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In June, I parted ways with the golf club I had worked for after 35 years as a greenkeeper and course superintendent. So I thought this would be a good time to look back and put down on paper (well, on a computer screen) some of the experiences and observations of my time on the golf course in particular, and more generally about how things have changed and evolved over the last three and a half decades.

How did I get into the turfgrass business? Well, a friend of mine reckoned this was the advice I received in the early ’80s: “Get into grass, John. They pay you to cut it, but it just keeps growing! Job’s a good’un son … and you can make stripes!” The idea of making stripes was attractive for sure, but the real reason I got into turfgrass was more basic: I didn’t have a job! My father-in-law was a greenkeeper going back to the 1960s, so that was it. I started on a career path that provided a few lows, many challenges, but outbalancing these were the numerous highs from job satisfaction and the people I met and worked with over the years.

I began my turfgrass career at the Royal Curragh Golf Club, Ireland’s oldest golf course and club. Golf was first played there in 1852. The course is established on an open grassland, which has been continuously grazed by sheep since Neolithic times. There are numerous archaeological sites, such as burial rings and raths in the area and within the golf course itself. More recent historical remains are the trenches that surround the approach to the fifth and sixth fairways. These were dug out in 1915 and ’16 during the First World War and used for training recruits before they were sent to the Battle of the Somme.

So, what was golf course maintenance like in Ireland back in the last century? Well, here’s a clue: My first encounter with a golf green was when walking onto it for the first time and thinking, “Wow! How nice and soft this is, like walking on a mattress.” Oh, dear, aeration and topdressing were not very frequent practices. Turf management operations were basic really, with minimal inputs and maintenance procedures. The greens received the odd run of a pedestrian slitter, once a year — if they were lucky. Topdressing was a screened topsoil, fine clay particles spread over the surface and worked in with birch brushes.

I mentioned low inputs. This was true in most cases except for nitrogen. Poa dominated pushup greens in Ireland’s climate, receiving 450 Kg/ha of N per year. No wonder they were soft!

Course upkeep consisted mostly of mowing greens. We had a ride-on triplex Toro and a tractor and gang mower to cut the grass and daisies on the fairways. We applied calcium ammonium nitrate, sulphate of ammonia and ferrous sulphate, and used washing up liquid for dry patches on the greens. Sheep maintained our rough.

By the start of the 1990s, things began to change. We began to educate ourselves, read up on techniques, did greenkeeping courses. We purchased a Cushman and a ride-on fairway mower. We now had some tools, we could aerate regularly and topdress — not with the surface sealing clay/soil, but with washed sand of a correct particle size, and we could start to shape and present fairways. Our nutritional inputs were modified and our greens began to firm up and play well.

As the years rolled through the ’90s and into the 21st century, golfer expectations increased. So, the greenkeeper’s workload increased. We had to understand the complex requirements of turfgrass nutrients and tailored inputs to the various areas of the course, to suit the surface playability targets and environmental conditions.

New products and maintenance techniques made the biggest impact during this time. For me, the availability of fairway mowers, vertidrains and other aerators, top dressers that replaced shovels, and integrated sprayers rather than tractor-mounted agricultural ones all produced significant impacts during these changing times.

When I started, we had several mainstay fungicides — Iprodione, Chlorothalonil, Carbendazim — which we used through the autumn and winter. These were used to control Fusarium patch, also called Microdochium nivale. We had heard of anthracnose, dollar spot, take all and red thread, but these were things we didn’t deal with. We had granular fertilizers, no liquids or foliars to speak of and no seed-head suppression or PGRs.

As we moved into the 21st century, there were a lot of new challenges but also many new maintenance procedures and available products. Fertilizer and chemical products have been the source of some of the greatest changes to course maintenance practices during my time. A wide range of both granular and liquid expanded fertilizers, PGRs, wetting agents and new plant protectant chemistries became available. We now had the equipment and we had the products. We then had to make the correct choices and put together maintenance programs to deliver what the modern golfer wanted. We were transforming from grasscutters to professional turfgrass managers. Playing conditions and presentation improved astronomically. Golfers still wanted more.

We were really getting our act together. Good products (some even had research to support them), good machines, and good education and management practices. But one thing you learn in this business is there are always new challenges. Today we must deal with restrictions of plant protectants, environmental awareness, climate change and — something that has really come to the fore recently — the pressures this lifestyle has on your wellbeing and family life.

We’re dealing with chemical restrictions and climate change as we have done with previous challenges. We’re adapting, looking to research and education and new and improved methods to overcome them. With plant protectant restrictions for disease control and stress challenges to our turfgrasses, we are turning to a more integrated management approach, learning how all the factors that affect plant health interact and how we can influence these factors. We are now very aware of how our courses are part of the bigger picture and we look to nurture and encourage biodiversity, and to protect our unique environments.

The pressures a turfgrass manager must deal with these days are coming much to the fore in the last couple of years. Effects this lifestyle has on your wellbeing and family life can be devastating. I didn’t think I was under stress while working as a superintendent, but when I finished in that position, I quickly realized I was constantly thinking about the job, 24/7. Weather conditions, machine breakdowns, staff problems, dealing with member and committees — all can take their toll. I’m no expert here, but I will say take advice and listen to the many people in the industry who are talking on this subject and deal with it.

What summary can I give after 35 years on the job? Well, when I started, golf courses, certainly here, were mostly greens-orientated, very little attention given to any other areas. Maintenance procedures were basic, little understanding of the science behind turfgrass maintenance, golf club committees knew all and gave the instructions. Things have certainly changed, mostly for the better. Greenkeepers, who were once just grasscutters, are now respected and well educated (some are even doctors … how did that happen?!). Would I recommend the job to others? Hmmmm. It’s not easy, it requires dedication and acceptance of long hours and criticisms from people you know haven’t a clue as to what they’re talking about. But tremendous satisfaction can also be obtained when you survey your course, everything comes together, and the place is shining.

I had many years in this job, made an awful lot of good friends, and had plenty of job satisfaction. I set myself targets and progressed personally. Advice to young guys going into the business? Keep learning, not only from formal education, but by talking to the old guys. I’ve met a lot of greenkeepers around the world and their knowledge is always outstanding. There’s no end to what you can learn.

And sunscreen. Always wear sunscreen!

Dr. John Dempsey is the former course manager at Royal Curragh Golf Club in Kildare County, Ireland. He works today as an independent researcher in turfgrass disease and physiology.