Can you combine traditional principles with a modern mindset?
Could it be that the next generation of turf leaders – the ones currently in qualified greenkeeper positions, looking ambitiously upwards – will be the ones to see the greenkeeping industry return to its traditional routes?
It’s reckoned that the ‘Age of Pesticides’ and everything that implies began following the Second World War, but over the decades since we have seen significant doubt creep into the public mindset about the ethics and sustainability of using such products. If products leach into watercourses, for example, then no amount of disease‑free greens and smooth putting surfaces can justify pesticide use to the general public.
For some, the move away from a reliance on pesticides means a renewed interest in the greenkeeping philosophy of Jim Arthur, the renowned R&A agronomist whose centenary we reflected upon in the November 2020 edition of Greenkeeper International.
Jim offered key principles relating to grass species, aeration and topdressing, irrigation and fertiliser usage. With regards grass species, he believed fine fescues and browntop bent to be the only ones suitable for year‑round golf. He considered aeration as second only in importance to cutting and believed a humus‑enriched sand, ideally sourced locally, was best for topdressing. He believed irrigation should occur rarely and was a tool to keep the plant alive, nothing more, and likewise believed fertilisers should be applied rarely and never in autumn or winter.
We’ll never know whether Jim would have updated his principles in the 24 years that have passed since the publication of his book, Practical Greenkeeping, but in the face of a changing climate and other pressures on resources his voice would have been an interesting one to add to the conversation of how the greenkeeping profession evolves to meet the challenges of the 2020s and beyond.
Tim Johnson, 33, is course manager at Worsley, just five miles from the centre of Manchester. The course is a parkland layout built on heavy clay and as such is not one you would traditionally associate with a Jim Arthur‑esque approach, clay parklands usually being the realm of Poa annua.
Tim approaches course management with a keen awareness of the principles that Jim laid down, but as one of the next generation of course managers, he does so with an awareness that each site is specific and has its own requirements.
“You can call it the Jim Arthur approach or even traditional greenkeeping,” said Tim, who joined the Worsley team in November 2018. “Some even call it sustainable greenkeeping, but that’s a no‑go phrase for me because what’s sustainable for me may not be sustainable for the guy next door. You can call it whatever, but for me it’s just greenkeeping.
“In this day and age with the loss of chemicals and increasing regulations, I think people have to be looking around for other ideas and the traditional approach is one that will become increasingly important. For anyone who isn’t sure about what it entails or whether it will work for them, I’d say visit guys who do it; my door is always open. I put a lot on social media and people may look at that and think ‘why’s he doing that in the middle of Manchester?’ That’s fine, but it works for me."
Tim began his greenkeeping career in 2005 at High Legh Park, a parkland course founded by Gareth Evans, a former manager of the Stone Roses.
In 2008 he joined Wilmslow, a former Open Qualifying venue that previously hosted the Greater Manchester Open.
Tim said: “Wilmslow has amazing fairways and the sheer quality of the course is down to hard work by the team and the amount they’ve invested in ensuring good drainage where fine grasses can thrive. It’s a beautiful course and I still think of it as home.
“Things have massively improved at High Legh and the team are doing amazing things there, but at the time we were putting in creeping bent and heavy feeding and then cutting the greens to 3mm or below with no interest in the quality of grasses, just looking to get as many rounds of golf in as you could each day. That was greenkeeping to me as it was all I knew, so to suddenly get dropped into Wilmslow in 2008 was a different ball game.”
Tim’s former boss at Wilmslow, Steve Oultram, was a strong proponent of traditional greenkeeping practices and at the time of Tim’s arrival was overseeing a fine turf programme alongside The R&A.
“That influenced me massively,” said Tim. “We were feeding sensibly, promoting fescue and bent and not just working with what we had but improving and pushing forwards. I still speak to Steve most days and he’s been a big influence on me.”
With a proactive culture at Wilmslow of developing staff, including through the opportunities presented by BIGGA, the club’s greenkeepers have seen significant success in recent years. Tim was invited on the BIGGA Delegation sponsored by Bernhards to the Golf Industry Show in 2013, while another former member of the team, Daniel Ashelby, won Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year in 2019.
Tim added: “I won’t lie, I initially joined BIGGA because I could use my card to play golf, but then I started getting involved in seminars and events thanks to the culture that was at Wilmslow, eventually becoming section chairperson in 2015. Through doing all that, it’s true what they say about getting out what you put in and after applying for course manager jobs for 18 months, I got the opportunity to take over at Penn Golf Club.” »
Employment at a golf club in Wolverhampton meant a 140‑mile daily commute as childcare needs prevented the family relocating.
Former Penn head greenkeeper Paul Mills, also an advocate of traditional greenkeeping had, in Tim’s words, “done the politics” before he moved on, enabling Tim to come in and continue the thrust in that direction.
“A word of warning I would give anyone who becomes a head man is that it’s very easy to get swayed if you’re not sure in your own mind what you’re doing,” said Tim. “The industry has a habit of thinking of greenkeepers as all one and the same and some from the sales side of things will be pushing the next best thing or magic in a bottle. But often if you strip it back and keep things simple then that’s enough. I was lucky at Penn because the budget was small so I took it that we didn’t have a lot of money to mess around with. You just push on and find another way to get where you want to be. You also find out that what’s really important is the quality of the products you’re using, including topdressing.”
The move back to Manchester and the head role at Worsley presented itself in November 2018 and by that time Tim had gained a solid understanding of the course manager he wanted to be.
Worsley was laid out in 1894 by George Low who also put together prestigious clubs such as Hillside, Hesketh and Royal Birkdale. In the 1930s James Braid put his stamp on the club and that’s the layout enjoyed by golfers today.
“When I arrived, I had a firm belief in what I was going to do and I’d like to say that it’s going to plan,” explained Tim. “It’s almost like stopping a boat that’s at full speed. You can’t stop it right away, you have to slow it down steadily.
“They were already overseeding with browntop bent and weren’t cutting below 4mm, so that side of things isn’t too different. But I changed the feed programme from liquid to lawn sand and organic feeds and we’re now using Fendress where it’s always been straight sand. I look at topdressing maybe a little different to others. Yes, it’s used to level your surfaces and maybe dilute organic matter, but it’s also about building the foundations of your future green. If you’re building it out of pure sand, your drought tolerance isn’t very great and I’ve found there’s this common myth that Fendress makes your greens wetter, but I haven’t found that at all. There’s a big push now for good soils, good microbiology and micronutrients, but if you look at Fendress, it’s all in there.
“On the greens we had very shallow roots when I came. I had got them at Penn to the point where I could hold a core horizontally and it wouldn’t break and that’s my goal for here.”
The club has enlisted the services of consultant Gordon Irvine, who Tim previously worked with at Wilmslow. “I don’t mind saying it myself, but he has a better way of articulating a point than I do, so it’s been good for him to sit down and have a chat with our team as the two younger guys are used to a different method of greenkeeping altogether,” said Tim. “I know there’s the classic phrase, ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’, well that’s only the case if you know of more than one way. It seems some inexperienced greenkeepers only know one way of doing things.”
With the work continuing at Worsley, the latest lockdown has provided an opportunity to continue that culture shift, although Tim’s looking forward to the course being busy again.
He said: “I think it’s awful that golf courses closed during lockdown, but I think everyone can agree that if we’d had the same level of play during January and February that we were having, the greens would have been absolutely battered. It would have looked like the Grand National out there.
“We’re all learning and developing new approaches. You get some businesses where they tell you what they want and I see guys struggling to meet those expectations because it goes against what they believe. I always think that there has to be a middle ground. You can have a committee where someone says ‘I want the greens stimping at 12’, but these days we have the skillset to be able to say ‘OK, but here’s the caveat: you’ll need to do more of this or less of that’. Today’s greenkeeper is so educated and qualified that they can usually find a yin to a yang. Gone are the good old days where you say ‘I’m doing things this way and if you don’t like it then good riddance.
“I take as much interest in guys that work in a different way to me as the guys who do it the same way. I’m intrigued in what they’re doing but it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. I don’t like to see people berating others because they aren’t doing things precisely as they would themselves, rather than listening to the explanation why.”
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Every course is different. Listen but don’t judge. Tim’s approach combines a level‑headed perspective of a traditional ethos alongside modern education and communication skills and it’s providing a blueprint for success at Worsley and beyond.
Continue the conversation: Tim is on Twitter at @TimEBJohnson
This article was first featured in the April 2021 edition of Greenkeeper International available for BIGGA members to read online here.