Many club golfers will have heard the term 'agronomist', but what do they actually do? The Sports Turf Research Institute's Alistair Beggs explains...

What does an agronomist do? By Alistair Beggs

I became interested in agronomy from a relatively early age, after overhearing the legendary R&A agronomist, Jim Arthur, holding court at Hoylake and telling the committee about the perils about to befall them!

Until that day I was a callow youth focused on handicap reduction, course perfection and trying to find out where the next Titleist was coming from. Little did I know that the experience at Royal Liverpool would shape my future career.

My interest in golf was combined with a degree in biology and I applied for a post at STRI (the Sports Turf Research Institute). The STRI began its life as the Board of Greenkeeping Research in 1929, founded by the R&A and the golfing unions. To this day it is the focus of agronomic activity in the UK, with a particular emphasis on golf.

I was interviewed by the fearsome Dr Hayes – the then director – and I felt like poor old Smike in the school of Mr Squeers! Hayes was a disciplinarian but also a font of knowledge.

Today my focus is golf course management in the UK. Having grown up by the seaside, the traditions of links golf were drummed into me from an early age. Everything I was taught at Bingley complemented this and my playing experiences helped too.

Jim Arthur and my colleagues talked of managing courses in sympathy with nature, and of course it is now very fashionable in this age of “wanting to be green”. I merely advise what I was taught and it is gratifying to know that the message I have been trotting out for 20 years (and others for 50 years before me) is slowly being proven correct.

For us the age of restriction has arrived. No longer do we have free licence to apply water, fertiliser and chemicals to our courses. The fact that we have been saying that clubs shouldn’t do it is one thing, now the legislators are saying clubs can’t, and this is quite another.

The enlightened are beginning to listen, helped by my colleagues at STRI, the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA), the golf unions and by the R&A’s golf course committee, whose drive for sustainable golf is now reaching the parts other committees could not reach!

However, there are still plenty of folks out there who fervently disagree. Indeed there are many (swayed by the television screen) who still insist that courses should be perfect carpets of green, interspersed with ornamental lakes, pretty flowers and bunkers without a grain of sand out of place.

This mentality is damaging and unrealistic and, when implemented in this moist maritime climate, it’s little short of environmental vandalism. Golf courses are not gardens – they are, and should be, an extension of the wider environment in which they are found. Further, they must be managed properly – this whole business is far more complicated than just cutting grass.

It is the message of frugality that I try to convey in my mission to educate the golfer. This is my true role, alongside agreeing and setting policy and monitoring these things at a frequency which suits the club in question. I must view the situation from both a grass and a playing quality perspective.

Yes we want the right grasses so that we don’t get thatch, disease and all the other evils, but when the medal comes round on Saturday those greens must be smooth and well-paced. Similarly the course must be open for play throughout the year.

The job is a fulfilling one, especially when mutual respect and the interest a club has in its course and the management of it leads to progress. The agronomist has a major role to play in this but it is a team effort and without key personnel who care, it’s rarely possible to optimise the potential of the club’s greatest asset.