0 All change ...

In this article I have been asked to take a wee look at what has changed in the past decade, so here we go. Some of the ground I will cover will be the game of golf itself, the golf club, working practices, innovation in machinery technology and an overview of the greenkeeping business from then until now.

Since the development of the modern game, golf has had to adapt to "change" driven by advances in the equipment used by all golfers playing today. This has manifested itself in a few monster courses being built during the past decade or so. No longer is it the norm to have any new builds around 6,000 yards; 7,000 yards has been seen as a minimum requirement.

This has brought its own pressures to the more established golf clubs that have limited resources and, often, a tight landmass footprint to maintain and develop.

To compete against these new golfing developments, some clubs have taken on smaller scale renovations, with bunker works being one of the most popular ways to return some challenge back to their course. During the past decade, the construction business has seen a big downturn in new builds and, with the odd exception, have been more engaged in this kind of course modification.

We are all familiar with the common early year Augusta statement; "why don't we have our course like those seen on the television?" I would suggest that this has become a full time barometer of criticism levelled at the greenkeeper here in the UK, with almost weekly coverage of golf on our screens from all parts of the world.

Fast green speed has become a basic requirement of the modern day golfing management teams and has brought its own pressure to the vast majority of course managers up and down the country, firstly to achieve and secondly to maintain for the larger part of the year.

Am I wrong, or is it only when the golfing gods come to the UK they need wet weather gear and have to contend with the cold winds and extremes of, frankly, uncertain weather conditions? Therefore, with the tours following 'ideal' weather and growing conditions, it is becoming harder, day by day, to compete with the qualities seen on our screens and cope with comments from our membership that is no longer asking for 'better', but demanding these qualities every day of the year, with little or no understanding of what we, as greenkeepers, have to deal with.

I was asked why our greens were not stimping above ten feet by a club official. On reflection, yes, they were a little slower - about nine and a half feet to be honest - but this was mid-January and in one of the wettest winters on record! My point is simple, never more than now have we been under more pressure to deliver exacting standards as seen on TV.

Of course, change is taking place. To assume that people today have the same values, needs and expectations of our forebears would be, to say the least, naive.

Another fact that needs to be considered is that there may be too many venues for a fairly static, at best, and a reducing, at worst, available client base of golfers to take up the delights at our clubs.

In my humble opinion, the 'need' for 700 or so new golfing venues in the late 80s and early 90s here in the UK has done the golfing business a great disservice. Market saturation has a lot to do with the current problems found within our industry, with the nett result being too many venues plying their trade to too few golfers.

Time is, without doubt, one of the biggest issues to overcome. It is, by far, one of the most precious commodities we all have to manage. Asking someone to play a sport that divides family life, in this day and age, is unacceptable and has to be borne in mind when considering how to move forward.

Getting to the club, playing the game, enjoying an after game drink or a meal, is no longer a four hour event, is it? Everyone is under pressure with work and we simply cannot fit the mould of a bygone era, yet we persist in offering that as a viable proposition going forward.

Them and us, the haves and the have nots and knowing your place still ring loud and clear within some club environments, even today. I rarely hear of families, in the truest sense, playing the game, and that is something that needs addressing going forward. How can we become an attractive proposition for the whole family?

The 'experience', having considered joining a club, is the next thing to consider. Have we, with an open heart, welcomed our potential clients on-board? I would suggest not. Why on earth would someone want to associate with a club that made them feel less than welcome, or have less worth than other members within the same club? The current philosophy just doesn't stand up to modern day thinking. We seem content to continue with exclusion, not inclusion, within our club environment and wonder why we fail. There is always a time for formality and tradition, but this should never be at the expense of the golfing experience.

Like hotels, there are differing standards of golf clubs that serve different markets and needs. There are those discerning clients that will only ever associate themselves with qualities that can only be found in those few places that can deliver what they hunger after.

Golf is perceived by the general public as being elitist. Standoffish and unapproachable are two other descriptions often used when the golf industry is mentioned.

These issues become more focused when you take into consideration the dramatic downturn in the economy experienced in recent years with, frankly, recession still in place today.

Cutbacks have become commonplace within the golfing industry; however, I might suggest that there has been a disproportionate imbalance towards the greenkeeping departments around the country when these cuts are made. Yes, the overall experience has to be right but, might I suggest that, firstly, golfers come to play golf on a well maintained golf course, something that has become increasingly difficult to achieve amidst some of the current economic thinking.

The past decade has brought a dramatic improvement in playing surface conditions; firmer, faster putting surfaces are becoming the norm. I would like to pay homage to our colleagues in the world of football and rugby, because they have been revolutionary in raising their own standards. We no longer see the wet, muddy worn out pitches of the past. Their skills, coupled with modern construction methods and working practices, has seen amazing strides made and fantastic quality surfaces provided every day of the season. So I take my hat off to you all. In the world of groundsmanship, it has been an amazing thing to witness as an outsider.

Back to golf. We greenkeepers have improved many things during the past decade or so and have delivered better playing conditions for the golfer, day in and day out. The more proactive among us have seen the benefit of sharing experiences within the different sporting disciplines and long may this continue, because it can only be a win win situation going into the future.

During the past decade, we have seen staffing levels at the 'normal' golf club grow. Perhaps not in the engagement of full-time staff, but certainly seasonal staffing cover and additional weekend, part-time helpers. This has been to both manage costs and, of course, help deliver higher playing conditions seven days of the week.

"It has now become the norm to maintain daily inputs of maintenance and working practices seven days a week, without dropping playing conditions just because it's a weekend"

It has now become the norm to maintain daily inputs of maintenance and working practices seven days a week, without dropping playing conditions just because it's a weekend. It is no longer acceptable to only have just the greens cut and markers moved at the weekend. Playing standards need to be maintained.

The biggest change we have had to adapt to is simply finding that balance between what we can deliver and what the club can, or want, to pay for our services.

One huge change has been the realisation of using the web; it has made possible so many things. Answers to any question can be found instantly. Not only can we find parts, but also find out if they are in stock and, if being delivered, where they are in the country during the delivery process.

We have access to real time information now more than ever before in our history. Everything has become PC based. By keeping in touch with prevailing weather conditions and viewing radar images, we are now able to not only predict what is coming our way, but also manage our affairs on the greenkeeping front with a greater degree of certainty. It is truly a fantastic modern day tool of the trade.

The mobile phone is as much a tool as a mower today, covering all of the above and more when out on the golf course, from turning on the irrigation to keeping us in close touch with events as they happen; it's just an amazing development.

Manufacturers have continually developed their ranges of machinery, probably no more so than in the dramatic development of diesel power as the main source of propulsion, with a sea change away from petrol driven equipment.

We have seen some develop fly-by-wire control systems - normally the stuff of airlines - which has now found its way into the world of greenkeeping machinery. There has also been a move to electric power and this, coupled with some fantastic battery developments, has seen a number of manufacturers develop more reliable and useful machinery for us all to use. Some are also developing hybrid technology; it never stops.

Other machinery highlights have been the advancements made in aeration, injection, soil modification equipment, and brushing and blowing machinery that have made many routine renovation works more palatable to our customers i.e. the golfer.

As an industry, we are blessed with some fantastic machinery that has been continually developed in an effort to make everything possible; it's been quite a decade I think.

Greenkeeping is now delivering qualities that could have only have been dreamt of a decade ago. Perennial rye grasses, mono stands of grass species, a better understanding of soils science, bench marking, environmental awareness and attention to detail have all become 'buzz words' of the modern day course manager in an effort to deliver on time and within budget. Greenkeeping has, in my humble opinion, truly come of age.

When asked "has anything changed?", well of course they have - some things for the better and some, quite frankly, that we could do without.

It may be that we have to have the first 8,000 yard golf course development - that no one has the ability or willingness to play - before the governing bodies engage in some realistic controls of the playing equipment.

One of the biggest lessons I think we, as course managers, will have to adapt to in the next decade will be to develop our own personal communication skills. If we are to overcome unfair criticism, we need to engage more by becoming more proactive and less reactive, if we are to be successful going forward.

For sure, the economy will return to balance, but we are, by no means, not there yet. I am afraid we still have some hoops to jump through before our industry returns to a buoyant state.

As greenkeepers, we should continue to fully embrace change as it will be the best way forward to maintaining what, I think, is still a vibrant and exciting industry.

One key thing I always come back to is this! Greenkeepers the world over have the same aspirations and dreams for the future; they are a major driving force when it comes to delivering and adapting to change.

It is rare, and actually quite refreshing, to still be part of an industry that has that wonderful willingness to share their experiences openly. You only have to pop into one of the online greenkeeping forums or conference meetings to realise we are involved in a truly amazing occupation, something we can all be very proud of. Our camaraderie will help us deal with all the changes in the next decade or so, I am sure.

So in answer to the question! Has anything changed? Yes, many things have. Some, as I mentioned, are for the better, whilst others that I have highlighted will require us to continually develop as individuals to overcome all those future challenges.

Billy McMillan
Golf Course Management Consultant

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