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Canadian Turf Conference — Brown is the new green

"Have you heard the one about the octopus that could play piano?": RCGA head honcho Scott Simmons (left), talks to Jason Straka (centre) and Ian Andrew at the start of the design seminar at the Canadian Turf conference in Toronto on Monday.

I’ve been crazy busy since returning from Mexico late last week, but yesterday I managed to find the time to head down to the Canadian International Turfgrass conference, generally regarded as the annual meeting of Canadian golf superintendents. I was there to see the design panel, involving Ian Andrew of Weir Golf Design, Doug Carrick of Carrick Design and Jason Straka of Hurdzan/Fry. As it turned out, Carrick had a mix up and so associate Cam Tyers sat in for him (and handled himself very nicely, I’d add) throughout the first half of the hour-long talk.  The discussion was hosted by Scott Simmons, executive director of the RCGA.

I’ll start by saying the questions — which focused largely on environmental issues — would only capture the interest of a niche group, and I’m not sure all of the questions even intrigued the superintendents in the audience. That said, there were more than 100 people watching when Simmons asked the first question (he didn’t devise the queries), which appeared to be in three parts and over four sub-sections. The initial question was a bit convoluted, and elicited responses about the fact that many golf courses built from this point onward will involve sites that are less than ideal. Both Andrew and Tyers referenced Turnberry Golf Club, the new short course from the makers of Eagles Nest, that was built on a quarry in Brampton, as an example of alternative uses for difficult sites.

It also provided Andrew an opportunity to attack what he said were golf courses created more for providing great marketing photos than great golf.

“There were a lot of [golf courses] being made for photographs,” he said. “But we’re also seeing a return to old-fashioned ideas. We’ve gotten hung up on the notion of moving as much earth as we can, just because we can.”

Tyers raised the question of whether these sorts of elaborate golf courses (and you all know the type I’m talking about) took “too much to make them work.”

Straka chimed in with his perspective from the U.S. (he built Bond Head and Georgian Bay Club in Canada, but is based in Ohio): “Everyone is having to do with less. I’d be surprised if anyone here said their maintenance budget went up.”

The most interesting part of the conversation was about the types of courses that should be built. All the architects involved agreed that shorter, sporty courses in the 6,600 yard range would be appropriate, and be more cost effective for owners.

“We got so focused on building long golf courses that we lost focus on who the customer was,” said Straka.

That led Andrew to pontificate on what we might do to make the game more popular, faster and more interesting for a greater number.

“We’re going to slowly brown out,” he said. “We’re going to slowly get the ball on the ground some more … fewer bunkers, more open-fronted greens, more on-grade greens. A return to the style and ideas of the 1920s and 30s.”

Questions were asked — some interesting, some not — and I raised the issue that while every one of the architects talked about shorter courses, all had been involved in building long monsters in recent years. All said they’d like to see the change, but convincing owners that shorter might be better was a significant hurdle.

“You put your ideas out there, but ultimately it is the guy footing the bill that makes the decisions,” Carrick said.

Andrew applauded the work done at Turnberry: “This type of shorter course is what we need to get people involved in the game.”

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Overheard at the show:

  • Doug Lawrie, the former head pro at Brae Ban in Mississauga who moved to take the GM job at Whistlebear near Cambridge, is out after less than three months on the job. Brad Duench, former head pro at Rebel Creek, is in at Whistlebear. The super at Rebel Creek is also gone, and rumors have it that Golf North is in the process of acquiring it. Al Kavanagh, head of Golf North, has not responded to questions about the rumors.
  • There’s genuine concern about the implications of weather on Toronto-area courses. Speaking with Rob Ackerman, the top-notch super at Weston, about the issue and he said there could be a lot of courses with significant issues, though he’s pretty sure his course isn’t one of them. The strange weather, and lack of snow are contributing factors, especially for courses north of Toronto. There was lots of talk of supers desperately clearing ice from their greens in the hope of staving off the problem.
  • Ran into John Anderson, super at Cobble Beach, who said the course is fully recovered from the grassing problems that occurred soon after it opened. For those that don’t remember, Cobble Beach had an infestation of rye grass in its velvet bent seed. Rye grows more quickly, so it looked like the course had a case of golf acne. At some expense and time in 2008, Cobble Beach went to work on the problem, and everything is now AOK. However, a lawsuit over the seed issue continues.
  • Toronto GC will open in May, I’m told from one in the know, and I’m told that my initial concerns about Martin Hawtree’s renovation of the course are unfounded. We’ll see….

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hello Robert;
    As an avid golfer I can accept why the brown is the new green. Why does a course need to be greeen every where? In high traffic areas (That go brown anyway) and the deep ruff, let these areas go brown. Even let some long grass grow in thes areas. I believe that every square foot a super does not need to cut. Will save money on water, maintience and labour. Thus this will only enhance the golfing experience for everyone.

  • Brown is the “New Green”…I like that a lot and will communicate this to all of our members and guests. Less water, less chemicals, less fertilizer. We should all begin to promote this at the club level and educate our customers.

    TV

  • I didn’t really know doug lawrie well. met him a few times at braeben. a couple times he came across a bit gruff, a couple times he came across pretty cool. Seemed a bit larger than life, a big guy. I read the info on him leaving to whistle bear a course that is private and i have never played and i wondered if his leaving would have any impact on braeben a course i like. Not too pricey and close to home.

    I don’t know the golf biz well enough, but how does someone leave a good position, to go to another supposedly better position and be out in 3 mths? Personality conflicts? What? Sounds pretty rough.

  • In a magazine article, I wrote that Old Tom Morris should have been called the world’s first brownkeeper, then there would not be a problem. The Stanley Thompson Society and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame is holding a number of seminars beginng in March. The last one is May 16, an all day session at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute. The topic is ‘the changing landscape of golf’ focusing on issues such as the effect of environmental regulations on the look and playability of courses. There will be a number of notable expert speakers and panelists. For more information, feel free to contact me at newtoncompany@primus.ca, or 905 777-8880.

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