We’re in ‘lockdown’. Our clubs and courses are shut and who knows when we’re going to be able to get out and play golf again. Following the prime minister’s announcement on Monday night ordering us all to stay at home, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have since clarified that greenkeepers can work ‘for security and essential maintenance’.
What does that look like? At the moment, no one really knows. It might be that the usual maintenance levels we’re all used to seeing reduce dramatically.
It could be as little as only cutting greens once a week. Perhaps the powers that be could decide to prohibit all maintenance if the crisis continues.
If that were the case, then we would see some serious changes to our courses should the restrictions carry on well into the spring.
But how drastic could they be, and what might greenkeepers and golfers face when life finally starts to return to normal?
Stuart Green, a former greenkeeper and head of member learning at the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA), speaks to our partner National Club Golfer about what the future holds for golf.
Grass will grow
Let’s start with an obvious one. If you don’t cut grass, it grows. But how much? That will largely depend on what kind of spring we have.
“At the moment it’s March and many parts of the country are still getting frosts overnight,” Stuart explains. “That’s suppressing the growth rate. But with longer days comes more sunlight and the plant reacts to that and begins photosynthesising more, giving it the strength to grow.
“We’ve just come out of an incredibly mild and wet winter, which saw turf continue to grow throughout January and February. That heavy rainfall that we saw not so long ago has still left a lot of moisture in the ground, so the turf is going to be soaking that up and combined with the warmer temperatures, growth is only going to get faster and faster.
“What are we going to see? Based on the last few years of weather data, we’ve had very cold, dry springs, which has slowed growth down.
“But if we have a ‘normal’ kind of spring, where we get into April and we’ve got sunshine and showers, we’ve got all this moisture in the ground and we are going to see some significant growth.
“There are ways of slowing growth down, such as plant growth regulators, but these require a greenkeeper to be on site to apply them.
“If that’s not the case and greenkeepers aren’t able to undertake a reasonable standard of maintenance, you can expect three to four inches of grass, or maybe even more, by the time we are able to return to the course in a few months’ time.
“I do know that if no greenkeepers are allowed to go out and cut grass on a semi-regular basis, it’s not going to be a pretty sight when they eventually come to mow it.”
You can’t just get rid of that grass overnight
Let’s say it’s a number of weeks before the restrictions are eased, the good weather continues and greenkeepers come back in May to a golf course that’s seen some serious grass growth.
The first thought would be to just get the mowers out and mow it back down to height it was previously, right?
“You’ve got to take that height of cut down slowly,” Green explains. “You can’t go in and immediately chop it straight back down to 4mm or 5mm.
“The one thing greenkeepers are always advised to do is never to cut more than a third of a plant off at any one time. When you’re mowing, you’re putting the turf under stress and as a living organism, it will have adapted to the conditions.
“Previously, it will have been used to close mowing, but if left untended will become used to growing longer. To hack it immediately back could shock the grass and you’d ultimately cause even bigger problems.
“The solution is a steady process of bringing the height of cut down. At first, greenkeepers will need to cut the greens with strimmers or rotary deck mowers. Then, eventually you’ll be able to introduce greens mowers, but it’s a process that’s going to take a couple of weeks to achieve.”
Even when the grass is at a more manageable level, Green says plenty more work would be required to achieve the kind of playing surfaces we’ve been used to seeing on a daily basis.
He added: “The greenkeepers will have to do a lot of topdressing, verti-cutting and aerating, because the soil profile will have changed as the grass gets longer. Invasive species will begin to intrude onto the greens and even when you start mowing, they will grow at a different speed to the rest, which leads to clumping and a bumpy surface.
“Longer grass also means more organic matter and this becomes a layer of thatch and other unwanted material in the upper layer of the soil. This thatch holds moisture so your greens don’t drain as quickly and it also prevents roots from growing to a reasonable depth so the ground can become unstable or certainly less healthy than you would anticipate.
“Higher thatch levels mean the greens won’t play as firm and true as you would perhaps expect, so there’s going to be a lot of work to put things right.
“Topdressing and aeration will be hugely important, so don’t be surprised if you see greenkeepers punching holes into the greens for months to come once this situation subsides.”