Should golf courses be green?

As I write this I’m still in Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands, where I’ve spent the last three months gathering material for a book. I’ll be home in soon, having gone some way toward answering a question that’s been on my mind. The question is simply this: Does lush, green grass make for better golf than firm turf, leaning toward brown?

I’ve noticed that the less green a course is the more I like it. Courses that are green all over are generally too soft and don’t let you hit the ball along the ground. They make for one-dimensional golf where the main requirement is to fly the ball into the fairway where it will stop — pronto — and from there to hoist it on the green, where it will stop — pronto.

But that’s not golf, that’s darts. It’s the Augusta National Syndrome — green everywhere. Golf courses become lawns, heavily fertilized, chemically treated, artificial, and often unhealthy because they’re overfed and overwatered.

Golf grass isn’t always greener
I prefer my golf shading toward brown, tan and tawny. The other day I visited Jimmy Miller, probably the best golfer in the north of Scotland the last 35 years. Miller lives near his beloved Bro golf course, where the greenkeeper has been instructed to return the ground to linksland — firm and fast. The course hasn’t been watered all summer, and it was looking mighty brown until recent rains put some green into it. More’s the pity.

We suffer in Canada from the disease of too much green, too much growth in our grasses. It’s as if we feed our courses a grass growth hormone. But the grass rarely needs it. In fact the way to make turf healthy is to nearly starve it so that it becomes strong and takes what it needs as far as moisture goes. That’s practical greenkeeping, as Jim Arthur, the former agronomist for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, calls it. And that’s greenkeeping that won’t cost a fortune.

Think about most of the courses you play. They’re likely wall to wall green. But why should that be so? Because the Augusta National Golf Club is green all over during the Masters? Because people think that grass that isn’t a deep green isn’t healthy? Because we in Canada believe that golf isn’t proper golf unless it’s played on soft, mushy turf? Each of these is a contributing factor to our mania to make courses green fields.

That’s a shame as far as I’m concerned. I’d love to see our courses turn their watering systems off far more than they turn them on. Water only as necessary. Fertilize as little as possible. Truly, be a greenkeeper, not a greengrower. That way lies a game that lacks elements that make golf more fun. When you take the bounce out of a golf course you take the golf out of a golf course. At least in my opinion you do.

Brown is best
I’ve had the pleasure of playing courses in Scotland, which were bone-dry. Sometimes I had to land a ball 40 yards short of a green so that it could roll up to the green and stay there. As the Scots like to say, “It’s not how many greens you hit, but how many greens the ball stays on.” Precisely.

It’s been comical at times to watch golfers, visiting from other parts of the world, as they try shots on links courses that don’t work. Throwing the ball up in the air from tight, brown turf more often than not just doesn’t work for most amateurs. It’s too tough to catch the ball cleanly on the clubface.

The more likely scenario is that the golfer will “belly” the ball, catching it in the middle of the clubface. Or he or she will try to help the ball up and stick the clubface in the ground, hitting a fat shot that goes nowhere. The proper shot is a chip and run along the ground.

But some people think that’s bowling, not golf. They figure that golf is an air game, and exclusively so. Yet that’s not the way the game started. It’s evolved into both a ground and air game, true, and that’s fine. But we’re in danger of losing the ground element altogether when we allow courses to become soft as a beer belly.

So as I return home, I’ll find the green, soft courses strange. It’s going to take a while to adjust to such courses. It’s a shame that one does have to adjust. Better we should get used to keener, meaner, leaner surfaces. Here’s one vote for that kind of course maintenance.

And now I’ve also answered my own question. I don’t think green is good for golfing, at least not the golf that I love — golf that can be played along the ground as well in the air. Ah, for the brown, brown grass that defines the best of Scottish golf.