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Greens Relief at Sweetwoods Park.

Sweetwoods Park Golf Club at Cowden in Kent is a course that is stunning to behold while enjoyable and challenging to play. However, it is not without playing surface difficulties. Allan Tait, its Course Manager, was brought in earlier this year to specifically to put them right.

The club’s owner Martin Long, who is also co-owner of Premiership football club Crystal Palace, wants to make it the best course in this part of the south-east. A two million pound investment in the clubhouse shows the ambition: Allan Tait’s greenkeeping plans already show how much better this course is getting.

Aside from its lovely setting, the recent bad winters have highlighted some weaknesses in the playing quality of the course. The 17th says everything about the beauty of Sweetwoods Park, yet is a microcosm of the issues there too. The par-3 hole is not long, just 133 yards, but a real challenge – uphill, and over water. The vista is glorious. What it has shown since last spring is the vital balance between a greenkeeper’s mechanical routines and biological means of uplifting a green. Main players in this perfect marriage: Allan and his team of five full-timers and turf care supplier Sherriff Amenity. Extreme turf husbandry in tandem with biological support was the way forward.

1/8 - Short, picturesque and challenging, the 17th from the tee.
2/8 - Early days - Alan Tait (left) and Sherriff Amenity''s Adam Hartley looking at the 17th green.
3/8 - Over-hanging tree line and sloping surround add to 17th water problems.
4/8 - Sand - lots of it - to break up the Black Layer
5/8 - Hollow coring, the weekly routine.
6/8 - The Smithco Spraystar 2000, at work on the 17th green.
7/8 - SeaVolution, making the 17th green a healthier prospect.
8/8 - Keeping the sandy 17th in trim, the clubs new Jacobsen greens mower.

Before Allan became a greenkeeper he was a footballer, and a promising one as an apprentice with Tottenham Hotspur. A professional career didn’t materialise, but his competitive edge has stayed with him through his NVQ at Plumpton College to deputy head greenkeeper role and then course manager positions at Lindfield Golf Club and latterly for five years at nearby Kent club Nizels

“The way to make progress and to learn more about the profession is to move,” he said. The one he made to Sweetwoods Park was a challenging one indeed.

There had been a degree of disquiet among members concerning the greens, notably the iconic 17th. Allan’s reputation as a man of action at previous courses got him the task of improving things. His first duty was to address the club’s AGM where he spelt out what he would have to do and how drastic appearance of the greens might be as a result.

It’s movement of water that’s the major problem on the picturesque 17th green.  It’s either too dry or soaking wet. It had just become harder and harder to get it into a decent playing state. Black Layer through lack of aeration was the ugly manifestation. When water sits near the surface it can cause anaerobic conditions and ultimately surface de-generation. That’s exactly what was happening on the 17th green and others at the club. Forcing rainwater and irrigation through the profile was the only answer.

This initial action of coring and deep scarifying was a priority just to get life back into the green after weeks and weeks of winter rain. 

Allan’s plan for the 17th green was to be fairly extreme culturally. He aimed to solid tine it weekly to punch holes in it to start the process of ridding it of black layer. He would ‘hide’ the necessary surface disturbance by hand mowing afterwards, then applying Redhill 28 sand as a top-dressing and brushing it in by dragmat and firming it by vibrating roller. By the end of the year Allan estimates that about 25 tons of sand will have been distributed on the 17th green alone. Club members were getting used to seeing a sandy pin target as the months went by, but there were no complaints and no adverse effects on putting.

Tining was carried out by a combination of the John Deere Aercore and a Wiedenman deep aerator to different depths to avoid panning. Allan carried out this routine throughout the summer, yet even in early May, barely a month after the start of this cultural revolution, there were signs of an improvement.

Root mass was benefitting from double-passing with 12mm hollow tines, removing 4in deep cores. Same width solid tines penetrating down to 8-10 inches encourage water to pass through the profile and unlock nutrients within the soil.

“Firstly I needed to get full grass coverage, dry the surface out by top dressing regularly, and solid tining as frequently as possible to get rid of the black layer,” said Allan, summing up his over summer efforts to pull the 17th green round.

“By aerating the ground the Black Layer will gradually go and there are already signs it is receding. The sand is starting to get into it and breaking it up too, but it is a slow process.   “Thatchy turf is high maintenance. A thatch level of 8-10 mm is the optimum, that’s what you want. We had an inch here. If you remove the conditions, you won’t get the disease, so that’s our other priority.”

There had been input from Sherriff Amenity’s Adam Hartley from the word go. He and Allan had worked together before on solving course turf issues and soil sampling revealed that lower down it was too rich in fertiliser. Thatch and Black Layer were acting as barriers to nutrients.

The use of seaweed extract in combination with vigorous aeration was Adam’s recommendation. The aim was to reduce the stress and release the excessive fertiliser.   “We needed to make use of what was already there, but trapped,” said Allan.

“We agreed that a combination of cultural mechanics and biological remedy was the best way forward. Adam recommended a tried and tested Sherriff Amenity product, SeaVolution to help uplift the 17th green and the others around the course affected by environmental conditions and management shortcomings.

“As a result of the AGM, I had the full support of the members from the outset and they have been totally supportive of the tough regime I needed to adopt. The owner, Martin Long, has given me his practical backing, making over £50,000 available to invest in new equipment.”

A fully automatic ride-on sprayer, the Smithco Spraystar 2000 from the USA and a new Jacobsen GP400 greens mower were delivered to the course in May. Allan put them to work immediately. They were invaluable additions to his armoury. Since then he has pursued a fortnightly programme of SeaVolution application to greens and as summer drifted into autumn he was more and more convinced by its effectiveness.

“Seaweed is just a gentle means of enhancing and stimulating microbial life without creating too much top growth,” said Allan.

“It gives added value to my routines and I plan to make it a standard part of the work, not just on greens, but tees too. You could say I’ve become a seaweed fan.”   Allan reckons that in just six months there has been 30 to 40 per cent improvement in the 17th green and others similarly stressed.

“We have achieved far more than I had imagined we would by now,” he said.   As summer kicked-in the use of a wetting agent became essential as the thatch-laden surface began to repel both rainwater and irrigation. Allan used either Tricure or Drench, both equally successful products. Their chemistry allows them to be held by the soil particles and together with SeaVolution they are important aids to root development.

“In golf everywhere we’re pushing our greens turf more than ever these days. Expectations are higher. We roll more, so we have to aerate more. The extremes are greater, so seaweed and wetting agents come into play to ease the stress. Farmers have been putting seaweed on crops since the dawn of time.  It’s not a cure-all, just a wonderful health ingredient. “

Stress like there’s been on the 17th green means disease follows as sure as night follows day, Fusarium the ‘leader of the pack’. For this, Allan’s new sprayer has been at work applying the preventative fungicide Astute from Sherriff Amenity. He’s also needed to reduce nitrogen levels on the 17th and other greens while the locked-up nutrients are being released. Another Sherriff Amenity product In Trench is helping him here. The product stimulates root growth and thicker stems giving a dense, green grass without causing a leaf growth. It can be used within a range of application rates. In Adam’s words “you can use it at lower rates, so reducing nitrogen inputs, without compromising results.”

Allan has longer-term action up his sleeve to make the 17th even more stress-free. Re-structuring to prevent water from getting on to the green from the high surrounds and taking back the tree line canopy are possibilities once his cultural efforts – and SeaVolution - have improved the surface.

There is a distinct air of optimism now at Sweetwoods Park. The 17th green and other problem areas are on the mend, so players are happy: renewals are up on last year, so the Chairman is happy. The state of the greens is everything to the wellbeing of a course, and that’s where Allan, with Sherriff Amenity’s help, is concentrating his efforts. Basic principles and sound biological knowledge are working well together.

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