turf and overlaying this with a pathway of rubber matting to help reduce wear from foot and machine traffic. As with all the construction jobs that we undertake on the course, the design of the bridges was carefully considered with environmental impact in mind. We still work within the parameters of an agreed management plan that was drawn up in conjunction with Scottish Natural Heritage and we are, therefore, always mindful that anything we do on the course must have minimal impact on the long-term integrity of the site. We feel that these bridges are actually an improvement in this regard, as the wooden ones provided a dark, humid environment that favoured the growth of weeds like dockens, nettles, and bracken over grass plants that need more light in order to compete effectively.

If you have any questions about the jobs that we are undertaking this winter, or if you have any suggestions for projects that you think we should consider in order to improve the way the course plays, then please come out and see us. Because of the strict environmental parameters that we work within, there may be reasons why we cannot tackle a project that would improve the way the course plays, but on many occasions, the reason why we have not done something that may seem obvious is simply because we have not spotted it. We look forward to seeing as many of you out there as possible over the winter months, making the most of the sunny days that we must surely be due after the poor weather we have had to endure for the last five months!

Enjoy your golf!


A Period of Transition

Most of us greenkeepers love the autumn shoulder months, when the monotony that sets in after months of setting up – and then frantically trying to implement – grass mowing programs is gradually replaced with the more peaceful and thought-provoking pastime of winter construction work. While we do have a few weeks of the main golf season left and we still have to prepare the course for the Autumn Pairs, half our minds are already on the projects that we look forward to getting stuck into once this tournament has passed. Watch this space!

We Felt The Need…The Need For Seed!

I outlined our autumn renovations plans in last month’s  update, and I’m delighted to report that things have gone absolutely to plan for us. We spiked the greens with 13mm tines on the 28th and 29th August in order to create a bed to brush garlic granules into. This work was planned to coincide with the first wave of attacks from crane flies hoping to lay leatherjacket eggs into the greens, and from what we saw, the application was timed very well. The work was carried out in dry weather, which allowed us to maximise the number of granules that we could brush under the surface where our mowers could not lift them straight back off again. Time will tell whether or not this process yields satisfactory results, but we feel that we have given the product every chance to work.

Our second wave of renovation work was planned for the start of the week of 18th/19th September because we wanted to wait until after the club championship, while also maximising our chances of having the greens back in good condition before the Autumn Pairs. The weather played right into our hands, with bright sunshine on the Monday and Tuesday.  This allowed us to complete the work with the absolute minimum amount of mess and disruption. The rain that followed on Wednesday washed in everything we had applied. Perfect!!

We started our mission by verticutting the greens, removing some of the organic matter that has built up around the crown of the plants, and opened up the surface to accept the materials that were to follow.

Gus deep in concentration as he verticuts the 12th green.

Once the greens mower had cleared up the debris left behind by the verticutters, we applied a relatively heavy application of our usual 80/20 sand/soil topdressing and spiked the greens with our Procore fitted with 19mm solid tines.

Chris creating a seedbed using the Toro Procore fitted with 19mm solid tines. A fine day for a walk with an aerator!
Chris creating a seedbed using the Toro Procore fitted with 19mm solid tines. A fine day for a walk with an aerator!

These are the biggest diameter tines we have for the machine, but we managed to limit disruption by using part-worn tines and keeping the depth set to a minimum. After the greens had been spiked, we broadcast half a bag of quality fescue grass seed onto each one with a fertiliser spreader and brushed the seed and sand into the holes with the brush that we drag behind our triple mower.

The tractor and Propass topdresser await their next mission as I pull all the sand and seed into the holes using the triple-mounted brush.

The surface was switched to tidy it up before we moved the whole operation onto the next green.

You can see how much seed and sand has fallen into the holes here. By the time I had switched the green and Craig had rolled it, there wasn’t much material left on the surface.
You can see how much seed and sand has fallen into the holes here. By the time I had switched the green and Craig had rolled it, there wasn’t much material left on the surface.

As always, the fine details are the keys to success in implementing a program such as this, and it takes a lot of thought to complete the job with maximum efficiency and minimal impact on play.

Overseeding links greens is not easy because fescue seed is huge and is spiked at both ends – it just does not want to fall down a hole! This is why we feel the need to use 19mm tines, but we offset the potentially negative effects of using these in two ways:

  • by wearing the points of them in first (we spike a couple of tees with them before we take them anywhere near a green)
  • by not setting them too deep

In effect, we are not actually focussing on aeration during this exercise (although an increase in air circulation near the surface is a useful by-product of the operation), but we are instead more concerned with making a seedbed capable of housing the large seed and some high quality, well-aerated growing material that can help it thrive through its early weeks of life. Seeding depth is critical when germinating new grass plants, so the Procore is set at the optimum depth to suit the seed rather than to break up any compaction under the green surface. There is plenty of time to revisit aeration later in the autumn and throughout the winter, when we can use thinner diameter tines set to spike deeper into the soil profile.

Because I absolutely hate the thought of making a mess, we always topdress before we spike the greens with the Procore, and this has two benefits during the seeding operation. Firstly, we avoid rutting the green, because we run the tractor and the hopper full of sand over the green whilst it is still compacted, rather than when it has just been aerated (and therefore softened). Secondly, we avoid closing the holes that we have just made by running over them before we seed into them, maximising the potential of getting seeds down into every single one of them.

The last thing we do during this operation in an attempt to get the greens back into play as quickly as we can is roll the greens with our Tru-Turf roller immediately after we have brushed the sand and seed into the holes. On a good drying afternoon like we had on the Monday and Tuesday of this operation, it is possible to pull even more sand and seed into the holes using the vibratory action of the roller, so it was great to be able to get the full benefit out of rolling without removing any of the materials that we had just applied. All we have to do now is look after the greens for the next couple of weeks, hope for a good mixture of weather conditions, and watch the new grass come up through the holes. If only that were true! In reality, we haven`t had the time to admire our handiwork yet because we moved this whole operation straight onto the tees. There is no time in renovation season for sitting about being smug. Every wasted day is a wasted opportunity!

Our goal was to have these greens back in good condition before the Autumn Pairs on October 7th. Due to the optimum weather conditions that we have experienced during and after this renovation work, this has been achieved with relative ease.
Our goal was to have these greens back in good condition before the Autumn Pairs on October 7th. Due to the optimum weather conditions that we have experienced during and after this renovation work, this has been achieved with relative ease.

A New Champion for Machrihanish Dunes

Golf Club Secretary Lynn Wilson presents the Handicap Championship trophy to John Nutt before handing over the Scratch Championship trophy to our 2017 Champion, Gary Sheppard.
Golf Club Secretary Lynn Wilson presents the Handicap Championship trophy to John Nutt, before handing over the Scratch Championship trophy to our 2017 Champion Gary Sheppard.

As I mentioned earlier, the Club Championship was held over the last two weekends and this was won for the first time by Gary Sheppard, who stormed round in 71 on the second Saturday to narrowly defeat Steven Gilmour and 3rd place finisher Crawford Kilpatrick. Lindsay Mathie won the ladies championship and John Nutt added the handicap championship to the huge haul of competitions he has won recently. The 2nd round was followed with the annual members evening in The Ugadale Hotel, with an awards ceremony and some fantastic food followed by a darts competition and a quiz. A good time was had by all who attended, and we look forward to running a similar event for members at the end of next season.

The only major competition we have left to play is the Autumn Pairs, and this year’s event is due to be played on Saturday, October 7th. The tee sheet is filling up fast for this, so if you have not yet entered, give Lorna or Peter a call on 01586810058 for more information or to book a time. Although the main competition season will end with the Autumn Pairs, the Winter League will start almost immediately after. We hope to be able to produce good playing conditions for you right through the winter months, so we look forward to seeing you out on the course in October and beyond.

Enjoy your golf!

Minimising Disruption, Maximising Returns

After a long summer of being mown down to 4mm daily and then being compacted mercilessly by foot and machine traffic, our greens cannot wait for “renovation season”. As the days start getting shorter and our thoughts turn toward protecting our surfaces through another harsh West coast Winter, we will put our “bespoke” renovation plan into operation. Bespoke is a horrible word that grates in my head but it accurately describes the point that I am trying to get across here. Every greenkeeper is working with a different environment and a different set of goals and will therefore come up with his (or her) own solutions as to what their greens really need. Here at Machrihanish Dunes, I always look to balance 3 parameters to maximise the benefit of the work we undertake. These are:

1) Reversing the negative impact of a hard season of wear and compaction.

2) Integrating new high-quality materials that will improve the performance of the greens in the months and years to come.

3) Minimising disruption to re-instate good playing conditions as quickly as we possibly can.

Because the growing medium under the greens here is naturally of high quality and because we do not suffer from an excessive build-up of thatch, I have once again elected not to holocore the greens, but to use solid tines instead. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to remove perfectly good material to put similar material back in. However, we still need to aerate the ground to allow air in and noxious gases out. The bacteria that break down the organic material that builds up over the course of a season need air to breathe, and if we fail to provide them with this they will die and then the thatch layer would continue to build up unchecked, air circulation would be reduced still further, and a negative spiral of decline would begin. Better then to do the remedial work that we need to do now to keep the bacteria healthy, allowing them to do our job for us by turning the decayed matter that has built up in the upper portion of our rootzone into available plant food.

We are going to undertake our first solid-tining of the season this week, and we will be using 13mm tines set at a very shallow depth. The reason for doing this is that we need to integrate some garlic granules into the greens, and we need to be able to get these below the surface so that our mowers do not remove them as soon as they have been applied, but we also need them to not be buried too deep where they will be ineffective. Those of you who read the article that I wrote last month will know that applying garlic granules to the greens is one of the options that I have been given for reducing the negative impact caused by leatherjackets (the larvae of the crane fly, or daddy long legs). All the organophosphate insecticides that we previously used to control this pest have been removed from the market, which has left us with few options. The polysulphides that are naturally present in garlic can apparently control the eggs and young larvae and the adult can smell the granules and will stay away from an area that has been treated. So I figure that if I solid tine the greens and apply the granules now (right at the very start of the pest’s egg-laying cycle), then I have a chance of persuading them away from the greens into areas where the damage they cause will be less evident and important. Because we are only making shallow holes designed to act as a bed for the granules and to get air into the very top of the rootzone where we hope the bacteria are doing their work on the organic matter, the disruption to surfaces will not be nearly so evident as it would be if we aerated deeply, and with temperatures still high I would expect recovery from this to be swift.

Our second wave of works will commence immediately after the 2nd round of the club championship (around the 18th of September). Again, we are not looking to aerate deeply, but this time we will be using 19mm tines to create a shallow seedbed for fescue seed and sand. The seed will germinate best when it is planted at around 8-12mm below the thatch layer, and because we do not have a deep build-up of dead organic matter at Machrihanish Dunes my estimate is that we should be looking to get our seed to sit in a hole about 25-30mm deep. Once the seed has been brushed into the hole, it will be covered up with a good quality topdressing material to further aid its juvenile development.

Both solid-tining missions are designed to integrate materials into the upper portion of the rootzone rather than to alleviate compaction, so in addition to these two operations we will be solid tining on a monthly basis with thin 8mm or 10mm tines set to drill much deeper into the soil. Of course, the smaller diameter tines will not create nearly as much surface disruption as the 13mm and 19mm tines, indeed once we have rolled the greens once with a hand mower after these operations the effect on putts will be negligible.

In direct contrast to my last couple of blog updates there is a lot of technical information and not much humour here, and for that I apologise! The message I am really trying to get across though is that none of the operations we undertake on the golf course is commenced without first being meticulously planned to ensure that we can reap the maximum benefit with the minimum amount of disruption. The aeration equipment we now have at our disposal is so far advanced compared to the ramshackle machines that I used in the early years of my career that we have no excuses left for making a mess, and the available choice of tines is so widespread that we can achieve pretty much whatever results we desire during a period of Autumn renovation. It just takes a bit of thought and preparation.

The Black Sheep Cup and Other Stories

The Black Sheep Cup has in the last two years become one of our biggest success stories, and once again over 70 people signed up to play in the 2017 staging of this event. Local member John Nutt was victorious with a good haul of 40 stableford points, narrowly beating Stewart Litster and Derek Newlands. John has worked hard on his game this year and lifting the huge trophy for Kevin’s camera was just reward for the effort he has put in – it was just a shame you couldn’t see more of him from behind it! The ladies section was won by Elizabeth Marrison, with Lindsay Ramsey finishing runner-up. Congratulations to the winners and many thanks to everybody who turned out once again to make this competition one of our most successful in recent times.


The next competition on our horizon is the Club Championship, which this year will be played on successive Saturdays in September (the 9th and 16th), with the second round followed by a prize-giving and our members evening at The Ugadale Hotel. Once again there is quality food planned along with some darts and a quiz, so we hope as many members as possible will choose to take advantage of our hospitality. After that our season finale, the Autumn Pairs, will be staged on Saturday 7th October. I can`t believe we are talking about that already, but Lorna is taking bookings for all these competitions so if you are keen to enter or you would like more information then give her or Peter a phone on 01586 810 058.

I look forward to seeing you all out there during September, and I hope you enjoy your golf. If your round coincides with any of the operations we have planned then I apologise in advance, but if you see us out with the machines and you are interested in what we are doing then please do just come across and ask questions.


A Bit of This and a Bit of That

…Actually suits us just fine. While everybody else seems to have spent the last few weeks willingly partaking in the Scottish national sport of moaning about the weather, we have been using the mixed conditions we’ve seen lately to recover our surfaces from the wear they suffered earlier in the season.

Although many people seem to be constantly surprised by the cards that the weather gods deal us, it is actually fairly easy to predict and I know from experience that I am usually going to get two spells during the season which are ideal for recovery and to work on plant health and root development. One of those spells tends to fall just after the Campbeltown Open, and this is when we will give the greens a rare Summer feed and overseed them with Bent grass.

Fescue seed can germinate at a temperature as low as 7 degrees C, but Bent insists on more tropical conditions before it can be integrated effectively into the sward. It is important that we do not jump the gun, because Bent seed is horrendously expensive and wasting it by drilling it into a cold rootzone is therefore an absolute sin. We test whether the rootzone is ready by picking on a couple of worn patches, spiking these areas with a fork and overseeding into the holes and then waiting 7-10 days to see if anything pops through. If we get a successful take we immediately haul out the seeder and go hard at it, pumping every grain of seed we have in our store into the greens.

During the period immediately after seeding, it is massively important that the greens are fed sufficiently to provide nutrients for the new seedlings and that the immature plants are not allowed to get anywhere near drying out. This of course goes against our usual links policy of only feeding and watering our greens when we absolutely have to, and because of our desire to bring as many of these plants to full maturity as we can our greens will usually be a bit more green, lush and will putt a little more slowly than they do during the rest of Summer. Obviously we cannot just lower the height of cut to counteract this change in conditions as this would just kill the new grass as soon as it pops through. These are the times when we rely on our friend the ride-on roller to bail us out… if he can polish an extra foot onto the stimpmeter reading then we can get away with relaxing the maintenance pressures a little, giving our precious new seedlings the best chance of long-term survival. As you can see from the picture below, we have seen some good initial results!

It was a dull day when I took this picture, and it is never easy to see new seedlings growing in an established green when the sun is not shining. The newly established bentgrass can clearly be seen in the patch of annual meadow grass to the right side of this image though, and once your eye has focussed on that you can make out the grid pattern of immature plants right across this section of the 14th.


When Is A Weed Not A Weed?

At Machrihanish Dunes the answer to that is most of the time, as my definition of a weed is a plant whose presence is undesirable. I remember somebody during my time as greenkeeper at Machrie asking me when I was planning to spray the semi-rough, because it was “full of weeds”. My reply was courteous, but I did wonder how anybody with the gift of eyesight (or indeed a sense of smell!) could seriously suggest that the amazing display of colour in our “machair” rough should be sprayed in order to attain a monoculture of turfgrass!

Here at Machrihanish Dunes, the cut rough is arguably even more spectacular at this time of year than it was in Islay, with daisies, buttercups, yellow and purple vetch, clover, bedstraw, speedwell and many other low-lying plants easily surviving the carefully managed rough mowing regime and providing an incredible display of colour that in my experience has only been matched by a wild meadow I once stumbled across in the French Alps. It is easy to fixate on the many species of orchids that populate the less maintained areas of our rough because they are stunning to look at and are in many cases extremely rare, but there is more to our machair garden than just the protected species and we are extremely lucky that we get the opportunity to appreciate the free flower show every Summer. Even if there were no official restrictions placed on our maintenance regime, there is no way you would ever catch me in there with a crop sprayer!

Semi-rough at Machrihanish Dunes. Full of weeds. Stunningly beautiful!

One plant that is definitely not welcome at Machrihanish Dunes is ragwort! This invasive species causes us a massive maintenance headache every July, and it seems that this year’s crop is an absolute bumper. Because of the negative implications that spraying ragwort would have on other delicate species that we are charged with keeping alive, we have no choice but to pick the yellow peril by hand. This is obviously a very laborious task and is just one of the many jobs that we undertake every year that our members and visitors may not even realise that we do, but if we were to ignore it for even a couple of years the spread of this plant would be catastrophic. Interestingly, our agreed management program with SNH requests that we retain 15% of our crop of ragwort every year because the larvae of the rare cinnabar moth feeds on the flowers, which just goes to reiterate my belief that manipulating nature for our own benefit will always have a negative impact somewhere down the line. I think the moths might be safe enough this year though; there is definitely enough ragwort to go ‘round!  All we can do is soldier on a trailer load at a time and see how much we can pull before the flowers dry out and blow in the wind to start growing next year’s crop. At this moment I’m not sure whether my fellow greenkeepers or my own back hates me more!

Gus, Sebastian and Zoltan pulling ragwort in the deep rough between the 1st and 9th holes. None of them have spotted me “playing on my phone”, which is just as well because that is never good for staff morale!! The picture below shows how much of this weed the four of us pulled in a couple of hours between just those two fairways.


Fun day that was!

Decisions, Decisions.

Many of the products that we have used with good effect for decades to control pests and diseases are being refused new licenses by government agencies fearful of the effects of the misuse of chemicals on users, third parties and on the environment. Greenkeepers who have got used to having a full arsenal of these products at their disposal and who have utilised them to produce fantastic surfaces over the past few years are going to find it increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to match those successes in the future without the aid of these chemicals, and the loss of some key products are already causing us major headaches.

Here on the west coast we suffer from very severe infestations of leatherjackets (the larvae of the crane fly or daddy long legs), as our warm, wet Winters provide ideal conditions for them to grow and thrive in sandy, open rootzones through which they find it easy to move around to find the food and air they need to survive. They eat copious amounts of grass roots and organic matter, and will hide in aeration holes and increase the diameter of those holes by coming up to the surface at night and chewing the grass around them at a time of year when there is little growth for the plant to recover from the damage.

Clorpyrifos was our go-to organophosphate insecticide for controlling leatherjacket infestations, and all we had to do in past years was make one or at the very most two well-timed applications per year to control this pest and ensure that our greens were free from attack. It was cheap, easy and extremely effective, but like all organophosphates Clorpyrifos had health implications for the user and a special mask had to be worn when applying it in order to avoid negative respiratory effects, which could quite commonly be felt if appropriate protective equipment was not used as instructed. Like Malathion and many other insecticides before it, Clorpyrifos eventually had its license for use revoked and 2016 was the last year that end users such as ourselves were permitted to use it.

There is usually a proven natural alternative to a chemical in a case such as this, an alternative that might invoke a change in attitude or an alteration to a management regime that would invariably involve more work but would be just as successful, while offering the bonus of being less dangerous for the user and better for the environment. That is how it usually goes anyway! In the case of clorpyrifos, there is no proven natural or chemical alternative that we can switch to and trust to work. To be honest, it has got us all panicking, because we know how incredibly damaging these pests will be this Winter if we do not come up with something that works as well as a chemical insecticide, and quickly.

Currently two options are being promoted—the first of which is a biological product which offers a spray of living nematodes that the manufacturers claim will seek out and kill leatherjackets for food, which in turn will make them strong so they will breed and populate the rootzone so that they are ready for the crane fly to lay more larvae for their next meal. This sounds great, for if these nematodes are successful then surely they will breed and go on populating our rootzone indefinitely, spreading from the greens where they were initially sprayed through the collars, the fairways, the roughs, next door into Machrihanish Golf Club’s fairways and so on, ad finitum. Three things worry me, though, the most obvious of which is the massive scepticism of all the salesmen that I deal with and trust. All have said that they will sell me the product, but they have also all stated that they have no confidence in it and have sold it to golf courses who have seen it completely fail, leaving them with massive infestations and greens and tees in poor condition going into Spring 2016. The second thing that worries me about this product is the lack of positive testimonials.Usually when a new product hits the market and turns out to be a winner the internet is awash with stories about how it has turned golf courses around, but in this case the search engines have come up with depressingly little. The third and most obvious issue that I have with this product is that it is obvious to me that the nematode in question is not currently present in our rootzones. Why is this? Surely if we have massive annual leatherjacket infestations, and nature invariably has its way of maintaining an equilibrium when dealing with these matters, then we should expect these nematodes to be plentiful in our soils. Clearly that is not the case, though, as for years we have had to resort to using Clorpyrifos in order to do their job for them! Could our rootzones be too dry for them to survive? Could high salt levels be a terminal issue for them? Or have we been unwittingly using another chemical (possibly Clorpyrifos itself!) as part of our greens management and unknowingly killing them? Or (and this is my favourite theory) is there another organism that flourishes in the conditions on our site that kills nematodes? Wouldn’t that just be typical, if we sprayed an organism into our rootzone with the intention of controlling another organism that we considered to be undesirable, only to find that the beneficial organism was killed by an indigenous foe first! I’m only theorising here because this product is so new that I don’t have any facts to help me, which is why I and many other people in the industry remain sceptical in the face of the absolute carnage that would be the result of failure. There is a chance that the product might work brilliantly for us, but I for one do not want to have to rely on a third party that I cannot even see to do a job for me when the result of it not doing that job is that our greens would sustain severe damage and would perform poorly until at least the middle of the season!

The second product seems more promising, because it consists of a natural garlic-based granule that is applied at the time the adult crane fly lays its eggs and is brushed down aeration holes during a period when we would all be aerating anyway as part of our Autumn renovation program. The poly-sulphides in the garlic apparently kill the eggs and indeed very young larvae, halting the infestation before it even starts. In effect, the garlic product is used as a direct replacement for Clorpyrifos, and is surely then the answer that we are looking for! Or is it? The problem with this product is that it is very new, and is just as unproven on our site as the nematodes are. To make matters worse, we used a spray version of this product last year and it had no effect whatsoever on leatherjacket populations. A greenkeeper who works in very close proximity to me used the spray at least twice and also reported that it had little or no effect on his leatherjacket infestation. The manufacturers of this product are adamant that the granule version will work if it is applied at the right time of year and is integrated properly into the rootzone and have said that in hindsight, spraying liquid garlic onto the surface in an attempt to kill larvae that had already reached a point of maturity was never going to do us much good. It is encouraging to see that they have been successful in gaining a license from the government that states the product can be used for leatherjacket and chafer grub control. That would seem to indicate that the government body who issued the licence has done a study and has confidence that it will do the job, and if that is the case then it would seem to be by far the safer of our two options.

I can hear one or two of you murmuring in the background already, and of course what you are saying seems so obvious…if leatherjackets are such a serious issue for us then why do I not use both products because that would double my chances of success? Well the fact is we can’t, because the poly-sulphides in the garlic definitely kill nematodes. That is what the garlic product was originally packaged for, to kill a different breed of nematodes that negatively affect the health of ryegrass in football pitches, and apparently it does a very good job of it. You honestly couldn’t make it up, could you! It leaves me with a straight choice between something that I have very little confidence in and something else that I have very little confidence in, and the result of my choice not working for us is that our greens will be infested by a pest that will undoubtedly cause massive damage to both the surface of our greens and tees and the precious roots that sustain life underneath them. Decisions, decisions…

Black Sheep Open

By the time you read this, the Shepherd’s Cross will have been and gone, so if you played in that I hope you enjoyed it and didn’t get soaked for a change. It always seems to pour with rain for the Shepherd’s Cross! The next competition on the horizon is the Black Sheep Open, which was an extremely successful event for us in 2016. This year’s competition is being held on Sunday 27th August—please see the attached for all the details you might need.

Enjoy your golf in August, we look forward to seeing you out there!

Nature is steering the ship…

…and all we can do is help to keep it afloat.

No matter how much we like to think we are in absolute control of what we do on the golf course, we ultimately have no say in how fast it is going to run, whether it is going to be attacked by pests or diseases, or whether a totally unexpected disaster awaits us when we come in to work in the morning. A respected senior greenkeeper once consoled me during a period when everything seemed to be going wrong by telling me that good times will always follow the bad times, but that inevitably the bad times will come around to test us once again. Of course, this is one of the things that keeps our job fresh and interesting!

Because we have so much pride in what we do, it can be very stressful if something goes wrong and turf condition is affected as a result. This stress is multiplied if disaster strikes in the run-up to a tournament. We all want our courses to be in optimum shape during competition weeks, as our ability to manage is scrutinised more closely than ever, not only by our members but by visiting golfers who have elected to spend their hard-earned money to play and possibly also stay with us during the event. The course should be in perfect shape for them, and the infrastructure around it should run like clockwork.

The infrastructure is relatively easy to put into place- these things can be meticulously planned many weeks in advance. Scoreboards are constructed, extra signage is posted, pin sheets are drawn out and distributed, and everybody is allocated specific jobs to ensure that the whole tournament runs like a well-oiled machine. Preparing the course is slightly more problematic. Somebody asked me last weekend how far in advance  we start planning our pre-tournament maintenance for an event like the Campbeltown Open. The obvious answer is that we are always preparing for it. Our main season really begins on April 1st, and from then on, our focus is split between providing daily optimum conditions for golfers and ensuring that we are capable of peaking the golf course for major events. These targets are what gives us our focus in the first instance. As a major date approaches, we carefully monitor our applications of nutrient and topdressing to align growth cycles in such a way that we can provide competitors with the fastest, smoothest surfaces possible over the course of the competition – while simultaneously ensuring that plant health is optimised so that our greens, tees and fairways can remain in excellent condition, despite being subjected to extra maintenance stress.

This is where nature can (and quite often does) throw a major spanner into the guts of our machine. It is all very well for us to plan nutrient programs and tailor cutting heights to suit, but if the weather goes hot and dry, and a strong easterly wind blows up to render our automatic irrigation system unusable, we are left with no choice but to haul out the hoses. This will take three men off jobs that are crucial to the pre-tournament manicuring of the course and have them stand and water the greens by hand instead. There is no point in entrusting greens irrigation to automatic pop-ups if those sprinklers are throwing most of the water into the rough! The same is true if we encounter opposing conditions and the weather suddenly goes wet and muggy. When greens suddenly become boggy and slow, we are left with no choice other than to lower the height of cut to a level that negatively impacts on both the short and long-term health of the grass, and roll the greens incessantly in order to attain a green speed that we could maintain so easily just a few days previously.

These are the times when snap decisions can make or break tournament preparations. Although we tailor our maintenance programs many months in advance to ensure that our surfaces are in peak condition for our premier events, we almost always find ourselves scrambling about at some point in the run-up to the event, trying to force an issue that was not even apparent a few days previously. This is where our experience from previous years becomes hugely important – we are always learning what we can get away with and what we cannot. If we push too hard or move in the wrong direction, we can easily exacerbate problems and make matters even worse. However, if we do too little, our surfaces will not peak as we hope they would. At times like this, it is very satisfying for golfers to compliment us on the condition of the course. When players return with their scorecard and tell us how well the greens were running, or how good the tees look, or how tidy the place was, we go home truly vindicated! We’ll know that those conditions that favoured them were achieved because we worked tirelessly and made brave decisions that positively impacted on people’s enjoyment. Until the next time!!

2nd green on a not so spectacular day.

Of course, there are years when everything just seems to go right and we can drift seamlessly from one event to another without ever having to think too hard or impact negatively on the condition of our turf. We just make a plan, stick to it, work hard and get the results we deserve. 2016 was one of those years – from early May we had no real issues to contend with, despite 6-weeks of dry weather in the run-up to the Campbeltown Open. It seemed all too easy to just do what we set out to do, polish the greens for 3 days and politely thank competitors for their kind compliments. This year could not have been more different. Although we have received many great reviews from members and visiting golfers over the last few months, I will admit that it has been a battle and that there have been times when it has seemed like nothing was going right for us. Nature has shown us once again that we are not in as much control over proceedings as we would like to think we are, but we really did make some great decisions in the run-up to the Campbeltown Open, which enabled us to present surfaces that the competitors seemed to universally appreciate. It was extremely satisfying to go home on Sunday night knowing that questions had been asked of us and because of our experience and knowledge of our product (and the work we put in), we had come up with all the right answers. It is easy to feel good when things are going our way, but when things are conspiring against us and we still manage to cobble together a our our golfers love to play, it feels even better.

A Tough Test of Golf

Once we had eventually managed to “conquer” nature and present a decent surface upon which to play golf, we could enjoy watching the Campbeltown Open action unfold. Saturday was a testing day with winds gusting well over 30mph, and even though we had set the course up as easily as we possibly could, it was still offering competitors a tough challenge. The tough challenges seemed easily overcome by Andrew Wallace though, and he duly returned with a 73 to take a 5-shot lead into the second round. Somebody told me he bogeyed the last 3 holes as well – if that is the gospel truth then he really must have been playing some amazing golf.

First round leader, Andrew Wallace held on to the lead throughout the day, finishing the two day event with a scratch score of 151.

Sunday dawned just as tough, but the sun made a welcome appearance to put a smile on everybody’s face. Andrew closed out the scratch tournament as expected, holding off a late charge from Alan O’Neill who carded a 73 to finish second, despite hobbling badly on an injured leg.I’m sure the voucher and the magnum of Prosecco will have dulled the pain a little! Iain Logan put together two good rounds to take the handicap prize – clearly the pin positions suited him, although I’m sure he will still have something to say about the course setup when I see him next! The Ladies’ Campbeltown Open was played over one round on Saturday and was won by Anne Laing with a respectable 76. Sometimes I wish I could set the Ladies’ course up a bit harder for Anne and her friend Lindsay as I think they would probably enjoy a sterner test, but I am aware that there are many competitors who would argue that it is quite hard enough from the reds!

Anne CTOWN 2017
Anne Laing won yet another Ladies’ Campbeltown Open championship with a solid 4 over par round on Saturday.

This year we brought something new to the event in the shape of the Colin Chrystie Cup, an eclectic competition run over the two days which turned out to be a lot of fun. This was won on a countback by Stuart Gillespie. The other tournament taking place on the Sunday was the junior Drive, Pitch and Putt Competition which was run very efficiently by Andy Hogan, our Operations Manager. Brian McKeown from Uppermost Trophies had donated a huge haul of trophies and medals for this junior challenge and it was great to see so many happy young faces having a go at this and proudly accepting their silverware at the end. Hopefully some of these juniors will choose to come down and play a bit more often following their day out. Sunday was a great day – it was the intention of the management team at Machrihanish Dunes to create a gala atmosphere around the Golf House which would see everybody involved and it worked out perfectly. Bailey served up hundreds of burgers from his barbeque, Lorna and Peter worked tirelessly to attend to the needs of every golfer, and Kevin produced one of the most glorious scoreboards I have ever seen!

Thank you to everybody who participated in and supported this event. It gets better every year, but that would not be possible if it were not for the hard work of so many people and the support we get from competitors, staff, volunteers and from our many sponsors.

It’s Not All About The Campbeltown Open!

There is still much to enjoy in our 2017 golfing calendar, and the next thing we are looking towards is the Shepherd’s Cross, which this year is being held on July 30th. This event has historically been played from the 1st tee at Machrihanish Golf Club before competitors sneak through the fence at the back of their 9th green and play a composite back nine on Machrihanish Dunes. This year though, we have broken with tradition and the 2017 course will start at Mach Dunes instead. So if you are keen to try this new routing (as many will be!), you should enter your 4-person team with Machrihanish Golf Club by phoning them at 01586810213 as soon as possible.  Have questions about the event? You can get all the details from Lorna at the Mach Dunes Golf House (01586810058).


Enjoy your golf in July!

Fighting With Fairy Rings

The verdant 5th green looks like an inviting target surrounded by parched fairway. Just don’t go in that new bunker!

Sun, Sun, Sun!

I always manage to start monthly updates by talking about the weather, but this time it is well justified because apart from a recent two-day blip, it has been absolutely exceptional recently. The fairways look fantastic when they are burned out and have been freshly polished with the mowers, and they must be great fun to play from. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of playing out here over the last few weeks, I took a couple of photos for you last week before the rain (which arrived on Monday, 15th May) and dampened things down just a bit.

Various shades of green and brown. It is obvious where we have been concentrating our irrigation efforts!

The Downside to the Sun, Sun, Sun!

A frazzled golf course may be attractive to look at and great fun to play, but these conditions do provide us greenkeepers with some headaches. Some of the less mature green surrounds that were initially turfed straight onto pure sand have started to de-stabilise a bit. So, we made the decision to stop cutting them until the rain inevitably returned. Now that we have had a bit of moisture, we will re-turf the worst patches, after integrating some good-quality topsoil into the rootzone.


View from behind the 4th green.

The other thing we have been struggling with recently is dry patches and fairy rings in the greens. Fairy ring is an extremely trivial name for what is a pretty insidious malaise. It can cause major damage to fine turf if allowed to remain unchecked. Contrary to popular belief, this issue is not caused by fairies dancing innocently round in circles wearing out the grass, but rather by the actions of fungal bacteria which are naturally present in the soil. These bacteria multiply rapidly and expand outwards from a central point, colonising rootzone space as they go. As they go about their work, they secrete a waxy material, which is deposited in the rootzone and can dry out and form an impenetrable barrier if regular rain or irrigation water is not forthcoming over an extended period of time. Once this barrier has been established, it becomes extremely difficult to break down again with subsequent applications of water. It can take large volumes of rain for moisture levels throughout the rootzone to be forced back to optimum levels. The reason that fairy rings appear as a ring is because the advancing army of fungal bacteria operating at the front face of the attack are secreting waxy deposits as they march. They naturally go in all directions at approximately the same speed, forming a roughly circular hydrophobic barrier in the rootzone.

Obviously, the worst aspect of fairy ring attacks is that you only see the effects of them once the damage has already been done, i.e. once the soil has already gone hydrophobic and once the affected grass is already suffering from severe drought stress. Once the fairy ring has become apparent, the priority must be to get the roots of the affected grass wet again. This is far from easy as the waxy deposit will have gone solid and water will run off it in just the same way as it will run off the grease on your dinner plate if you try to wash your dishes without using washing-up liquid. The absolute worst thing a greenkeeper can do in these circumstances is to look at the weather forecast and see that there is 20-30mm of rain due in the next week and just assume that this will fix the issue— because it won’t. The rainwater will merely run off the affected areas into the unaffected areas of the rootzone, further accentuating the difference between the turf that has sufficient moisture and the turf that doesn’t. The sun will then come back out and the affected areas will dry out again immediately as any water that has managed to penetrate a couple of millimetres into the soil quickly evaporates while the healthy areas of the green, which have now been fully soaked through, flourish, blissfully unaware of the trauma that is going on mere inches away. Eventually, the continuity of the surface will be compromised and putts will begin to meander all over the place.

What we did to combat this attack on our greens was to verticut and mini-tine the greens, creating a grid pattern of grooves and holes for water to settle into— giving it the best chance to soak into the areas of the rootzone that we wanted to treat. We then sprayed wetting agent onto the surface of the green and watered that in heavily, as the wetting agent has the same effect on the wax in the rootzone as the washing-up liquid has on the dinner plate I mentioned earlier (as long as you can wash it in with enough water to let it do its job, that is).

Finally, we also sprayed a fungicide which we know has a controlling effect on the fungal bacteria that causes this damage. All this work sets things up nicely for the rootzones to make the absolute maximum use of the heavy rain that inevitably heralded the end of this particularly dry spell. We gave ourselves the maximum opportunity to get the greens back to a starting point where all of our rootzones are now filled to field capacity and are equally and uniformly ready to accept water from both sky and sprinkler over the weeks and months of Summer still to come. In my previous life as Head Greenkeeper at Machrie (working with no irrigation at all), I learned to take dry patch and fairy ring attacks very seriously as I had no mechanical tools at my disposal to help me to re-wet the rootzone. This experience has stood me in good stead. It was very easy to lose a whole season there when the weather stayed dry through April and into May, as the affected areas would stay dry right into the next Winter. Now that I have all the available tools at hand, and I also know how serious the issue can become, it would be unprofessional of me not to try everything I could to resolve the issue as soon as I possibly could, and this is what we have done.

This first picture shows a fairy ring complex in the 3rd green. This image was taken before treatment in the middle of the dry spell, and the contrast between the healthy, unaffected turf and the affected area can clearly be seen. Looks pretty grim!
The same fairy ring 5 days later after aeration, treatment with the wetting agent and the appropriate fungicide. Much better!

It has been widely accepted in the Greenkeeping circles for years that rootzones made up of medium sand are especially susceptible to attacks from dry patch and fairy rings, and I think there may be at least a couple of reasons for this. Obviously, these type of rootzones retain less moisture and are more prone to remaining dry over a long period of time, allowing the waxy material secreted by the fungal bacteria to go solid and form a barrier in the first instance. Medium sandy soils are also likely to be more deficient in the bacteria and organisms that would normally act as predators to these fungal bacteria— therefore their relentless march towards domination of the whole world underneath the green remains relatively unchecked. So, now that we have had an attack from these colonies of bacteria and we know that our greens may be prone to being compromised by their activities again in the future, what should we do to minimise the impact from this pest? Firstly, we should keep adding beneficial myccorhizal bacteria to the soil and continue to create an environment where they can multiply and flourish, and then hopefully tackle the bad guys in a big unseen battle for rootzone supremacy. We should keep our eye on moisture levels early in the season and avoid allowing the greens to dry out even when air and soil temperatures are low. And, I suppose we should probably consider applying a preventative fungicide once temperatures are elevated sufficiently to provide conditions that suit the pathogen. I always hate applying preventative sprays because it seems like such a waste of money, but I guess in instances like this, I’ll never know just how bad the greens could have been if I had only done nothing at all!

A Lull in the Competition Schedule

May and early June is a quiet time for competitions at Machrihanish Dunes, with just the monthly medals to look forward to. The Campbeltown Open (June 24th/25th) will be upon us before we know it. If you haven’t got your name down yet for this gala golf weekend, then I would say it is high time you gave Lorna a phone at the Golf House (01586810058) so that she can twist your arm to enter!

My sources tell me that the good weather is due for an imminent return following last week’s temporary blip, so I look forward to seeing you all out on the links over the next few weeks. Enjoy your golf!

Black Is The New White

57 golfers made the brave decision to play Machrihanish Dunes from the black tees the first weekend in April. Although the benign conditions helped players to negotiate the extra-long golf course, trying to reach the fairways from the back sticks and then play approach shots to some extremely testing pin positions wore many of the competitors down.

Davey Lamont eventually triumphed, despite returning to the Golf House with his own tales of woe. His score of 77 was one better than Dean Ratcliff could manage, although Dean was understandably pleased with his effort off a handicap of 6. Stuart Cameron finished 3rd and scooped the last of the scratch prizes.

April 2017-1 edited
Davey Lamont

Kenneth Imrie won the handicap prize with a nett 76, while Eleanor Black valiantly battled the course to win the ladies prize with a scratch 93.


April 2017-2 edit
Kenneth Imrie

Although the competitors unanimously agreed that it would be a welcome relief to get back to playing from the whites, the Black Tee Open was a fun event with which to start the Machrihanish Dunes competition calendar.   You can see a full list of our golf tournaments here.  Feel free to contact  Lorna at the Golf House (0158 681 0058) any time to sign up for any of them.

April 2017-3 edited
The (handmade by yours truly) Black Tee Open Trophy and with a bottle of Glen Scotia donated as a prize for Nearest To The Pin at the 12th hole.


Topdressing. Why do we do it?

Regular readers of these updates will have heard all about this subject before, but if you are new to this blog and have watched us spread sand all over the greens while wondering why we chose to do that just when the greens were putting well –well, here is the definitive list of the five benefits of topdressing.

1)Topdressing allows us to build up a layer of perfect rootzone material on the surface of our greens. The more topdressing we add, the deeper this layer will get and the deeper our root systems will become as a result. Golf greens are not always constructed from ideal materials, but adding lighter topdressing material to a heavy soil green, or a more organically-rich material to a green deficient in humus, is a proven method of improving the grass quality, root depth, and playing characteristics or every golf green. This work has been successfully undertaken since the days of Old Tom Morris. It is claimed that he invented the process. However, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the many things that Old Tom claimed to be of his own invention weren’t plagiarised from somewhere else! Oh well, topdressing works, so kudos to him for bringing it to the attention of the mainstream!!

2)Topdressing dilutes the organic matter that is deposited on the surface of the green and allows oxygen to circulate better just under the surface. This reduces disease incidence and aids the health of beneficial mycorrhizal bacteria – which need oxygen in order to live and go about their business of munching through the organic matter and turning it into plant food. This organic matter comes from a variety of sources – grass clippings that fall out of a mower box, decaying leaves from unhealthy plants, dead worms and leatherjackets; it can all be converted to useable forms of energy but only if the bacteria that can do this job are present in sufficient numbers. If airflow is blocked by surface organic matter then oxygen will not be able to enter the rootzone – and these bacterial colonies will be poisoned to the point of extinction by the carbon and sulphurous gasses that will build up. Once this happens, the plant will have to rely on whatever expensive spoon-feeding we decide to give to it via our sprayer, and fungal diseases will spread with alarming regularity, as the bacteria that would normally serve as their natural predators are not around to keep up the good fight.

3)When topdressing is brushed into the green it fills in and builds up small undulations as it is cleared off high spots and deposited wherever the brush has an opportunity to leave it. The smoother the surface of the green is, the less resistance will be imparted on a golf ball, resulting in the ball rolling farther before coming to rest, This means we can produce a “faster” surface without resorting to cutting greens shorter, which removes leaf area and reduces the plant’s ability to photosynthesize. When we topdress regularly, we can give you the surfaces you want to play on and keep the grass in optimal health.

4)Having a good amount of topdressing in the upper profile allows us to present a firm, fast-playing surface. Mowers and greens irons can level out a soft, spongy surface, but that effect will be short lived once players and course staff start walking over the newly prepared green, as the soft surface will be easily indented. A green that has a carefully controlled percentage of organic matter will be firmer and therefore less susceptible to this disruption from foot traffic. Think of the beach – if you walk on the soft, dry sand above the high tide line and then try to roll a football along it the ball will bounce and bobble and soon come to rest, whereas if you walk along the firm sand that has recently been washed by the high tide you will cause minimum disruption and your football will run and run (usually into the sea and then straight out towards Northern Ireland in my experience!). Topdressing on a regular basis allows us to present a surface which is very reminiscent of the hard section of sand just above the high tide line. A firm surface is advantageous to us as greenkeepers as well as to you as players; not only does it provide a better surface to putt on but it is also resistant to damage.

April 2017-4 edited
The Toro Workman spreads an even layer of sand onto the green, then the towed brush is utilised to integrate that sand into the rootzone. This action clears the sand off the grass leaves and deposits it onto the surface of the rootzone itself.

5)Topdressing feeds the grass. Well, the topdressing we use does anyway. Many courses use pure sand for topdressing, as they rightly consider that their levels of organic matter are so high that they wish to dilute it as much as possible when they topdress. Our rootzones, on the other hand, are still very sandy and are deficient in certain nutrients. We take this opportunity to add a portion of good quality soil to our topdressing. This will add nutrients and create an ideal living environment for the bacteria that we need to have present in our rootzone to break down thatch, and convert the nutrients we apply into available and useable forms of plant food. We will, of course, monitor organic levels to ensure that our rootzones do not become overly rich. Currently though, we are in the extremely fortunate position to be able to manipulate these levels to suit our exact needs.

What’s up next?

Our full focus is now on the upcoming Campbeltown Open which is planned for the 24th-25th June. The Campbeltown Open is our weekend festival of golf; including the main Campbeltown Open Tournament, the Colin Chrystie Cup, the Ladies’ Campbeltown Open, and of course, our renowned Junior Drive, Pitch and Putt Competition. Although, we recognise that the Campbeltown Open is a serious event, we and our sponsors wish to promote a welcoming atmosphere over a whole weekend. That will include prize-givings, evening entertainment, and a Sunday barbeque. If you wish to enter any of the competitions during the Campbeltown Open weekend, or you would like any further information, give Lorna a phone on 0158 681 0058. It is going to be a lot of fun, so make sure you get involved!


Marching Towards the Playing Season

Sorry, that was a pathetic pun to start a report with! It is pretty indicative of how we greenkeepers feel at this time of year, though. As the occasional burst of spring sunshine reminds us, the steady days of hard manual labour that typify our lives throughout winter construction season is about to give way to the frantic, but physically lighter, workload of summer. The stark transition from one season to the next – and the different jobs that come with them – is one of the aspects of course maintenance that we all enjoy. It definitely helps to keep our enthusiasm levels high.

Spring is a critical time for us on the West coast of Scotland because the months of April, May and the first half of June can be stressful to turf if the jet stream weakens and high pressure takes control. The high pressure tends to bring dry conditions and strong easterly or south-easterly winds (I dubbed it “the hairdryer” a long time ago!), which may allow for pleasant daytime conditions but also some cold nights. If turf is not in good condition going into a spell like this, it can be hard to scrape through this period without having to compromise surface speed in favour of plant health. If, on the other hand, all precautions have been taken to ensure that our swards are in perfect health, then this early Scottish “summer” can be a glorious time for golfers and greenkeepers to be alive.

To prepare for an early season dry spell such as this, we first have to make sure that our root system is in good condition. We analyse nutrient levels to ascertain where any deficiencies might lie and then aim to minimise the effect that this will have on plant health. Insect damage is a big issue at the moment, as several key products that we used to rely on have been removed from the market, with the consequence that we currently have no chemical control for leatherjackets. These larvae of the crane fly have a ferocious appetite for grass roots and can spend all winter munching through everything that we spent the previous summer trying so hard to gain. Although I have not visually spotted the signs of too much surface activity from them, we should assume that they will have done some damage beneath the surface. Therefore, we need to ensure that our nutrient levels are right and that the rootzones are prepared for accepting irrigation water.

Many of you will have heard me banging on about wetting agents before. These clever products are vital to ensuring that water we apply to the greens during a dry spell can penetrate the surface instead of running off high spots and settling into hollows. The technology that has gone into developing these products over the last few years is mind-blowing. We now have an arsenal of different wetting agents that allow us to choose a product that is tailored to suit the needs of every rootzone. My preferred product is designed to allow water to easily penetrate through the surface, but then holds it in a suspended matrix within the rootzone. It makes water available to roots for far longer than if gravity forced it deeper into the soil structure. Of course, this type of wetting agent is ideal for us at Machrihanish Dunes because our rootzones are relatively free-draining and oxygenated. If I were working on a rich soil full of fine particles, where surface drainage was considered more of an issue, I would probably choose to use a completely different product.

Cutting heights need to be carefully monitored at this time of year to ensure that plant health is not compromised. It is very easy to get carried away with the opportunity to provide exceptional surfaces for the first competition of the year (especially if this coincides with the Masters being on TV!). Plant health and root development can easily be compromised if we remove too much topical growth when the daylight hours and the opportunities to photosynthesise are still restricted. This is the reason why we raise the heights of cut on our greensmowers during the winter months – we need to keep more leaf area on the plant to retain the maximum number of photosynthesis receptors, to make the most of short periods of daylight. Whereas in summer, when we get up to 17 hours of daylight, we can get away with pushing the boundaries a bit further. Years of experience have taught us that all these things (and many more) need to be taken into account BEFORE the good weather catches us by surprise!

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You can tell it is spring when the new flags go out at Machrihanish Dunes. These double-sided embroidered items don’t come cheap, so they don’t go out unless I’m sure the jet stream isn’t going to power back up and fray them in their first couple of weeks!


Simon, what can I do about the moss in my garden?

It is that time of year, isn’t it? Like all greenkeepers, I get it every spring from all quarters – like I have some magic cure to fix a lawn that has been neglected for months. The truth is that there is no magic cure to fix a moss infestation. But understanding the reasons why moss takes hold, and how you can avoid it getting a grip of your lawn in the first place, could save you hours of back-breaking work.

So here goes! Moss is a vacuum plant. By that I mean it will fill spaces left in the soil only when space is available for it to do so. It is not a strong enough competitor to fight against healthy grasses for valuable sward space. Just because we are turf “professionals” does not mean that we are immune from this – if you come and have a look at our greens, you will find moss in there too. If you study the greens closely though, it quickly becomes apparent that the moss only grows where the grass is under pressure and it therefore has the chance to compete. The picture below of the 2ndgreen is a classic example where the moss has grown in along the ridge. The mowers cut the grass shorter than we would like at those high points and it therefore lives in a perpetually weakened state.

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The 2nd green. Full of moss. We’ll soon get that sorted though!

One other thing that has occurred to me over the years is that moss infestations on links courses are always worse the further you go from the shore, leading me to believe that moss is even less tolerant to salt than turfgrass is. It is interesting because we have always been taught that sulphate of iron kills moss, but I have always been of the opinion that issues with moss ingression are worse on acidic ground, and we all know how acidic sulphate of iron is. Could it be that the iron merely shrivels the moss plant (in the same way as it shrivels the skin on your fingers when you touch it), but it is actually the high salt content in the product that kills it (and also causes all kinds of harm to beneficial mycorrhizal bacteria). Don’t take that as gospel, it’s just another one of my theories!!

A percentage of moss in the greens in early spring does not worry me one bit. A greenkeeping maintenance program is so intensive in April, May and June that we will quickly get this under control. Moss hates abrasion, so when we verticut, topdress, brush in that topdressing, aerate, and cut on a more regular basis once the growing season starts, it will soon give up the fight and die out. Then grass will flourish because it can photosynthesise more effectively during the summer months and because it readily uptakes the nutrients that we feed it with.

So, what can you, the gardener, learn from this? Well, you need to look at keeping the grass in your lawn healthy enough in the first place. If you have a full covering of healthy grass, moss will not have a chance to infiltrate. It helps if the lawn is well aerated, and if the ground has a healthy, neutral pH level. If your garden is laid on very acidic soil, applying some lime in late spring / early summer might raise the pH level enough to allow for an increased population of soil bacteria and worms. Lime can break down organic matter, feeding grass plants and reducing the depth of the organic layer that lies damp all winter. Damp ground provides an ideal growing medium for moss and for fungal infections that can damage grass plants.

I could spend ages writing a big program of works for you to follow in your garden, but that would be pointless because every individual piece of ground is completely different, and requires a different set of solutions for what may appear to be very similar symptoms. Golf courses are the same – it takes time to learn the exact nuances of the site and how the soil type, the weather, and many other things can influence our greenkeeping program. Once we have worked all this out, can we implement a plan that works specifically for us.

If I was to get really simplistic about dealing with moss, I would say that if you have it, then you should set about raking as much of it out as you can with a metal-toothed spring back rake and then planting good quality grass seed in its place. Once this seed has germinated, you should take care to look after your new grass by cutting it regularly at a sensible height. Preferably with a cylinder mower rather than a rotary. Whatever mower you have at your disposal, you should always lift and remove the clippings. Give thought to fertilisation – there are some great weed and feed products available from garden stores that contain a mixture of nutrients, a moss killer product, and some simple selective weed killers. At the end of the season (late September / early October) rake the lawn again with your metal spring back to remove any debris which has been deposited over the summer months. Broadcast some more good quality grass seed and aerate the lawn with a fork (stamp the prongs of the fork at least 6 inches into the ground and heave back, and then step back six inches and repeat until the whole lawn is done). For me, this is the one mistake that I see more people make than any other – if you want your lawn to be in good shape in spring, then you must put in the work the previous autumn. If any of these suggestions sound familiar, then that is because this program is exactly what we do out on the golf course. Once you know your soil and the intricacies of your site, greenkeeping is not rocket science. It is simply a case of applying the scientific knowledge you have learned, putting a site-specific program together, and getting stuck into the hard work. Making a success of your garden is exactly the same! Having said that, if you want any advice at any time about specific issues that you might have and you think I might be able to help, just come over and ask. I would far rather take 5 minutes to give you some answers than see you spend money that will not guarantee improvements!

Competition season is already here!

By the time you read this, the Winter league will be finished and the crazy Black Tee Open will be done and dusted. I hope we get a decent day for that, because if it is windy it could be attritional! The next noteworthy event on the calendar is the Kintyre Team Championship from the 22nd – 23rd of April, which involves a 4-person team playing one round at Dunaverty GC and one round at Machrihanish Dunes. At the time of writing, Lorna still has some spaces on her tee sheet for this fun event. So if you fancy participating, phone her as soon as you can on 01 586 810 058. We are going to have a barbeque and prize-giving after the golf on the Sunday of this event, so it should be a great sociable day.


Enjoy your golf in April. Hopefully the weather will be as good as it was this time last year!

A Winter’s Tale

 The festive season is but a distant memory now. Here at Machrihanish Dunes we have been blasting on with the projects that we set out in our Winter program. Our priority is always to keep the turf surfaces in optimum condition. It is easy to lose focus on this when the grass stops growing so quickly and there are fewer golfers playing the course daily. Although this winter has been relatively calm so far, we have been subjected to occasional Westerly gales which have sprayed the shore-side greens and tees with copious amounts of sand and salt. We have been doing everything we can to retain grass cover on these surfaces, and have taken the 5th green out of play temporarily as a precautionary measure. We are lucky to have a spare hole of similar length that we can use in these circumstances. It will be part of the golf course from now until sometime in late March. We apologise for this inconvenience, but we feel it is better to suffer this time of the year than it would be during the main golf season.

Looking After Uncle Joe

On good days during the winter months we get stuck into construction projects, and this year our focus has been on re-facing the bunkers. The bunkers at Machrihanish Dunes have been a source of continual discussion since the course’s “construction”, with the wild, blown-out look appealing to those who appreciated the original marketing ethos. These hazards were cut out of the existing ground, fringed with marram grass and left to blow. There is no doubt that this approach suited the untamed look of the course. Over time though, the edges of these bunkers have collapsed and fallen in, and the marram that once helped to retain the sand had become so overgrown that players were losing countless balls in the hazards. Bunkers that once flanked the extremities of cut grass at some holes found themselves marooned as wild oases surrounded by semi-rough as the course was widened out to aid the speed of play and reduce the frustration felt by less able players. We felt that some of them looked a bit silly and derelict, and we knew that many of them had become completely unfair, but we were aware of how easy it would be to ruin the charm of the golf course by changing the style of them completely.

Having consulted as many people involved in the project as we could, we settled on reconstructing with revetted faces of the bunkers that were surrounded with cut grass, while leaving wild the ones that still faced into untamed rough. Some bunkers that had cut grass on one side and wild rough on the other were revetted halfway round, with the wall tucked into the marram at the join. We figured that this approach was the best way to make the bunkers fit into the overall landscape of the golf course as it stands today, as there is no doubt that the course looks considerably less wild and far more mature than it did when the bunkers were originally built. We were aware of the clinical visual impact that revetted bunkers can bring to a course and we had a desire to avoid this as we didn’t want these hazards becoming too much of a focal point for the eye. We were keen to retain as much as possible the natural look for which Machrihanish Dunes has become famed, so we have avoided revetting the walls too high – opting instead to revet only as high as we needed to in order to retain sand before rolling turf over the rest of the face.

The bunkers in the 14th fairway are completely surrounded by cut grass, so we have revetted them. You will see that we have avoided building the revetted wall too high, to avoid those clinical top lines that can easily dominate the skyline.

The bunkers, or portions of bunkers, that due to their position on the course have not been given revetted faces have been cleared out to make them fairer to play from. The marram grass in these faces forms a huge mass of roots, shoots and leaves that in time forms its own turf – so we have found that it is relatively easy now to trim these back and form a defined edge on these bankings


The bunker at the 14th green. As this hazard skirts the edge of the rough, the outside edge has been left natural while the portion of the perimeter that links into the fairway has been revetted.

Our Worldwide Director of Golf Operations, Greg Sherwood, always asks me to look after Uncle Joe when undertaking projects such as this. It is a simple request, but the effects of ensuring that the requirements of the average golfer are catered to are so wide-ranging that this really governs everything that we do. However, it does illustrate perfectly how the focus of Machrihanish Dunes has changed since those early days when the development was marketed as “the way golf began”. Whether we like it or not, the golf course is a business and to survive in the marketplace the links should be an enjoyable, fun and attractive place for everyone to play. It had become clear that although some people found the wild bunkers to be aesthetically pleasing, they were impacting in a negative way on the enjoyment and fun of players like Greg’s fictitious Uncle Joe. Therefore, we had to do something positive about them to maximise our opportunity to encourage guests like him to make a return visit. Simply removing the offending marram grass did not work, as this approach removed all semblance of character and left us with unattractive, featureless holes in the ground. Making the switch to revetted bunkers in places may appear to be a somewhat generic solution to the issue on what is a highly individual golf course, but we hope that we have incorporated enough design flair into our construction to ensure that these bunkers are looked upon favourably by those golfers who do have an appreciation for golf course design. What we have done is create a definitive blueprint for future bunker re-construction, and we have certainly succeeded in removing the unfair element that negatively impacted the enjoyment of Uncle Joe.

Furniture Upgrades

Building bunkers is great fun on nice days, but when the weather turns nasty on us, there are plenty of jobs to keep us busy indoors. One such task that we have undertaken this winter is to make new tee markers for the course. We felt that the painted stones used since opening day were another thing that we had the opportunity to improve upon. As with the bunkers though, the perceived improvement that these markers will bring to the tees is in the eye of the beholder and we know they will not appeal to everybody! One member did tell me in jest that he preferred these wooden ones because when he hit a bad shot and took his anger out on the marker these would not damage his driver to the same degree.  Please don’t do that!

The process of constructing these markers is fairly simple and is definitely cost-effective as they are merely cut from 4.5 metre lengths of 3”x2” dressed timber, then sanded to remove sharp corners and rough edges before being wood-stained. The angled ends are then given 2 coats of the appropriate colour of gloss. When I was starting out as a greenkeeper 30 years ago, most squads painted their own signs and markers, and some of these guys were extremely good at it. It’s a shame that this winter ritual seems to have become a bit of a dying art. I think it shows a willingness from a greenkeeping team when they can take on a project like this, and do it as tidily as they possibly can and really show off their skills. Whenever I visit other courses, I always look to see whether markers and posts have been built or bought, and when I see a selection of well-made furniture that has obviously been made in-house, I will give it some deserved appreciation. Quite apart from adding an individual look to the course, a well sculpted set of home-made markers saves a club a fortune. I have seen markers that look just like ours retail for over £10 each, whereas ours cost just £1.05!

Completed white and yellow markers. Just 2 of 144 that we have made, all ready to smarten up the tees in 2017.


The Season Approaches

During periods of relentless bunker-building and tee marker construction, it would be easy to let the upcoming golf season sneak up on us, but we are fully aware that we are only weeks away from our first major of 2017, the inaugural Black Tee Open on April 1st. For those of you with a slightly less masochistic nature, the annual Team Challenge (in association with Dunaverty Golf Club) follows soon after over the weekend of April 22nd/23rd. For more information on either of these competitions—or indeed any information you might need about the latest goings-on at Machrihanish Dunes—just phone Lorna at the Golf House on 01586810058 or email her at

Enjoy your golf!


Those of you who know me well are aware of how active I am on social media. I am not one of those people who take it all seriously and consider it a part of my career or a way of networking myself into a better position (after all, what better position in life could I possibly wish to attain!). I do however like to trawl through endless banter on Facebook and share photos on Instagram. Amongst my countless photos of the great Scottish countryside and mountain biking at ludicrous speeds, there are a few Machrihanish Dunes gems in there. All the photographs have been taken with my phone, so the quality is therefore questionable, but my images have always been about capturing the moment rather than showing how technically clever I am.

When I sat down to plan this update for you, I figured that an annual review based around some attractive pictures might make for a welcome relief after the barrage of science that I subjected you to last month. It is also an upbeat way to round off what has been an extremely successful year for the greenkeeping team.


Hand mowing greens is my favourite job at any time of the year – especially so in the winter when it becomes a weekly treat. The top end is my favourite loop, mainly because I get to enjoy this high vista that falls to the sea from the 18th green. I’ve lost count of the amount of times people have asked me “What time of year do you stop cutting greens?”. The answer is never, because the air temperature stays high enough in the tropical southwest to ensure that the grass is always growing, which gives us the opportunity to get out there and keep a good surface on them all year round.


The whole course took a battering from relentless wind and rain during the last three months of 2015. However, by the beginning of February, we were already starting to see light at the end of the relentlessly dark and gloomy tunnel. The second image shows how healthy the greens were going into this season – giving us the opportunity to work them hard during the dry weeks that were just around the corner.


The new 10th tee: I have always enjoyed playing from high tees, so when the opportunity arose to build one at Mach Dunes on a site that showed off this incredible view across the entire course,  I just couldn’t resist. I think it worked out pretty well, as did this “heavily filtered” panorama!


Not all of my Machrihanish Dunes photos feature “chocolate box” images of the golf course itself. It would be more accurate to say that they encapsulate my experience at work. Sometimes they also reflect my overactive  imagination. This cloud formation I spotted over Tangy wind farm on a cold April morning is a prime example. To me, it looked like an angry dog barking at a submissive turtle, but I’ll admit that not everyone could see it!


The media was full of stories promising us the “best summer in 100 years,” and on days like this one, it did seem like we might indeed be in line for something a bit special. In truth, though, much as we like to complain about the weather on the West coast of Scotland, it is fabulous during May and June most years. Hand-watering the greens at Machrihanish Dunes after my tea on a spring evening as good as this one, doesn’t feel like work at all!


I was obviously getting artistic here to cover over the undeniable fact that this was yet another picture of the same view from the 18th green. This was taken on the Sunday of the Campbeltown Open, just before the weather finally broke and normal (i.e. unsettled) service was resumed just in time for the kids to finish school before their summer holidays! I was pleased with the way we managed the course in the run-up to this tournament – the greens were very firm and putted well without ever getting silly and without us having to negatively impact their long-term health. Despite the relatively poor turnout, the competition was fiercely contested, with Oliver Armour eventually getting the better of Davey Lamont in a play-off.


The links at Machrihanish Dunes have always been associated with nature. The strict regime that we follow to remain in-sync with the terms of our management agreement with Scottish Natural Heritage ensures that we are rewarded with a colourful display of wild flowers every summer. While I appreciate all the different species that make up the overall palette, it is easy to become distracted by the sheer beauty of the orchids for which we have become particularly famed and the moths that have formed a symbiotic relationship with them. Getting four Burnett moths to pose on one Early Marsh-Orchid was too good of a photo opportunity to miss!


This image barely squeezes into August, as I posted it on the 29th. It is admittedly less scenic than a lot of my posts, but there is something clinically balanced about it. We chose  to think a long way outside the box when we planned our aeration and over-seeding program, and this was the result – a grid pattern of thousands of holes filled to the brim with good quality rootzone material and the best fescue seed.


We had a deadline imposed upon us to get the greens back to a decent playing standard by the Shepherd’s Cross on the 18th, and this image proves that we not only managed to do that, but that we had germinated a huge percentage of the seed we had planted just 3 weeks before. That is Craig Barr on the greens mower, finishing his early shift and no doubt looking forward to a man-sized breakfast!


I’m always on the lookout for a bit of humour, and plenty of people got a chuckle out of this when I posted it. I wondered whether this buzzard had feasted on so many rabbit carcasses that he had got too heavy for the reinforced concrete post he’d chosen to perch on. He doesn’t seem too fazed by its dilapidated condition though! It is always a joy to observe the varied wildlife as we go about our work, and birds of prey are always a special treat. Of course, there are many buzzards, but we have also seen hen harriers, sparrow hawks, owls, kestrels and a brutal peregrine – which I would certainly not like to get on the wrong side of!


Scotland’s weather in November is extremely volatile, and that means there is always potential for a good rainbow. The closer you are to the sea, the more chance you have of seeing one in its entirety – and I have taken many good rainbow/golf course images in the past. Despite the slightly wonky panorama discrepancies that spoil this composition, this full double rainbow  is probably the best of them all!


It is supposed to be the depths of winter, and yet there was so much grass on the fairways that we had to go and cut them. Chris Grogan was unaware that he was taking centre stage in this image – I was hiding somewhere I shouldn’t have been to get the height I needed to make it work. Getting up this high shows just how massive the picturesque site that we work on really is, and how little ground has actually been disturbed in order to route a good golf course over it. Some of these contours would be impossible to replicate with a bulldozer.

So there you have it. In amongst all the emojis, hashtags, likes and comments – here is a whole year of work and laughter at Machrihanish Dunes broken down into twelve pictures that I hope give you an insight into what we do and how much we enjoy doing it. I hope we can continue to improve the course for your enjoyment in the year to come. I look forward to randomly coming across many more opportunities to post photos like these for your amusement. I would like to thank you for your enthusiasm and your gracious and generous comments about the condition of the golf course, and on behalf of all the members of the greenkeeping staff at Machrihanish Dunes, I wish you the very best for 2017.

Enjoy your golf over the festive period!

If you are on Instagram and want to see more of these (along with many, many pictures of bikes and hills!), then feel free to follow me. I am easy to find. Please be aware though that my comments are strictly my own and my views on certain subjects are not necessarily shared by the owners or management of Machrihanish Dunes.