June 13, 2022
LINKS GOLF TAKES CENTRE STAGE
With all eyes on the 150th Open at St Andrews this week, Carr Golf Regional Superintendent Iain Ritchie shares what makes preparing a links course different to a parkland course during tournament week.
I love this time of year, despite the recent controversy in the game, links courses become the focus of the global golf tournament scene. A proud Scotsman, I played by golf at Ladybank GC, working as a Course Superintendent for seven years before moving into the same role at Portmarnock GC for 17 years. For me, links golf courses are the true test of golf.
For the majority of the year, parkland and heathland courses play host to worldwide tour events. However, for three weeks each summer, links golf takes centre stage.
While Links and parkland courses can be polar opposites in appearance. What is less obvious to the casual observer is how their maintenance programmes differ, particularly pre and mid tournament. Having been fortunate to lead links tournament preparations on links courses for Irish Opens and a Walker Cup, there are certainly differences in the approaches taken.
Embracing mother nature
Links courses appear more natural and rugged than their parkland peers, and their relationship with mother nature differs too.
Traditionally, links superintendents embrace everything mother nature throws at them. Presentation of an Open Championship course is often determined by weather conditions in the lead up to a tournament. The heatwave and drought-like conditions of 2018 saw Carnoustie playing firm and fast, with fairways brown and baked and rough light and wispy (in places!). You may remember similar conditions in Royal Liverpool in 2006, when Tiger won hitting an iron off virtually every tee.
Contrast that to parkland courses, when the appearance and presentation at the likes of Augusta National and TPC Sawgrass is almost identical each year, regardless of conditions. Parkland superintendents manage soil moisture and turf colour to create lush, visually appealing courses. An arsenal of chemicals, fertilisers and irrigation techniques almost defy mother nature.
Heights of cut and mowing frequencies
It’s important to highlight the different grasses that distinguish parkland and links courses. While the former consists primarily of poa, bent, rye and other warm season grasses such as bermuda and paspalum, links courses are dominated by fescue.
For tournaments on parkland courses, heights of cut on greens are typically 2.5mm or lower, often double cut and rolled. Links courses are totally different, with 4.5-5mm heights of cut common during tournament week. Mother nature can even play a role. Maintenance teams must be aware of wind impact and avoid balls moving on greens. Whilst parkland courses target speeds of 12+ on the stimp, links courses usually record closer to 10 during tournament week.
Parkland fairways are well fertilised and irrigated to create lush green playing surfaces. As a result, the maintenance team will likely cut twice daily during tournament week. Conversely, links course fairways will not be irrigated prior or during tournament week, receiving just two or three cuts during the entire tournament week.
The types of grasses and desired visual appearance combine to place very different demands on the agronomic programme for links and parkland courses.
Parkland courses will receive higher levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other chemicals to create lush, green, uniform and dense playing surfaces. As a result, a Course Superintendent will use a combination of granular and foliar treatments on almost all playing areas, including the rough. Parkland courses will typically be fully irrigated tee to green, including fairways to ensure surfaces remain consistent throughout.
Links Superintendents take a very different approach, with nitrogen levels 33% of those in parkland courses. The level and volume of treatments would be much lower, particularly in the immediate build up and during tournament week. It is likely that irrigation will be limited to hand watering of greens, only to ensure playing surfaces are firm and fast during the tournament.
The 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush was a fantastic success and shone a real light on the fantastic links we enjoy across the island. I can’t wait to see the tournament return to Portrush in 2025, I have no doubt it will once again be a resounding success.
In the meantime, all eyes on St. Andrews and a fantastic few days of pure links golf.