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Euro Course Conditions Under Fire

Thomas Björn, the golfer, has just achieved the rare feat of winning back-to-back tournaments – in Scotland and Switzerland. At the same time, Thomas Björn, the chairman of the Tournament Players’ Committee, has been answering accusations that the professionals have over-the-top expectations when it comes to course preparation.

The accusations came from Chris Haspell, the course manager at Castle Stuart, the links which hosted the recent Barclays Scottish Open. Haspell, who was speaking from strength in that his course was thoroughly well received, said that in the months leading up to the tournament he had felt under more pressure to use herbicides and fungicides than ever before.

“The only way to change this,” he said in an opinion piece for the R&A’s website, “is by altering the golfers’ expectations of what makes for a good all-round putting surfaces and golf course.”

Haspell suggested that the players needed to get to grips with the long-term damage which could be wrought by trying to achieve the same conditions week-in, week-out on different sides of the world. And that there should be a move to accept a more natural, less manicured look.

“None of this is easy,” he said, “as the river is flowing fast in the other direction.”

Björn would not have that the European Tour contingent were asking too much of Haspell and others like him.

“Of course the players want good greens but I honestly don’t think we expect them to be perfect,” said the Dane.

“There are weeks in America and Japan when you can putt on one set of perfect surfaces after another. In fact, you can have a bit of a shock if they are not 100 percent. In Europe, though, I would say we look for something between 75 and 90 percent and are pleasantly surprised in those weeks which exceed expectations.

“We play the greens whatever they are like. There are a few occasions a year when they are poor, but the only times we get upset about them are when we hear that the club hasn’t listened to advice from the European Tour’s agronomy team. We employ the best people in the business. We offer help and they should take it.”

Björn could understand Haspell’s concerns about possible damage to the environment and, equally so, he acknowledged that not all the players realise how tough things are for today’s golf course managers.

“Myself,” he said, “I sympathise with them, I really do. Just look at Chris Kennedy, the course manager at Wentworth. He does all the right things but there is no getting away from the fact that the course is never as good in the spring as it is in October.”

At Björn’s request, Graeme McNiven, from the Tour’s agronomy team, took over to address Haspell’s specific concerns about pesticides and fungicides.

“We don’t pressurise anyone into doing anything they don’t want to do,” said McNiven. “If there is anyone behind the business of wanting courses to look perfect, it’s the golf industry.”

He made the point that most of the modern courses used by the Tour are asking for less water and fewer chemicals than they have ever done – and that the situation is improving all the time. Castle Stuart, he said, was a little bit different in that the club had opted for an “old-fashioned fescue grass” which was the norm in the days before everything got fancy, with criss-cross stripes on the fairways, etc.

So how would the players feel about encouraging the trend towards the “more natural, less-manicured” look that Haspell has in mind?

Björn, who worries enough about his carbon footprint to have opted for geothermal heating at his London and Swedish homes, agreed that his committee would need to talk about it. For his part, he said he plays whatever is in front of him.

“I never let myself think that the greens are bad. They are the same for everyone and, regardless of their condition, someone is going to win.”

Rory McIlroy, meantime, suspects that the players have become a tad fussy. Speaking after a late-afternoon round at Crans-sur-Sierre when the greens, though much acclaimed overall, were a little the worse for wear, he did not come close to complaining about the odd putt which had bumped around a bit.

“I never blame the greens if I putt badly,” he said. “I never have and I never will. I’ve putted well on bad greens and I’ve putted badly on good greens.”

Lee Westwood’s view is that the players probably do need to concern themselves more with the environment.

“We have to think about it,” he said.

But there are others who are less willing to consider concessions – Stephen Gallagher, for one. The Scot was apologetic, but he believes that the greens have to be as good as they can be.

“If it takes chemicals, it takes chemicals,” he said.


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