I HATE THE overworked word, unique. However, there is little doubt that there is no other golf course in the world like Ashdown. Its complete naturalness is something in which we should take an endless delight and which your green committee does all it can to foster.
The unenclosed setting on the forest and absence of artificial bunkers are readily apparent, but it is frequently forgotten that our greens are natural as well, just pushed up soil, seemingly where the deer might have nibbled a clearing. This brings both advantages and disadvantages.
The great underlying advantage is that the grasses we want, to give us links type, crisp greens are largely the natural, disease free, native species. The great disadvantage is the constant battle with our inhospitable, mobile clay to provide sufficient drainage.
For me, personally, one endless fascination is that our greens can putt differently every single day, depending on slight variations in the weather, quite apart from our necessary management operations.
In addition to these, if you like, micro changes, there are significant variations, which seem to becoming more extreme recently, in weather patterns: wet and dry summers, mild or cold winters and so on. The last three winters, through which I have been privileged to be your chairman of green, have been unusually dry in 2011/2, then unusually long and cold in 2012/3 and unusually wet and mild in 2013/4. The unusual is becoming the norm.
When grass is growing – from May to November – we can manage the greens pretty well now that, thanks to the intelligent generosity of members, we have cheap water and a fully controllable irrigation system. (Rain water, very slightly acid, is better for the course than mains.) In conjunction with regular sand top dressing and rolling, our new disc seeder will allow us to further concentrate the grass species we want.
So, our great conundrum is how to provide decent, puttable greens through the spring, regardless of cold East winds, lack of grass growth and scabby dry surfaces. It is no longer acceptable to sit back and quote dear Hector Padgham that our greens are no good until the bracken is knee high.
The conflicting technicalities are fascinating. Stone warms up faster than water, so applying cold water to smooth the putting surface should delay grass growth further still. When the soil does eventually warm, it will do so from the surface down, allowing shallow rooted annual meadow grass – the dreaded Poa annua, a weed in our environment – a head start over deeper rooting, fine leaved, Bents and Fescues.
In most winters the grass, which stopped growing in late autumn, is steadily eroded by players’ footfall, so there is precious little remaining come spring. This year the monsoon winter prevented play for most of January and February. The benefit has been more surviving grass cover this spring. Factor in very little frost or East wind, a shower of warm rain and we have been able to top dress and roll in mid-March. With an all-round sigh of relief, we thus have reasonable putting surfaces in early April.
Finally: the Augusta factor. Our job, as far as possible, is to provide a course that is playable and greens that are reasonably satisfactory throughout the year. Everything at Augusta is geared toward the week of The Masters. One cannot have both.
Footnote: Augusta National also has a team of 18 full time green keepers, closes during the full heat of Summer and employs infra-red camera technology on its greens to detect signs of stress caused by insect, fungus or disease. Each green has its own designated iPad to monitor soil moisture, temperature and salinity.