The pursuit of progress

How do we keep up with golfers expectations?

April 2, 2015
7 mins
Andy Owen and Henry Bechelet
ICL Turf & Landscape Technical Managers

Greenkeepers are undoubtedly producing better golfing surfaces than ever before. For greens, the standards of speed, smoothness, firmness and year round playability are way ahead of what we would have thought possible 20 years ago. The problem is that the golfers’ expectations seem to increase at an even faster rate and without any appreciation of the giant steps that we are making!  So, how do we keep up? We think that sometimes it is good to take inspiration from other sports.   

In the last two Olympics the GB cycling team have won 26 medals, far outstripping their previous level of performance and making them true world beaters.  At the heart of their success and meteoric improvement is the concept of ‘the pursuit of marginal gains’. This philosophy suggests that small improvements made in a range of areas can all add up to a significant improvement overall.  At Everris (now ICL) we approach greenkeeping in the same way. 

The Everris (now ICL) Integrated Turf Management philosophy “iTurf” believes that successful greenkeeping requires you to focus on each of the factors that affect turf performance and not just the material inputs. We all know that we create high quality surfaces that perform throughout the year by balancing soil management and turf health with the challenges posed by play and  environmental factors. “Tell us something we don’t know” you shout, but if we take the “pursuit of marginal gains” approach and continually focus on making those small improvements to our maintenance programmes then we might be able to achieve even higher standards. It’s called evolution. 

Of course, the focus of all turf maintenance plans should remain on the fundamental practices; the nutritional programme, moisture management in the rootzone, the cutting regime, your aeration and topdressing practices, disease reduction, grass species selection and the active management of wear.  To produce an improving golf course you do need to be getting all these fundamental factors right, but then of course many of you already are.  The point is, to make further improvements you need to constantly strive to make things better. Small adjustments in each of the key areas will add up to significant improvements overall.  There is great value in looking for small gains across a range of practices rather than getting stuck searching for a single breakthrough.  Little things can make a big difference. 

For example, consider macro nutrition or your major NPK inputs. Getting your nitrogen levels right is crucial for the health and performance of the turf, but there is a lot more to it than just targeting the units of nitrogen per hectare per year. You also need to appreciate the fertiliser formulations, their ingredients and release patterns to phase the nutrient release properly through the year to maintain consistent and appropriate growth patterns and not suffer peaks and troughs of turf quality or performance. Marginal gains can come from improved knowledge and understanding. 

You should know that Everris (now ICL) think the same way. We are constantly working and reworking our formulations and testing them to make sure they are as efficient as possible.  For instance we know that the TMax component of our Greenmaster Liquid fertilisers really improves the uptake of the nutrition especially at low rates of application to allow you to maintain the performance of your turf with lower inputs.  We also found that by adding Zeolite to our granular formulations that we could improve longevity of release by a week on average.  Incremental gains can also be achieved through investing in high quality formulations. 

The area of biostimulants could come into this category as well.  We have conducted numerous internal trials, end user trials and independent research trials on a range of biostimulant products over the years, and to be honest with quite a lot of these products we see very little visual response in terms of turf quality and turf colour let alone performance.

There are occasionally exceptions to this and indeed our Vitalnova Blade biostimulant formulation came to life after extensive trial work proved significant benefits for plant health and soil microbial activity. So, the use of some biostimulant products could be considered a “marginal gain” in terms of plant and soil health management but there is a lot out there that just prey on your idealism and show no demonstrable benefits. There will never be a biostimulant that produces a turf response equal to a well delivered drop nitrogen or iron, however, in the pursuit of marginal gains there is a place for the use of a biostimulant to add that little bit extra to help the grass plant through a period of environmental stress for example. The key is to draw from solid evidence. 

We have recently come to look at seaweed products in this manner. It is rare that any immediate response will be seen from applications of a seaweed product (unless it is formulated with some macro nutrition!).  However, if carefully selected the right seaweed, with a high active seaweed can be shown to allow the sward to cope better in periods of stress. It is a tenuous link and not all seaweeds will achieve this, but we have seen responses with SMX that suggest that the complex components of a seaweed application work in synergy to provide some plant defence to periods of drought stress, and periods of cold stress. There is still much work needed here to elicit the exact reasons for the response but it is clear the right product applied correctly could provide that extra 1 % that moves the turf quality forward.  Marginal gains are sometimes achieved through valuing specific formulations. 

Soil moisture management is an area where there is room for substantial let alone marginal gains.  Moisture management is crucial for the production of healthy turf and we all know that (like nutrition) too much water is just as bad as too little. This is why we are now using moisture probes to give an accurate understanding of the soil water content and we are also using wetting agents that are proven by research to help manage the soil water with more control. We understand that for our turf to perform we need to manage water correctly and the biggest gain of all is simply not to irrigate when it doesn’t need it. Marginal gains often come through the use of technology to fuel our understanding. 

We could go on but you get the idea. The following list itemises a few of the areas where we think that marginal gains might be made.  You will be dealing with some or even most of these but will you be on top of all of them? The key is to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you are doing everything you can. See what you think… 

  • Sharp mower blades to create better surfaces and preserve turf health 
  • Delivering nitrogen release patterns that optimise turf health without any unnecessary surges of growth or lapses in vigour 
  • The use a moisture meter to identify dry areas in need of hand watering and to discourage unwarranted irrigation 
  • Predictive and preventative disease management ( or weather station) to reduce fungicide applications and prevent scarring 
  • Top dressing and turf ironing rather than close mowing and verticutting to create smooth and fast surfaces that remain healthy throughout the year 
  • Organic matter measurement in the upper soil profile to focus your soil management programme properly 
  • A progressive attitude to CPD and getting staff trained to create a team of turf professionals that are all acting together. 
  • Manage surface moisture to reduce the risk of disease activity (dew dispersants and penetrant wetting agents). 
  • Add fractions to your summer height of cut to give rooting a chance and ease the pressure from the sward  
  • Be proactive, be preventative, be precise 

Turf management is a complicated process, and it is essential that you start by getting the fundamentals correct. However, in the search for improvement sometimes we can overlook those small adjustments that might make all the difference.  Positive change only comes from positive action and so we must all constantly evaluate what we are doing to see if we can bring about an improvement.  So, like the GB cycling team, we need to look for those small marginal gains in all the various aspects of our turf maintenance programmes to bring about the next level of playing standards.

Don’t forget that at ICL we are also working to find those incremental improvements that will help us all improve. 

The pursuit of progress is everyone’s job.