Although May started off pretty poorly and looked set to continue the theme of cold, damp weather that we had been enduring for a whole year, the sun suddenly appeared and turned the whole shooting match right around. Stunning day followed stunning day in May, and by the time we got to the weekend of 2nd-3rd June, things had become so warm that I started to swap out my early afternoon bike ride for a siesta in the garden! The course has obviously changed colour a bit over the last couple of weeks, with the verdant green conditions that have been a constant feature of the last 12 months suddenly replaced by a hue more reminiscent of a digestive biscuit. While this obviously brings a certain amount of stress because we inevitably have to start relying on mechanical equipment to keep the golf course in prime condition rather than trusting nature to do it like we usually do, we can see how much enjoyment golfers get from playing the links when it is running hard and fast. It is impossible for us not to get sucked along with this enthusiasm despite having extra logistical headaches to deal with. Long may it last…but maybe a wee bit of rain at nights might not go amiss once in a while!
“You Shouldn’t Be Watering Links Greens”
I heard this old chestnut recently for the first time in ages. The statement wasn’t delivered as an angry instruction, but more as a friendly suggestion delivered by someone who genuinely believed that his experience gained from many years of playing the seaside game afforded him the luxury of offering his professional advice. It is by no means the first time I have heard this during my career as a greenkeeper, and although the statement is undoubtedly one of the most massive generalisations I have EVER heard (for surely every set of greens is different, and therefore cannot be looked after in exactly the same way), it does have some merit at its base level. What the gentleman who offered the advice meant is that letting greens dry out almost to the point of death will do less damage to the deeper rooting perennial grasses that we wish to favour in our swards than it will to shallow rooting annual meadow grass. As I have said before in these reports, fescue plants have a symbiotic relationship with soil mycorrhiza and one of the attributes that these microscopic fungi possess is the ability to attract and store water from the soil and make it available to the plant. In effect, a strong population of these fungal hyphae around the extremities of the plant root system almost act like an extension of the root system itself. Because there does not appear to be a similar relationship going on around the root systems of annual meadow grass (or not to the same extent, anyway), annual meadow grass will not survive nearly as well in drought conditions as will fescue and indigenous highland bent.
But—and this is an important but—how dry would a golf green actually have to get before we could physically remove annual meadow grass by drought, and how much negative impact would that have on:
a) the condition of the rest of the green and
b) playing conditions?
I don’t want to sound like I am blowing my own trumpet here, but I believe that there will be few people in the British greenkeeping industry today who are as well qualified to answer that question as I am, for before I was fortunate enough to be given the course at Machrihanish Dunes to look after, I spent 15 years looking after a high quality links course that had no irrigation at all. To begin with, this was a truly frightening experience, as I (like many of my peers) had never really seen a properly dry green before. When I started at Machrie, the greens were so bunged up with organic matter that they would dry out immediately when the sun came out and the first breath of easterly wind kicked up in the 2nd week in April, and would then go horribly hydrophobic and resist any attempt from passing showers to penetrate into the rootzone until eventually they would become wet from below once again when the water table would rise sufficiently to allow them to become saturated for the winter. Predictably, there wouldn’t be much left of the surface by then, and the greens would resemble a threadbare carpet. Granted, a lot of the grass that had died out would have been annual meadow grass rather than fescue and bent, but when Autumn arrived and there were gaps to fill, what plants do you think opportunistically jumped into the voids that had been created? Yes, that’s right, annual meadow grass! And moss. All we had really achieved was to thin out the surface sufficiently in the summer in order to make them terrible to putt on, only to then see them fill back in with the same unwanted plants in order for the same thing to happen again the next year! After a few years, we sorted a lot of the problems that had blighted the greens for decades until eventually, we had a massive, fully operational root system and had instigated wetting agent application and aeration programs that were very efficient at ensuring that dry patch and fairy rings were not allowed to get hold of the rootzone and turn it hydrophobic in the first place. This laterally enabled us to ride out what were admittedly relatively short spells of dry weather without losing any ground cover at all.
I would hazard a guess that the gentleman who offered me the advice that I should not be watering my greens had assumed that I, along with most people from my pampered greenkeeping generation, had never seen a properly dried out green. But because of my unusual background, I do know what a properly dry green looks like, and I know just how much damage could be caused if I was to allow the greens in my care to dry out to that extent without having in place the kind of bulletproof conditions that I eventually managed to build at Machrie.
This is what I said to the gentleman in question. We are going in the right direction. We will, at some point in the future, be able to safely allow our greens to dry out far more than we do at present, without fear of negatively impacting on the health of the grasses that we wish to preserve. Once we reach that point, we can rely on those grasses to survive on their own much more effectively and will therefore be able to put more pressure on the annual meadow grass and see it slip into gradual decline over a long period of time when its demise does not have an overly detrimental effect on the quality of the playing surfaces. The added bonus will be that we will be able to run our surfaces firmer during periods of dry weather, and that should make them run faster and truer and be more fun to play golf on. Although we are going in the right direction, we are not there yet. We need to forge ahead with the program that we have tailored specifically to improve root mass development, and we need to fine-tune our aeration and wetting agent programs to ensure that we don’t get caught out and tripped up by insidious malaises such as fairy rings and dry patch. These two horrors are caused by fungal outbreaks below the surface and inevitably don’t rear their ugly heads until their effects have been noted on the surface, with the result being that we then have to add remedial applications and extra water to bail the surfaces out in order to ensure that the affected spots do not become catastrophically parched.
I think the most important thing is that we accept that we need to continue to learn and educate ourselves and to try to strike this fine balance between favouring perennial grass species and retaining full grass cover in order to ensure that we can provide golfers with optimum playing conditions all year- round. There are a lot of variables and we don’t have full control over all of them. I would love to be in a position where I could take this gentleman’s advice and never have to artificially water my greens but compromising the long-term condition of the surfaces under my care in order to bullishly follow a flawed generalisation set many decades ago would not be a very professional thing to do. Anybody who tells you that links greens were always great in the 1970s when they never received a drop of water is looking through rose-tinted glasses. Sometimes they were great, but most of the time they were actually pretty terrible.
Don’t Worry, I’m Going to Jump Down from My High Horse Now!
That is quite enough opinionated ranting for one day, so I’m going to focus on roots now… new roots. A couple of months ago, I showed you some images of hole plugs that I had removed from our greens and I explained how we had been using humus-rich fertilisers and sensible topdressings during my time at Machrihanish Dunes in order to build ourselves a suitable living environment into which to add beneficial bacteria and fungi that would hopefully help us to extend the root mass under our greens and make our grass plants more self-sufficient, therefore reducing the need for us to artificially apply so much fertiliser and water. We have already seen some pretty impressive results from this, as you can see from the two images below. Because those hole plugs in the earlier report only showed a good amount of humus down to between 6-8 inches, my goal was never to have roots as long as my arm. What we have done already in some areas, though, is to considerably increase root mass in the humus-rich upper area, which has resulted in the greens being far less prone to drying out and being far less susceptible to damage from machine traffic. The first image is from the par-3 5th, which looks particularly strong at the moment, and the second image is from the middle of the 7th green. This second one is particularly pleasing, because that was the weakest area of green on the whole golf course last summer. Of course, we can get these a lot better than their current condition and in no way are we suggesting that this is the end result (it is only the start), but considering the extremely short period of time that we have been working at this and that the results are going in the exact direction we planned, we are pretty excited about the prospects for future development.
What’s Next at Mach Dunes?
We all know what’s next at Mach Dunes, don’t we? That’s right, it’s Campbeltown Open time! Held this year over the weekend of June 30th-July 1st, the tee sheets for our annual festival of golf are already filling up quickly. If you have played in the Campbeltown Open before, you will know just how much fun it is, so if you haven’t already booked up and you are planning to play then I suggest you phone Lorna at the Golf House on 01586 810 058 and arrange a tee time at your earliest opportunity. Lorna is also taking bookings for the Ladies Campbeltown Open (one round of 18 holes only, on Saturday 30th) and our Junior Drive, Pitch & Putt competition (on the afternoon of the 1st). Accommodation packages are available for this event, and there will be entertainment and a buffet on the Saturday night and a barbeque at the Golf House on Sunday. For more information on any details of the Campbeltown Open weekend, click here.
Enjoy your golf in June. Let’s hope this weather sticks around!