See Yourselves as others See YouI wonder if I am alone in believing that a lot of golf club members treat their Head Greenkeeper a bit like the manager of their favourite football team.
All too often, it seems to me, greenkeepers receive little or no praise when things are going well. But, invariably, at the first sign of trouble, they are apportioned the blame, usually by misguided members who, a bit like football pundits, have little or no idea about what they are actually talking about.
Nor is it an isolated problem. It’s endemic and will continue to be so until amateur golfers understand better what their greenkeepers are trying to achieve.
I first became aware of the sort of treatment meted out to greenkeepers when, as a youngster, I supplemented my meagre student’s grant by working at the local golf club.
Subsequently, I learned a lot more about the difficulties they endured while helping to edit the excellent Nick Park series, entitled The Management of British Golf Courses, which appeared in Golf Monthly during the early1980s.
Finally, all my worst fears were confirmed when, a couple of years later, I was persuaded to become the Greens Convenor at the club in Glasgow where I was a member at the time.
My stint as Greens Convenor, which lasted for about two years before I moved south for business reasons, turned out to be even more demanding than I thought it would be.
At the time, much to his credit, the Head Greenkeeper at our club was doing his utmost to rid the course of the poa annua that infested it and made the greens virtually unplayable for most of the winter months. However, he was also facing a mounting backlash from a section of the membership that did not understand his aims.
My role, at least as I saw it, was to deflect that criticism, thereby allowing him the time to complete the job. I was, to all intents and purposes, his buffer. It was a painful task, one that I now know I should have handled better.
Nick Park, in his aforementioned Golf Monthly series, made it quite clear that, at golf clubs, most problems are caused by golfers’ misconceptions, not greenkeeping ones and he was quite right, of course. The problem was that, at the time, I didn’t understand how crucial that distinction was.
We got so bogged down with our poa problem (and I use that phrase advisably) that we forget to tell the membership why we had to combat it. What’s worse, as we began to see progress, many members believed things were getting worse. They had been indoctrinated into believing they should have a "nice green golf course".
Thanks to watching TV, and in particular the annual Masters tournament at Augusta National, many of them equated "green" with "good" so, when the course began to take on a more natural hue, their alarm bells started to ring even louder than before.
Nowadays, a few more amateur golfers understand how the trend towards "Americanisation" has damaged our traditional British courses. Unfortunately, though, they remain a small minority. The rest, still influenced by misguided comments in the media, demand the unattainable.
They want their courses to be lush and verdant in summer but also playable in the winter months. Obviously, of course, that isn’t going to happen. Inevitably, too, it is the greenkeeper who bears the brunt.
Frequently, greenkeepers find themselves at odds with their members, often through no fault of their own. The more fortunate will have a supportive Greens Convenor willing to fight his corner.
However, more often than not, the Convenor will have been voted on, not because of his knowledge of agronomy, or his desire to maintain the status quo, but because his mates want him to "sort things out".
When a greenkeeper finds himself in this sort of situation, I can’t help but feel the best thing to do is to attempt to take the initiative. Obviously, that is easy for me to say because my livelihood does not depend on it.
But think about it, if you choose to acquiesce to the demands of a Greens Convenor who does not understand sound greenkeeping practises, the chances are that all you are doing is postponing the inevitable difficulties. It is better, surely, to put your case firmly at the outset. Who knows, you might even persuade him to give your way a try.
If I was a greenkeeper, an unlikely scenario I admit, the first thing I would do is purchase a copy of Malcolm Peake’s "Confessions of a Chairman of Green" and present it to my Green Convenor. Come to think of it, I would buy several copies and leave them dotted around the clubhouse for members to read.
"Confessions", which is published by the STRI, is a marvellous book and one that should be made required reading for all prospective Green Convenors. In it, the author tells how he supported his Course Manager, Martin Gunn, in his quest to return his club, Temple Golf Club, near Maidenhead, to its former glory. It wasn’t easy.
After years of over-watering, too much fertiliser and not enough aeration the course was in a sorry state. It took several years to rectify but the transformation is now complete. Put simply, Temple, as it is now, is arguably the best conditioned inland course in the British Isles.
Peake’s book teaches the aspiring Greens Convenor a great deal. For starters, the author questions a new Convenor’s right to dictate to his head greenkeeper on matters appertaining to agronomy.
He tells that when he started: "I thought I knew about golf courses, but how could I? I only played golf – I didn’t have any qualifications. But I, like every other golfer, had an opinion on the golf course. I had a lot to learn – first lesson"
As it turned out, numerous lessons had to be assimilated, another being how important it is to keep members informed about progress, what was to happen next etc, etc.
In the end what Martin, Malcolm, and numerous others have found is that communication is vital if the grumblers are to be silenced and the relationship between the greenstaff and the members is to be improved.
I have no doubt that communication of this sort has improved markedly in recent years but still I believe more can be done.
Take my new club as an example. There, both the Course Manager and the Greens Convenor do an excellent job keeping the members informed about when the greens are to be aerated and when other major projects are to be undertaken.
But seldom, it seems to me, do they go one stage further and tell us why the work is being done. For that reason, they leave themselves open to criticism, however misguided it might be.
Frequently, when I arrive at the club, I hear members moaning about "the greens being dug up again". That criticism comes from golfers who have no idea about how important it is to aerate greens on a regular basis but that is beside the point. Disquiet can be inculcated and problems can brew as a result.
Let’s return to the football manager analogy for a second. At the Conference club I support, the Manager and his Chairman have started to stage regular Fans’ Forums during which they outline plans for the future and deal with an assortment of questions from supporters.
To date, these sessions have proved hugely successful, to the extent that I cannot help but feel they could be copied in a golf environment.
Nowadays, numerous clubs stage Rules evenings, when a resident, or visiting, expert answers questions on the Rules of Golf.
That being the case, why shouldn’t clubs also hold a separate Course Maintenance forum, specifically set up to allow the greenkeeper and the greens committee to explain their policies.
In my experience, the aforementioned Nick Park was quite correct when he suggested that most greenkeepers came under fire, not as a result of their agronomic policies, but because their members failed to understand what it is they are trying to achieve.
Sort that out and I believe greenkeepers would go a long way to reducing the unwelcome, and in most cases, unfair criticism they all too often receive.