True links golf, with firm, fast, running surfaces, relies on having the right grasses. Unfortunately, through the 1960’s and 70’s some went down the route of green, lush and striped turf when water and fertiliser application became too easy and golfer expectation changed as a result of what they saw on television. This is the story of how one links course, Waterville in Ireland, was restored to its true character – in a very short space of time. The transformation from Poa to fescue-dominated greens took only 2 years and has resulted in better playing and economic performance, and a lighter environmental footprint. Here, Nick Park of The R&A tells this remarkable story.
Waterville Golf Links in County Kerry, south west Ireland, was founded as a nine-hole course in 1889. It was a product of the Victorian equivalent of ADSL broadband. The three main transatlantic telegraph cables all ran from this area and those early pioneers were delighted to fill some of their leisure time on a large dune system which adapted itself perfectly to golf. But the course was never used that much, and when the cable companies faded away in the early 1960s, golf had reached a low ebb.
Fast forward to the age of air travel. The club was bought in 1968 by an Irish American, John A. Mulcahy, who employed the incomparable Eddie Hackett to extend the course to 18 holes. It took a while to get the course onto the tourist map, but by 1998 players such as Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara and Payne Stewart were happy enough to use it in preparation for The Open. O’Meara won at Royal Birkdale the following week.
In 1996, the current Links Superintendent, Mike Murphy, arrived. A good golfer himself, he has overseen a remarkable transformation of the golf course.
For starters, the American owners decided to update the architecture and in 2002 called in Tom Fazio. His improvements have added even more drama to a layout that was already spectacular.
But it is Murphy who has restored true links performance. And he did it for the number one reason: to ensure the best possible golfing challenge, for as much of the year as possible.
“When I arrived, the greens were Poa annua-dominated. They were too soft. I felt we should have more resilience in them to reward the properly-hit shot. I also wanted to see them play well for 12 months of the year.”
But this is about more than the golfing challenge. Waterville needs to sell itself as one the truest links experiences in the world, if it is to attract (especially) enough US visitors. And they do not come to play a soft, green and striped copy of what they can get back home. They want the real thing. They have it now.
It also pays dividends in the winter months, with visits from Irish and British golfers in the know. In dry spells of winter weather, the turf plays very quick and true - almost quicker than in summer – and it can easily take the traffic. No temporary greens here.
And there are further bonuses: cost savings and environmental benefits, as we shall find out.
But what is the turf like now – the essential element on which all else depends?
“Apart from a couple of greens beside the sea, which have difficulties with salt spray and sand blow, the turf is now about two-thirds fescue. The rest is split equally between bent and Poa, but both components are rapidly reducing as the fescue takes over. And the fescue is evenly distributed across the greens.
“Good drainage was the first priority: we needed to get our rootzone sand decompacted and fully aerated. Earlier constructions had left us with a deep layer of peat which had to be broken up. We used a big Verti-drain from 2001onwards and we still Verti-drain the greens eight times a year. We also slit tine four times a year. The fescue sward is so resilient that we get less and less ‘heave’ – and a pass over with the turf iron means golfers rarely know it’s been done.
“But we do no hollow tining. We have no problems with organic content; this is not about soil amelioration. And hollow tine holes just seem to attract Poa seed!”
Having got the physical state of the rootzone into better health, it was possible to address the nutrient and chemical status of the soil.
“Once we got the Fazio rebuild completed, I began to drop the nitrogen inputs. As recently as 2007 we were using about 160 kg/ha. This year it will be about 85 kg/ha. There have been no fungicide applications since 2008, so anthracnose and fusarium disease have worked in our favour by taking their toll on the Poa. Previously we might have done half-a-dozen blanket sprayings per year. Golfers don’t realise how expensive these are: 1,000 Euros a time. Just to keep a weed grass alive! Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to drought-stress the Poa here – we had 87 inches of rain last year”. No misprint: 2175 mm, if you prefer.
Fescue greens – despite 87 inches of rain in a year?
“Yes, I said we need good drainage! But the key is the overseeding. Even when you get the physical and chemical status of the soil right, you can’t just sit back and expect the fescue to come in by itself. Our greens are getting about 30g/square metre of fescue seed (slender and Chewings) every year, delivered via disc and dimple seeding, about six times from May through October. Little and often has worked for us and we’ll continue with those levels of overseeding. I believe you’ll always have to continue to overseed, even if we got to 100% fescue. Keep the seed bank up so if any weakness developed in the sward, it would be recolonised by new fescue germinating. That costs us 2,500 Euros per annum, which is a small investment for a huge return.”
Which brings us to the vexed questions of cutting heights and green speeds. Murphy tells it straight :
“Under the old regime, we cut at 3.5 mm (bench setting). The lowest I ever go now is 4.5 mm and only then for, say, a summer competition if the weather is wet. Generally, in summer we’ll be cutting at 5mm, with a solid roller. I doubt if we get half a box off all 18 greens. In winter, I’ll take them up to 6.5mm.
And another nice thing is, even in summer, we don’t have to mow every day. Maybe four times a week. When we can, we’ll iron or switch them. Less of a carbon footprint!”
And the speeds?
“The Stimpmeter stays firmly locked in my office. But I would say anything above 10 feet is virtually unplayable on greens with our contours. We also lose some very good pin positions once they’re too quick. So I’d aim to keep them 9-91/2 in summer. At least 8 in winter, but they can still be like lightning in dry winter weather.”
He is, as are we, utterly dismayed by the debate about mowing at 2mm.
“It makes no sense at all. We shouldn’t even be having such a debate if we want good turf which lasts year after year. Anyway, I’ll tell you that our fescue dies off rapidly if it’s cut below 4.5mm for any length of time. So we don’t.”
This brings us neatly to the need to verify exactly which grasses are growing on your greens. This “crop” is the outcome of everything which is done to the turf. Monitor what keeps the right grasses healthy. Healthy next week, next month, next year and the year after that. Real links turf is not a birthright – those with long memories will recall that the Old Course sward at St. Andrews was ruined forty years ago by excessive feeding and watering. And only reclaimed (and subsequently maintained) by careful and courageous greenkeeping.
Some more words of caution: we are not suggesting that this particular grass can work on every site. In any case, The R&A is not in the business of giving site-specific advice. But there are some pointers to watch for. For example, fescue doesn’t work in warm climates. It requires greens with excellent drainage and plenty of light and air. Trees and fescue do not make good friends. And you cannot expect it to look fluorescent green all the time.
In other words, don’t try this one at home unless you get everything lined up – and that includes getting golfers/members onside, having sufficient resources, and good communication skills if the going gets tough. Which it can for a short while.
But come through the other side, and you have a course which gives the best golfing challenge and one which:
- Is much less prone to suffer from climatic extremes.
- Generates increased revenue on the course and in the clubhouse.
- Saves costs in several areas (which may be re-invested in other aspects of the course).
- Gives a much cleaner environmental footprint.
- Is also future proofed against inevitable pesticide legislation.
The downside? You can’t pursue the false gods of speed, colour and over-receptive greens, so a few golfers will always moan about that. Tell them to get real: this is an outdoor game which is subject to the vagaries of the weather and is supposed to reward genuine skill. Most of the time!
We are seeing a new generation of links superintendents/course managers achieving wonderful results just as Mike Murphy has done. On links and inland courses. Too numerous to mention, but we can point you in their direction in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Denmark, Sweden – and even the west coast of the USA. In the southern hemisphere, New Zealand and Australia also have their success stories to tell.
Waterville planned their change carefully and executed it brilliantly. The final switch of grass from Poa-dominated to fescue-dominated sward took less than two years. It’s one of the quickest – perhaps the quickest - turf reclamations we have ever seen (in cool climates) and it’s an achievement which will draw admiration and envy from fellow greenkeepers.
So, is your club using the wrong grasses? Could it offer a better golfing challenge throughout the year? Would this result in more income and lowered costs? Could you be better protected against future water and pesticide legislation?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, then please take heed of the thoughts in this article. And at least begin to explore your options. For many clubs, this vision could become a reality.
And the reality at Waterville? This is as good as it gets...
If you would like further information about the programme at Waterville Golf Links, please email Mike Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit their website at www.watervillegolflinks.ie