The Paradox of Progress

There is no doubting the fact that for almost every person managing golf course turf, progress is the goal. Progress means we have moved things along, progress means we have raised the bar, progress means we have gotten better. Right? What if progress does not always mean it got better? What if in concentrating so much on getting better, we have surpassed some of the principles that really were great, covered them up and buried them under inches of sand, all in the name of progress.

Disrupting golf course turf has never been easier. Like almost anything else in life, more was deemed better; as there became a desire to do more, more often, the industry supported our ability to do it all with better equipment. Let’s use topdressing with sand as an example: years ago, topdressing a golf course green was a huge effort, mostly done by hand. Despite such effort, many courses felt the benefit was worth the effort. The benefits were real and the industry rightly followed with better equipment, making it easier to apply sand one or two times a year. Time marched on and in the name of progress, the industry innovated; after all, if one to two times a year was good, then certainly more was better. Soon sand was being applied more and more frequently in lighter and lighter amounts and once again, the industry rightly followed with better equipment, making light and frequent applications of sand easier. From the standpoint of the turf manager, this was wonderful progress and most certainly our courses were better because of it.

Now let’s think about this from the standpoint of our golfers. When disruptive maintenance happened once or twice a year, no golfer enjoyed it, but at least it could be planned for. Then disruptive maintenance became a lot easier, turf managers thought more was better and “Maintenance Mondays” gained a foothold. I am not immune, I have pitched the importance of Mondays for maintenance at two different courses. Over the past number of years, much work has gone into establishing maintenance time on Mondays during which the course is closed to play, allowing disruptive work to be performed without impacting golfers. It made sense, but once such time was established, we wanted to make sure we kept our important Mondays and worried if we were not doing something we would lose them, so we found ways to do something almost every week. Brooming, grooming, dusting and tining; every Monday offered a chance to do something. It was progress and it had to mean it was better.

Turf managers have, over the last number of years, come to believe our surfaces are good because of the frequent disruption, but how can we be sure. After all, most of us have been doing such work for such a long period, without any evidence to the contrary, we cannot actually answer the question: “would the surfaces be better if we did not do as much disruptive work?” Above, I used topdressing as my example, because it is the type of disruption I have performed the most and know the best. Empirical and anecdotal data collected on our course tells me that when sand is applied, the quality of the surface declines, for some number of days. I do not have the same data for other disruptive practices, often performed on Mondays but one would guess the impact of surface disruption like brooming, grooming and tining is similar.

We should all be asking ourselves: “is this disruptive work, performed on maintenance Mondays making the surfaces better?” Or is it a matter of we can, so we should and it’s more, so it’s better. In most cases, the increase of frequency for these types of events has come about without evidence proving necessity. It may seem as if I am advocating for no topdressing, or no disruptive maintenance; not true. Please, do not for one minute think I am suggesting this progress has not been amazing; it has. What I would argue is everything, eventually reaches the point of diminishing returns. In our quest for continuous progress, we may be well past this point. It’s very possible we crossed over into a realm in which progress has actually made the product worse, at least when judged by our golfers ability to play a consistent course. I have been guilty of frequent disruption myself, but when I stopped, listened to golfers and analyzed the data, the answer was clear; regular disruptive maintenance is not necessary for our greens to be at their best.

I encourage anyone reading to find out for yourself. Start recording some simple data that can provide evidence of to what degree, frequent disruptive maintenance of your surfaces really is, or is not necessary.

Post 5…What we do

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Husband, dad and Golf Course Supt | 👀 to help & be inspired by others, while also inspiring & learning from them | I ply my trade and hone my craft @Hazeltine

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Chris Tritabaugh

Husband, dad and Golf Course Supt | 👀 to help & be inspired by others, while also inspiring & learning from them | I ply my trade and hone my craft @Hazeltine