Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Summer report

Hello all

Hot (or wet) on the heels of Storm Francis comes this (better late than never) course report to update members on 2020. It's been a strange year so far as most will agree with Covid, the ensuing lockdown and May re-opening of golf in England.

In March, the directors made the tough decision to furlough me along with Ann and Kim. As the finances of the golf club were precarious, this decision was forced upon them. As a result, Ali was the last man standing, holding the fort. The issue presented to the golf industry, as a result of the government lockdown, was the fact that staff shortages were common place across the UK. It posed the challenge of a skeleton staff having to maintain the principal asset with no idea of when lockdown would end.

This dilemma was recognised early on by the main golf organisations; R&A, GCMA, PGA and BIGGA. They collaborated quickly to produce some guidance for golf clubs so that greenkeepers could still carry out essential maintenance. This information is accessible via the link below:

Essential Maintenance Update 17 April 2020.docx 38 KB

I would like to re-iterate my thanks to Ali for keeping the course maintained through lockdown. He did exactly what was required in accordance with these guidelines and kept the course ticking over despite being on his own.

Since we re-opened for golf in May, the golf course has been busier than it has ever been. Membership is higher than it has ever been. It's quite incredible how a pandemic has been the making of the golf industry after a number of lean years. Green fees have been very healthy too and the really positive thing to come out of this year, for our golf club at least, is that it has a secure future going into 2021 which is fantastic.

The first issue that we had to address when I returned from lockdown was a need to fast track the course in order to get it up to speed for returning golf. The second issue was that April and May were incredibly dry - so much so that we were in drought conditions. Hot, dry weather is great for golf but when you've got a golf course that has just re-opened after a lockdown with golfers. The major drawback is getting recovery from divots - particularly on tees - when the grass is basically in shutdown mode. The grass is basically focused upon survival once there is significant soil moisture deficit. Hence why the tees started to get hammered so quickly. 

Think of it like this - once the level of wear exceeds the rate of growth and recovery, you will get tees that look like a practice ground tee.

So we had 3-4 weeks of tees needing regular hand watering just to keep them watered. We have no tees irrigation so hand watering is plan A, B and C. Morgan, our junior captain, has recently joined us for a couple of months to assist with tee divoting and he has done a stellar job.

We are currently mowing tees twice/week at 8mm and the presentation is excellent. The tees are fertilised according to growth and to maintain that mowing height, they have to be cut twice/week. But I think the members are fairly pleased with the tees on the whole. Some just need to be significantly bigger - the par 3s in particular.

You will also have noticed that we have extended some of our greens' surrounds since lockdown ended. 3, 4, 5 and 6 have more run-off areas and the reason for doing so is to offer members more shot making opportunities (putter, wedge, bump 'n' run) just off the green. Aesthetically they look miles better, are more resilient as they are mown more tighter and offer more interest to the course rather than thick rough just off the green. But perhaps the most important thing, for me at least, is that the surrounds should be an extension of the greens surfaces. We need to get them to look and play as close to greens surfaces as we can. 

Maintenance of the approaches and surrounds has also had to be taken up a notch. They are also cut twice/week at 8mm. Some have needed additional fertilising to thicken them up as well as continued topdressing, brushing and extra mowing to refine them. It is not simply a case of mowing them and then announcing that they are all sorted. This refining work has to continue indefinitely if members want to have approaches and surrounds that continue to improve. 

Our 8th and 9th greens are now about 18 months old. We carried out a micro hollow tine of them in June and the reason for doing so was to remove the turf (mat) layer that is within the soil profile. This is undesirable as it can become a barrier to root growth and drainage if left unaddressed. so the hollow coring pulls out small plugs that contain the turf layer. The sand that is incorporated into the holes provides a continuous channel of sand from surface to soil for roots to grow into and for rainwater to filter through. This has to be an ongoing process but will, in time, support these new greens moving forward.

Unfortunately, the new greens have suffered with some Take All patch - a disease of turf and a common one for new sand construction greens. Generally, a number of factors combine to cause take all patch to rear its head; high soil pH, lack of microbial activity due to the inert nature of sand and bent/poa grass species. More information is available by following the link below:


In order to mitigate the effects of take all, we have applied a fungicide, used acidifying fertilisers to lower the soil and surface pH and we will gain recovery as the fescue grass (colonising the area within the 'ring' above) is unaffected by take all patch. Please be reassured that this is a common turf disease prevalent in new sand construction greens and it has been evident on golf greens throughout the UK this year. Like humans, plants get diseased sometimes. They are living, breathing things too and, like us, are sometimes affected by the environment that they live in. 

As many of you will have noticed, we have upgraded our rough mower. It was sourced from Cheshire Turf Machinery, our local Toro dealer. Compared with the last mower, it is much more versatile and provides an excellent finish on both flat and contoured areas. It is the contoured areas (tee banks, greens surrounds, bunker surrounds) that this mower comes into its own. Furthermore, we have lowered the mowing height of the rough down from 2.5 inches to 1.5 inches. This provides a much more consistent rough to play out of and the grass density is much improved. The differential from fairway, approach and surround to the rough is less pronounced too and, conversely, this improves definition between these playing surfaces.

Out turf nursery (behind 9th tee) was seeded in early March. Then lockdown occurred in conjunction with a sustained dry spell. When I returned from furlough, it had progressed to what you see below:

It was seeded with a (free) trial pack of 777 creeping bent grass courtesy of Germinal, a seed supplier. We have created this nursery as a 'go-to' area in case we get disease scarring, hydraulic oil leaks or other damage to our greens. It has been created at very little cost and, to me at least, is a no brainer for us as a golf club. It doesn't affect play and has been given relatively little attention since golf resumed in mid-May. Now it looks significantly better, despite very little inputs (below):

It is being mown at greens height and will be ready as we head into the Autumn and Winter. Please have a look at it when you are passing.

There always seems to be regular discussion about our paths. Myself and Ali had started scraping the paths in February with a view to finishing them in March. Then we went into lockdown. The essential maintenance guidelines made no mention of path work. Hence why they were not addressed during lockdown. Come May, that was way too late to start work on our paths for myself and Ali. There were bigger challenges. Ultimately, paths are a route from A to B. The choices are to spend tens of thousands of pounds on each one to give them a clean, maintenance free surface or, alternatively, to accept them for what they are. 2 staff can only do so much on the golf course and if the golf club really want better paths then we either hire more staff or we rely on volunteers to do said work. But they will never be anything more than what they are now - not in my lifetime anyway!

We also have a difference of opinion over our fairway presentation. Mid to higher handicap golfers like the ball to be 'teed up' on the fairways. Low handicap golfers like a tight lie. Tight lies enable backspin to be achieved from a well struck golf shot, whereas fluffy lies don't. We are trying, as greenkeepers (and myself as a low handicap golfer) to deliver playing surfaces that reward and encourage good golf. Fairways that are long do not do that. 

But perhaps the bigger problem is that she of our fairways contain broad leafed rye and meadow grasses that just don't get cut at higher mowing heights. The mower just rolls them and they remain not cut. To discourage these grasses, we need to constantly refine these surfaces (scarifying, verti-cutting) and lower mowing. Removing grass clippings with the mower has been carried out since 2015 and the reduced nutrient of the soils encourages finer leafed grasses to thrive in the fairways. What that now means is that we only have to cut our fairways once/week. If we mow them at a higher mowing height, they will need mowing twice/week and still look worse. That is time we can ill afford with 2 staff. 

The regular refining work (scarifying, verti-cutting) is just not achievable with 2 greens staff. We have to be realistic about how we utilise our time and these operations are a step too far with 2 people. A contractor is coming to site in September to scarify some fairways and this will continue to refine them but I must stress that this work must continue if members want fairways to improve. You can't just perform this operation once and expect a complete transformation. 

The directors had to make the decision in June to have the poplar trees felled between 4 and 7. This was advised by the golf course architect in 2014 as a safety precaution to ensure that the golf course could be future proofed from errant tee-shots hitting neighbouring properties. Unfortunately, this situation has escalated to the extent that these houses have been peppered by golf balls and the repair bills for roof tiles, windows and car dents are no longer acceptable. I understand the golf club's insurer has instructed the golf club to address this immediately in order for the insurance policy not to be invalidated.

Thankfully (and let's hope this never happens), no resident has ever been struck by a golf ball. Should that occur, the repercussions will be a whole new level of seriousness - hence a few trees removed is small sacrifice to ensure the safety of these residents and their properties. 

In time, there will be a shared fairway between 4 and 7. It will look fantastic and will be a great win/win for the members. Poplars are simply awful trees and should never be planted on golf courses anyway. Their roots are a nightmare and cause endless problems. I would like to see the back of every poplar on the golf course in the future. 

Lastly, I would like to say thank you to all the volunteer assistance that we have had this summer - in  no particular order, step forward Len Dilnutt, Tom Frame, John Newns, John Buffel, Barry Barlow, Barry Hignett, Alan Ritchie, Terry Broadhurst, Phil Lockett, David McIntyre, John Walker, Steve Fisher, Darren O'Dell, Mike Hall, Andy Maher, Gary Cunningham.  If I missed anyone, my apologies. 

Enjoy your golf and thank you all for your continued support.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

2019 in review

2019 has now gone and maybe, just maybe, that might be a good thing. The weather, once again, called the shots and golf clubs had to endure a massively wet summer, autumn and early winter. The rainfall records make for quite bleak reading:

January  -  48mm
February - 45mm
March - 130mm
April - 25mm
May - 40mm
June - 137mm
July - 145mm
August - 104mm
September - 152mm
October - 121mm
November - 112mm
December - 97mm

Perhaps it's a sign of changing weather patterns that the driest months of the year were all in the first half of the year. Certainly the second half of the year was just brutal with numerous deluges interrupting the golf calendar.

A new top dresser was added to the equipment fleet and this will assist in speeding up the process of topdressing various surfaces. Shovels and a trailer have been replaced by a modern spinning disc spreader. It has helped us to start work on the approaches as well as greens.

The difference that dressing (sanding) the approaches makes is fantastic. These areas become more refined, tighter and firmer. Mowing is much better because all the small depressions are smoothed out, leaving golfers the option of a variety of shots from these areas; pitching, bump 'n' run or putting.

Our new greens have done fairly well considering the poor weather and challenges that brings. We have managed to create some nice tight surrounds from them and this owes a lot to their design and construction. We hope they have been well received and would like to stress that they are still new relative to the other greens on the golf course. They are still in their infancy and we need to look after them over the next few years to ensure that the considerable investment in them is a long term as well as a short term decision.

We also managed to scarify the fairways in September. Bancroft Amenities carried out the work and the operation, whilst intensive, assisted in removing some thatch and debris from the top of the soil profile. As we remove (box off) clippings from the fairways in order to control growth and try to encourage the finer grasses (bents, fescues), we don't feel that the fairways are particularly thatchy but the scarifying also helps to refine the fairway surfaces with a view to discouraging some of the coarse grasses that are undesirable.

The process was, as mentioned, quite intensive. Firstly, we cut the fairways with our fairway mower. Then the contractor scarified, a second contractor collected the surface debris in a sweeper/collector before we blew off remaining debris with a tractor mounted blower and then finally, they were cut a second time to provide a nice clean finish. Omelettes are not made without cracking a few eggs but the operation was excellent and is a step in the right direction for our fairways.

These photos reflect a depressing end to summer and continued right through the autumn. I distinctly remember that we had, at one point, to start cutting the 6th fairway-approach with a walk behind push mower. The biblical rain never seemed to end and often, tasks like these, whilst time consuming, have to be employed to try to continue providing some kind of playing surface for golfers, however wet. Sadly, the 5th fairway stayed extremely wet right through the autumn months and at times, it was nigh on impossible to get large vehicles out onto the golf course.

Some work has been carried out on the 1st hole to try to alleviate the drainage issues associated with it. A carrier drain to the brook has been replaced and hopefully, this will help enormously in shedding water away from the golf course and into the neighbouring brooks.

A small project that we carried out recently was the addition of a path in between the 8th white/yellow tee and 8th red tee. It was always a bit of a wet area and now, it should be much drier as well as an area to place bags and trollies before teeing off. We will finish the surface with some path grit once the course is a bit drier.

Fairway vertical-draining has now started and the idea is to relieve some compaction that comes with machinery and golfer traffic. The 'forking' action of the vertical-drain (based on the principle of the garden fork) helps to create fissures in the soil, providing more gaps for the drainage of surface water. Whilst this is not a total solution for drainage issues, the process helps to get some air into the soil and encourages roots to push deeper into the soil. The holes enable the surface to dry out too, creating a firmer playing surface.

Happy new year to everyone at the golf club and let's keep our fingers crossed for a drier 2020.

8th hole - fairway to green