Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Firm and fast courses promote better golf

By Mary Armstrong/For the Sun-News
Posted: 11/18/2010 09:03:36 PM MST

We occasionally focus on the differences between golf courses in Europe and the courses here in the U.S. It is sometimes said that in Europe the game is played on or near the ground and especially on their links courses, whereas here in the U.S. it is more of an aerial affair. We like our courses dark green, but the Europeans seem to prefer lighter shades. Lastly, European courses play firm and fast whereas our courses tend to be softer.

The USGA is well known as THE promoter of amateur golf in the United States. What many people don’t realize is that they also offer some of the most expert agronomists for hire to public and private courses nationwide. The Green Section will be celebrating its 90th birthday later this month. The not-for-profit, free from commercial connections, arm of the USGA is perhaps the single most knowledgeable collection of golf turfgrass management professionals in the world. Their establishment was due to the inability of a green chairman to find impartial and expert advice on his Club’s preparations for the 1920 U.S. Open. Later that year, the USGA and U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to work together to gather, develop and disseminate scientific information on the management of golf turf.

The Green Section publishes (recently going to online only) the weekly “Green Section Record.” The November 5th issue was especially interesting to me as the Green Section’s mid-Atlantic regional agronomist Stanley Zontek wrote about a current USGA initiative promoting playing conditions over appearance. Their approach is designed to make courses more sustainable. While sustainability has environmental overtones, it can also mean better golf at a lower price. I think the USGA is right on about this and if you read last week’s column, you know why.

Thatch is the decomposing layer of stems, leaves, roots and other debris that accumulates over time in all grasses. Whenever you notice that a turf is soft and spongy it probably has too much thatch. While a certain amount of thatch is desirable, its buildup inhibits water and air movement to the roots and promotes shallow rooting, which in turn requires more frequent watering. Aerification and topdressing is the prescribed method to control thatch. Ordinarily, golf course superintendents will do this at least twice a year.

So, other than more frequent watering, what is the harm in having a little extra thatch? For one thing, it makes for poorer footing. How many times have you teed it up intent on ripping a 300 yarder down “the pipe” only to lose your footing on the tee where the stance, lie and footing should be the best on the course! Assuming the tee was properly built, and you didn’t nearly come out of your shoes, this is the result of overwatering. Green surfaces are perhaps most victimized as even the poorest hit shot will rip a gouge in the grass and displace soil. Even if the player fixes the ball mark properly the surface remains slightly uneven and the green is bumpy.

Recent years have seen a development of equipment that is capable of spreading sand (and other materials) at very precise settings. Very light frequent topdressings are making in-roads into golf course management practice. This technique introduces sand into the thatch layer. Properly specified sand helps break down the thatch and also creates larger pore spaces that promote water and air movement. Not just any sand will do. As I have indicated in past articles, like bunkers, sand that is used for green construction and subsequently for topdressing should be as angular as possible and within a certain gradation. The more angular the sand, the better. Angular sand will compact better and retain pore spaces in the process. Think marbles verses bricks!

This concept is being carried to an extreme as the new greens at Congressional Country Club, the site of the 2011 U.S. Open, were built using manufactured sand. Manufactured sand is created from fracturing rocks. Naturally occurring sand has been weathered for centuries and therefore the angularity can be much reduced.

The USGA and R & A are very adamant about promoting firm and fast. They’ve gone so far as to develop devices to measure firmness. They are taking slightly different paths, but both devices basically measure the impact of a golf ball sized steel shaft on the turf surface. These devices will be used in preparing championship venues.

These changes won’t come without some angst. Many American courses are designed for the aerial game with approaches that reject incoming shots or with fronting bunkers. Nonetheless, a firm fast course will promote better golf because it will require a properly struck shot, whether through the air or along the ground to keep your approaches on the green. Also, firm fairways promote more spin since there will be a firmer surface. This means that a slightly descending blow with an iron will more effectively pinch the ball between the club and a firm ground. However, the greatest impact would be on the quality of putting surfaces. Fewer gouged-out ball marks will produce fewer significant imperfections, in turn rendering our greens smoother and seemingly faster.

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces last January. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog:


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