R&A sends expert to help Thailand's courses recover from flood devastation

Australian Turfgrass Agronomist John Neylan shared his years of experience with Thailand's golf course owners and managers during a recent visit to the flood hit country...

In December 2010 and January 2011, numerous golf courses in south-east and central Queensland were devastated by severe flooding with one particular golf course at Dalby being flooded eight times over a two month period. The effects of the floods were many fold including deep silt deposits, loss of turf, erosion and longer term turf management challenges. To observe this damage and loss of amenity was very demoralising to someone who has many years of experience working with golf course superintendents and clubs. The magnitude of the challenges, particularly for the lesser resourced golf clubs, was overwhelming.

Following my experiences with the Queensland floods, The R&A’s Director for the Asia Pacific Region, Dominic Wall asked me if I would be interested in working with the Thai Golf Association and inspecting the flooded golf courses in and around Bangkok. The purpose being to bring some agronomic experience to a region that had not experienced flooding on this scale before.

The first challenge was to identify the number of golf courses that were flooded and then to make contact. While this was being done I was able to provide some notes on the Australian experience of dealing with the floods to a Thai colleague who translated my notes and began distributing the information to Thai Golf Course Superintendents. This information provided a starting point once the waters began to subside.

Anyone that has been to Bangkok would have seen the broad Chao Phraya River, a major river into which all the rivers in the north of Thailand flow. The other notable aspect of Bangkok is that it is very flat, a flood plain no less. Bangkok is a place that always experiences some flooding during the rainy season and all of the golf courses have some form of a levee surrounding the golf course. However, the floods that occurred in October and November 2011 were far more extensive than ever experienced before and few of the levee systems were able to cope with the volume of water. In most cases the water just spilled over the top while for other golf courses the levee broke under the pressure of the depth of water. Because of the extensive nature of the floods, the diversions put in place to protect the centre of Bangkok and the flat topography, the flood waters were slow to move and most golf courses were under water for up to two months. Once the waters in the surrounding districts began to dissipate, the golf courses then had to pump the water out which took another three to four weeks. On one particular golf course they used 60 pumps to move the water.

On arriving in Bangkok in mid-January I had little feeling for what to expect. On day one we visited the first of 12 golf courses and from an agronomic perspective I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the turf loss. There was a lot of work to be done and unfortunately there was very little turf available to replant the golf course because the turf farms had also been flooded. Not only was the golf course severely damaged but also the bottom storey of the clubhouse where all the electrical and refrigeration units for the clubhouse were housed. Piles of damaged equipment covered with silt did make me wonder how they would ever recover.

Over the course of the next seven days many more golf courses were inspected and a peek over the fence of several others that may well be left abandoned. Every golf course provided a different story and a different set of circumstances that determined the extent of the damage. As an agronomist the interesting aspect was the effects on the different grass species. Zoysiagrass (Zoysia sp.) is a native grass common to south-east Asia and is extensively cultivated on greens, tees and fairways. Unfortunately it has proven to have little resistance to flooding and most of the Zoysia was dead with no recovery. Seashore Paspalum has recently become a popular grass on golf courses because of its striking appearance and ability to stripe it up like cool-season grasses. Research indicates that it would have good tolerance to flooding, however, it was also severely damaged depending on the depth of the water. Interestingly one of the oldest introduced grasses used on Thai golf courses is Bermudagrass; Tifdwarf on greens and Tifton 419 on fairways and was the least affected by the flood and the recovery has been quite remarkable.

The other intriguing aspect of the floods was the effects of the depth of the water and the time the course remained flooded. The depth of water was particularly fascinating. Where the water was less than half a metre, irrespective of the time the turf was under water, the turf in many cases was relatively unaffected. As the depth of the water increased, the greater the turf damage, irrespective of the turf type.     

During the time I was in Thailand I attended a seminar organised by the Thai Golf Course Superintendents Association and made a presentation on my observations and provided some recommendations on the longer term management requirements. With 90 people in attendance there was a lot of discussion about the flooding, how other golf courses had coped and what to do in the future. A local flood engineer provided useful advice on the construction of a stable levee system.

Golf in Thailand employs a large number of people with 50 to 80 involved in course management, up to 200 caddies (all female) as well as clubhouse staff, the floods have certainly created many economic challenges for the clubs affected and the local community. Many clubs had retained most of their staff for the clean-up work or club members had employed any surplus staff in the clean-up of their own businesses. The caddies in particular have been used extensively in planting and watering the new grass. At one golf course 80 caddies volunteered to stay in the isolated golf course and acted as a “quick response team” for plugging any breaches in the levee system. This particular golf course escaped with minimal damage though towards the end there was little fresh water or food available.

Golf courses in Thailand are privately owned and all the owners are keen to get the course back into action. Some courses have reopened for play, however, they were far from ready. I was surprised at the number of golfers that were actually out playing just indicating the importance and interest in golf in the region. I have been fortunate to inspect golf courses around the world and no matter where you go, golfers are a fanatical lot and want to be out on the course. The one unfortunate aspect of this premature return to golf is that it slows down the rejuvenation process.

On the completion of my journey and sharing of ideas, I am left with two strong impressions. The first is the undoubted passion that people have for golf, the resilience of golf clubs and what hard work and a large labour force can achieve. The more contemplative aspect is the devastating affect that the floods have had on the local people. In driving around to the golf courses the “high tide mark” on the buildings was a constant reminder of the depth of water through these communities. It did raise the question for me; “how did people manage to survive in one to two metres of water for two months”? What a remarkable country.