Greg Evans: Wuthering Heights

You'll notice a few new things at Turfhugger in the coming weeks, including a new layout, tools, additional pages and some fresh faces. Our new contributors allow us to provide readers with material from around the world, with interesting perspectives on sustainability in golf. 

One of our newest contributors Greg Evans (Master Greenkeeper at Ealing Golf Club and Consultant at Greg Evans Golf Course Solutions) is a perfect fit for Turfhugger. Residing in London England, Greg has been pushing the limits of turfgrass and mindsets with some controversial maintenance plans. 

Now I've been lead to believe low mowing heights = more resources, Greg however has demonstrated otherwise. For his first post we're going to re-post a Q & A from The Golf Superintendents Association of Ireland's publication Greenside where Greg responds to criticism about his methods and clarifies his reasoning. If you have any questions please use the comment form at the end of this post. 

Welcome to Turfhugger Greg, I'm sure our readers will find your material fresh and thought provoking.

Over the past eight years, Greg Evans has devised course maintenance plans for different golf courses that allow greens to be cut as low as 2 millimeters, yet remain sustainable. Evans’ methods initially encountered a surprising amount of opposition from certain quarters in the greenkeeping profession. Some worried that the greens would die, while others thought that Evans was upping the stakes too much, putting pressure on other greenkeepers to follow suit.

Evans firmly believes that his approach is beneficial to both the grass plant and the industry in general. Some of the most respected heavyweights in the golfing world seem to agree. One is Peter McEvoy OBE who wrote recently in the English Club Golfer magazine that Greg’s greens at Ealing Golf Club has: “the best greens that I have ever putted on in the UK, bar none.” Another is Luke Goddard, a former English Amateur Champion and Walker Cup Player whose commendation goes even further: “I’ve been lucky enough to play all around the world over the last few years and these greens are as good as I’ve putted anywhere.” Greenside invited Greg to address some of the questions raised by fellow greenkeepers during the debate and, in particular, to address how he has managed to keep greens sustainable when the height of cut is reduced. 

Greenkeepers have all heard the cries of ‘why are the greens so slow’ or ‘try engaging the mower blades next time you cut!’ The reason for these complaints is that the average golfer wants to putt on fast, true greens in all environments. I have yet to hear a golfer walk off the 18th green with the remark ‘Wow, those slow greens were great!” Golfers really don’t care what type of grass species they putt on, just as long as the ball travels in a fast, true fashion. A recent survey in America concluded that golfers think 10.5 feet on the stimpmeter is just about perfect.

The subject of sustainability has been covered extensively by the greenkeeping press during recent years. As a result, many greenkeepers have reintroduced finer grasses like fescue and bent to the putting surfaces.

However, the average golfer is often oblivious to the type of grass he putts on. It could be weeds such as daisies as long as the greens are fast and true. The best grasses, fescue and bent, are fine on a links or heathland courses, blessed with sandy soils and no trees, but as soon as you move inland where the majority of courses around the British Isles are clay based parkland, these grass combinations have become rarer. Poa Annua is the dominate species on the inland courses. But do golfers really like putting on Poa greens cut at 4 or 5mm? The answer is no, because of the slow ‘snaky’ slow ball roll that it produces.

Golfers’ requirements – fast, smooth greens

The average golfer plays once or twice a week. He pays his subs and when he comes to the course, the last thing he wants to hear is that the course is undertaking a grass species change. Moving from meadow grass to the finer grasses, fescue and bent, means that the height of cut will range from 4 to 5mm during the ‘grow-in’ period, which is likely to take several years. In the meantime they will be slow, bumpy greens at certain times of the year. The average stimpmeter reading will be around 8 feet. If you play in the club championship the reading may go up to 9, but will then drop straight back down. No wonder there is pressure being put on the greenkeeper to lower the blades.

How do we produce fast putting surfaces on a normal parkland course?

‘Cut it shorter’ is the logical answer. It will certainly work in the short term, but is it sustainable over a longer period? I believe so. The main reason why a 2mm height of cut was previously thought impossible was because of the limitations of older machinery. Scaremongering stories of the greens dying abound, but I have yet to see a green die purely because of a low height of cut. Anaerobic soil and consequent high thatch levels will kill greens, but low height of cut should not. A lot of these stories go back to the sixties and seventies, when the greens were over fed and over watered. Back then the machinery available didn’t have the capabilities of today’s equipment. The vertidrainer (deep spiker) wasn’t even invented until the eighties!

The modern ride-on mowers will allow a 2mm height of cut through finer, smoother cutting and tighter turning capabilities (Toro has just produced a 14 blade pedestrian mower that can cut down to 1.5mm). John Deere also have a ride-on mower that can make a 360 degree turn without leaving a mark on the turf. Try very tight turns on an old mower and you will find the mower units bouncing around the turf as it cuts, leaving scalped grass in the process. Bottom blades have also become thinner and more durable. Tools such as the accu-gauge now allow greenkeepers to set the height of cut to within a fraction of a millimetre. Gone are the days when a coin was used to set the roller to bedknife gap. Fertiliser technology has also progressed.

Until recently, the research that went into fertilizers was predominately for the agriculture market. A granular feed of NPK at around 35g/m2 was the norm for greens feeding. This left many soils unbalanced and toxic. Modern feeding calls for very low application rates with a mixture of soil and leaf feeding. Organic feeding is also encouraged, with the emphasis on seaweed for the micro-nutrients and organisms. Just because you see a spraying happening once a week, don’t assume the greenkeeper is ‘throwing on the feed’. He could be putting on small quantities of Nitrogen at around 2 to 3 units per hectare.

But what about the grass plant? Won’t it die if it is cut at 2mm?

No it won’t! There is no scientific evidence that suggests cutting at this height means certain death for the grass plant. The only legitimate factor that held back the short cut (2mm) in the past was the limited machinery capabilities. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that cutting at this height can be beneficial to the greens in terms of disease control, due to the drier plant that results. Thatch (organic matter) production is reduced with the short cut as there is less leaf mass to break down, which naturally aids the plant’s survival rate.

The natural process for the grass plant is for it to grow without being cut at all. Cutting it at 5, 6 or 7mm is not a natural process. So what’s the difference if you cut it down to 2mm? Shorter roots and less photosynthesis is the answer. But is this reduction enough to harm or kill the plant? I think not. I have found that the roots of grass cut at this height in the top 100mm of the soil profile remain dense, healthy and robust. I have been successfully maintaining greens cut at 2mm for nine seasons. From my experience, I am convinced that cutting at this height has no additional detrimental effect on the grass plant than a cut at 4 or 5mm.

Won’t cutting at 2mm put additional demands on my course budget?

Not necessarily. At Ealing I have calculated that it costs just under 30,000 euros a year to maintain greens in this fashion. This figure comprises 56% labour, 16% sand, with fertilizer and fungicide running at 8% each. However, the greens maintenance cost is only 9% of Ealing’s course budget or 2% of its annual turnover. Not bad when you consider what a huge part the greens play in any successful golf club’s business.

Golf clubs should all look at what return they get on their investments. Course maintenance is a trade-off between good agronomic practices on one hand and playability on the other. If you budget €5,000 on sand for a year to decrease your thatch layer and make the greens drain better, what return will your club get for this? Increased golf revenue in the winter months hopefully! You can be out there sanding to your heart’s content, but if your club’s finances are going downhill, it’s not going to be sustainable for very long!

‘You cannot have fast greens on a clay based, meadow land parkland environment without introducing bents and fescues.’ - Course Agronomist 

I disagree with this often heard statement. It doesn’t mean that you have to dig up greens and lay down U.S. specification greens either. Poa, when maintained correctly will produce very fine greens, comparable to those of modern Creeping Bent (A and G strains). Parkland courses have historically produced slower paced greens than links or heathland courses and this has been put down to poor soil structure and grass species.

Links courses, with their sandy soils and fine grasses, have in the past produced quicker greens. However, with modern technologies this is changing. Techniques such as straight sand dressing have improved the drainage and firmness of the parkland greens. Modern aerators allow spiking to be efficiently completed with minimal disruption to the surfaces. Most importantly, some turf managers (myself included) have embraced the parkland meadow grass instead of spending thousands of pounds (or euros) trying in vain to eradicate it. In the past, Poa was regarded by some as a coarse weed and when cut at 4 or 5mm you can see why. But reduce this height down to 2mm for long periods and this grass evolves into a fine leafed plant, bearing no resemblance to the seed headed grass described above.

Meadow grass will produce a thatchy, disease ridden surface. 

I agree, but only when it is poorly maintained. When spiking, top-dressing and cutting are done properly these problems are avoided. It’s not the grass species that’s important, it’s the environment that it is grown in. However, it wasn’t top-dressed or spiked for two years. And the height of cut when this picture was taken? 5mm!

Ah, but you must be saving the plant by throwing the fertiliser and water to rescue it!

When a green is heavily watered and fed, the result is a soft, spongy surface and cutting this surface at 2mm often leaves scalp marks behind. A low cut requires a firm surface, so just ‘throwing on the feed and water’ is not an option. A good, balanced fertility and water programme is required. All grass plants have their daily requirements during all seasons.

But throwing on these two energy sources is probably a throwback to the sixties and seventies; a time when (old timers tell me) lots of greens were over fed and watered, leaving them soft, spongy and disease ridden. Under these circumstances, greenkeepers had no alternative but to cut at around 5mm. At Ealing, we now use less fertiliser and less water than previously.


Since I started advocating “the short cut” there have been many calls of support as well as debate within the industry. Almost everyone agrees that the debate has been useful. But, the top priority of all greenkeepers remains; to produce and maintain top quality playing surfaces. It is easier to do this on a sand dominated  course, with fescues and bents the main species, but on a parkland, Poa dominated sward it is more of a challenge. Each greenkeeper needs to start with the unique environment dictated, in the main, by the location of his course.

The greenkeeping profession is changing. In recent decades the image of greenkeepers as mere ‘grass cutters’ has lost any credibility it ever had (I believe it never had any). We are skilled professionals. Producing fast, true greens is one of the most important parts of this process. It’s about giving golfers the surface they

demand. Over the years, golfers’ demands have increased. Bumpy, slow greens are just not tolerated anymore and nor should they be. Where greenkeepers produce a well maintained course, the business will come. Over the past year, Ealing has increased its playing membership by 9% and golf society/green fee bookings have risen by over 30%. These figures compare to an industry downturn of 4% across the British Isles.

Debate should continue about the way forward, because no single person has all the answers. Some will say that no fertiliser is the answer and that sheep should be brought back to graze the fairways. Others want to move the industry forward. But where we all agree is that everything has to be sustainable and have a future.

In my opinion, golf has been underdeveloped for years and we are
just starting to wake up. Golfers used to put up with poorly maintained courses because they didn’t know any better but not anymore. With careful planning and a sound maintenance programme, much higher standards can be achieved. It need not cost the earth and should contribute to your club’s income as well.

I will leave you with one final question.

On a parkland, meadow land environment, what is the indigenous species? Poa Annua of course! What do you do: fight it or embrace it? That is the choice we all have to make.

1 Comments so far

Definitely a different take on sustainability. Here in the States I've never seen such a low cutting height, .095 is the lowest I've been on. The move in my area is higher cut, around 3mm or so, more frequent rolling and less water to create fast and firm conditions without sacrificing plant health. Obviously it can be done without loss of turf but I can't imagine trying to maintain such a low height of cut. Well done Sir.