Meet Golf’s Grass Guru

Simon Doyle has always been a bit of a grass geek. In his teenage years, he would spend summers down at his local golf course in the Irish countryside not playing the game, but earning pocket money cutting the grass using his family’s ride-on lawnmower. “Let’s just call it a nice business arrangement we had going on,” he smiles, reflecting on those good times.

At that point, he had never considered a career in agronomy. But that soon changed when his parents developed the family farm into a golf course. That signaled the beginning of a career that has taken him around the world and to the position he proudly holds now and has done for the past nine years: director of agronomy for golf course management company Troon Golf in Europe.

Not even Doyle himself could have predicted the route he would take to get there. Since flying the nest to study an HND in Golf Course Management at the highly regarded Reaseheath College in Cheshire, he has returned to his homeland so rarely that he’s developed a transatlantic twang through his time on internships in the USA that Graeme McDowell would be proud of. “My mates always give me a hard time for that,” he chuckles.

Those internships, spent at 1995 Ryder Cup and men’s major host venue Oak Hill Country Club and also Westchester Country Club, as well as time spent at Ohio State University, helped Simon build up the experience which saw him accept a job offer in Japan as an assistant consultant agronomist for American firm Environmental Turfgrass Systems.

After two years, he got offered the chance to work for Troon Golf in the country who, at the time, were hired to set up a management company for Goldman Sachs, who had bought a number of the Japanese courses that were struggling at the time. His job was to help Goldman set up their golf company with specific involvement in agronomy and, after a successful five years, he arrived back where it all began, in Europe. Although Geneva, Switzerland – not rural Ireland – is now where he calls home.

There’s a good reason as to why Doyle is based so centrally, given he is responsible for providing the strategic direction of Troon Golf’s agronomy operations across 18 European developments: from Lofoten Links in the Arctic Circle, to Burabay Golf Resort in Kazakhstan, to the north of Africa at Golf du Soleil in Agadir, Morocco.
On this particular day, he was on one of his quarterly visits to somewhere a little closer to home in Fairmont St Andrews – one of three Troon Golfmanaged facilities in the UK alongside The Grove and Centurion Club.
Eagerly anticipating the visit was the resort’s course superintendent Neil Ballingall, who was full of praise for Doyle and keen to dispel any myths he has heard from people in the past about ‘overbearing’ agronomists.

“Lots of people think, ‘You’ve got an agronomist coming in, he’s going to tell you what to do’, but it’s nothing like that at all,” says Ballingall. “Simon is a source of great advice and information and it’s hugely beneficial to us.
“Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t agree with everything I do and vice-versa, but we’ve got a good professional relationship and he’s a great sounding board.”

“At the end of the day, superintendents want to make their courses better and are open to ideas and different ways of doing things,” adds Doyle, before getting into the nitty gritty about everything his job involves on a day-to-day basis.
Putting it simply, what does your job as Director of Agronomy entail?
As European Director, I’m responsible for delivering the company’s philosophy of agronomy at all of its European developments, which is ‘to achieve agronomic excellence by utilizing and improving upon reliable, proven techniques to create the most celebrated playing surfaces in the world’.

How regularly do you visit each of the 18 courses you’re in charge of?
On average, I try to visit all of our facilities on a quarterly basis, so I’d say I’m travelling around 40 weeks of the year. Two reasons: one is to catch all of the different seasons but the more important one is to stay in regular enough contact with superintendents so that I can adapt programmes if need be. Once or twice a year isn’t really enough. Then, if there’s a development project going on, it can be as regularly as once a month, which has been the case in Morocco recently. Different locations also bring with them different challenges, so I may have to go more if they have issues with a disease or irrigation problems for example.

What does a typical course visit involve?
My general work-day will involve, first thing in the morning, walking the course without the superintendent. I like to walk a few of the holes on my own just to get a feel for what’s happening and take the time to absorb what I’m seeing and to make sure that’s consistent across the golf course and not just a snapshot of onelocation. Then I’ll do the same with the superintendent and catch up with what’s happened since my last visit and if there have been any problems. If there are issues, we’ll troubleshoot them. A problem is seldom down to one causal factor. Usually, it’s a build-up of different issues that have got us to where we are and we’ll work through them. Then in the afternoon, we recap and formulate a plan for the next eight to 12 weeks. If there are any specific training issues or topics, we’ll cover those, too.

You mentioned the different areas of Europe you work in. How does the climate affect what you do?
As you know, the climate from the Arctic Circle, to North Africa, to mainland Europe is totally different, so it poses lots of challenges. The extent of the issues you could have is far greater in the warmer climates because there are more insects, more diseases, more weeds, more heat and poorer water quality. Whereas up north, although you’ve got some pretty severe issues such as freeze damage and a shorter growing window, the number of possible problems is much less. The fundamentals are the same, though. It’s all about plant health and that comes down to nutrition and irrigation management for the most part. We have the same approach at all of our courses. It’s just the frequencies that we do certain things that are different.

What are the most common diseases found on golf courses?
In the colder regions, it’s Snow Mold (or Fusarium), which is caused by snow cover. Further south, there are some more aggressive diseases. One of these which has become quite common over the past few years is Rapid Blight, where patches of affected turf thin out, go a red/brown colour and are water-soaked in appearance. This is primarily driven by high salt content in water and it’s a very difficult disease to control, so we have to manage it carefully. A disease is probably the most common reason a superintendent will ring me up. They might believe they have a disease or they have one that they can’t identify. There are so many different diseases that all have similarities, so it’s important to go through an identification process to find out what it is before coming up with an appropriate solution.

How severe can a disease be?
Well, it can kill a green in one night, so it’s pretty severe. Maybe not in a northerly climate but in a hot and humid climate, that can definitely be the case. If a course had been affected to such an extent, I’d be straight on the plane. That’s one of the great things that Troon Golf offers its facilities.

You work in golf, but would your job be transferable into other sports such as football and rugby?
Absolutely. Plant physiology is the same. Obviously, the objectives in golf course conditioning compared to other sports pitches is a little different but once you’ve got an understanding of an end-goal in mind, you can use your practices to get there, be it firmer or softer conditions or more resiliency depending on the type of sport being played.

What is the one thing a lot of regular greens staff get wrong or could do better?
Water management is the hardest concept to teach because there’s a huge tendency to water when it’s not needed. At any level, it’s understanding what you can do with water and avoiding over-watering.

What’s the best thing about your job?
One of them is that you’re not in the same location every day. You’ve always got a new challenge but, with every new challenge you go to, you bring more experience. My boss once said to me, ‘Simon, there’s not one problem that one of our golf courses hasn’t had’, so that resource is always there. You don’t go into a new project fearing that you’re going to find something you can’t deal with.
Fairmont St Andrews is one of the few 36-hole golf facilities that Doyle oversees but that doesn’t mean he spends more time in Fife than elsewhere, largely down to the fact that the favourable UK climate means chances of disease and other issues are more rare.

“We like to think we’re ahead of the game here,” says Ballingall. “Touch wood, we haven’t had any major problems since we opened in 2001.”

Working under Ballingall across both the Torrance and Kittocks courses is a team of 12 full-time staff but it’s one member, who barely ever leaves the confines of the greenkeeper’s shed during a standard work-day, that Doyle believes is of particular importance – mechanic Kevin Robertson.

“One of the most important things we do is cut grass and it’s that mowing of the grass that conditions it,” he explains. “So, the quality of the equipment and how well it is maintained is absolutely paramount to the end result and our ability to do it in an efficient manner.”

With more than 60 pieces of machinery on-site, which at a 36-hole Troon Golf venue is said to cost an average of €1.125m, it’s difficult to argue with Doyle’s point, and Robertson knows all too well the responsibility on his shoulders.
Every day, each fairway mower needs to be reset and each of the three cutting units must be tested and spun to see if it cuts a piece of paper just 0.2mm thick.

“If it doesn’t cut the paper, it won’t cut the grass,” quips Robertson. “If one of these units is off, you can see it a mile away on the fairways so it affects the conditioning of the course for players. I regularly get calls from the guys saying that they’ve hit a stone and knocked the cut off and, if that’s the case, I’ve got to go out, lie on the ground and sort it.”

As well as resetting the many fairway mowers on a daily basis, Robertson must service each piece of machinery regularly to meet with standards set by Troon Golf and also health and safety requirements.

For fairway mowers, it’s after every 150 hours of use, while some of the less frequently used equipment is done annually at the very least.

“It’s amazing how quickly the hours add up,” he adds, pointing to his whiteboard which lists each model of machinery and when it was most recently serviced. “In any given week, I could have up to six or seven machines needing done. It takes two hours at least and if I was grinding it, greasing it, oiling it and power-washing it, it can take half a day.

“So, it’s very important I keep on top of this. At the end of the day, if a machine seized or blew up, it would be my fault – and most of these machines would cost tens of thousands of pounds for the resort to replace.
“Every morning, the guys fill in a checklist where they check the oil, fuel, check for leaks, tyres, everything. If that goes out on the course and seizes, that’s their fault but if it’s got low oil and they tell me about it and I say, ‘Ah, you’ll be fine’, and it seizes, it’s all on me.”

The vast majority of machinery that Robertson services is manufactured by Toro, the global leader of innovative turf maintenance equipment and irrigation technologies for the golf market, and a company that Doyle has been able to build a stronger connection with as his career has progressed.

“We’re very fortunate with the likes of Toro, who have developed some exceptional equipment that allows us to do our work efficiently to a high standard,” says Doyle. “They provide the best and most varied maintenance equipment on the market and have a great service and support network. It’s a relationship that’s continued to build over a number of years.”

5 steps to getting the best lawn in your street!
Follow these pointers from grass guru Simon Doyle and you’ll have a lawn to make the neighbours green with envy!

1. Drainage
Drainage is without doubt one of the most important aspects. Makesure your soil is free draining and that there are no lows in your lawn where water can build up and hold. You don’t want holding water. If there are lows, you’ve got two options: You can install a subsurface drain that would involve trenching out the water or, if you just have a slight low, you can build that up with a soil and sand medium to raise it and shed the water. If water lies, it removes the oxygen from the soil and the plant suffers. The plant needs a good balance of moisture and oxygen.

2. Sunlight
Look at the bushes and trees around your garden. If they’re blocking sunlight, it’s a problem for your lawn. To get around this, you need to either thin them, raise the crowns or remove them. Trees and bushes should be there to enhance your lawn, not take away from it, so you have to find that balance. Also, make sure that you always remove plant material and leaves lying on your lawn so that the grass has the best possible chance of growing.

3. Mowing
If you don’t mow frequently enough, you lose density and this leads to the biggest problem for a lot of homeowners: weeds. The more regularly you mow your lawn, the thicker it gets, significantly reducing the potential for weeds to move in. That’s critical. Don’t go to herbicides to remove weeds unless you’ve done the fundamental steps as it’s really not preferred for your lawn. During a peak growing season, you should mow twice a week – at the very least, once a week – if you want to maintain a high quality lawn. In the winter, it’s tough because the climate is changing. If you mow it and it looks better afterwards, then it needs to be cut.

4. Growth
You need to make sure it’s growing enough. For example, if you only need to mow your lawn once a month, it’s not growing enough. That’s a good test. You want it to be growing enough so you’re removing grass clippings when you mow on a twice-weekly basis. To achieve this, the best place to start is an early spring fertiliser application. This can be an organic product that gives you a slow release over time because a big concern of homeowners is the effects of a fertiliser when you have kids or pets going about.

5. Don’t Water
YOU SHOULDN’T water your lawn until you start to see symptoms of drought; where it turns a bluey-grey colour before going a yellowishbrown. Don’t water until you see that. Why? There’s a tendency to over-water and you want to avoid that at all costs. There’s also no need to re-turf. That’s the last thought in my mind. If you follow these five steps, you’ll have a pretty damn good looking lawn.