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The New Green

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on how even esteemed Irish courses have had to change their greens to keep up with the modern game

Posted Sep 22, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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When officials and ordinary members from 18 Irish clubs converged on Castlebar GC last week, they learned a huge lesson for the future of golf courses in these islands.  The occasion was the national finals of the Irish Cups and Shields inter-club competitions and the lesson was presented by the quality of the greens on the host course.

At well-established venues which can be up to 100 years old, two major problems develop over the years: relatively flat greens become compacted and holes which were once challenging become easy prey to new technology.  Castlebar confronted both of these problems 10 years ago by having Peter McEvoy, the former British Amateur Champion and Walker Cup captain, apply his architectural skills to the course.

The outcome was 18 sand-based greens reconstructed to USGA specifications and seriously contoured to place an absolute premium on approach play and putting.  McEvoy also had the good sense to make the greens sufficiently large so as to incorporate sufficient flat areas for a minimum of six pin placements.  As a consequence, Castlebar has been dubbed the "Augusta of the West", because of the treacherously quick downhill putts a player can encounter. They represent the main defence of a par-71 parkland stretch with a decidedly modest overall length of 6,458 yards.

With this is mind, Dave Dalton, manager of the Jimmy Bruen Shield team from Clontarf GC, took the unusual step of arranging special putting sessions with their club professional, Eamonn Brady, prior to heading west. "His advice was that they should study each undulating putt from 360 degrees," said Dalton, whose players are used to relatively flat surfaces on home terrain.  The outcome?  Clontarf retained a trophy they won for the first time two years ago.
             
Clubs are loathe to bite the bullet by undertaking such changes for fear of upsetting their members.  But with proper planning, two or three holes can be done each winter in a programme stretching over six or more years.  As Castlebar have proved in the staging of prominent amateur events, lack of yardage need not necessarily diminish the challenge of long-established venues.

Another lesson to be learned is that the invasion of poa annua, or annual meadowgrass, into quality greens is inevitable.  This is the view of Aidan O'Hara, the greens superintendent at Mount Juliet and holder of a BSc degree in the preparation of a parkland course for professional tournament play.  O'Hara did this to rave reviews from such celebrated practitioners as Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods for stagings of the Irish Open and American Express Championship at Mount Juliet.

"From studying leading venues in the US with poa annua greens, I have noted how they are leaning towards perfect putting surfaces for nine months of the year," he said.  "This is now our strategy.  I believe the mixture of poa and bent can give you a consistent speed and, more importantly, a uniform surface with no bobbling of the golf ball."

O'Hara went on: "In the future, people will have to accept that there will be poa in all Irish greens.  There is absolutely no defence against it in our climate.  I learned this to my cost after we had replaced our greens by re-turfing during the winter of 2000/2001.  As part of the process, we provided alternative greens on mown-out areas of the approaches on every hole, with the exception of the short 11th, where it simply wasn't possible.  There, our only option was to place it to the right of the original one.

"In the case of 17 greens, the golfers didn't intrude on the re-sodded areas.  On the 11th, however, two out of every four golf balls were landing on the newly-turfed greens, which became contaminated by the shoes of golfers retrieving their balls.  We were OK for the 2002 American Express, but by 2004, while we had 99 per cent A4 on the other 17 greens, the 11th exploded with poa annua.  All because of contamination by players' shoes.

"This gives you some indication of how invasive that weed-grass is and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Reluctantly, I've been forced to admit defeat."  Castlebar have been among those clubs forced to accept this, but as O'Hara points out, it is something they, their members and satisfied visitors don't see a problem with.

- Dermot Gilleece

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