Richard Windows, STRI Turfgrass Agronomist, describes the management routines at The Old Course, both past and present
This year The Open Championship will be played on the Old Course St. Andrews for the 27th time. The Old Course is a true sporting Mecca. Any golfer lucky enough to play across the fantastic links has played golf in its most natural environment. This has been epitomized by Arnold Palmer who described playing on the Old Course as ‘golf in its purest form’ and ‘seemingly untouched by time’.
While the ‘Old’ has been shaped by nature, it would be false to say man had no influence over its evolution. For instance, in 1764 the number of holes was reduced from 22 to 18 and in 1864 Tom Morris (on his return from Prestwick) widened the fairways and greens.
In fact, Tom Morris played the most significant role in shaping the Old Course into what we see today. As four times Open champion himself, he was obviously a decent player! Like so many other Scottish greenkeepers, he quickly learned the fine bent and fescue grasses produced the best turf surfaces for golf. To retain these grasses he kept fertiliser and water application to a minimum and implemented regular deep aeration and sand top dressing.
These basic principles of turf management continue to underpin the course management programme adopted by Euan Grant, the current head greenkeeper,. Pesticide and fertiliser application is minimal with only 20-25 kg/ha of nitrogen being applied to the greens on an annual basis. Irrigation is only used to keep the turf alive. Deep aeration is carried out regularly, using the verti-drain during the close season and the hydroJect (water injection) through the spring and summer. Mowing heights are kept at approximately 5 mm with surface refinement operations including light top dressing, rolling and occasional verticutting being achieved regularly to provide smooth surfaces. Appropriate pace is generated due to the fine texture of the turf and firm underfoot conditions. The only aspect of maintenance that has changed over the years is the quality of machinery used to implement the various operations and the frequency in which they are conducted.
For the 2005 Open, 94 of the 112 bunkers across the Old have been revetted this past winter. The revetting included famous bunkers such as the Shell (on the 7th), Strath (on the 11th) and, of course, the Road Bunker on the 17th, which has been changed slightly to increase its gathering effect. 12,000 m2 of turf was used in this operation; with the Shell bunker using up more than 10,000 turfs! The construction of these bunkers is a fine art and the way in which they are built is a closely guarded secret. The fairways across the Old Course are superb examples of links surfaces. They are firm underfoot and support an excellent fine and wiry texture. Regular sanding and verticutting is implemented to retain such surfaces. As growth rates are so slow on the Old, the recovery from divot damage is slow. Therefore, like on so many other links courses, fairway mats are used each winter. To help increase the rate of recovery across popular landing zones, old divots are replaced with fresh patches of turf rather than the usual soil and seed. It is not unusual for the greenstaff to patch as many as 10,000 divots over the winter months!
Since the Millennium Open, the tees on 2, 4, 12, 13 and 14 have been extended backwards, increasing the length of the Old by 164 yards. It now measures 7,279 yards from the Championship tees, with the 14th, at 618 yards, now being the longest hole on the Open rota. As the existing hazards on the Old cannot be moved, it was necessary to move these tees further back, thus bringing the likes of Cheape’s bunker on the 2nd and the Beardies on the 14th back into play. It will certainly be interesting to see how the players cope with these exciting new challenges.
STRI are the official agronomists to The R&A Championship Committee. This entails a small team of agronomists visiting all the Open venues twice each year. It also includes two visits a year to each of the four final qualifying courses associated with each Open venue four years in advance of the Championship. Final qualifying for St. Andrews is played over Scotscraig, Ladybank, Leven Links and Lundin. For the second consecutive year, STRI will be on site for the eight days before and during the Championship to assist in the final preparations and provide any last minute agronomic assistance. This will be a very exciting experience for me as it is the first Open where I have direct involvement.
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