As golfers, we tend to have quite a consumer mentality. For example, I recently played a round with a friend and we were discussing a course where we were both members before. A particular bone of contention was the greens and it was the reason why he actually left the club. They really weren’t great and putting on them had become something of a lottery. Both of us were happy to hear that they had apparently taken a turn for the better after the course had starting using a different company for the green-keeping.
This got me thinking. We are generally quite to complain when the course is in less than ideal condition but do we really know very much about what it takes to keep it playable? From tee to green, there are a hosts of jobs that make course such pleasant places to be (unless you have caught the dreaded shanks of course). Ho certainly takes pride of place. However, the state of the greens certainly takes pride of place. Maybe it is time I took some interest in the mysterious art of green keeping.
What Exactly is Green-Keeping?
Green-keeping itself is actually a bit of a misnomer. A green keeper doesn’t just look after the putting surface. They are generally in charge of most of the upkeep of the courses we frequent. When you can’t find an area to tee up your ball without it being in a divot, they will get the blame. When the fairway looks more like the second cut of rough at Augusta, they are the ones you will be cursing. And when that five footer for par bobbles off-line just before falling in the cup, it will be their fault again!
Green-Keeping has also become a thorny issue in relationship to environmental issues. As much as I enjoy the neatly manicured courses of days gone by, I think that golf is a sport that needs to keep addressing the ecological issues it creates. As visually spectacular as they are, none of us should be completely comfortable seeing an oasis of green in the form of 18 holes sitting in the middle of a desert.
There was certainly a time when green keeping meant opening the big tin can with the skull and cross bones on and pouring whichever product it was into the water table then firing up the heavy roller. Those days are gone and not green-keeps in many courses the world over are doing fantastic work in providing great golf experience without adding to the problems already facing the planet.
The Greenkeeper: A True Jack of All Trades
In fact, a lot of what the greenkeeper does is the sort of background management that just makes things tick over before they become a problem. Anticipating difficulties is huge in golf course management because once the problem manifests, it is probably too late.
A great example of this would be the recent hot Summer. It is simply not possible to pour millions of gallons of water over the fairway to keep things looking green and lush despite the drought. Courses have been investing more and more in water management and recycling or limiting water use.
A few years ago, I can remember seeing sprinklers firing out water during a Sumer rain shower simply because nobody bothered to turn off the automatic timer. Today, this would cause an outrage (although it does still happen.) The modern greenkeeper is always protesting his course. When one area gets a bit dry, he will close it down, lay sod, or sprinkle grass seed.
As annoying as it can be to have to use temporary tees, this sort of protection means that we don’t get to August and find that all the tee boxes are closed. This job is just one among many. It might be minor landscaping, mowing the grass, planting trees and shrubs or thinning out weeds in the rough.
Day to Day Greenkeeping
However, perhaps the biggest part of the job is simply making sure that the course is playable on a daily basis. Going back to the course I mentioned in the introduction, it got to the point where I resented paying the membership fee. I felt that people at the course were happy to take my money but weren’t bothered about my golfing experience. Nobody was filling in the divots on the tees and this is the first thing we as golfers see when we start our round. The driving range was over-grown and the practice putting and chipping areas really didn’t make me want to work on my short game at all! The bunkers were full of weeds and you certainly didn’t want to be looking for a ball in the rough!
None of this is glamorous work but a good greenkeeper makes this his bread and butter. Not everyone can play on greens that run as fast as Augusta National but having a general solid standard of upkeep just makes golf a better experience. Of course, getting these greens right is the real trade secret of the true green keeping master.
It isn’t all about some secret sauce, or hidden trick. I am sure there are a lot of green-keepers out there who have their tricks that they will take to their grave but there is also a few basics that are part of smart green upkeep. The first of these isn’t actually about course maintenance at all.
The Perfect Pin Placement
Picking the right pin placement is part art, part science and is certainly part of the green keepers remit. It isn’t all about finding the hardest or easiest place either. It isn’t even simply moving it to a random place in order to save wear and tear. This is part of it, but it takes someone who really knows the course to pick several hole locations and rotate them. We have all played on courses where the pin placement seems to be completely random and probably made by someone who doesn’t even play the game. Think of a hole sitting on the edge of a shelf or at the top of a ridge for example. An experienced greenkeeper would never do that.
The pin placement isn’t just about the green either. In the winter when a hole is playing significantly longer, an easier placement makes sense. If the course is baked like concrete, you can’t put pins on the edge of a runoff and expect the players to be happy about it. And if you are planning for a tournament over a few days, you need to have hole locations ready for each round, with a balance of tough and easy. There is far more to it than just firing up the mower!
In fact, it far from surprising that the golf maintenance industry as a whole has become far more professional. A green keeper isn’t simply a gardener. He (or she more and more frequently) is capable of understanding the financial aspects of running a golf course and balancing them against both the practical side as well as a broad knowledge of everything from the various types of grass that we could find on course to local laws on environmental issues. More and more greenskeepers are taking qualifications up to and beyond degree level rather than simply working their way up from the bottom.
In fact, I would say that green-keeping as a profession is incredibly broad. Being able to deal with hands-on elements like repairing the course and replanting as well as keeping the (possibly) hundreds of golfers who might come though every day satisfied might also make it one of the most challenging and potentially satisfying jobs in the industry too.