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Our Roots are Showing...


Paul MacCormack

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It has been difficult lately not to become a bit disenchanted with the modern game of golf and, in particular, those tasked with determining its future direction. From behind the ropes we watch as millionaires and billionaires squabble over who actually has dominion over the game, arguing about everything except the things that matter. Those in charge of tending the future of the game have become infected with greed and the notion that they know what is best for everyone else. The descent of the game at the professional level has left many pundits and average golf folk disconnected and ready to leave it all behind. 

If we pause and look to history for guidance, we don’t have to look farther than our own greenkeeping ancestors. The earliest practitioners of our craft looked at things through a much different lens than we do today. Many of our earliest brethren (unfortunately there weren’t any Women in Turf groups back then) were quiet, unassuming people. They worked their days in service of the early players of the game, often taking on many different mantles. Their duties included golf pro, club and ball maker, rudimentary golf course architect, equipment technician, and even “butler” within the clubhouse (many used to ring the dinner bell to call the players off the course and back to the clubhouse. — Practical Greenkeeping, Jim Arthur.)

Those in charge of tending the future of the game have become infected with greed and the notion that they know what is best for everyone else...

This notion of humble service also extended to the properties they tended. Except in this case they were in the service of nature. Early on, linksland was chosen simply because that land wasn’t suited for much else. The courses were laid out in very basic and pure forms, simply finding the best routes through the dunes that would connect teeing ground to the green. The idea of manipulation or moving the ground to suit the game wasn’t even considered, mostly because it wasn’t possible with the equipment at hand. The best course of action was to work with the land, gently massaging and coaxing features into being over time. 

Early greenkeepers were keenly observant and patient with their craft, which slowly evolved over the centuries. They did only what was necessary, because doing too much just created extra work. Our craft developed against the backdrop of the seasons, working with them instead of going against the grain. Modeling the natural flow of the seasons gave our greenkeeping ancestors a deep connection to the land they tended and bestowed the earliest courses a sense of place that endures through to today. 

The essence of this early approach to our craft still rings true among current superintendents. We are still by nature a humble bunch, willing to work in the shadows of the early mornings to prepare for the matches of the day. We are a resourceful and keenly observant lot, but now go above and beyond to do the job better than we did yesterday. This idea of service has worked both in our favour and against us by times, but through it all we continue to shape the evolution of the game. 

The essence of this early approach to our craft still rings true among current superintendents. We are still by nature a humble bunch, willing to work in the shadows of the early mornings to prepare for the matches of the day...

One might wonder what the greenkeepers of old would think if they were to look upon the game in its current form. One could argue that there have always been changes in technology that have affected the game. Even back then there were improvements in clubs and golf balls that enabled players to gain an advantage. New machinery allowed more manipulation of the land and increased pressures from the growing popularity of the game. But they would be shocked to see what the modern game has become. 

The technological improvements that our greenkeeping industry has seen during the last number of years have simply been staggering. From nutrient and chemical delivery, water management, GPS systems, the rapid evolution of mowers and niche turf equipment to the monumental leaps forward in construction techniques, our industry has evolved rapidly. We can manipulate so many variables on a daily basis, almost by times taking nature and the guesswork associated with our jobs out of the equation. What would Old Tom Morris think about growth regulators, moisture meters, GPS sprayers and our ability to deliver micro amounts of fertility? What would be going through his mind as he stepped onto the first tee of many tour level courses today? 

In light of the largess of the modern game of golf, it might be time for superintendents of today to look backward to  rediscover the essence of our craft. By looking to the past, we may regain some of the humility and sense of allowance that shaped the game. We could ask important questions like, “Is this necessary?” or “Is that enough for now?” Not in the sense of advocating for moving our industry backwards per se, but with the hopes that we might reconnect with some of the old ways in order to better chart the course forward. 

Golf course superintendents are the backbone of this game. We are the ones who through time have set the stage and produced the surfaces upon which the soul of the game lays. We will be the ones who will see it through turbulent times and set a sustainable course for what’s to come. This current churning of the waters has little if anything to do with our craft and how we choose to practice it. But in the end it’s up to us to set the course that will allow the game to endure. 

Thanks for reading.

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