Fairy Rings: Friend or Foe?

What a Decidedly Average Summer!

We seem to love using superlatives to describe the weather in this country, and sometimes I wonder whether our propensity for the dramatic is down to our disappointment at having to live in a country where the climate is actually so depressingly average. Last year’s so-called (and extremely relative) drought seems a distant memory now as we muddle our way through what is turning out to be the most normal of years. Boring as it may be, it certainly makes the greenkeeper’s life a lot easier! After the stress of trying not to run out of water in 2018, we are back this year to cruising along, cutting grass and feeding, aerating and topdressing whenever the turf has a requirement for it. Maybe the hard times are yet to come. Perhaps once we get into August, high pressure from the Azores will build and drag warm air up and over us. We have definitely seen that happen in the past but it doesn’t tend to last for very long.

A typical scene from Summer 2019. Blue skies with dark clouds looming!

Fairy Rings – Friend or Foe?

An average summer such as this does give us a bit of leeway to push our turf in the direction we want it to go without fear of reprisals that might come our way should things dry out too much. One thing we have been doing this year is allowing the fairy rings that have appeared in a few of our older greens to grow unchecked, to the point where their presence has become quite noticeable. A few people have asked me about why these rings and patches have become so prevalent, and many of those people I have spoken to claim to have never seen fairy rings affect greens before. At first, I found that a little surprising because I remember fairy rings being a big issue when I was growing up around golf courses, but the more I thought about it, the more I had to agree that you don’t see them nearly as much these days. Why is that?

Fairy rings are formed by fungal bacteria that occur naturally in soil. You may well have seen dry “puffball” mushrooms growing on the fairways and in the rough, and you may have chuckled to yourself as you stood on them and watched them explode in a ball of what looks like dust. That dust is actually the spores produced by the fungus, and they blow in the wind until they land on an unaffected area of turf, where it is washed down into the soil. From there, the fungal bacteria spread outward through the upper portion of the rootzone, munching through excess organic matter and converting it to useable forms of nitrogen which feeds the grass. This is when we see fairy rings appearing. An army of bacteria is marching outward from a central point under our grass plants, utilising thatch as a source to produce food for our turf. The ring appears dark green at the outer edge of the area that the bacteria have reached because that is where they are finding a huge supply of food to further their mission, and as they convert all of that to nitrogen in a very short space of time, it actually over-feeds the grass. A lot remains unknown about exactly what is going on inside the confines of an existing fairy ring, but my guess would be that there is a large population of these bacteria still living there quite happily despite having used up the excess organic matter that provided them with the energy to push onwards and outwards. Organic matter is being dumped onto the surface of the rootzone all the time in the form of spilled clippings, dying grass leaves, animal droppings, etc, and all of that can be utilised by the bacteria that are residing there to keep themselves healthy. If this process goes unchecked over a long period of time, it would be logical to imagine that these fungal bacteria could conceivably produce a fairy ring big enough to cover an entire green. It is interesting to sit back and think about what that would mean for us as greenkeepers. Would it cause us issues, or would it actually be of huge benefit?

An enormous fairy ring on the 17th green. This is clearly not affecting the roll of the ball, so is it doing any harm? Further to that, is the natural process that is causing the formation actually doing the green a lot of good?

The main downside to managing fairy rings is hydrophobia. The bacteria excrete a waxy substance which can be incredibly difficult to re-wet if it is allowed to dry out, but my experience is that accumulations of this waxy substance are serious enough to be problematic only at the extremity of the ring (where it is dark green), and not in the centre where there is less ongoing fungal activity. It is thought that the bacteria also release gases which are harmful to grass, which may go some way to explaining why grass just outside the dark green ring can turn yellow and in extreme circumstances “burn” right out. It does seem that affected grass just outside the ring can be protected to a certain degree by keeping it fed and watered sufficiently to avoid a decline in its health, which makes fairy rings manageable during a summer such as this when mixed conditions ensure that moisture levels are relatively easy to manage. All these negative issues are centred on the portion of the ring where the bacteria are most active and are, therefore, only an issue while they are going to work on those unnaturally high reserves of excess organic matter. Once they have passed that point and moved outwards, that area which is now inside the ring seems to stabilise once again, as if a balance has been restored. So if we go back to our question then, would there be any downside to a green that had been completely engulfed by fairy rings to the point where the dark green ring was outside the perimeter of the putting surface? Might we find that the bacteria actually helped us to do our job? Does the lack of fairy ring activity on greens in this country mean that we have to do more mechanical work in order to control organic matter? And why do I remember seeing fairy rings on greens when I was a boy and why only now are we seeing them re-appearing on not only the greens at Machrihanish Dunes but on putting surfaces all over the country (did anybody notice them on Carnoustie’s greens during the Open last year, or more recently on the fairways at Royal Portrush?). So many good questions!

I think I’ll start in reverse order. I think the reason why fairy rings are once again becoming more prevalent is that government legislation has taken all of our most effective fungicides away from us. Although these products were highly effective at controlling the specific diseases they were designed to target, there is no doubt that using them as a crutch to control outbreak created an inert environment and a fungal wasteland, just as using strong insecticides to kill juvenile leatherjackets also kills pretty much every other living organism in the soil too. Could it be that the healthy greens of decades past (that for some reason didn’t seem to build up huge layers of pathogen-harbouring thatch which required to be cored out two or three times a year and constantly sprayed with fungicides) naturally contained healthy populations of the bacteria that we see causing fairy rings, among many other species? Were the rings themselves less prevalent because there was a steady source of food available to them which they then converted to plant food to keep the grass healthy, thereby promoting a continual positive natural cycle? The green rings that are the sign of a mass feeding frenzy at the outer extremity of a fungal colony may have been noted less often, because the sheer amount of food would not have been available to allow the bacteria to produce that much nitrogen, that amount of waxy excretion, and the level of gaseous by-products required to harm and eventually kill the grass outside of the ring. Have we possibly made a rod for our own back by applying fungicides that have killed off whole populations of bacteria that we didn’t even know that we needed? Did we unwittingly ruin a brilliantly balanced eco-structure that resulted in us building up huge layers of root-stifling thatch that we then needed to go and core back out and spray with more fungicides because it became such an unhealthy environment that only one grass species (poa annua) would grow in it? Even that species was so weak that it was constantly attacked by disease pathogens that lived unchecked in the rootzone because we had stupidly killed all its natural predators. What a bunch of idiots!

I know that life isn’t as simple as that. We greenkeepers are charged with maintaining grass in an extreme way in order to produce the best putting surfaces, to the point where we endanger its very survival on a daily basis. Consequently, we are bound to run into periods where it becomes so weak that root mass will suffer and plants become susceptible to disease and it is all too easy  to succumb to the pressure that we feel under and just reach for a bottle containing the magic elixir that we know will fix whatever issue we are having at that particular time. In the past, I’ve even let fairy rings get on top of me during dry spells and sprayed them with an approved fungicide to give myself a break. That works, but as we move forward into a working environment that contains less and less of these artificial crutches that allow us to back ourselves out of corners that most of the time we have actually created ourselves, might we be better to learn to accept some superficial cosmetic defects on our putting surfaces, safe in the knowledge that we are allowing perfectly balanced natural processes to solve most of our underlying issues before they even become apparent?

I think a lot of us are guilty of giving into pressure that we put on ourselves rather than pressure that really does come from outside influences. Successful greenkeepers are invariably perfectionists and we really don’t like to see things like fairy rings or disease scars on our surfaces. Half the time, though, I don’t think the people happily playing on our greens even notice these things as they very rarely affect the run of the ball, and given the choice of accepting some visual imperfections or having to put up with weeks of recovery from yet another bout of holocoring, I think most players would readily vote for the former.

If only it were that cut and dried though. When you are relying on natural processes, you are never in full control, and that is why we have historically been so keen to revert to using science in an attempt to create an alternate environment that we believe that we can fully control. USGA spec greens are a classic example. The theory seems so obvious. Spread a layer of sand mixed with a very small amount of sterilised, inert soil over a carpet of gravel and land drains, turf that with a mixture of fescue and bentgrass and you will have greens that are easy to maintain and are as firm and fast as those at the seaside. Typically, these greens perform absolutely brilliantly in the UK for the first two years. Once the honeymoon period is over though, our damp, temperate climate helps thatch to start accumulating at a frightening rate because there are no bacteria in the sterilised “soil” to break it down, so the course manager is forced to mechanically remove material by holocoring. Once the ground is full of sand-filled holes, annual meadow grass seeds have got a perfect environment in which to settle and start to take over. The green that was initially cut at 5 or even as high as 6mm to favour the fescue and bent now has to be cut shorter so that the meadow grass is less noticeable and doesn’t negatively affect ball speed and roll. Fescue hates being cut short, so it dies out, leaving more gaps for more meadow grass. Meadow grass grown on a thatchy rootzone will inevitably be susceptible to disease, so it gets sprayed with fungicide, and this kills any beneficial bacteria that might have been trying to colonise the soil. I could go on indefinitely, but I’m sure you get my point. If you ignore soil biology, you create a negative spiral which requires that you do more disruptive work, which ruins surfaces and encourages annual meadow grass proliferation still further. If you favour soil biology and try whenever possible to help it to flourish naturally, then you should theoretically be able to stand back and watch as it does some of your job for you. The only problem is that you can’t control it; it will always be in charge. And that is a frightening prospect for any turf manager.

If it is alright with you, I think I will leave the fairy rings alone for just now. I’m interested to see what will happen!

Mushroom Farming

One more thing before I stop banging on about fairy rings.  You may have noticed white mushrooms growing in the areas affected by the fungal bacteria. These mushrooms are the same puffballs that I mentioned earlier. If I were to leave these alone, they would turn from white to black, dry out and release spores which would help the bacteria to colonise new areas. Many varieties of fungus operate in the same manner, utilising the energy released from devouring whatever food source they prefer to produce fruiting bodies which further the cause of the species. Although I have openly come out in favour of leaving the fairy rings alone, I do consider the mushrooms to be something I could do without, and I have been picking them off the greens whenever possible. They develop and grow incredibly quickly though, so it is almost impossible to keep on top of all of them. Please bear with us.

The spore-producing mushrooms can clearly be seen in this image of a fairy ring. If left unattended, these would turn black and would dry out and “explode”.

Tournament Round-Up

It is far too long since I sat down and wrote one of these updates, so I now have a lot to tell you about! The 2019 edition of the Campbeltown Open was an eventful affair, with an unfortunate interruption for a huge thunderstorm on the first day. The second round was played in more “normal” conditions, and this helped George McMillan to a one-stroke victory in the men’s scratch. David McLean finished runner-up, with Kevin Brunton 3rd and Bobby Willan in 4th. The gent’s handicap section was won by Kevin Brown.

Gent’s Campbeltown Open winner George McMillan receiving the trophy from Mr. YC Kim, representative of the tournament sponsor CS Wind.

The ladies Campbeltown Open was won by Anne Laing, with Lyndsay Mathie finishing runner-up.

Anne Laing receiving the ladies Campbeltown Open trophy from our own Andy Hogan and Lorna Barr.

Our club championships were contested the week after the Campbeltown Open, with Gary Sheppard retaining the men’s scratch trophy and Iain Logan winning the handicap section. The ladies scratch was won by Ailie MacBrayne, while Elizabeth Marrison scooped the handicap prize.

Gents Club Champions Gary Sheppard (right) and Iain Logan.
Ladies Club Champions Ailie MacBrayne (right) and Elizabeth Marrison.

As I write this, the Shepherd’s Cross/David Irwin memorial trophy has just been contested and I am delighted to report that this was won by a team containing some of David’s closest golfing friends…

…from left: Darren Kelly, David Rankin, Stephen Kelly, Stuart Campbell.

The next competition on the Machrihanish Dunes calendar is the Black Sheep Cup, which is being held this year on Sunday 25th August. This inclusive stableford event is open to all gents and ladies aged 16 and over and is sure to be very popular once again. If you are interested in booking a tee time for the Black Sheep Cup, then I recommend you phone Lorna or Peter at the Golf House (01586810058) at your earliest opportunity.

Enjoy your golf in August, everybody!

Different Year, Same Old Story

I don’t know how many people said to me during April that they couldn’t ever remember it being as dry or windy. Well, I could, and I’m sure every other greenkeeper in Scotland could, too. The old saying that March “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is all too predictable, and while this usually means we are blessed with a few days of settled, sunny weather to end the month, the reason for this is because a big area of spring high pressure nearly always builds in from Scandinavia at this time. These huge highs are notoriously belligerent, and when they are faced with an onslaught from low pressures piling in from the Atlantic as we head into April, there tends to ensue a “square-go” which the high pressure almost always wins. Because this conflict happens right over the extreme westerly edges of the Scottish landmass, the weather pattern stagnates and strong cyclonic winds around the edge of the low are forced up over us in a south-easterly direction. I have worked on the west coast for 20 years now and I would estimate that this exact weather pattern has parked cold, dry, and extremely windy conditions right at my door during at least 15 of those springs. Just when things are starting to look really good out on the course, the south-easterly hairdryer rears its extremely ugly head and stunts everything that was even thinking about growing. It is no good for the flowerbeds, it is no good for the brand-new flags that I always put out at the start of the season, and it is definitely no good for my gnarled old complexion!

One thing I have learned over the last two decades is that weather-watching is more than just a hobby for greenkeepers. To be truly successful in this business, you have to be obsessive about it, you have to learn how to watch the patterns and the signs and you must never allow yourself to be sucked in by false springs. Because in reality, so-called false springs don’t actually exist; they are merely annual blips that come before actual spring, which is a season invariably blighted by cold temperatures, zero growth, and biting south-easterly winds. It has always been like that, and unfortunately for us Scottish greenkeepers, it probably always will be. True to form though, as we headed into the beginning of May, the winds warmed up and calmed sufficiently to allow the strongest of the lows that had been parked up in the Atlantic to creep just far enough east to give us the little bit of rain that we had been crying out for in order to get some granular fertiliser and some wetting agent onto our greens. Watching for these encroachments and then making the absolute best of the opportunities that they afford can make or break a greenkeeping season. Get it right and you can relieve all the stress and tension that has built up in your greens during April in one go. Miss the window of opportunity, though, and another dry spell can hit hard before you have had the chance to return your greens to their base settings of optimum nutrition and universal moisture content. If that happens, you can be left chasing your tail for weeks or even months.

Maintenance Matters

When you maintain grass in order for it to perform to the very best of its ability like we do, you are threatening its very existence on a daily basis. The expectations of members and visitors are higher annually because performance advantages are constantly discovered and boundaries are constantly pushed by a business-driven desire to provide optimum conditions on a much more frequent basis than was previously ever thought possible. The goal is simply to have our greens in tournament condition for as many days of the year as we possibly can. To offset the potential damage that can be done to the plant from pushing it to its limits even more often than before, we take every opportunity to reduce putting it under any stress that we can avoid. One of the most obvious ways we do that is by keeping our mowers sharp. Everybody knows that a clean, sharp cut to the finger will heal up almost immediately, while a serrated slash incurred by contact with a rusty, blunt blade will take a lot longer to heal and is far more likely to become infected. Well, exactly the same is true for grass, especially when it is already subjected to severe stress. To offset the potential for damage caused by poorly performing mowers, many clubs, including Machrihanish Dunes, have invested heavily over the last few years in reel and bedknife grinders that would previously have only been purchased by main machinery dealers and the most prestigious of championship venues. Having these machines at our disposal ensures that we can always have our greensmowers operating at optimal performance, whereas previously, we were always trying desperately to “eek them through” until the next time they were scheduled to go the main dealer for service. “Eeking them through” invariably meant we would, for instance, back away from cutting greens following topdressing (sand blunts blades frighteningly quickly), or conversely, we might have avoided topdressing in the first place in order to avoid negatively impacting on the quality of cut. Both of those scenarios would have resulted in less than optimum conditions on certain individual days, which might potentially have caused frustration for customers. Although we could now be accused of wastefulness by cutting greens in less than ideal conditions because we have the machinery available to sharpen mowers again afterward, at least the greens are getting maintained to an optimum level. The result of having these grinders at our disposal is that there are more days of the year when it is possible to provide our customers with playing conditions that come close to being “as good as it gets”.

The first step is to remove the bottom blade and its carrier from the mower or cutting unit. The unit or mower is then clamped into this grinder and the grinding stone runs back and forth until it has removed any irregularities from the cutting reel. The sharpened reel will then look like this…factory fresh!
The bottom blade and the carrier that it is screwed onto is clamped into the machine in the picture below, and the grinding wheel on that runs back and forth across the blade until it is completely flat.

The bottom blade carrier is then re-fitted to the mower and tightened until the two surfaces are close enough to cut a very thin piece of paper. If the mower can leave a perfect cut on thin paper, it will definitely leave a perfect cut on a blade of grass, and you had better make sure that you don’t put your fingers anywhere near it!

Ten Years of Fairway Preparation

In my last update, I wrote about the greens and how they had matured both before and since I started working at Machrihanish Dunes. This month, I want to talk about the fairways. Everybody knows about the restrictions placed on the team who designed and then “constructed” the golf course, and I still have people approach me who remember how difficult it was for the greenkeepers to initially work the ground that was to become the fairways into a condition that was at all suitable for golf, simply by mowing down the existing topography. This would have been reminiscent of the way that links courses evolved a century earlier, but in those days, player expectations were understandably lower than it is today. Golfers who played the game in 1909 would have been far more forgiving of idiosyncrasies than a lot of the players who turned up at Machrihanish Dunes in 2009 expecting to be presented with a manicured experience.

There is no doubt that the early years were tough for the hard-working individuals who fought to hone the links into a respectable golf course. Ten years down the line, though, we are definitely reaping huge benefits from not having put a bulldozer through the lot! Contours that must initially have seemed impossible to tame have been smoothed off by a decade of relentless mowing, leaving behind rumpled, wildly undulating expanses of springy seaside turf that provide the player with an absolute rollercoaster of fun. The architects must take a lot of the credit for this. I am sure they will have had to utilise their skills in a slightly different and less bullish manner than they ordinarily would, standing back and looking for opportunities in the existing terrain rather than stamping an artificial footprint on top of it. They must be so proud now to see their vision realised in such a spectacular way- holes like the 3rd, 7th,13th  and 17th pitch and roll along their entire length and provide a strategic test that must have been so difficult to initially spot when the ground was covered in relatively thick foliage. Now that the rough edges have been removed from these areas by continual mowing and they are covered with a smooth sward of natural links grasses growing on the same undisturbed, humus-rich soil that they have been growing on for thousands of years, they are spectacular to look at and brilliant fun to play from. Everybody who has spoken to me about golf course design will attest to me being a huge fan of the art and strategy that is involved in the craft, and it is clear that I have strong views on what I believe makes or breaks my enjoyment of playing a seaside links. I have played on a lot of courses that have great fairway contours, but I think that maybe, just maybe, Machrihanish Dunes has the most amusing and visually appealing collection of all. It may have been a struggle to start with, but it certainly worked out well in the end!

The first half of the 3rd fairway appears at first sight to be runway flat with just a single bunker on the right to raise interest levels. In reality though, due to the rig and furrow contours, it is almost impossible to find a flat lie. Would this subtlety have been retained if the construction team had been allowed to shape this hole artificially? I doubt it. Who could possibly be good enough on a machine to replicate this?
Once past driving distance on the same fairway, the player is faced with a complete change of landscape. The subtle ripples are replaced suddenly with a succession of humps and hollows that pitch and roll in every direction. I am sure that a competent machine operator could potentially replicate these features, but I doubt that he would be allowed to. Somebody involved in the process would reign in his enthusiasm and soften the finished article for fear of being ridiculed. The great thing about Machrihanish Dunes is that the design team had no choice but to play through contours such as these because they were not allowed to alter them, and I imagine that they secretly relished that opportunity! Huge credit must be awarded to them for spotting the potential of areas such as this when they planned their initial routing.

Early Season Competitions

In my last update I made mention of some upcoming competitions, the first of which was the inaugural playing of our Mach Dunes Am-Am. This was sponsored by our friends at Glen Scotia Distillery and turned out to be hugely successful with 31 teams participating. The winners on the day were Raymond Harvey, John Brown, John Marrison, and Danny Halliday.

The following weekend (13th/14th April) saw Machrihanish Dunes proudly host the Argyll and Bute Matchplay Championship for the first time, and this was won in fiercely windy conditions by Graham Bolton.

The Kintyre Team Challenge was played jointly over Machrihanish Dunes and Dunaverty over the course of Easter weekend, and the winners of this were Jamie Campbell, Kenny Semple, Jennifer Owen, and Jim Clark.

Things revert to normal for a while now as we begin to look towards our annual festival of golf, the Campbeltown Open. This competition will be played over the weekend of 29th-30th June and entries are already coming in thick and fast. Anybody who is interested in booking a preferred tee time for the Open should phone Lorna or Peter at the Golf House on 01586 810 058 as soon as possible. Before we concern ourselves too much with the Open, we have our new Wednesday Member’s Competitions to look forward to. These will commence on 5th June, with the first competition being played in a stableford format from the white tees for men and red tees for ladies. Over-70s who wish to play just 9 holes will be pleased to hear that a separate competition will be run for them in conjunction with the main competition on the same day, from the yellow tees for men and red tees for ladies. These competitions will run every Wednesday from this date until the end of August.

This image looking over the 18th and 9th greens towards the Mull was taken on 12th April, the day before the county Matchplay Championship. I don’t have any reason to include it other than because it looks incredible. Who wouldn’t want to be here?!

The Longer You Leave It, the Harder It Gets

I would love to tell you that the reason why I haven’t updated this blog for a while is that I’ve been so busy out on the course, but the truth is I’ve just been a bit slack with it. Not to worry though, like the prodigal son, I’m back!

So what have I got to say for myself? Well, even though I haven’t penned one of these reports for a while, I haven’t forgotten that I always start by talking about the weather…and, up until the last couple of weeks, how good has that been over the course of this winter! Unsurprisingly, given the benign conditions and unusually high levels of sunshine, the fine turf areas at Machrihanish Dunes are currently looking pretty good- with excellent coverage of grass on greens, tees, and surrounds. We have completed all the projects that we had allocated for ourselves in our winter program, and these re-turfed areas have been rooting happily in the late winter sunshine. I could describe all that we have done in great detail, but I am so pleased with the outcome of some of these jobs that I would really rather you come down and have a look yourself than get a disappointingly two-dimensional preview here. Suffice it to say, this is the most excited I have been heading into a golf season here. I really think we have made some hugely positive changes to the course and when that is combined with the current good quality of the turf surfaces, I think it will be hard not to enjoy a game at Machrihanish Dunes this spring.

The 18th and 9th greens enjoying some late February sunshine.
The 18th and 9th greens enjoying some late February sunshine.

Ten-Year Celebrations

As I am sure you are aware, Machrihanish Dunes celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2019. Having only been here for half of that decade I feel like a bit of a fraud opening discussions about how the course has changed and matured during that time, but I thought it might be interesting to note why things invariably get easier for us greenkeepers once a golf course has had time to settle in. It would seem pretty obvious to start a series such as this with the greens, so let’s just do that.

The southwest coast of Scotland is a harsh environment in which to maintain grass at greens height. Due to the warming effect of the gulf stream, we are plagued by higher than Scottish average temperatures throughout late autumn and early winter. Now, it might be natural to imagine that higher temperatures would give us the opportunity to grow grass when others could not and would therefore give us the opportunity to recover better and more quickly from disease, scars or salt damage incurred during the relentless gales. But that advantage is tempered by the constant battle to keep the plant energised during periods where there is very little available sunlight. We have all been told that it takes more electrical energy to switch a light bulb on and off than it does to leave it on, and this expenditure of energy is very similar to the effect we see when we try to maintain grass at the exact temperature where it wants to start growing, but then it stops growing, then starts again, then stops again. The fine-leaved perennial grasses that we would prefer to grow in our greens find it difficult to break down and utilise the nutritional inputs that we add when levels of sunlight, and therefore levels of available energy, are low and this is when they turn to their reserves of food in the soil, most of which is produced and plated up for them by colonies of hard-working bacteria and micro-organisms (which themselves survive by munching through organic matter deposited by decaying plants, clippings spilled from mower boxes, and windblown debris). Obviously, it is extremely advantageous to us that these unseen friends of ours chew through so much of this unwanted material, because if they didn’t it would accumulate in our rootzones and then we would have to holocore or scarify it out. We absolutely hate holocoring and we know that you hate it too, so we will do anything we can to minimise the number of big holes we need to make in the greens. Promoting the health of the organisms that degrade thatch and turn it into useable plant food is massively important to us, as we know this process naturally continues into the shoulder months when our precious perennial plants are looking for nutrition that they just don’t have the energy to get from converting food that we give them into a form that can help preserve their health and very existence.

This self-sufficiency is one of the main reasons why the greens at Machrihanish Dunes are so much easier to manage now through the autumn and winter than they were 10 years ago when the course opened. Initially, the newly constructed greens had a very sandy make-up. This leached nutrients frighteningly quickly and provided little or no potential food for the bacterial population which might have chosen to make the rootzones their home and would then have helped our hungry, energy-depleted grass plants through the difficult shoulder months when temperatures were comparatively high and light energy almost impossible to come by. We have worked hard over the last few seasons to improve the environment under our surfaces by using sensible topdressings and humus-rich fertilisers, with the hope being that we can provide an environment in which nature can take over and colonise the soil under our precious turf. We have purposefully excluded products that harm the health of the soil food web, although I will admit that we recently had some of those damaging products forcibly taken out of our hands by legislation. We have attempted to speed this whole process of naturalisation along by using compost teas and biological products which add life to the soil and assist that life to survive and to become self-sufficient by going to work on our organic matter and turning it into natural food for plants to uptake through their roots.

There are places in the world where reliance on the natural processes that deplete unwanted accumulations of decaying organic matter and cleverly process that into available plant food is of minimal importance, because the seasons are more clinically defined and there is a clear break between the times of year a plant is actively growing and the times of year when it is absolutely dormant. Vast areas of the U.S.A and Canada would come into this category for instance, as would a lot of central and Eastern Europe. The west of Scotland is not one of those places, though, and I believe that an increased reliance on promoting natural processes and the health of soil biology is the best way to help our surfaces to survive healthily through the seemingly never-ending muggy darkness of autumn and early winter. If we can harness nature to provide plant food at the exact times it is required, to help reduce organic build-up (so we can avoid having to rely on excessive aeration), to increase disease resistance and reduce the harmful build-up of hydrophobic deposits then we will be able to reduce our fertiliser and water inputs and hopefully rely less on fungicides and artificial wetting agents in the future. The less of these inputs we have to make, the more nature will thrive, and the more nature thrives, the less inputs we will be forced to make!

Nature of a different kind. Studying what goes on beneath our turf is always interesting for a greenkeeper like me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what goes on above-ground too. All the frustration of trying to get grass to grow healthily is easily forgotten when you come across a scene like this on your early morning inspection!
Nature of a different kind. Studying what goes on beneath our turf is always interesting for a greenkeeper like me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what goes on above-ground too. All the frustration of trying to get grass to grow healthily is easily forgotten when you come across a scene like this on your early morning inspection!

Competition Season Is Coming

It is hard to believe that we are talking about this already, but the golfing year is almost upon us. It always seems like January wants to last forever, but once that is finally past, the Masters is with us in the blink of an eye! Of course, this feeling is exacerbated at Machrihanish Dunes because we have quite a few competitions early in the calendar, and once again this starts with our Am-Am on Sunday, 7th April. Holding an Am-Am on the same weekend Dunaverty has historically held theirs worked well for us last year so we have decided to team up with them once again for our mutual benefit. They hold their competition on the Saturday, we offer a competitor’s rate in the hotels and cottages, and then hold our identical tournament on the Sunday. Everyone should be a winner with an arrangement like that in place.

The weekend after this (13th/14th April), we will be proudly hosting the Argyll and Bute Matchplay Championship for the first time, and I believe that competitors who have qualified for this event are in for a real treat. Machrihanish Dunes is a great matchplay course, but unfortunately, we don’t get enough opportunity to play golf that way any more. Personally, I think this is a crying shame, Matchplay is such a great way to meet people and make friends and it is a much more positive way of playing the game than is defending the integrity of the scorecard in your back pocket. Competitors who have qualified to play in this event might not know that we once again have a special rate available in the hotels for this weekend. So if your game is in good enough shape to have you planning a weekend-long assault on the Matchplay Championship and you fancy staying with us, you should definitely contact Lorraine or Fiona in our reservations department (01586810041 or reservations@machdunes.com) and ask about this.

The long-established Kintyre Team Challenge (April 20-21) follows hot on the heels of the county Matchplay, and this event sees us team up once again with our friends at Dunaverty. The first round of this four-person team event is played down at Southend on their stunning wee links, with the final day’s play due to take place here at Machrihanish Dunes on the Sunday. To enter either of our April competitions or for more information, phone Lorna or Peter on 01586810058 or email golfhouse@machdunes.com.

After that, we’ll be into May. I can’t believe I’m even talking about it already! To view a complete list of our upcoming golf events, click here.

Would You Like Some More Competitions?

If the answer to this question is “yes,” then you are in luck! The opportunity to play more competitive rounds has been requested by several members, so we have decided to run competitions every Wednesday through the months of June, July, and August. These will be simple affairs, with the first competition of the month being scored as stableford and every other one being strokeplay. These competitions will be open to all members and will be played from the white tees for gents and from the red tees for ladies.

But What About the Old Boys?

We opened up our Over-70s membership two years ago and this has been a very successful venture for us. We are aware, though, that we have done very little to help these members to integrate as a group, so we have decided to try hosting 9-hole competitions on a Wednesday during the months of June, July, and August to run in conjunction with the weekly competitions that I have mentioned above. These 9-hole competitions will be open to everybody over the age of 70 and will be played from the yellow tees for gents and the red tees for ladies. We have a CSS for the front 9 at Machrihanish Dunes, so these competitions can count for handicap.

That’s about all I’ve got to say for myself this month. Please come down and see what we have been up to over the winter— we think you’ll love it. Enjoy your golf in March and April if you venture out, and may the weather be with you!

The Greenkeeping team add the finishing touches to the upgrade of a wooden boardwalk bridge that had become dangerously slippery. One of the many small jobs that have complimented the larger projects we have undertaken this winter.
The Greenkeeping team add the finishing touches to the upgrade of a wooden boardwalk bridge that had become dangerously slippery. One of the many small jobs that have complimented the larger projects we have undertaken this winter.

This Weather Is All Over the Place…

…but that is just what we always get at this time of year on the west coast, as the vicious Atlantic low-pressure systems that can be accelerated by the jetstream repeatedly career into us head-on until they find themselves blocked by high pressures that sneakily creep in from Scandinavia. The tabloid press loves this time of year. For weeks now, we have been rolling our eyes at headlines that one week promise “arctic blasts and polar vortexes” and the next tell us that “Scotland is basking in soaring temperatures and it is warmer in Glasgow than it is in Tenerife”. Those of us who study the weather know that these fluctuations in fortunes are nothing new, it has always been thus in November and December.

While we get a kick out of bashing the media for their attention-seeking ways, we do have to be constantly aware of the effect that these extremes in weather conditions have on the condition of our turf. It is all too easy to be smug as we watch a weak bit of turf slowly recover during an unseasonably warm spell, but that recovery will immediately cease if the wind does start to blow from the east. We have learned over the years to make sure that we never take our eye off the ball, and we constantly study forecasts in an attempt to ensure that we do not miss any opportunity to protect and improve the health of our surfaces. A good way to gauge whether or not we have done this effectively is to assess our mood towards the current conditions. If I am moaning about the weather at this time of year it usually means I have misjudged something along the line, but if you approach me and ask if current conditions are suiting me and I tell you that they are, then that probably means that things are generally looking quite passable!

Winter Renovation Work

The best thing about being a greenkeeper in the U.K. is that we have two jobs for the price of one. Just when we are getting absolutely sick of cutting grass and implementing the weekly programs that produce optimum playing conditions, the growth slows down and construction season begins. We had some ambitious plans for this winter, and we have been forging ahead with this work.

The first project that we got stuck into was the reshaping of the bunkers at the 15th. The two bunkers to the right side of the fairway had long ago begun to fall in and had lost so much sand to windblow that they had become almost unplayable. As everybody knows, the ground on which Machrihanish Dunes sits is a site of special scientific interest, so unlike most links courses, we cannot simply hack randomly into dunes with an excavator to obtain an endless supply of sand to top these bunkers back up. What we have done at the 15th is to re-contour the area where the two bunkers previously sat, filling in the front one and reshaping the rear one in such a manner that it will catch the vast majority of balls that run anywhere within its vicinity.

There used to be two bunkers in this area, but we filled the front one in and Malcolm revetted the rear one, cleverly shaping it to maximise its effectiveness (i.e. nastiness!!).
There used to be two bunkers in this area, but we filled the front one in and Malcolm revetted the rear one, cleverly shaping it to maximise its effectiveness (i.e. nastiness!!).


The third bunker (the one closest to the green) was reshaped to flatten its base and make it a lot fairer than it was previously. Both of these bunkers have been revetted to ensure that they retain sand far more effectively than they did previously.

When we undertake a project such as this, we are always extremely careful to ensure that things go back down in the same way as they are lifted. Not only do we lift the turf off the area, but we also strip and stockpile the “soil” from under that before contouring the underlying sand. Once we have achieved the exact shape we require in the sand, we replace an even layer of the soil before replacing the turf. Matching the soil profile and the turf to that of the surrounding area during construction ensures that the restored ground will look and react the same as the ground around it, and most importantly, will continue to favour the exact same species of plants. The last alteration we made was to replace the turf on an area of green surround which had suffered serious damage during the dry spell last summer. This area had been artificially shaped when the green was originally built but was turfed straight onto sand, so we took a sample of the surrounding ground to ascertain the depth of soil in that area before removing that depth of sand and replacing it with composted soil that we produce for ourselves.

It is a common misconception that natural links courses are “built” on sand. Sure, the rootzone is light and free-draining but the “soil” that grows under the fairways is darker in appearance and is capable of holding more nutrients and water than the sand below it. The reason it is like this is because over a long period of time, plants have shed organic material which has been composted and added to the soil profile while grazing animals simultaneously added their own natural “fertiliser”,. Over time, this boosted rootzone develops into an ideal medium upon which to grow links grasses. It sheds water easily, it is bacterially rich ,and it contains exactly the right blend of nutrients to ensure the survival of the grasses that we want to encourage. It may just look like dark sand, but there is a lot more to it than that. When we undertake renovation projects, we need to replicate this rootzone. To do this, we collect all the turf that we remove from the golf course during renovation projects and dump it in a heap off-site. We leave this to compost down over a period of one to two years, turning it over occasionally when we have a digger on hire to allow air to circulate through it. The bacteria that go to work on the turf to break it down thrive as they go about their task and multiply countless times before the heap is eventually ready for us to use. What we are left with is absolute gold for a turf manager: a pile of free draining soil containing just the right blend of nutrients and absolutely teeming with life. The roots of the turf that we place on top of that mixture cannot wait to grow into it and make use of its resources. Composting decaying turf into a free heap of soil is one of the most satisfying things I do as part of my job, as I know that I am creating growing material which is absolutely in keeping with what is already present on the site—and I haven’t had to pay a single penny for it!


We have stripped quite a bit of turf off the course during the last couple of months. Most of this was turf from the 15th and 17th green surrounds which had sustained damage during the dry spell we “endured” earlier in the year. The bacteria in this heap will be going to work on it already, so hopefully it will be fully composted and ready for us to use during next year’s renovation projects!
We have stripped quite a bit of turf off the course during the last couple of months. Most of this was turf from the 15th and 17th green surrounds which had sustained damage during the dry spell we “endured” earlier in the year. The bacteria in this heap will be going to work on it already, so hopefully, it will be fully composted and ready for us to use during next year’s renovation projects!

For comparison purposes, this is the remains of this year’s fully composted heap. There were about 40 tonnes here, but this is all we have left! Luckily, the main construction projects we had planned for this winter are all completed now.
For comparison purposes, this is the remains of this year’s fully composted heap. There were about 40 tonnes here, but this is all we have left! Luckily, the main construction projects we had planned for this winter are all completed now.

The other major project we took on this winter was to re-contour the front of the green surround at the 17th. This area was shaped when the green was rebuilt a few years ago, but the general feeling was that the result was a bit harsh, especially given the sadistic nature of the hole in general. I always considered that it was fair enough to be punished for missing the green to the right, but that it was rotten to also make life difficult for people who had finished short. What we have done is simply flatten out the surround to ensure that balls landing short of the green kick towards rather than away from the green. This will allow golfers whose balls come to rest in this re-contoured area choose how to play their next shot rather than to be faced with an almost impossible flop shot off a tight lie. Once again, we have ensured that the rootzone we laid on top of the underlying sand is a perfect match for the ground surrounding it, because we need the replaced turf to react and grow in exactly the same way as it did before. In this instance, we simply stockpiled and then replaced the existing soil to an even depth and turfed over the top of that.

The newly remodeled green surround at the 17th. It needs a roll!
The newly remodeled green surround at the 17th. It needs a roll!

Bunker Renovations

There are very few bunkers left on the course that have not been renovated in the last couple of years, but typically it is the most difficult jobs that are still outstanding. We want to be sympathetic to the original idyll of leaving the bunkers with a wild look but in most instances, this is totally impractical as the wind here is so ferocious that the sand simply blows out of them or gets blown into the thick marram from where it is very difficult to retrieve. Most of the bunkers we have left to renovate in our schedule have areas which have been “undercut” by the wind, so we feel forced to repair these by revetting them. Sometimes though, there are wild sections that can be retained. If these areas orientate in such a way that the wind does not unduly affect them, or if they have been “built” steeply enough in the first instance, it is possible that bunkers or sections of bunkers can be left with a natural appearance. We are always keen to do this if the bunker we are working on faces into the rough, but sometimes even bunkers surrounded by cut grass can look better if some of their wildness is retained. This bunker at the 7th is a good example of how a mixed, seemingly random approach to renovation can actually work quite well in the right environment. Malcolm has clinically revetted the front face, because this had become severely undercut and was falling in. The marram has been retained on the right side, because its root system supports the high bank that it grows in. That bank is so steep and the orientation of the hazard is such that the sand does not blow up and out of the bunker on this side. The rear bank of the bunker has been turfed with chunks. This is our least preferred option, but the bank here is so high and was becoming so eroded that we had to do something with it. If we had revetted it, we would have had to build many layers, and the height of the bank would have made it very difficult to mow. We could not plug this bank with marram because it is in the line of play and balls entering the bunker would have got caught up in the long grass. By planting thick chunks of mossy, slow-growing turf straight onto the sand, we created a steep face that increases sand retention and halts erosion but minimises the maintenance required. In some instances, “chunked” banks never need to be mown at all, which is obviously very welcome given the maintenance headaches that steep banks cause us. The obvious downside to chunked banks is that they can be quite fragile if subjected to foot traffic, so they can only be used in areas like this where that will not be an issue.

A wee bit of this and a wee bit of that, it all comes together in the end. I’m not sure that I’m 100% finished with this one yet, but I do know that revetted front face looks awesome!
A wee bit of this and a wee bit of that, it all comes together in the end. I’m not sure that I’m 100% finished with this one yet, but I do know that revetted front face looks awesome!

The Golf Never Stops!

Just because we have been busy doing renovation works does not mean we have forgotten about trying to produce decent playing surfaces! Even though I have spent the majority of the last three months moaning about turf disease, the effects of these pathogenic disorders did not become pronounced enough to have a negative impact on putting surfaces. Now that the greens have had enough time to recover from that onslaught, they actually look quite good for the time of year and were playing pretty well for the 55 golfers who turned out to play in our inaugural Winter Open on 1 December. This competition was won by Jonathan Bruce with an excellent total of 41 points. The monthly medals continue to be played (usually on the last Sunday of the month) off the yellow tees with a CSS of 69, and the winter league is in full swing. For those of you who may not be aware, you can enter a card for the winter league on any day of the week, but obviously, only one card per week (your best one!) will be counted towards your total. Historically, the winter league has been blighted by poor weekend weather, so this new option gives people who have a day off during the week the opportunity to come down and make the most of any decent conditions that we do get.

That’s about all I’ve got for this month. I hope you all enjoy the festive season!

Hand mowing healthy looking greens on a Friday. Could the end of a working week get any better?
Hand mowing healthy looking greens on a Friday. Could the end of a working week get any better?

Well, This is What We Get, Isn’t It…

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

…for having the audacity to enjoy several weeks of continual sunshine earlier in the year! Scotland’s weather has an unwavering knack of evening itself out, so I suppose it should come as no surprise to us that ever since the rain finally did come, it has resolutely refused to stop again. While the damp and unusually warm spell of the last few weeks has been really helpful for germinating grass seed in places that had lost a bit of cover through the sunny period that preceded it, we have had to be constantly aware of the presence of turf disease and we have been keeping a careful eye on the health of our grass to ensure that we do not stress it to the point where these pathogens could get a hold and run riot in the humid conditions that have been ideally suited to their purpose. We humans are far more likely to catch the common cold if we are run down, stressed, or over-tired and it is no different for plants. Just as we need to look after ourselves, eat the right foods, drink plenty of water, and breathe plenty of fresh air in order to fight off the infections that constantly surround us, the plants that make up our playing surfaces need to be given the opportunity to do the same.

Why We Raise the Height of Cut in Winter

Somebody actually asked me about this the other day, as we quite obviously raised our greens height of cut last week. This issue follows on perfectly from the points I made about turf health in the paragraph above. In Scotland, we can regularly rely on 16 or more hours of daylight during the mid-summer months, which gives grass plants mown down to even the kind of heights that create optimum green speed plenty of opportunities to photosynthesise. Once the days get shorter, though, and the sun struggles to get high enough in the sky to shine at all on some of our sunken green sites, the same grass plants can struggle to produce enough energy to fuel their life-saving functions. As result, they become stressed, making them far more likely to succumb to the advances made by various disease pathogens that are always present in their living environment. The best way to ensure that the plant can receive enough sunlight to replicate its photosynthetic success of the summer months is simply not to cut it as short. This increases the number of light-attracting receptors (chloroplasts) on each leaf blade, which gives the plant more chance of capturing the amount of sunlight it needs to maintain perfect health.

This becomes more complicated still when we have a desire to increase the populations of finer-leaved grasses in our greens, because obviously a fine leaf blade will have less space for chloroplasts than a wide one does. It stands to reason then that

  • fine fescues, bents, and some of the new varieties of dwarf ryegrasses would benefit from a further increase in the height of cut during periods of low light, and
  • leaving the height of cut low in order to chase green speed at a time of year when the main golf competitions are over and there is very little left to play for is foolhardy and short-sighted and will only result in these finer-leaved plants going into unhealthy decline—while the more agricultural grass varieties with the wider leaves will survive much better.

Of course, if our greens contained only fine-leaved grasses, then they would putt at a decent speed regardless of the higher height of cut, and then we would be onto an absolute winner. This is the main reason why we spend so much of our time and effort overseeding our greens with fine-leaved grasses, because we are trying to win the battle that will see them become dominant. If we can manage that, we can leave the height of cut higher year-round, requiring less feed and irrigation, and will see our root systems increase in both length and mass and generally make our surfaces more self-sufficient and more consistent to play on throughout the 12 months of the year. Presently we are, like most links courses, stuck somewhere along this road, primarily because we constantly have to compromise plant health in order to produce satisfactory green speeds. That’s not a moan, it’s just a fact. As greenkeepers, we always have to balance the professional desire to improve the agronomic quality of our greens with the business desire to have the greens performing at an optimal playing level on any given day. In a nutshell, maintaining that balance is precisely what we get paid for and if we lose control of it either one way or the other, it is we who are not performing at an optimal level!

While this is all interesting stuff, I have side-tracked from answering the original question here. In summary, the reason why we raise the height of cut in winter is simply to allow the plant to still gather enough sunlight to allow it to produce the energy to drive its life-preserving functions despite the overall supply of sunlight being reduced by the shorter days and the lower sun.

Rough Management

A lot of players who re-visit Machrihanish Dunes having not been for a few years make comment about how playable the course is now. Initially, there was very little rough cut on the course, because the government-funded environmental body that regulates the maintenance of our site was wary that rare species might be negatively impacted were mechanical methods used to trim areas that had previously only seen grazing from cattle and sheep. With the animals gone and the balance that had favoured the growth of these plants upset, though, the rough quickly grew out of control and become thick and unruly, smothering the very plants that those environmental stewards were so keen to protect. The obvious thing seemed to be just to cut the grass, but unfortunately, when you cut rough grass and leave the clippings lying around, those clippings will be mulched down and will enrich the soil, which will, in turn, increase growth yields and favour agricultural grasses rather than the slow-growing species that were prevalent when the site was awarded its SSSI status.

How much long-term damage is done by this practice is hard to quantify, though, as anybody who played Machrihanish earlier this year will attest to. Areas that had for years been cut as semi-rough (with clippings left lying) for the benefit of golfers who wished to find their balls were grown in to make the course tighter at the request of the course’s agronomist, and the grass length quickly increased from a very playable 3 inches to, in some places, as high as 12 inches. It was very interesting to note, however, that these strips of rough were absolutely full of rare orchids during May last year—in fact, there were more early marsh orchids in those areas than I have ever seen in one place before and there were certainly more over there than there were anywhere on our site, regardless of the level of ground cover.

I am not here to argue with botanists over the potential long-term health of rare plants, however. These people are the experts and I am committed to helping them in any way that I can. While the early marsh orchids obviously thrived under Machrihanish’s accidentally effective program that resulted in their unexpectedly beautiful purple garden, it is entirely possible that other species were not faring so well, so if the man from SNH tells me that he wants the grass in certain areas of our site mown at certain times of the year and the clippings collected and it is logistically possible for me to do so, then that is precisely what he will get. We share his desire to promote the health of these rare plants, and one of the ways we plan to do this going forward is to use our new Weidemann Super 500 rough mower/collector throughout the winter to cut and remove excessive top growth from areas that we know have historically been populated with protected flora. In effect, what we will be doing by using this machine to manipulate the length of the grass in rough areas and to control the speed of its re-growth by removing the grass clippings is to replicate, as closely as possible, the conditions that were created by the constant grazing of sheep and the wintering of cattle. The machine is really versatile and can be set up to manipulate ground conditions in ways that were impossible for us to achieve before.

This rough management mission will have a positive impact on your enjoyment of the course, as well as on the condition of the site. Areas like the left side of the 11th, or the right side of 16, or anywhere we can safely go into with a tractor will be cut down on at least an annual basis with the clippings collected and this should make it considerably easier to find your ball and the rough cleaner and less full of the tall weeds that currently blight the appearance of some areas. Nobody wants to be hunting for ProV1’s in knee-deep marram and thistles!

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


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

Hole in One? Not in a Million Years! 

It had been a year-long campaign to gather a baker’s dozen of worthy and enthusiastic souls to contest the final of the Mach Dunes Million, which was played out amid much drama on October 13th. Most of the contestants stayed with us at The Ugadale Hotel on the Friday night, from where they were bussed to the Golf House for coffee and a warm-up on the range. I say warm-up, but I  think all anybody achieved was to get themselves even more cold and wet!

Once everybody had finally arrived at the 5th tee, the rules of the competition were explained. Each competitor was to receive one shot from a verified distance of 139 yards, and if that shot were to end up in the hole, that competitor would receive $1,000,000. No pressure then! Well in advance it had seemed so unlikely that anybody could actually have the fortune to ace the hole just when required, but with the 5th relinquishing a couple of high profile holes-in-one within the last few weeks (including one by Thomas Martin just the week before), expectations has suddenly been raised. One by one, the finalists took their place, announced onto the tee by General Manager Andy Hogan to receive some calming words of wisdom from PGA professional Ken Campbell. It was my job to lift the balls off the green and to mark the ball that finished nearest the pin.

Unfortunately, the closest that anybody came was about 8 feet, and even that shot from Bob Duncan never remotely endangered the hole. Luckily for the competitors, I was too far away in the murky weather to tell who was actually hitting, so the two people who topped it off the tee and the one person who actually knocked it so far left that it went out of bounds are safe from being mentioned by name in this report!

After the collective disappointment had passed, everybody was bussed back to the golf house to dry out and tell stories of how they should have hit one or two more clubs or allowed for just 15-20mph more wind.

Despite the grim conditions, a good day out was had by all. You can watch a recap video here. 

Summer is Over…Winter League is Coming!

Our final major of the year, the Kintyre Autumn Pairs, was played on October 6th and was won by Michael Smith and Chris Jewell. Apparently, they had been runner-up in this event on at least a couple of occasions, so they were justifiably delighted with their narrow win over Jamie Robertson and Craig Ramsay. The Autumn Pairs was followed by our evening awards night and buffet, which was enjoyed unanimously. Men’s and ladies’ darts competitions (won by Gary Shepperd and Ann Bruce) and a quiz (won by the bar staff with the help of a very knowledgeable ringer!) were followed with music from the Wee Toon Tellers. This is definitely an event that we will persevere with in the years to come.

Our summer golf season at Machrihanish Dunes officially ends with the awards evening, but that does not mean that we have to put our clubs back under the stairs. There are monthly medals to play in off the yellow tees (with a CSS of 69), and there is a stableford winter league with a bigger, better, more inclusive format than ever before. Previously, winter league cards have only been accepted from play on a Sunday, but this year, we will allow play on any day of the week, with competitors having the chance to submit their best card from that 7-day period to add to their total. If you wish more information on any of these winter competitions, please just email me at simon@machdunes.com, or Jamie Robertson at handicaps@machdunes.com.

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


A Summer of Two Halves!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That tee is dead, isn’t it Simon?
That tee is dead, isn’t it Simon?

No...apparently it’s not!
No…apparently, it’s not!

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

Competition season…it is nearly over already!

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

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

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

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

Restoring Factory Settings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Guide to Wetting Agents

Type 1: Penetrants

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

Type 2: Matrix Flow

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

Type 3:

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

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

Hydrophobia – the biggest fear of all

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

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

What was that about restoring factory settings?

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

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

What’s up next at Mach Dunes?

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


Well That Was a Bit More Like It!

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

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

“You Shouldn’t Be Watering Links Greens”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next at Mach Dunes?

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

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

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

Perfect Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Many of our tees are very small, which gives us limited scope to move the markers around in order to spread wear from feet and damage from divots. Once an area of tee has been damaged in this way, it must be reseeded in order to fully recover, and it is notoriously difficult to establish new grass seed when a surface is still being played on and mown at a low height of cut. If we compound the issue by trying to implement a low fertility maintenance program, the chances of establishing that seed are compromised still further. When we think about the intensive program of feeding and watering that we would employ if we were building a new tee from seed, and how vehemently we would protect that area from being compromised by foot and machine traffic until establishment was complete, it is unsurprising that our reseeding efforts fail so regularly.
  • Damage from insects has become more widespread since the implementation of a ban on the cost-effective pesticides that we used to have at our disposal to fight against them. We have used expensive natural treatments on our greens this year in an attempt to discourage crane fly and minimise the effects that their foraging larvae (leatherjackets) have on our root systems and have achieved limited success with these. But we would need to see a far greater positive impact from these treatments before we could justify the financial impact of using these on our tees, as well. We have noted damage on a few of our tees caused by leatherjackets, but because we have kept nutrient inputs at a healthy level during the last two months, we have been able to offset that damage and present playing surfaces that would be considered more than acceptable by golfers, despite the relatively cool spring temperatures.

I’m glad to say that this is the area of tee that has suffered the worst from leatherjacket damage. The grubs hide down old aeration tine holes and then come to the surface under cover of darkness to nibble the grass around the edge of the hole. What was a 13mm solid tine hole is now a 25-30mm indentation. The damage will not get any worse than this and now that temperatures have been sufficiently elevated to allow strong growth, the tee will quickly recover from this infestation with adequate nutrition. We currently have five tees (out of 79) showing these symptoms, which is annoying but certainly justifies our decision not to spend the huge sum of money that it would cost to prevent this using materials which I do not fully trust to work effectively in the first place! In the past, it was an obvious decision to just spray a cheap insecticide on the tees but that option is no longer available to us. My experience tells me that attacks like this are very random, and seeing this level of damage on less than 10% of our surfaces while most of the other tees appear to have suffered no infestation at all is just what I would have expected.
I’m glad to say that this is the area of tee that has suffered the worst from leatherjacket damage. The grubs hide down old aeration tine holes and then come to the surface under cover of darkness to nibble the grass around the edge of the hole. What was a 13mm solid tine hole is now a 25-30mm indentation. The damage will not get any worse than this and now that temperatures have been sufficiently elevated to allow strong growth, the tee will quickly recover from this infestation with adequate nutrition. We currently have five tees (out of 79) showing these symptoms, which is annoying but certainly justifies our decision not to spend the huge sum of money that it would cost to prevent this using materials which I do not fully trust to work effectively in the first place! In the past, it was an obvious decision to just spray a cheap insecticide on the tees but that option is no longer available to us. My experience tells me that attacks like this are very random, and seeing this level of damage on less than 10% of our surfaces while most of the other tees appear to have suffered no infestation at all is just what I would have expected.

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

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

What’s Up Next At Machrihanish Dunes?

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

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

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

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

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








Fescue to the Rescue

Well, March Was No Better Than January!

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

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

So How is Plant Health at the Moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So How Do We Go About Creating a Healthy Medium?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

What’s Next for Machrihanish Dunes?

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

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