Preparing for the Golf Season in the Wild, Wild West – of Scotland!

A Machrihanish Dunes course update from the club’s Head Greenkeeper, Simon Freeman:

As many of you are keenly aware, the winter of 2013-14 will go down in the record books as one of the worst that Great Britain and Ireland have ever experienced.  Storm after storm rolled in off the Atlantic and the resulting wind, rain and sometimes even snow made everyone’s lives miserable—especially those of the Machrihanish Dunes greenkeepers!  But I’m happy to report that this is a case of ‘all’s well that ends well.’

Machrihanish Dunes is a relatively young golf course and one that is situated on an environmentally sensitive site. One of the reasons why it is a protected area is because its dune structure is relatively loose and fragile.  In addition, the golf course is laid out over a rootzone which has historically been less biologically active and less enriched with nutrient and mineral supplies than other, more mature British seaside courses.

A view of the updated Scottish Golf Course at Mach DunesThe ground that Machrihanish Dunes is situated upon is extremely exposed, too, even for the West coast of Scotland. The Atlantic breakers do not stop for breath on their way in here.  There is no land between Machrihanish and America, and there are no shallow reefs to slow down the progress of the waves as they smash their way into the West Sands. The local surfers will tell you that this is what makes the place so perfect, but from a greenkeeping point of view, I’d like to change that storm pattern! The greens along the shoreline suffered in an unprecedented way from storm damage and salt contamination this past winter and when the ferocious storms also stripped a percentage of the grass cover off the 5th, 6th, 15th and 16th greens, the decision was made to take the opportunity to re-contour and returf the 5th, 15th and 16th and to completely re-design the 6th in a new, more protected location.  As in previous off-seasons, the owners of Machrihanish Dunes remained committed to providing the investment and resources required to keep improving the golf course in every way possible.  And as a group, we are very proud of the results.

There is no doubt in my mind that from an architectural point of view, the changes have been a resounding success. The signature 5th green (formerly the 14th—the nines have been switched back to the original routing) has been successfully softened without losing its character.  In fact, it now has far more possible pin positions and is much more fair, and yet you could easily look at it and not realise that anything has been done to it.  The same can be said about the greens at the par-5 15th and the par-4 16th.

The par-3 6th is the pick of the bunch, though, not least because its semi-blind tee shot previously made it one of the course`s weaker holes. We moved the green inland so that now you play to a completely visible green from a high tee that’s protected by the dune wall and yet still offers breathtaking sea views.  This new 6th hole is a cracker, and I know that players are going to love it. New golf paths were built to link these new greens and tees together, too, and the whole lot was turfed with the very best materials—a classic fescue/browntop bent mixture for the greens, grown on rootzone designed to match that found on-site, a soil-based fescue/bent turf for tees, and an extremely hard-wearing and attractive ryegrass mix for the pathways.

All this work was carried out over the space of just 3 weeks during a cold, wet February—just a matter of weeks before golf fans were sitting down to enjoy the visual splendour of The Masters, something which annually serves to raise the interest and expectations of the hibernating Scottish golfer. The pressure was on to produce new playing surfaces that the visiting golfer could enjoy, but of course this had to be balanced against protecting the integrity and health of the fragile new surfaces during a period when soil temperatures had not increased sufficiently to support any new growth. 

The pin on Scotland's Best Golf ResortWe rolled the greens with handmowers on a thrice-weekly basis, before finally taking the plunge and applying the first trim at 10mm on April 2nd. The rolling had helped smooth the surfaces, but what we really wanted to do was to topdress them with sand to fill in the hollows and to help fill the remaining gaps around the turf edges. We know from experience, though, that it is very easy to smother the crowns of new plants by topdressing too early, as this can drastically reduce the rooting potential of new turf. So again we backed off, concentrating on regular mowing at a safe height and applying regular doses of an organic foliar spray package that was individually tailored to provide the nutrients and additives in a way that would ensure that maximum advantage was taken of the relatively high midday air temperatures we were fortunate to experience throughout April.

Finally the time came to topdress, which allowed us to lower the mowing height sufficiently to produce a surface that we were happy to allow our guests and friends to enjoy playing on.  And that was it, the new greens were open. By this time the tees and pathways had also matured remarkably well, and although the cutting heights are still comparatively high even now, we believe that they are providing golfers with an experience that they can really enjoy.  And they should enjoy these new greens all the more with the knowledge that whenever they return to Machrihanish Dunes, whether it be weeks, months or years from now, they will be able to enjoy an even more stable, better balanced set of stunning links golf holes.

So yes, every cloud does have a silver lining.  Not only has the vast amount of work done in just a few short weeks provided golfers at Machrihanish Dunes with new surfaces which will very quickly reach maturity, but the amazing new par-3 6th and the clever touches made to the other redesigned greens will all serve to further enhance the overall layout of this spectacular U.K. Top-100 golf course. 

It’s a case of the very good getting even better.